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

Friday, September 30, 2005

The opening ceremonies at HighFest

Stage left: the flags of the various countries represented in the festival are tied to trees. This is an ancient Armenian custom, where if you tie a scarf or flag to a tree, you can make a wish.

Center stage: International Department Head Lilit Galustyan, General Producer Levon Abrahamyan, and Festival President Artur Ghukhasyan, welcome the packed house to the festival. A performance "Innocent Light" by a dance group from Singapore followed the opening ceremonies.
A goal of the festival is to establish Armenia as an important international venue for the performing arts.

Another view of the parade (September 28, 2005)

A student parade in honor of HighFest

Students from the Theatre Institute and other local colleges paraded from the Institute to the Sundukyan Theatre to publicize the festival. My son and I (along with other festival participants) followed them through the streets. The energy was incredible and the public reaction was pretty amusing.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

first day of school in Yerevan

Guess which are my children?

Virtually all the school children in Yerevan wear the same school uniforn--blue bottoms with a white shirt. Although my children are usually very resistant to wearing anything but sweat pants, they immediate agreed to wearing the uniform because it clearly identifies them as students in Yerevan. It makes them feel like they fit in (which is particularly important for my nine-year old).

Friday night at the multiplex?

Groups of too cool for school teenaged boys scoping out girls; packs of girls, with protective moms nearby, giggling and eating candy; entire families, including toddlers and grandmas, ready for fun; and middle-aged couples on dates—all watching a petite ingénue causing mischief while a male heartthrob performs feats of athleticism and bravery. Is it Friday night at the local Armenian multiplex?

Nope. It’s Friday night, September 23, 2005, at the Hamazgayin Theatre. The production playing is The Romanticists. It's a comic story in which love awakens, is thwarted, and is finally fulfilled. The production is full of swooning, comic bits, sight gags and sword fights. The acting is youthful and energized and so is the audience.

The performance ends with a bang as the audience claps rhythmically and enthusiastically while the actors take multiple bows. At the last moment, a blushing young woman runs from the audience up on stage to give a bouquet of flowers to the male comic lead (whose performance was slightly reminiscent of Kevin Klein’s in Pirates of Penzance).

The Hamazgayin Theatre is fairly new by Yerevan standards (founded in 1991). Its programming combines children's plays with more serious drama. Because the theatre is attached to the State Institute of Cinema and theatre, it uses a combination of professional and student actors which contibutes to the feeling of energy.

The theatre itself has a very wide proscenium with a fairly shallow but raked audience area, seating maybe 350. The lighting was extremely simple. The set was more complicated--a series of wrought iron trees and walls with a fountain that turned on and off at key moments in the production. The costumes served as the most elaborate scenic element. They were vaguely period (the period perhaps 18th century fairy tale) and very tongue-in-cheek. Inexplicably but comically, the ingénue changed from one elaborate and silly ball gown to the next every time she left the stage.

The tickets were 500 AMD (about $1.25) which is insanely cheap even by Yerevan standards. A candy bar is 300 AMD. I caused a mini-ruckus because the smallest bill I had was 10,000 AMD (about $25) and the box office didn’t have any change. The theatre staff was so anxious that I see the play, however, that three different people searched their pockets for change.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Opening night at the monodrama festival

The season of performing arts festivals has begun in Yerevan.

Last night I was invited to be a guest at the opening night of the ArmMono Shakespeare International One Man Show Festival ( ) Within weeks this festival will be followed by an international dance festival and HighFest ( ). The density of festivals at this time of year is, I believe, due to the glorious weather here in Yerevan. Even an un-airconditioned theatre is comfortable in the Autumn.

The opening night performance turned out to be not a solo performance at all but rather a performance by a company of three Armenian actors (two men and a woman). It qualified as a monodrama (I guess) because only one of actors was onstage at a time. The play, which was a meditation on Othello, was called The Handkerchief and, indeed, featured a multitude of handkerchiefs which ended up littering the stage. One large, silken handkerchief served as a backdrop.

I understood only a word here and there but was very taken with the performance and the theatre. The performance was at the Theatre for Young Spectators at 3 Moskoyan Street. The theatre accommodates several hundred audience members but felt quite intimate. It is a fan-shaped, proscenium-style theatre with a very high ceiling and stone walls. The seats are upholstered in velvet and very sharply raked so the sight lines and acoustics are excellent.

The intimacy of the space was increased by the size of the crowd, which was standing room only. In addition, there were three or four television crews in the audience. It was quite the event.

At the beginning of the performance, the producer of the Festival introduced all the performers. There are solo performers in the festival from Great Britain, France, Switzerland, Poland, the USA, Iran and Russia. But what most intrigued me was the presence of a performer from Turkmenistan. Who would have thought that in Armenia you could see an actor from Turkmenistan performing in a solo show about Shakespeare?