BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
The month of December is sprinkled with gatherings and feasts. For me, the seasonal festivities started with the ADAA award night December 6 at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Many people don’t know what ADAA stands for, so I will start my story by telling my readers that the acronym is formed from the initial letters of the Armenian Dramatic Art Alliance.
Last year, I attended ADAA’s award night at the Writer’s Guild of America in Beverly Hills. I had received an e-mail notice for the event. I presume the invitation arrived in my inbox through the Armenian community networking loop.
The invite said that at the ceremony one of three finalists would win a $10,000 screenwriting award. I admit I was fairly awestruck by the amount of the money ADAA was going to give away to the winner.
I invited friends but none of them could join me on short notice. As I’m an intrepid cultural booster, I decided to go by myself. I was curious to learn about the organization and how could they afford to bestow that large sum of money. As I arrived at the Writer’s Guild in Beverly Hills, the foyer was filling with people. I had the chance to meet and chat with finalists and professionals in the industry who were invited to be part of a discussion panel which preceded the prize-giving ceremony. I found these exchanges enlightening and felt privileged to meet notable people that I otherwise would not have the chance to converse with.
I met Éric de Roquefeuil, a Frenchman who had come all the way from Paris to be present at the award ceremony. He and another Armenian, Levon Minasian, had authored a play that garnered a nomination.
It turned out that Roquefeuil’s play became the winner that night. However, because of an amazing gesture between the three finalists, the prize was divided among them all.
Roquefeuil was staying at Hilton in Glendale and since I was heading back to that direction, I offered to give him a ride. He accepted. In short: the half-hour ride from Beverly Hills to Glendale gave us enough time to begin a friendship. We stayed connected through emails. He wrote in French and I in English. I’m always an eager student to brush up my French.
A few months ago, Éric wrote to tell me that he had again written a new play with another fellow Armenian scribe, Gorune Aprikian about the death of journalist Hrant Dink. The news was that they had submitted it to ADAA and his play had made the final round, this time not for the $10,000, but in another category. He asked me if I could represent them at the award night.
“Yes, of course, it would be my pleasure to represent you at the award night!” I wrote back. About a month later, I received an official invitation from ADAA.
The ADAA 2014 award night was held in the intimate setting of Pasadena Playhouse’s Makineni Library, which had a homey ambiance with an original 1926 Batchelder fireplace, rows of bookcases, a Christmas tree set in the corner of the room and a Persian carpet that embellished the floor. I considered myself lucky to be on the elite guest list.
After a delicious buffet dinner, Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard opened the event with a warm welcome. Then our one and only celebrity, Jill Simonian, Mistress of Ceremonies, made some introductions. Congressman Adam Schiff presented the Armenian Commendation award, for which my friend was a finalist. I jumped out of my seat when I heard the winner was “Bosphorus,” the play I was there to represent!
The $10,000 grand prize, which bears the name of William Saroyan, went to Laura Maria Censabella, a playwright and professor based in New York. The play traces the legacy of WWII through three generations of Italian women in one family. Prize presenters were Pier Carlo Talenti, Literary Director of the Center Theater Group from Los Angeles.
ADAA’s Armenian Star Award for excellence in the arts was presented to Mardik Martin, veteran screenwriter of “Mean Streets” (1973) and “Raging Bull” (1980). Martin is a professor at USC. He also penned the script for the upcoming Armenian Genocide film, “The Cut.” The Armenian Star Award was presented to Martin by Oscar-winning Levon Leo Chaloukian from Ryder Sound Studios, former President of the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In keeping with Human Rights Day (annually observed December 10), the evening was filled with commendations to ADAA from local officials, and with presentations from human rights organization representatives, including Tracy Kardash of Amnesty International and Donald Wilson Bush of the Woodrow Wilson Legacy Foundation. ADAA advisor Kristen Lazarian presented these two with certificates of commendation.
For me, the highlight of the evening came with a presentation to the young actor Alex Neustaedter from Meg Ryan’s upcoming new film, “Ithaca.” The movie, a directorial debut for Meg Ryan, is an adaptation of William Saroyan’s novel, The Human Comedy, for which Saroyan won the Best Story Oscar in 1943. In the movie, Neustaedter plays the role of Homer, and Meg Ryan plays Mrs. MacAuley as Homer’s mom.
ADAA board member Lisa Kirazian and past finalist Bill Hoversten presented commendations to the film’s producers Meg Ryan, Erik Jendresen, Janet Brenner, and Laura Ivey, which Alex Neustaedter accepted on their behalf.
After the awards ceremony, it came photo-op. Although there was no Red Carpet, everybody was excited to take pictures with the celebrities. When the guests started to leave I thanked Bianca Bagatourian, the founder of ADAA for including me as an honorary guest. I also asked her to give me a brief account of how the ADAA was created.
The story begins when Bagatourian as a young playwright was seeking grants for playwriting and in her search she realized that there were numerous grants for various ethnic communities such as the Latino community, and for that reason the Latino theater was blossoming in the United States.
She said, once she had an opportunity to speak with Gordon Davidson, founding Artistic Director for the Mark Taper. She asked him as an Armenian playwright where can she apply for a grant. Bagatourian said, “I’ll never forget his response.” Davidson said, “if you were Asian, or African-American, or even blind or handicapped, we’d have a grant for you. But you don’t fit in.” That response thwarted Bagatourian to create an organization to enable emerging playwrights to get monetary support. This how the ADAA was founded in 2005 in Cambridge, Ma.
To date, the organization has given away $80,000 in writing awards. Most of the funds for the Playwrights have come from Saroyan Foundation. The biennial screenwriting awards have been facilitated by Karen Kondazian in the name of her parents, Lillian and Varnum Paul.
This year, ADAA had taken a new direction for their playwriting prize. The board of directors chose to focus on the theme of Human Rights and Social Justice rather than sticking to only Armenian themes. The reason being was to put ADAA on the playwriting map, resulting in the CTG (Center Theater Group) from downtown LA to partner with ADAA and to create an evening of Armenian Genocide readings on April 28th at the Kirk Douglas Theater.
I asked Bagatourian for final words to tell my readers. She said, “We try to encourage people in our community to understand the importance of supporting quality work in the arts. Our board and juries of professionals from the very top of their fields work very hard to select award-winning scripts that speak to people’s hearts, and can deliver stories with much impact. We invite all Armenians to join us in this effort to make our voice heard on a world stage”
To learn more about ADAA and to support our young writers so that our stories can be told, please visit www.armeniandrama.org.
Catherine Yesayan is a contributor to Asbarez.