BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Hamazkayin, a leading Armenian educational and cultural institution, has a liking for festivals. Its regional wing for the Western U.S. has sponsored several iterations of Mosaic, the music festival featuring eclectic line-ups of Armenian singers and bands from around the world. Now, the organization has turned its attention to theater. In celebration of its 85th anniversary, it is presenting an Armenian theater festival in October – traditionally celebrated as Armenian Culture Month.
The festival will mark the first-ever visit to the U.S. of Hamazkayin’s “Sos Sargsyan” State Theater Company from Armenia to present 11 performances, over five days, of four separate plays, at two venues.
Established in 1991, the “Sos Sargsyan” ensemble is named for the renowned actor of stage and screen who passed away this week at the age of 84. Helmed by Vardan Mkrtchyan since 2009, the troupe boasts a rich repertoire of plays, ranging from dramas and comedies to children’s shows. Armenian plays constitute the majority of its productions, and a smattering of translated works makes up the balance. The company has toured France, Iran, Lebanon, and Russia, but will be crossing the Atlantic for the first time.
A diverse selection of plays – one targeted at youth, a drama, a tragicomedy, and a variety show – is scheduled for the ambitious festival. Curated to reach a wide audience, the plays seem, at least at first glance, both accessible and substantive.
Starting on Wednesday, October 16, students from Armenian schools will be bussed to the ARTN Theater in Glendale for a field trip of the rarest kind: to catch daytime performances of “Anpan Hourin,” based on Hovhannes Toumanyan’s tale. (The show will be performed for the public at a matinee on Sunday, October 20).
For adult audiences, the offerings will be at the Barnsdall Theater in Hollywood, beginning the night of Thursday, October 17, with “44 Astichani Vra,” translated as “44 Degrees” in the promotional materials, but perhaps more accurately as “Along the 44th Parallel.” Adapted by Asdghik Simonyan from a story by Tigran Hayrapetian, “44 Degrees” takes up such ever-important, yet sensitive, issues like repatriation to – and emigration from – the homeland. Featuring only three characters, the play traces the story of a married couple who leave the U.S. to resettle in a rural village in Armenia, even as the country empties of its citizenry around them. A repeat performance of “44 Degrees” on Friday, October 18 will be the festival’s Gala Night selection.
On Saturday, October 19, the company will present two performances of “Sale,” a tragicomedy adapted by Vigen Stepanyan from Alexander Galin’s “Retro.” The two-act play revolves around a widower, Ardashes, who moves in with his daughter and son-in-law after his wife’s death. Plot complications develop when the son-in-law concocts a plan to get rid of the old man by marrying him off, but all three of his potential mates arrive to meet him on the same night.
Closing out the festival on Sunday, October 20 will be a variety show comprised of music, dance, and theater sketches.
An undertaking of considerable scope and significance, the festival raises a number of points to ponder:
First, it stands as an extraordinary exemplar of cultural exchange between Armenia and the Diaspora. Theater in the homeland follows its own, unique trajectory – one mostly unfamiliar to diasporan audiences. Through intense exposure to the “Sos Sargsyan” ensemble, however, theater aficionados can become well-acquainted with the oeuvre and style of at least one esteemed troupe.
Second, our corner of the Diaspora, despite its size, still lacks the necessary quantity of cultural production to sustain a theater festival of its own. Typically, four Armenian-language productions define an entire theater season – not just a weekend. And all too often, such productions are realized through independent, isolated efforts, with little institutional support.
Third, we must continually ask whether we should be devoting our resources to supporting talent that’s imported or local, since a case can be made for either. A festival of this sort demands both human and financial capital, which can underwrite widened exposure for theater from Armenia, or it can be redirected to nurturing a brand of diasporan theater, through the commissioning of new works, the staging of premiere productions, and the training of actors, playwrights, and directors.
Fourth, the festival’s emphasis on youth is brilliant. Indeed, more than half the performances have been geared for younger audiences, providing them with sorely-needed exposure to the dramatic art form. This conscious investment in a new generation of theater-goers demonstrates how profoundly Hamazkayin comprehends its mission.
Finally, all the plays being presented are new to us. Neither the artists nor their hosts have settled for safe, familiar titles; rather, they have ventured into realms less known – realms that promise adventure. What exactly will we experience in three weeks’ time, and how will it touch us and make us feel? We don’t entirely know. And that’s the exciting part.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is an adaptation of “Ancient Gods.”