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

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Party pieces, recitations and other public performances

When I first arrived in Armenia, I was informed by my fellow professors that Armenians were an oral culture, that students were much more accustomed to public speaking than they were to essay writing. Always one to jump the gun, I immediately assigned my students all sorts of ex tempore speaking assignments. Where normally I might give a quiz, I instead assigned a presentation. My students, startled, valiantly attempted to meet my expectations and did quite well. But it was clear that they were not accustomed to presenting fledgling ideas in public. I couldn't figure out what I had done wrong.

It wasn't until the Christmas season that I realized my error. From a very early age, Armenian children are expected to recite and sing in public. Every child over the age of four has several pieces memorized that he or she can recite flawlessly whenever the situation demands a party piece. At birthday parties, school events, family gatherings, children are expected to give recitations and sing songs.

I first witnessed this at a puppet theatre where, before the performance began, children leapt up on stage and recited poems and, adorably off tune, sang songs. I misunderstood and thought this was some sort of special occasion. It was not. Since then, I have been treated to innumerable sweet, lisping performances at every sort of public gathering.

Armenians are oral, yes, ex tempora, no. Doubtlessly, if I had given my students a chance to prepare and mermorize, they would have soared. And they would have completely enjoyed themselves. But because, as an American, I have difficulty memorizing my phone number but could talk in public about nothing for quite a while, it never occured to me.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Death masks in Gyumri

Armenia's second largest city is Gyumri. Located on the Turkish border ,within sight of the ancient Armenian center of Ani, the city was devastated 16 years ago by a major earthquake. Today, thanks to international efforts, it has largely been rebuilt. It is now a town of wide boulevards, stylish new apartment buildings and a well-kept historic district.

People from Gyumri are known for their artistry and (often grim) sense of humor. One example of the two is the S. Merkurov house museum which celebrates the work of the Soviet-era Armenian sculptor. The bulk of the museum is dedicated to casts of the wax death masques of famous people. Merkurov used the masques as a basis for many of his sculptures. I was intrigued by the death mask of Vladimir Mayakovsky (the author of the play THE BEDBUG and a suicide while in his thirties) in which he appeared to be healthy, happy and strangely beautiful. More gruesome was the death mask of a man who died of throat cancer.

Gyumri is also the hometown of famous Armenian folk comedian Poloz Mukuch. Apparently, whenever you say his name, you must tell three jokes or funny stories. We ate at a restaurant named in his honor and had a lively meal, filled with silliness.

Blog on contemporary Armenian Music

The following is a link to a webpage/blog maintained by an Armenian American musician living in Yerevan. Sprinkled throughout the blog are interesting comments on and insights into the contemporary Armenian music scene.