Critics’ Forum: ‘Bashing’ Armenian Theater? A Critic’s Self-Assessment at Year’s End

Leslie Ayvazian (r.) both wrote and starred in "100 Aprils" at Rogue Machine. (Photo by Michelle Hanzelova)
Leslie Ayvazian (r.) both wrote and starred in "100 Aprils" at Rogue Machine. (Photo by Michelle Hanzelova)

Leslie Ayvazian (r.) both wrote and starred in “100 Aprils” at Rogue Machine. (Photo by Michelle Hanzelova)

BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN

Over the past year, the feedback to my writings on theater included two particularly interesting responses. The first was a social media post by an actor/director who asserted that my annual year-in-review article last December had “bashed” Armenian theater. The second was a letter, sent to “Asbarez” by the wife of another theater artist, who contended (without disclosing her relationship) that my criticism of her husband’s productions was due to my supposedly “pre-formed negative attitudes” toward him.

Responding to my criticism that her husband’s plays frequently suffered low production values, the letter’s author stressed that her husband works with “a non profit company, with no financial support” and went on to question whether I have “seen any Shakespearean productions recently, where little or no sets are provided?”

The letter concluded with this sentiment: “It has been said that critics are thwarted actors/directors. It is time for Mr. Kouyoumdjian to come out from behind the comforts of his computer, attend the wider non Armenian theater, and have the courage, reckless or not, to expose himself to artistic and professional judgment.”

Quite obviously, the author had no idea how much theater I consume in a given year – or that I actively engage with the art form as a playwright and director. I thought it fitting, then, to devote this year’s wrap-up article to provide a bit of clarification.

I
When I embarked on writing theater reviews a dozen years ago, I formulated a simple set of guiding principles: I would take a broad view of “Armenian” theater to include not just plays in Armenian, but also by Armenians (regardless of plot or theme), or about Armenians (even if by non-Armenians); I would cover as many productions as possible to achieve – and convey – a full view of the Armenian theatrical landscape in and around Los Angeles; and I would be entirely honest with my opinions, even when they had to be harsh.

(You would think honesty would be a basic tenet of theater criticism – or any arts criticism, for that matter. However, we know that much of what passes for criticism in diasporan Armenian media is akin to cheerleading, promoting and applauding effort or just intent. Anyone who reads those effusive reviews in the future could justifiably form the belief that we were the global leaders in absolutely every genre of the performing arts.)

Raffi Barsoumian's turn as Hotspur in "Henry IV" was among the year's best performances. (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

Raffi Barsoumian’s turn as Hotspur in “Henry IV” was among the year’s best performances. (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

It has not been easy to judge negatively, when warranted, the work of theater artists (in many instances, I’ve had to level criticism at personal friends or arts organizations with which I have associated), but I have done so for two reasons: first, I recognize that any positive review I write would lack credibility – or worth – otherwise; and second, I remain ever-hopeful that my feedback creates a sort of dialogue with theater artists and, by reflecting on their work and offering new perspectives, contributes to its elevation.

Let me be clear: I feel no relish in “bashing” Armenian theater – not a whit, ever. No one who cares about the art form as much as I do would. Besides, from a purely selfish perspective, writing a negative review is far more difficult than doling out praise, takes twice as long, and means that I spent time and money sitting through an experience I did not enjoy.

Admittedly, sometimes the frustration I convey in a review can be cumulative. The benefit (or detriment) of having sat through the majority of Armenian theater productions in Southern California for the past dozen years is that I know all too well how little the art form is progressing in our community, how haphazardly any given “season” comes together, how timid most producers (whether individuals or organizations) are in venturing beyond their standard fare and, when they do, how lacking the caliber of the resulting production often is.

So, getting back to the letter, I can assure its author that I don’t know her husband well enough outside of the theater realm to have any “pre-formed” impressions of him, positive or negative. (Even if I did, I would actively guard against such impressions affecting the objectivity of my reviews.) The inconvenient truth is that my criticism was a candid appraisal of his work – on its merits.

II
As to the rest of the letter, its implication that I only see Armenian theater and don’t have exposure to “wider non Armenian theater” verges on the comical. I don’t say that rudely or condescendingly but rather earnestly, given that I see, within the course of a single year, more theater than many people do in a lifetime: upwards of 50 productions (specifically, 54 last year and 53 this). I attend plays and musicals, comedies and dramas, experimental pieces, immersive pieces, solo performances, site-specific performances, and mixed-media creations. The vast, vast majority of the theater I see is non-Armenian.

Inga Stamboltsyan and Lyudmila Grigoryan shone in Kariné Khodikian's "The Day Continues Still."

Inga Stamboltsyan and Lyudmila Grigoryan shone in Kariné Khodikian’s “The Day Continues Still.”

