An American Dramaturg in Armenia

Reflections on a 5-month sojourn as a Fulbright Scholar to the Yerevan Institute for Cinematography and Theatre

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artistic director of Active Cultures, the Vernacular Theatre of Maryland

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Sovereign Republic of Theatre

After all the planning and worry, I arrived in Armenia a few days ago. I was blasted with jet lag and spent a day or two in a dense fog of exhaustion. When I emerged, it was to glorious weather—hot, clear days and cool, windy nights. It is easy to understand why this time of year is called the “velvet season” here in Yerevan. As you walk up the Yerevan hills past all the buildings made of lovely rose-colored stone, the wind feels like velvet on your skin.

My hosts here have been wonderful. They have arranged housing, shown me where to shop, driven me around the city. I have had several meetings at the institute where I will teach theatre and am getting quite excited about working there.

Although in some ways the theatre institute feels very foreign, theatre is, in a way, its own country with its own rules, social customs and expectations. It is startling how similar it can be in vastly different countries. Once, when I was doing research in the Bakhrushin Archive in Moscow, I came across a list of rules for actors that had hung backstage in a theatre in St. Petersburg around 1905. I was temporarily startled because the rules were basically the same as those in any theatre in which I had worked in America. The main difference was that there was a rule forbidding the Russian actors from rehearsing on stage in their snow boots. I’ve never seen that rule in America but it seems to me a rule with which most American stage managers would agree.

So, in keeping with that idea, it was not surprising to see that many faculty and students at the institute were wearing black, the universal color for offstage wear. They were also more idiosyncratically dressed than the citizens at large. I think I will also find (if the institute is like other theatre departments in which I have taught) that the institute is full of charismatic personalities and everyone, on the whole, is loud.

The very universality of theatre, however, can be a kind of trap, leading you to believe that because some things are so similar, all things are similar. And they are not. The Sovereign Republic of Theatre is transnational but limited in its sphere of influence.


Anonymous simon said...

I'm intrigued by your idea of a sovereign republic, a notion of a nation of which you name yourself a citizen, a nation that seems shaped to serve the needs of a particular kind of loud, charismatic citizen, rather than being shaped by a discourse that sets boundaries of race, class, geography, or religion. A liminal nation? A nation of those who inhabit borders? A nation of those who ask awkward questions, perhaps? A nation that has rules, though, and a discipline of its own. The idea is more than a joke about snowboots, I think. What might the American equivalent be? Fill in the blank: Please do not wear ____________ to rehearsal.

6:56 PM  

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