Critics’ Forum: Armenian Theater by the Young and the Experience-Less

Cast of "The Pink Elephant" revival
Cast of "Groonguh Ge Ganche" revival

Cast of “Groonguh Ge Ganche” revival

BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN

Armenian theater in Los Angeles offered stunningly little over the past year that was authentically new. Several pieces passed off as “new” by the community’s long-established theater artists were actually iterations of their typical output. AGBU’s Krikor Satamian Theater Company continued its love affair with low-brow farces by staging “Tenor Muh Gouzvi” (Lend Me a Tenor); Vahik Pirhamzei churned out “Pogha Petq!” (Money Is Needed), another of his formulaic comedies; Vahe Berberian delivered “Ooremn” (So), the 6th in his series of stand-up monologues; and Lory Tatoulian is staging the 8th version of “The Big Bad Armo Show” just as I write this.

Even the newer faces on the theater scene resorted to older fare. The Hamazkayin Theatre Company revived Jacques Hagopian’s “Groonguh Ge Ganche” (The Crane Beckons), a drama from the 1970s about life in the diaspora, while a student group from Ferrahian High School revisited Berberian’s “Vartakouyn Pighuh” (The Pink Elephant), a meta-theatrical play from the 1980s unfolding during the Lebanese civil war.

All of this means that only one truly original work was produced this year: High Gadfly’s “Yes, Adam Noorian,” an introspective play that suffered myriad flaws but ultimately proved both daring and innovative. It was the troupe’s first theatrical undertaking.

Amateur Productions

Every stage actor and actress, every playwright, and every director is, at some point, a theater novice. New blood enlivens the dramatic art form, infuses it with fresh ideas and vigor. The form thrives most, however, when newcomers mix with experienced talents, learning from the latter while, at the same time, re-energizing them.

Within the Armenian theater community, however, newcomers sometimes comprise the entire company. This was literally the case with Hamazkayin’s production of “Groonguh,” which actually announced at the start of the show that it marked the first foray into theater for its director and most of its cast. I was rather harsh in my critique of that staging, which revealed itself to be an amateur effort through and through.

How does a community of our size – and one of its most enduring cultural organizations – end up depending entirely on beginners for its theatrical endeavors?

Like I previously mentioned, many of the community’s more experienced performers and producers tend to opt for familiar (read: non-risky) fare. For instance, Berberian’s monologues, despite being seasoned with salty language, generally cover safe ground – relationships and Armenian foibles, say, rather than edgy politics – while Satamian seems downright allergic to any play lacking a healthy dose of histrionics.

Why? Since these efforts are often self-produced – Berberian, Pirhamzei, and Tatoulian all work outside the traditional confines of community institutions – the artists understandably need to feel comfortable with their material and relatively sure that their shows will not bleed money, as did Emmy Award-winning composer Denise Gentilini’s Genocide-themed musical “I Am Alive” in 2016 when she expended considerable cost to transfer it from Denver to Glendale’s Alex Theatre for a pair of performances that were sparsely-attended, despite the production’s high caliber.

Even when organizations like AGBU and Hamazkayin are involved, they devote nominal resources to training future talent. There is no training whatsoever available in the community for budding playwrights and directors, and the eight-week acting workshops that Hamazkayin occasionally sponsors hardly equate to intensive education. Armenian actors and actresses themselves seem to show little initiative in this regard as well. Most of the ones I know don’t pursue training on their own; nor do they bother sharpening their skills between productions. As such, they are never in growth mode. The amateurs stay amateurs.

There’s no help either from the self-appointed organization of theater professionals, the Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance, which has proven to be little more than a cliquish association that primarily serves to promote a few core members. Despite being in existence for well over a decade, it has never produced anything beyond staged readings. Its one major contribution to Armenian theater, the awarding of the Saroyan/Paul Prize for playwriting (with its considerable $10,000 purse) has morphed into a global award for plays addressing human rights, meaning that an Armenian theme is no longer required for eligibility. “Armenian stories” are now recognized with the Kondazian Playwriting Award, which carries a substantially lower – albeit still appreciable – $2,500 cash prize.

Cast of "The Pink Elephant" revival

Cast of “The Pink Elephant” revival

Student Productions

In recent years, drama has been added as an elective course in some Armenian schools. I firmly believe that drama should be a mandatory class – not because all students need to be trained as performance artists (they don’t) but because theatrical training imparts skills critical to success in virtually any profession: poise, elocution, listening ability, textual analysis and interpretation, and confidence in public speaking.