I’ve watched plays in at least 20 cities across the country and abroad. My theater trips just this year included jaunts to the Bay Area and San Diego, although New York is also a frequent destination. I’ve seen dozens of Oscar winners and/or Tony winners (a list that includes the likes of Meryl Streep) on stage, alongside countless actors and actresses of immense talent but little name recognition. I’ve experienced performances in almost every conceivable venue: traditional theaters, of course, ranging in size from mammoth to minuscule; auditoriums; amphitheaters; parks; warehouses; private homes and backyards; parking lots; and even cars – yes, cars (“The Car Plays”). I have been to plays where the audience moves among the performers, moves with them, or is literally moved by them (for instance, while sitting on bleachers mounted on casters, as in Eric Tucker’s unforgettable rendition of “Macbeth”). I’ve seen plays being simultaneously performed in adjacent theaters by the same cast (Alan Ayckbourn’s “House” and “Garden” at Chicago’s Goodman). I’ve seen trilogies performed in a single day – either in the same location (Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” at Lincoln Center in New York) or in three different venues (Tom Jacobson’s “The Ballad of Bimini Baths,” earlier this year, at Son of Semele, Playwrights’ Arena, and Rogue Machine in L.A.). Epic length doesn’t scare me. I sat, transfixed, through Taylor Mac’s exhilarating “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” this spring over four nights of six-hour installments – all without intermission.

With specific regard to Shakespeare, seeing every one of his plays on stage is one of my bucket lists. I’m already done with 25 of them – including “Timon of Athens” and “King John” – and have only a dozen more to go. Several of these productions were masterfully conceived with little or no resources. I’ve already mentioned Eric Tucker’s staging of “Macbeth,” which was presented in a warehouse space with non-traditional lighting. It still gives me chills, as does the stripped-down rendition of “Henry V” (at Pacific Resident Theater), directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos, which recreated a battle scene with just two reams of paper – one red, one white – a haunting visual that will never leave me as one of the most cost-effective special effects ever achieved in the theater.

III
Some theater critics may be frustrated actors or directors, but I’m not one of them, for the simple fact that I’m an actual playwright and director, and I’ve been staging plays far longer than I’ve been reviewing them. I “came out from behind the comforts of [my] computer” long ago and have been exposing myself to the “artistic and professional judgment” of colleagues, critics, and audiences ever since. I’ve staged my own writings, as well as scripts by other playwrights, both renowned (Edward Albee, Caryl Churchill, and Tom Stoppard) and emerging. I’ve helmed pieces in Armenian and English, and in myriad forms. Just in the past few years, these have included plays with traditional structure (“Happy Armenians”); a solo adaptation (of Levon Shant’s “Ancient Gods”); an open-air, site-specific performance (“i Go On” at downtown L.A.’s Grand Park); and, earlier this year, the world premiere of “William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance.”

IV
Turning to the challenges of producing Armenian theater, I am exceedingly familiar with them, since I confront them myself every time I embark on a new project. This is a challenge that all theaters confront, by the way – Armenian or not; that’s why most of them devote considerable effort to fundraising. Making up budgetary shortfalls is an unfortunate necessity in theater – incredibly enough, even when an entire production is sold out – and I am frequently in “honorable beggar” mode with donors. Fortunately, the Armenian community is generous when it comes to financially supporting high-caliber work (“high-caliber” being the key phrase). “William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance” was entirely funded by donations, since it was presented to the public – in five different venues across three cities – without charge and, hence, no ticket income whatsoever.

V
We now – finally – get to the past year’s theatrical crop. How was it? Well, better than the previous year’s – more eclectic, certainly, with a number of intriguing productions, including Leslie Ayvazian’s “100 Aprils” at Rogue Machine, the Armenian Theater Company’s revival of Kariné Khodikian’s “The Day Continues Still,” and Aaron Poochigian’s arresting new translation of “The Bacchae” at the Getty Villa.

Vaneh Assadourian delivered two winning performances: in "The Happiest Song Plays Last" (pictured) and "Hostage." (Photo by Gio Solis)

Vaneh Assadourian delivered two winning performances: in “The Happiest Song Plays Last” (pictured) and “Hostage.” (Photo by Gio Solis)

The caliber of the productions remained quite mixed, however, and there was (yet again) no sense of any cohesive or sustained output – just a random assemblage. There were, at least, a number of noteworthy performances, which I single out chronologically in the order I saw them: Vaneh Assadourian in “The Happiest Song Plays Last” (and, later, “Hostage”); Aram Muradian and Kevork Keushkerian in “Caught in the Net” (AGBU’s Satamian Theatre Group); Brian Caelleigh in “Oppression,” a triptych of Harold Pinter shorts (Armenian Theatre Company); Leslie Ayvazian in “100 Aprils” (Rogue Machine); Inga Stamboltsyan and Lyudmila Grigoryan in “The Day Continues Still” (also Armenian Theatre Company); Raffi Barsoumian in “Henry IV” (opposite Tom Hanks; Shakespeare Center); and Peter Nishan and Artur Margaryan in “The Liar” (Satamian Group). Of course, I am particularly partial to my own cast of Vista Players for the Saroyan production – Jade Hykush, Will Maizel, Bailey Sorrel, and Robert Walters – but I’ll quote from Ishkhan Jinbashian’s review of their work, rather than praising them myself: “The four cast members dove into the material with gusto, laser-sharp precision, and a level of suppleness that spells the difference between mere technical prowess and the sublime.”

VI
On we go into 2019. I will, once again, abandon the shield of my computer and expose myself to judgment by premiering my latest work, “Constantinople,” in the fall. I hope you’ll see it – and provide me with whatever critique you deem honest and fair

Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His production of “William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance” had its world premiere this fall. His next work, “Constantinople,” is slated for its world premiere in the fall. You can reach him or any of the other contributors to Critics’ Forum at comments@criticsforum.org. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.

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