Saroyan Festival Offers Glimpses of a Native Great

By Guy Keeler From The Fresno Bee

FRESNO–This will be a spring to remember for those who know about writer William Saroyan–or wish they did. From February 28 to May 5–examples of Saroyan’s body of work will be on display in venues throughout Fresno ranging from theaters and concert halls to museums–art galleries and the airwaves. The William Saroyan Festival 2002–three years in the planning–is an unprecedented cooperative effort in the local arts community involving the collaboration of 29 organizations.

"We hope the festival will create interest in keeping Saroyan’s works alive from an educational standpoint," says Larry Balakian–chairman of the 50-member volunteer committee that organized the two-month tribute to one of Fresno’s most renowned native sons.

Saroyan–born in 1908 to Armenian immigrant parents–wrote short stories–novels–plays and songs. His major honors include a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for his play "The Time of Your Life" and an Academy Award for best original screenplay in 1943 for "The Human Comedy." He died in 1981 in Fresno.

The idea for the festival came from Robert Setrakian–who lives in San Francisco and is chairman of the William Saroyan Foundation and executor of Saroyan’s estate.

In late 1999–Setrakian wanted to find a way to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Saroyan’s death.

"The idea was not to glorify Saroyan," says Setrakian. "If you read his early works–you have to realize a lot of his ideas came from his involvement in Fresno. In the 1930s and 40s–Fresno was known primarily for agriculture and people [outside the Valley] still kind of view the city that way. Nobody understands the impact Fresno has had on the art world."

Setrakian hopes the festival will call attention to Fresno’s arts community in addition to honoring William Saroyan.

"It’s thrilling to me that so many organizations are taking part," says festival coordinator Mary LaFollette.

Because Saroyan is known in literary circles worldwide–Balakian and LaFollette believe the festival could generate more outside interest in the writer’s work and his hometown.

There are annual festivals in New Orleans for Tennessee Williams and in Salinas for John Steinbeck–says Balakian. With a high level of community support–he adds–the Saroyan Festival could become an annual or biennial event.

One of the most intriguing events on the festival’s calendar is "An Audience with William Saroyan," a one-man theatrical production created and performed by Todd Wronski–professor of drama at Dickinson College in Carlisle–Pa.

Wronski will portray Saroyan as a man in his 60s–speaking to people who have been invited into his home. He will appear during the festival’s preview gala at the Fresno Art Museum on March 1 and deliver repeat performances on March 2-3.

"It’s a monologue describing Saroyan’s thoughts and ideas," says Wronski–describing the show. "I’ve tried to combine his joy and sorrow. He had a melancholy nature that could be very cheerful and brooding."

Wronski–a native of Red Wing–Minn.–discovered Saroyan in the mid-1980s after seeing and directing "The Time of Your Life."

"I branched out from there and started reading his other stuff," he says. "But I didn’t have time for serious research until three or four years ago."

Wronski spent a week at Stanford University where he pored over material in the Saroyan archives. He also spent time at California State University–Fresno–listening to tapes of Saroyan’s voice.

"I was surprised at how reflective they [Saroyan’s unpublished writings] were in tone," says Wronski. "He was compulsive about recording his own life. He often wrote 18-20 single-spaced pages a day–recording what he did and what he thought. He wrote all the time and he didn’t edit himself. Sometimes he’d even write about not writing.

"I wound up with a war chest of little snippets – 120 pages of essential stuff–enough for three-and-a-half hours. I had to distill the script down to 34 pages and 80 minutes."

Wronski–who has a mustache reminiscent of Saroyan’s walrus-style lip crown–premiered his one-man’show last August at the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe in Scotland.

Ben Amirkhanian–founder of the William Saroyan Society–will be leading walking tours of Saroyan’s old neighborhood during the festival. Stops include visits to the sites where Saroyan was born and went to school–the place where he picked up newspapers to sell and the site of the Presbyterian church where his father served as minister.

Amirkhanian hopes this spring’s activities will spark more interest in building a Saroyan museum.

"It’s about time Fresno got behind Saroyan," he says. "He wrote songs and stories and was an artist too. He kept a daily journal. The guy was amazing. I still can’t understand how a little Armenian kid who quit school after the eighth grade could do all he did."

Nuria Ibars–another Saroyan Society member–has put together a radio broadcast called "Celebrating Saroyan," which will air 6:30-11 p.m. March 31 on KFCF–FM 88.1. The program will feature guests reading selections from "My Name is Aram" and other Saroyan works.

Setrakian says the guest readers will include former Postmaster General Anthony Frank–who issued a 29-cent stamp in Saroyan’s honor in 1991–and Supreme Court Justice Sandra O’Connor.

"I got the idea for the program from my father–who lives in Spain," says Ibars. "Every year the people in his town gather at a church and read Don Quixote from cover to cover. People come up and read from the book for 10 minutes at a time."

Ibars says holding an annual public reading is a good way for a community to uphold its writers and remember who they are.

In addition to his writing–Saroyan produced some 7,000 watercolor paintings and drawings for his own enjoyment. During the festival–95 selected works will be on exhibit in the Fresno Art Museum along with many of his journals–notebooks and man’scripts.

Although he lacked formal training as a painter–his art has attracted the attention of collectors. The Saroyan Foundation has sold some of the paintings at prices as high as $7,000.

"You can see very clearly his creativity in every painting," says Jacquelin Pilar–exhibition curator. "His works are expressionistic abstractions. He was totally uninhibited."

Setrakian offers the following thoughts on how Saroyan might feel about the festival: "I think he would be sitting around smiling and wanting to change things here and there. He’d be directing it. He wouldn’t say ‘Don’t do it’ but he wouldn’t want it done if he was still alive. That wasn’t his style." For more information visit http://www.saroyanfestival.com.

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