A couple of these schools even have drama clubs and put on year-end performances, although Ferrahian’s aforementioned revival of “The Pink Elephant” went beyond all that, being staged in a non-school venue.

During the curtain call of the third and final performance of that show, one of the lead actors grabbed a microphone and delivered an impassioned speech about the readiness of Armenian youth to step up to the challenge of successfully pulling off Armenian-language productions if only they’d be given the chance. It was a lovely sentiment, and I applauded his bravado, though I couldn’t help wondering why these youth were waiting for opportunities to be given them, rather than creating opportunities for themselves. Boldness, after all, is a virtue of youth.

I have tremendous faith in our youth. Our current college-aged generation is the most educated in Armenian history – tech-savvy and tapped into communication networks like never before. (Perhaps they’re not as fluent in Armenian as their elders would like; I don’t believe that necessarily compromises their Armenian spirit.) Failing to provide them with the necessary mentoring and guidance to develop their talents – not to mention the infrastructure that would maximize their chances of success – is a form of recklessness that will hamper the evolution of our performing arts.

A Modest Proposal

How do we establish nurturing spaces for emerging artists to display their talents and receive encouragement – but not false praise? As a first (and easy) step, I propose having two types of community theater productions. The first type would be comprised of plays staged by our professional and semi-professional troupes. The second type would consist of workshop productions by student groups and developing ensembles. Such productions would allow amateur performers to attain stage experience without placing undue expectations on them – and without pretending to audiences that they’re watching high art but, rather, the early attempts at its attainment.

Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). The world premiere of his next play, “49 States,” is slated for 2018. He or any of the other contributors to Critics’ Forum may be reached at comments@criticsforum.org. This and all other articles published in this series are available online at www.criticsforum.org. To sign up for an 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.

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2 Comments

  1. Armen said:

    First let me thank you for writing this article. I feel you are the only person who is still concerned about this topic and that is very disturbing. I hope that I am wrong.
    I’m not aware of the potential that the student groups might have or of their numbers so I can’t weight on your proposal. I’m also not aware to whom the above mentioned proposals are being pitched to and to what extent their executive power is, but as a person who was involved with theater production in our community for the past couple of years, I can offer my answer to your valid and important question “How do we establish nurturing spaces for emerging artists to display their talents and receive encouragement”.
    – Assign permanent spaces to groups that have interest in producing theater. A space not too far where they can meet twice a week without being worried about parking time, without enforcement to keep their voice down or being interrupted by basketball noises next door. A place they can call production house for a few months which they can decorate using their creative taste as a source of inspiration, an audition room and a rehearsal venue.
    – Allow them to be creative in thematic terms without restricting them to only serve national/community agendas. We have so many wonderful texts that don’t see the light of stage just because they don’t satisfy a certain narrative.
    – Help them in financing by introducing/bringing around sponsors so they can focus on the creative side. If Armenian organizations are not interested to subsidy cultural activities then we need to know that and then move to next option.
    – Give them professional directions and feedback before, during and after the show. I begged to fellow directors/writers to read my plays or to come see our rehearsals but most of them were always busy. When after seven fully sold out nights we finished our show, the writer of this article was the only person who critiqued our work. Although we all thought it was a harsh review, but hey at least we got one!
    In addition building a resourceful database of Armenian creatives, affordable venues, helpful professionals and financing resources is necessary. Many of us graduate from school or arrive to LA with lots of energy and ambition but we simply don’t know where to go and how to begin our theater work. Today a simple online search with keywords related to Armenian Theater in Los Angeles leads to nothing specific/helpful and people have to use personal connections for resources and info. Given the number of Armenians in this city it is a mistake to assume we don’t need such a database but who should be in charge of this?
    Due to concerns stated above, I don’t foresee a change in the status-que of theater and culture in our community and unless some major changes are made, the decline in quality and maybe even number of Armenian productions in upcoming years seem imminent. Again I hope that I am wrong and no I’m not a registered pessimist!

  2. Hyduke Gharibian said:

    Last year, in two of my visits to the LA area, I saw two productions, one a very interesting combination of a play about Komitas and one (in English for some reason) about the Mexican Painter Frida Rivera. I lost the program on my way back to SF, so I can’t quite recall the titles, but they were both serious plays of good production values and content. The second play I saw was the Armenian version of Madam Butterfly. It was simply enchanting. I would have liked to know Mr. Kouyoumjian’s opinion of them.
    Hyduke Gharibian

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