Rediscovering Saroyan at 110: An Interview with Playwright-Director Aram Kouyoumdjian

Playwright-director Aram Kouyoumdjian (r.) conferring with actor Will Maizel during rehearsals for "William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance." Photo by Armineh Hovanesian
Playwright-director Aram Kouyoumdjian (r.) conferring with actor Will Maizel during rehearsals for "William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance." Photo by Armineh Hovanesian

Playwright-director Aram Kouyoumdjian (r.) conferring with actor Will Maizel during rehearsals for “William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance.” Photo by Armineh Hovanesian

BY ANI BOYADJIAN BOGHIGIAN

This year marks the 110th birthday of Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award-winning author, maverick, playwright, uncommon storyteller, and humanist William Saroyan. To commemorate the anniversary, the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) and L.A. City Councilmember Paul Krekorian and his wife Tamar approached Elly Award-winning playwright and director Aram Kouyoumdjian to stage a Saroyan work. Aram’s feature plays and solo pieces have been staged in half a dozen cities from Los Angeles to London. His most recent work includes “Happy Armenians”; the open-air, site-specific performance piece “i Go On”; and the forthcoming “Constantinople.”

Aram enthusiastically agreed to create a piece for “L.A. Made,” LAPL’s cultural series of spoken word, film, music, and dance, which presents Angelenos with free programs at Central Library in downtown Los Angeles that enrich and inspire.

The world premiere of “William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance” will take place on Saturday, September 15 at 7:00 pm at Central Library’s Mark Taper auditorium. The production will then travel to Fresno for a special performance, followed by two return engagements in Southern California.

I sat down with Aram to ask him a few questions about his current endeavor, and Saroyan’s relevance to readers who may be unfamiliar with the great author’s stature in the American literary canon.

ANI BOYADJIAN BOGHIGIAN: Tell us about your current project, and how it all came about.

ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN: Upon his death, Saroyan left behind a treasure trove of unpublished plays, many of which are decidedly “Armenian” in plot and theme. Plays like “The Armenian Play (or Opera),” “Home to Hayastan,” and “Ouzenk Chouzenk Hai Yenk” (Like It or Not, We’re Armenians) address issues like immigrant life, the impact of genocide denial, and attitudes toward then-Soviet Armenia.

This project is a unique type of performance constructed around six of those unpublished plays. The featured scenes are interwoven through narration that provides biographical context and literary insights, and the four performers are on stage the entire time, taking on nearly 30 characters, while also sharing the role of narrator.

From l to r: ade Hykush, Will Maizel, Robert Walters, and Bailey Sorrel rehearsing "William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance." (Photo by Armineh Hovanesian)

From l to r: ade Hykush, Will Maizel, Robert Walters, and Bailey Sorrel rehearsing “William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance.” (Photo by Armineh Hovanesian)

Saroyan’s 110th birthday was the impetus for the project because both the L.A. Central Library and L.A. City Councilmember Paul Krekorian wanted to mark the occasion by way of a commemorative event. I was contacted and asked if I could actualize such an event and, having written my Master’s thesis on Saroyan’s unpublished plays, I said, “Yes, yes, that is something I very much could do.” That’s what led to “William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance.”

A.B.B.: How were you able to access and work with the unpublished materials?

A.K.: The initial work was done within the context of my thesis a few years back and included visiting Stanford University Libraries, where the Saroyan collection is housed. The manuscripts exist solely in paper format, so the effort involved painstakingly going through many boxes of material and coming home with hundreds of pages to read.

When this project idea emerged, I reached out to Stanford for the performance rights, which the university graciously granted. Stanford even waived the usual royalties, since we’re presenting the performances to the community free of any admission charge.

A.B.B.: What are the challenges to staging the work?

A.K.: There were a number of challenges beyond the customary ones that pertain to all productions. Chief among them was presenting several plays within the brief span of 75 minutes; then, dealing with the logistics of mounting the production in four different venues in as many weeks, as we’re doing; finally, funding a production that will have no ticket income.

