Les Mis, Played Out and Lived Out

This is the text of my recent News Tribune article about a high school musical production that was not only a joy for the audience but transformative for the school community.

In May Stadium High School transported me to nineteenth-century Paris—violence, poverty, pathos and all.  The school staged an ambitious production of the musical Les Misérables.  Two months later, I am still humming the music and remembering the loud standing ovation.  I loved the beautiful production, but what struck me even more deeply was the way the young cast lived the story’s redemptive message all spring. CIMG7424

Les Misérables, or “Les Mis” as it is often called, is based on Victor Hugo’s sweeping French novel of social upheaval and personal courage.  It tells of Jean Valjean, an oppressed prisoner who went on to extend grace all around him, even forgiving the man who had caused his greatest suffering.

“It’s the greatest musical of all time,” says director Liz Jacobsen.   “The message is still needed.”

When Liz chose Les Mis, she knew the task would be huge.  With almost all the dialog sung, the show is essentially an opera, and the music is especially challenging for the lead characters.  The cast is large, which makes blocking and costuming complex, and the show requires more males than are usually willing to sing in a high school production.  Finally, the sheer epic greatness of the story can make this an intimidating project.

“It has to be done right,” Liz says.

Liz and the school set out to do it right.  That meant being true, onstage and off, to the story’s theme of kindness and unity.  As a Stadium parent, Liz already knew many of the students and teachers, and she wanted the production to embrace the whole Stadium community.  She began a massive recruitment effort, personally inviting students to audition, asking them to bring their friends, asking teachers to encourage students to audition.  When students wanted to participate but had after-school commitments, Liz helped them work out scheduling conflicts.  The message was, “We’re doing something good, and we want you to join us, and together we’ll make it work.”

The result was 84 enthusiastic, committed students—cast, stage crew, musicians and other helpers—showing up after school to rehearse with Liz and with musical director Kerstin Shaffer.  Half of the students had never taken part in a musical before, but they threw themselves into it and learned quickly.  Beyond the cast, the school band, orchestra, French club, photography and design departments contributed their help.

“Students found their niche and a sense of belonging,” Liz says.

The larger community joined in as well.  Stadium parents provided snacks, created a lobby display and, under the direction of parent Tiffeny Stoaks, came up with 150 costumes.  In the Stadium neighborhood, businesses donated money, materials and services.  The giving went both ways.  One day the fifty-member cast showed up in Stadium Thriftway to sing “One Day More,” delighting the clerks and shoppers.

Les Mis’s poignant story gave the directors opportunity to talk with the cast about what it means to care for the poor and disenfranchised.  A canned food drive was organized.  Students came to see their involvement in Les Mis as an act of generosity and compassion.

The buzz at the school was electric.  Excited cast members talked up the show to their friends.  They arranged for music from Les Mis to be played over the intercom in the halls between classes.  High school musicals are not known for drawing crowds, yet when performance week arrived, the auditorium was packed, and at the finale the audience was cheering, whooping and crying.

For Les Misérables, Stadium received nominations in five categories from the Fifth Avenue Theater High School Musical Awards.  This was an honor.  But what, I asked Liz, was most rewarding?

“Building a team of people—students, parents, faculty,” she says, remembering.  “Impacting 84 students.   Showing them new possibilities.”

On stage and in hearts, Victor Hugo’s powerful story had been told right.

New Ways With an Old Craft: The Fiber Art of Flóra Carlile-Kovács

In recent years as I’ve practiced the art of writing, I’ve found it significant to hear from other artists—not only writers, but musicians and visual artists as well—about the creative process.  All of us are affected by our own experiences, by the places we’ve lived, by flora--flower flora--scarfpeople we’ve known, and by the traditions of our own homeland.  But an artist draws on these influences imaginatively and creates something new.  I recently talked with a talented fiber artist who does that.  Flóra Carlile-Kovács, who is Hungarian, works with the old craft of felting.  Her artwork is a new take on an old beauty.

I met Flóra a few months ago through the Hungarian American Association of Washington. Not much more than a year ago Flóra moved to Seattle from Hungary with her husband Christopher, who is American, and their daughter Virág and son Vince.  She moved her artistic practice here as well.  It was a brave step. To be a practicing artist in a place where you know gallery owners and art vendors is challenging enough; to do it in a place where you don’t can be overwhelming.  But Flóra has persevered in the work she loves, and she is finding a niche here.

Flóra describes her creations as wearable art.  Using an amazing integration of color and texture, she creates hats, scarves, dresses, blouses, vests, handbags, slippers, coin purses, and ornaments such as flowers for the hair.  The felting process begins with unspun wool fibers.  Usually Flóra dyes the wool herself in pots outside her studio.  Using an ancient textile process combining wool fibers, water, soap and vigorous kneading, she creates a durable, unwoven material called felt.  In her West Seattle studio I watched her make a scarf by massaging wet, soapy woolen strands into silk fabric.  The woolen lines will stay there, bound to the silk through the

Felting: Flora massages wool into a silk scarf

Felting: Flora massages wool into a silk scarf

felting process.  Flóra showed me some dresses, blouses and vests that she had made, all without seams; the joints are made by felting.  Hats are made by shaping the felt over a form.  Flóra adds ornamentation not by sewing or pinning, but by working other colors and other pieces into the fabric and by manipulating and stretching it.  The process reminds me of sculpting clay.

 Flóra learned felting in Hungary, first through classes and then by experimenting on her own.  A gallery noticed the quality of her work and began selling it, and her success spread.  She participated in exhibitions in Hungary, Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic and was featured in a Hungarian magazine.  She also appeared on Hungarian TV when one of her dresses won an award in a huge competition at Buda Castle. (See video.) 

Her work is part of a tradition that in Hungary is called applied arts: the individual production of beautiful, useful objects.  There were several artisans in Flóra’s family, and she has a deep appreciation for the craftsmanship and patience involved in the applied arts.  The rhythm of her work involves dyeing, design, layout, rolling, kneading, finishing/shaping, and ironing.  She has to think long-term for a project, and she enjoys every stage.flora--boy in felted robe

The applied arts emphasis on usefulness is part of what inspires Flóra’s designs.  For example, some of her hats have a spiral pattern stretched into the fabric.  The idea for this came from her own need to put up her thick hair: the spiral suggests the swirl of a hair bun, and the stretched addition provides a little more room for tucking upswept hair.  But in addition to ideas coming from the use of the object, very often the inspiration for a design comes from the lines, shades, patterns and textures of the material itself. flora--hat

 Flóra’s transition to the Northwest, starting anew in a completely different corner of the world, has certainly had its challenges.  But she has been encouraged by people’s interest in her work, and her clientele is growing.  She has been selling her work at art fairs and festivals and will also be participating in Christmas shows.  Her studio is part of the West Seattle Art Walk on the second Thursday of every month, 6-9 p.m.  She has also begun teaching felting workshops titled Felted Art in Everyday Use in her studio and has been asked to teach in Portland and on Whidbey Island.

It’s inspiring to see how she has brought her art across the globe.  She has carried on with it even when the pathway hasn’t been very clear, and she’s done it beautifully.  That’s dedication.  That’s art.

To see Flóra Carlile-Kovács’s work or make purchases, please visit her website: http://www.Floranemez.eu/ or Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/Floranemez