The Washougal High School drama department usually forgoes a full-fledged production in favor of smaller class shows in the spring, but teacher Kelly Gregersen wanted to do something different this year to reward his students for persevering through a pandemic which took away a lot of their opportunities to perform in front of live audiences.
Already wrapped up in directing “Obligatory Tomato Reference” in April and “The Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon” in early May, Gregerson knew he would need help to make his plans come to fruition. That’s when two of Gregerson’s former students volunteered to save the day.
Keira Stogin and Sydney Valaer, 2016 Washougal High graduates, offered to help direct a third production.
“When Keira was dumb enough to say, ”I would direct a show for you,’ I jumped really hard at that,” Gregersen said. “There’s nothing that gives me more joy than watching two of my former students both with (acting) degrees come in. It’s kind of a full circle for me to watch my former students now direct my current students. It’s an opportunity for the students to be with a director who’s not me and has a different style than I do, which is wonderful. Having two young ladies directing the play couldn’t make me happier, for the students to see, ‘This is open for everybody. This is not an old white dude (thing).’ There’s so much in this that I’m celebrating and enjoying. And it’s kind of nice to go home early on some days.”
Stogin and Valaer will serve as the director (Stogin) and music director (Valaer) for the department’s production of “Once Upon a Mattress,” which opens this week, with shows at 7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, May 12-13, and at 2 and 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 14, at Washburn Theater. Tickets cost $8 and $10 and will be available for sale at the door.
“Once Upon a Mattress” is a musical comedy that first opened off-Broadway in May 1959, then moved to Broadway. It initially received mixed reviews, but retained its popularity during the next several decades — much to the surprise of some of the original performance’s cast members and critics — and remains a popular choice for high school drama programs and community theater groups.
“‘Once Upon a Mattress’ is the classic show to do with teenagers,” Stogin said. “It’s a really, really funny show. Coming back after the pandemic, I felt it was a great big show to start out on — I think for most of them, it’s their first big musical. It’s the perfect first show, I think. It’s got great ensemble parts. It’s got great supporting parts. It’s not too heavy in leads, it’s not too heavy in anything. It’s the perfect show to do for people that are stepping their feet into the waters of theater.”
“Once Upon a Mattress'” is an adaptation of “The Princess at the Pea,” an 1835 Hans Christensen Andersen fairy tale about a young woman whose royal ancestry is established by a test of her sensitivity.
“(‘Once Upon a Time’ is) an expansion (of ‘The Princess and the Pea’),” Stogin said. “The joke is that the fairy tale is like the edited version of what happened. (The play) goes into the true goings-on of the castle life and why such a crazy test was put on the princess to put a pea under 20 mattresses. Carol Burnett originated the musical on Broadway, and I feel like as soon as I say that, it puts everyone in the right mind about what the show is like.”
The students are enjoying the play’s medieval setting, which allows them to wear elaborate period costumes and interact with majestic castle settings, according to Stogin.
“I wanted the curtain to open to a magnificent world of that two-dimensional, cartoon, fairy-tale land (look),” she said. “The creativity with the set and the costumes and the lighting and the blocking all comes together to make a very light-hearted, happy, cheesy — very cheesy — comedic thing that’s very enjoyable to watch.”
The students are also enjoying the cooperative nature of the musical format, which requires them to interact with their director, music director and choreographer simultaneously, Gregersen said.
“They’re loving to work together on such a collaborative show,” he added. “I get a lot of, ‘We just like that everyone’s in it.’ Keira and Sydney have established such a nice working environment that the kids are really having a great time while working their tails off to perform a great show.”
This isn’t Stogin’s first time directing high school students. She helped to launch the Troy Community Theater in Troy, Idaho, and served as the assistant director for the group’s production of “The Wizard of Oz” in the summer of 2019. The following summer, she directed the group’s production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”
She graduated from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah, with an acting degree in May 2021.
‘I ended up moving home and waiting for the next section of life to begin,” she said. “I reached out to Gregersen and said, ‘Hey, if there’s anything I can do for the theater, please let me know. I would love to (help).’ The next thing I heard from him was, ‘If you want to direct a big musical, you totally can.'”
Stogin said that she has benefitted from the experience, both personally and professionally.
“These kids have so much pouring out of them in terms of dedication and passion and talent and desire to perform, so to be able to pour back into them, in that way of, ‘You want this to be awesome? All right, let’s make this awesome,’ I feel like my soul is fulfilled to the highest degree every day,” she said. “The collaboration aspect is truly what I’ve been missing in my life, so that’s been super nice. And it just feels good to do what I’ve been training to do.”
Gregersen has also been “thrilled” to watch Valaer work with the students, especially those who haven’t sung in public before.
“Brand-new singers will come to a musical every time I’ve done one,” he said. “The key is having a really good musical director who can teach the parts, pull them along and give them confidence. That’s where Sydney comes in. She’s incredibly gifted at teaching music to kids and giving them the confidence and the skills and the tools, but also inspiring them to go on and really sing out and be a part of the show.”