From l to r: Will Maizel, Jade Hykush, Robert Walters, and Bailey Sorrel rehearsing "William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance"

From l to r: Will Maizel, Jade Hykush, Robert Walters, and Bailey Sorrel rehearsing “William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance”

I know it’s gauche to talk about money, but let’s be real, it’s essential to the performing arts, which require space, a crew, design elements (sets, costumes, and such), publicity, and at least some compensation for the performers. I’m very fortunate in that generous donors – primarily, the George Ignatius Foundation – have provided essential funding for this project (and for my work in general), because even when productions engage in ticket sales, the proceeds alone simply don’t cover overhead. This lament isn’t particular to the Armenian community; it’s a problem with arts organizations large and small – the ones who have to relentlessly hound you with telephonic and online solicitations so they can balance their budgets.

A.B.B.: Funding issues are a constant. What was your approach in writing the script?

A.K.: I decided to stage excerpts from six plays, as I mentioned, but I did not want a choppy style of presentation with someone introducing, emcee-like, one scene after another. So I arranged the scenes in a particular sequence that would allow for a through-line and wrote narration to link them, thereby achieving a fluid, non-stop performance. The two actors and two actresses who perform the piece change character at breakneck speed with simple, yet effective, costume changes – for example, throwing on a jacket or a vest – all in full view of the audience.

Compressing several plays into a single production allowed me to juxtapose scenes from different plays to illustrate, say, how characters regard Armenian identity or how they perceive/remember Armenia. Indeed, the script explores two types of Saroyan plays: ones I call “domestic” and ones I call “political.” The domestic plays deal with family life – food, marriage, faith – particularly within the context of the immigrant experience. The political plays deal with themes that range from the lingering effects of the Genocide to notions of repatriation.

A.B.B.: As he wrote in Seventy Thousand Assyrians, Saroyan was more interested in showing a “brotherhood of man.” What makes Saroyan Armenian, or how does his work evoke the Armenian experience in America?

A.K.: Having read hundreds of pages of his unpublished writings, I would say that Saroyan was conflicted. He wanted to espouse a “brotherhood of man,” which we can term his universalism, but he also identified very strongly as Armenian, which was his nationalism. And these two tenets of his beliefs often clashed in his writings. He wanted to have a worldview that transcended being Armenian but his ethnic identity is pervasive throughout his work and contributes much flavor to his writing. Some of his characters have lengthy monologues which are nationalist outbursts, whether in condemning Turkey’s denials of the Genocide or espousing Armenia as a dreamland.

I have argued in my thesis that Saroyan was not just an ethnic writer but a diasporan one. He writes extensively about being a part of an immigrant Armenian family with all its attendant features: household dynamics, rituals and traditions, financial hardship, and prejudice from the surrounding society. However, he also engages at length with themes that are indicative of a “diasporic consciousness,” such as the sense of Otherness in one’s adopted country, the longing for a homeland, and the yearning (or myth) of return to such a place.

A.B.B.: Saroyan as author’s primary interest was in character development and telling a story. As a storyteller, do you feel his work has stood the test of time? What is the message for readers today?

A.K.: At its peak, Saroyan’s fame, both in terms of popular and critical acclaim, was on par with the likes of John Steinbeck and Eugene O’Neill. His work easily withstands the test of time because he was ahead of his time. His writings on the immigrant experience, for example, are as relevant today as they were at the time he was writing them 40 or more years ago – or, for that matter, at the time his parents were living through that experience over a century ago.

One of the early scenes in the production unfolds at Ellis Island, where Saroyan’s family arrived after traveling eight or nine thousand miles only to confront the devastating prospect of being turned back because Saroyan’s grandmother, a formidable woman named Lucintak, was thought to suffer poor eyesight. That scene takes on eerie resonance when one considers the current U.S. administration’s disdainful treatment of immigrants seeking entrée into this country.

Saroyan took the long view of Armenian history and managed to be both a realist and an optimist. He understood how Armenian longevity was an indicator of resilience. The world has changed a great deal since his death. I wish he had lived long enough to see Armenia attain independence, see the Genocide be recognized internationally, see the myriad changes that the Armenian universe has undergone within the span of only four decades. He would have found endless inspiration in it all.

“William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance” will take place in the Mark Taper Auditorium at Central Library on September 15, 2018 at 7:00 pm in downtown L.A.: 630 W. 5th Street Seating is first-come, first-served and admission is free. Doors open at 6:30 pm. A reception will follow.

“My Name Is Aram: William Saroyan, an Armenian Native Son” is on display in the First Floor Galleries at Central Library through October 7, 2018.

Ani Boyadjian Boghigian is Research & Special Collections Manager at the Los Angeles Public Library.

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