The Balkanization of Armenian Theater
BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
After two dismal years, Armenian theater in Los Angeles managed an uptick in both the quantity and quality of productions that graced area stages in 2012. Even when productions were flawed, several were ambitious in reach. Vahe Berberian delivered a new Armenian-language play of substance, “Gyank” (Life); Lilly Thomassian braved the challenge of “Komitas”; Vahik Pirhamzei displayed his superior comedic talents (yet again) in “Honest Liars”; and a troupe of young upstarts, under the direction of Tigran Kirakosyan, served up a delicious rendition of the absurdist satire “Galank” (Confinement).
The year’s bounty, however, made me fully appreciate a phenomenon I had been sensing for some time – namely, the balkanization of Armenian theater. In this massive Armenian community, which is fragmented into units of Armenians from Armenia, from Iran, and from various countries of the Middle East, theater caters to niche subgroups, often to the exclusion of others.
For the opening night performance of “Gyank,” for instance, Armenians with roots in the Middle East comprised the vast majority of a crowd 400 strong; an audience of comparable size for “Honest Liars,” however, was made up almost exclusively by Armenians from Iran and, to a lesser extent, Armenia; and when the Organization of Istanbul Armenians presented a revival of “Mernile Vorkan Tjvar E” (Dying Is So Difficult), the matinee I caught seemed as much a bolsahai reunion as an afternoon of theater.
Why such fragmentation? A key reason is the Armenian language. The split of the Armenian vernacular into Eastern and Western dialects in the 19th century extended to the language of drama. Although the dialects are foundationally similar, Armenians fluent in one are not necessarily conversant in the other. In addition, each dialect is peppered with foreign words and idioms that make comprehension a struggle. Impurities in Eastern Armenian tend to have Russian or Farsi as their source, while elements of Turkish, Arabic, French, and English have infiltrated Western Armenian.
Dialect, however, is not the only mark of distinction between Eastern and Western Armenian drama. Plays written in Eastern Armenian, which developed under Russian – and, later, Soviet – rule reflect concerns and themes that differ significantly from writings in Western Armenian, which evolved under Ottoman rule and, in the post-Genocide era, became the language of diaspora.
Nowhere do transplants from the Armenian homeland and from diaspora countries converge like they do in Los Angeles, where both Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian figure prominently in educational curricula, cultural production, and media. In the realm of theater, Armenians from Armenia account for the most output. Indeed, they boast actors and actresses who were professionally trained in Yerevan, and who have name recognition and a loyal following, thanks to their achievements and accolades in the homeland. Their productions tend to favor larger venues (such as the Alex Theatre in Glendale and its inferior neighbor, the Beyond the Stars Palace) and, far too often, commercially motivated – and groan-inducing – farces. Offerings this year included the insipidly titled “Harsnasu Milionateri Hamar” (A Bride for a Millionaire) and a sequel to “Pahanjvume Stakhos 2” (Liar Wanted 2) for those who apparently did not have enough of the original.
I wish these establishment forces would balance their commercial endeavors with higher-caliber work. But the mantle of that challenge may have to be picked up by younger talents, such as Tigran Kirakosyan and the gifted players he had assembled to tackle Gurgen Khanjyan’s “Galank” – a work of heft and gravitas that managed to remain wildly entertaining. Significantly, that production had crossover appeal, drawing a mixed crowd of Armenians from different subgroups.
Theater in Western Armenian depends on all-too-few producers. Vahe Berberian remains the only purveyor of new plays that enrich the canon, with the Ardavazt Theatre Company – recently renamed the Krikor Satamian Theatre Company – occasionally dusting off classics or staging works in translation. This year, a revival of Moushegh Ishkhan’s “Mernile Vorkan Tjvar E” was imported from Toronto, but the production by the Hrant Dink Theater Company proved wanting.
So where will the balkanization of Armenian theater in Los Angeles lead? If the community’s command and use of Armenian steadily fades, “Armenian” theater may actually be created and performed entirely in English; such a shift is already in progress, though its outcome is neither pre-ordained nor assured. For the time being, theater artists will likely explore (and, indeed, should be exploring) forms of hybridity – or multiplicity – both within the dialects of Armenian, and between Armenian and English. Vahik Pirhamzei did exactly that in “Honest Liars,” pairing its barsgahai characters with hayasdantsi ones and reaching a wider audience in the process.
Collaboration between Armenian theater artists of different origin will be imperative to bridging gaps between subgroups of the community. Of course, theater needs to continue being a reflection of the all niche groups within the community and should not ignore their unique concerns, struggles, and desires. In doing so, however, theater must not lose perspective – that is, sight of a broader community rich in diversity, complexity, and resources; otherwise, it risks devolving into provincialism. Striking this balance will be no easy task, but it will be imperative to turning the tide of balkanization.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is “Happy Armenians.” You can reach him or any of the other contributors to Critics’ Forum at firstname.lastname@example.org. This and all other articles published in this series are available online at www.criticsforum.org. To sign up for a weekly electronic version of new articles, go to www.criticsforum.org/join. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.