On April 4, stage director Valerie Rachelle was a guest for the current dramaturgy class at UNLV taught by Stefano “Stebos” Boselli, assistant professor of theatre history and dramaturgy and resident dramaturg at Nevada Conservatory Theatre. The dramaturgy students asked her several questions and others were asked by Stebos after a run-through of the show.
Stebos: With a long career as director and choreographer under your belt, you are the current artistic director of the Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland, Oregon. What brought you to direct at UNLV?
Rachelle: Norma Saldivar [the former theatre department chair] reached out to me about six years ago to come and direct here at UNLV. But the dates never worked out, as I was always doing other projects. Norma reached out again in 2022 and asked if I was available for a show in 2023: I blocked out the dates and so… I am here.
Stebos: I’m glad that your calendar opened up for this production. It does shows how important it is for theater professionals to maintain a network of connections over the years.
As for Violet, the musical’s book has undergone some changes between the Off-Broadway version (1997) and the Broadway one (2014). Were there any moments from the earlier version that you would have liked to keep in this particular production? Why do you think this story is best told as a musical?
Rachelle: Violet is a beautiful retelling of the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts.
The updated version is a wonderful rewrite and doesn’t cut that much from the earlier musical version. It does turn the original two acts into one and streamlines the storyline in an effective way. The American Gothic style, the time period, the location, and the emotional journey of our protagonist suit musical theater perfectly. Music evokes emotion and the deep pain, insecurities, and even social conflicts that surface here need music to clearly tell the emotional story of the piece.
Stebos: A main theme of this work is a girl’s struggle for being denied beauty by an accident with her father’s axe that left a large scar on her face. However, the script indicates that Violet doesn’t need to have a visible scar. How will you be tackling the challenge to communicate this theme through the literal beauty queen, Miss Nevada 2023, who was cast as the protagonist?
Rachelle: In my interpretation and staging, the scar is not as relevant to the main story, which is not about beauty but about pain, loss, and self-esteem. If there was a physical scar on the performer, that’s what the audience would focus on and not the main journey of the character. Violet needs to learn to see with her heart and not her pain. This journey is about her awakening that the scar is not what it’s about. She finally finds someone who sees past her skin, she sees past their skin, and is able to open her heart.
Stebos: As Violet searches for a miraculous solution to her condition, a good portion of the show involves traveling from place to place. How did you work with the designers to visualize the journey of Violet and friends on the buses they take?
Rachelle: The scenic designer [Emily Whatley] has dug into the imagery of things you might see discarded on the side of the road – old furniture, equipment, etc. All of our furniture is part of that world, so we make all of our locations with chairs, benches, tables from the “junk pile” of the scenery, including the bus.
Stebos: When Violet connects with fellow travelers along the way and eventually meets her supposed “savior,” the musical addresses some thorny issues, such as racial tensions in the 1960s and the limits of religious preachers. Which of these themes do you believe are still most relevant?
Rachelle: All of the conflicts in Violet are still relevant. Racial tension, seeing people only skin-deep, treating people differently because of how they look, people using religion to gain fame and money… all of these themes are still relevant in our society today.
Stebos: From watching today’s run-through, I noticed how you emphasized Violet’s relationship with her father. How did this relationship guide your approach to the dramaturgy on stage and the way the show progresses to its conclusion? What core message do you hope the audience understands when they walk away from this play?
Rachelle: The pain of Violet’s past accident never had an emotional conclusion with her father. She never got closure or was able to forgive him before he passed away. Violet’s journey is not about accepting her outward looks but about forgiving the past and living from her heart and her head. I want the audience to walk away questioning what they might be blind to in their own life. I hope they will leave feeling more empathetic and leading from their hearts.
Stebos: If you could pick one line from the play that you feel encompasses the message you want the audience to take away from the show, what would it be?
Rachelle: Since I think the show is about seeing someone’s heart, the line that says that best is “I’ve been waiting for a lifetime, for someone simply, to look and see me, the way that I see you.”
Stebos: Thank you Valerie, it was great having you visit class and watching today’s run-through. I’ll see you at the premiere!