Critics’ Forum: Theater’s Dirty Word

"I Am Alive": Denise Gentilini's musical about Genocide survivors
"I Am Alive": Denise Gentilini's musical about Genocide survivors

“I Am Alive”: Denise Gentilini’s musical about Genocide survivors

BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN

A few weeks ago, an Armenian theater artist/producer in Los Angeles posted on Facebook that she was selling her collection of art from Armenia in order to fund her future theater projects. It was shocking to read – not in the way that stories about the situation in Aleppo or appointments to the Trump Cabinet are shocking, but shocking nonetheless that an Armenian artist has to sell her own belongings so that she can continue producing plays.

“Money” is not something we talk about when we talk about theater. It’s a dirty word that sullies an otherwise reputable subject. But money is an integral component of theater, which is an expensive art form; therefore, it demands discussion. After all, the lack of money can compromise the quality of theatrical endeavors (or can prevent productions from getting off the ground in the first place), while the pursuit of money can compromise the art form itself – for instance, by advantaging works that are heavier on entertainment value than substance.

Let’s be clear, at the outset, that ticket sales do not cover the costs of most theatrical productions. Except for occasional Broadway blockbusters, even well-sold productions do not always recoup their costs. At not-for-profit regional theaters (large-scale ones like the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. and the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco), ticket sales barely cover two-thirds of expenses – and sometimes as little as half. That’s why those theaters have full-blown development departments devoted exclusively to fundraising, just to make ends meet.

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Theater in Armenia has been supported by state resources – both during the Soviet decades and since independence – but diasporan Armenian theater in the post-Genocide era has been primarily reliant on cultural organizations. For most of the 20th century, when Beirut served as the capital of diasporan cultural production, the Hamazkayin Educational & Cultural Society was the leading purveyor of Armenian theater, although the Armenian General Benevolent Union made its own mark in the realm by fielding theater companies not just in the Lebanese capital but throughout diaspora communities.

"The Secret of the Flower Pot": the debut production of the Hamazkayin Theater Company.

“The Secret of the Flower Pot”: the debut production of the Hamazkayin Theater Company.

Here in Los Angeles, the structure has changed, as organizational reliance has given way to independent producers and their troupes. AGBU’s local theater company has long gone stale, and Hamazkayin’s newly-formed troupe is all-too-nascent. So the mantle has been picked up by individual playwrights and directors who’ve become their own producers – the likes of Vahe Berberian, Lory Tatoulian, Vahik Pirhamzei, Aramazd Stepanian, Anahid Aramouni Keshishian, and yours truly.

"Shake the Earth": Lousine Shamamian's solo performance piece (photo by Hilma Photography)

“Shake the Earth”: Lousine Shamamian’s solo performance piece (photo by Hilma Photography)

For us, “producing” often means having to subsidize our theatrical endeavors. Most of our productions require that we secure donors and sponsors, organize fundraisers, submit grant applications, or launch crowdsourcing campaigns. Even with those income-generating efforts, we remain responsible for underwriting any financial losses with our personal money.

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Why does theater cost so much? Because productions have myriad expenses, only some of which – such as sets, lights, costumes, and props – are visible to the audience. Equally (or more) substantial costs are typically invisible: theater and rehearsal space rentals; stipends for actors, designers, and stage crew; technical equipment like enhanced sound systems, strobes, or video projectors; advertising, marketing, program booklets, and website maintenance; permits, licenses, and insurance; and, of course, administrative overhead.

Earlier this year, when my latest play, “Happy Armenians,” travelled to Northern California after its world premiere in L.A., friends were shocked – shocked! – to learn that it had lost money despite enjoying a sold-out run. No one contemplated what it cost to transport the production’s set upstate and to redesign its lighting in a new theater, not to mention for five actors and their director to travel to another city, where they needed accommodations and, occasionally, food. Given the small size of the theater and the ticket price the market would bear, it was clear, from the outset, that the prospect of breaking even was a mathematical impossibility.

To its great credit, the Armenian community is very generous, donating thousands of dollars to make theatrical productions possible. The problem is that each production depletes the funds raised, so the process must start all over again for each subsequent one. In the absence of long-term pledges and endowment funds, producers must expend tremendous amounts of time and resources raising money from scratch for every new project.

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AGBU’s Krikor Satamian Theater Company is perhaps the only Armenian group in L.A. with steady funding, although actors from the troupe have confided to me that they don’t receive any pay for their work whatsoever, whereas most of us independent producers allot at least a modest stipend for our performers to signal an appreciation for their talent and sacrifice.

In the new year, the Satamian ensemble will actually have a theater of its own. Funded by London-based philanthropists Vatche and Tamar Manoukian, the construction is a mammoth achievement – L.A.’s first Armenian theater. After having built multiple churches, schools, and centers, our community has finally invested in a cultural space. I am told that the venue is state-of-the-art and will be available to the broader community, though its Pasadena location will hardly be central for Armenians in the San Fernando Valley, who are veering further and further to points west.

One of my hopes is that the new space will inspire the Satamian group to tackle challenging fare, rather than the mind-numbing farces for which it seems to have boundless devotion. The new space commands a bold vision that the company has been sorely lacking.

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The theatrical output of the past year maintained the status quo and illustrated, along the way, many of the points I’ve made. Satamian’s entry was a Ray Cooney farce, “Funny Money”; Vahik Pirhamzei’s new comedy, “Look Me in the Eye,” was a variation on his usual themes and plots; and Lory Tatoulian’s latest iteration of “The Big Bad Armo Show” continued a popular franchise.

Right, "The Woman":  Anahid Aramouni Keshishian's two-character play

Right, “The Woman”: Anahid Aramouni Keshishian’s two-character play

Among the year’s memorable developments was the debut of the Hamazkayin Theater Company with an original children’s show, “The Secret of the Flower Pot,” that featured music and puppetry, and was visually rich, if not technically perfect. The move was a smart one for the organization, filling a niche void and developing the next generation of theatergoers.

Otherwise, any ambitious undertakings were by independent producers – most of them, women. I was unable to catch Aramazd Stepanian’s adaptation of “Madame Butterfly” in Armenian, but I appreciated Anahid Aramouni Keshishian’s exploration of gender issues in her new work, “The Woman,” and Lousine Shamamian’s nuanced take on gay sexuality in “Shake the Earth,” a solo performance piece. For sheer scale and caliber, however, no production could top Denise Gentilini’s “I Am Alive,” which tells the story of her grandparents, both of whom were Genocide survivors. Gentilini imported “I Am Alive” from Colorado (where it had premiered) with its cast intact. Sadly, its two performances at the cavernous Alex Theatre were undersold, and I can only guess that the resulting financial losses were considerable.

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During the dozen years that I have been writing theater reviews, I’ve been expecting the overall quality of productions to improve, but now I’m convinced that it won’t until the money problem is solved. Unless producers can secure adequate funding, their output will either be deficient in production values or will cater to popular tastes in order to fill seats. We will continue to see lowbrow works that constitute diversion, rather than art.

Individual artist/producers have been carrying the Armenian theater scene as best they can. If the community is interested in doing more than sustaining their efforts – namely, expanding and improving on them – it must focus on creating fiscal structures beyond requiring that these artist/producers sell their own wares just to be able to share their creations with their audiences.

Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest play, “Happy Armenians,” had its Northern California premiere earlier this year. His forthcoming play is “Kabaré.” You can reach him or any of the other contributors to Critics’ Forum at comments@criticsforum.org. This and all other articles published in this series are available online at criticsforum.org. To sign up for an electronic version of new articles, go to criticsforum.org/join. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.

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