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

Monday, March 27, 2006

Georgian Theatre Blackout

On January 26th, 2006, I set off from Yerevan to Tbilisi. My mission was to see Georgian theatre upfront and personal.

A heavy snowstorm in the Caucasus made the prospects for the trip iffy. Popular sentiment was that I would be unwise to take a marshrutka (minibus) to Georgia because the roads would be terrible. I decided to risk the train. Theoretically, the train would leave Yerevan at 7pm and get me into Tbilisi bright and early at 9am. I reserved a "lux" berth and planned to sleep the night away in comfort. So much for my plans. The train left 2 hours late for no clear reason and arrived 5 hours late with no explanation. My berth was comfy but was also occupied by a "businessman" who grew increasingly inebriated as the trip went on, finally passing out as we arrived in Tbilisi.

Still, Tbilisi is an exciting place and shortly after I arrived, Tina from the Basement Theatre came to pick me up at my hotel and took me on a guided walking tour of theatricial Tbilisi. I was in heaven. The power had been cut off in most of Georgia because of a terrorist? planned? government-ordered? bombing of major electrical lines just over the border in Russia. Still, downtown Tbilisi had power and a festive mood prevailed. Tbilisi had just gotten its first major snow fall in 30 years. The streets were full of laughing children on sleds.

The highlights of my tour were getting to see the offices and backstage areas of the progressive Basement Theatre and the newly and fabulously renovated Marjanishvili theatre. At the end of our tour, Tina and I were joined by Eka, the managing director of both the Marjanishvili and the Basement Theatres, and the three of us went out to eat a gossipy dinner at a packed and freezing restaurant (which had no power).

Still, I couldn't wait until I actually got to see some Georgian Theatre. Eka and Tina arranged for me to have tickets the next day to a new play reading in the afternoon and the Basement Theatre's production of LIFT OPERATOR in the evening. The play reading was in Georgian but Tina provided me with a translation in Russian so I could basically follow what was happening. The main thing I noticed was that one actor was funny and one was not. But a reading is not theatre.

The evening of the 27th I waited impatiently for LIFT OPERATOR to start. Already, I was planning the review I would write for some unidentified journal. The theatre was filled with adults and children. The house lights went to half and a hush fell over the audience. According to the English-language synopsis I was handed when I came in, the play was about a pregnant woman who worked as an elevator operator. The set consisted of a small box, about the size of an elevator. I knew from a review I had read that the elevator passengers were played by human-size puppets or effigies. Curiously, the program listed a choreographer. I was confident I was in for an interesting evening. The house lights went from half to total darkness. "Wow, how bold!" I thought, "That's very dramatic." The lights stayed in total blackout for five minutes, and then ten minutes, and then fifteen minutes. The house manager came to the front of the stage with a flashlight and made an announcement (in Georgian). A few minutes later, she came to find me in the audience to tell me that the power was out but that they were hoping it would be back on soon. She then lit some candles and set them around the theatre. I sat with the audience for an hour in the darkness. My fellow audience members laughed, joked, text-messaged each other and, in general, did their best to enjoy their evening out. I was shocked at their good humor but I guess in Georgia, where anything can and has happened and electricity is great when it works and optional when it doesn't, this was a common night in the theatre.

An hour after the lights went out, the show was cancelled and the audience reluctantly went home to their darkened houses. I travelled by taxi through the dark streets to my brightly lit international hotel, which shown like a beacon in the dark city. Eka and Tina had begged me to stay an extra day in Tbilisi in the hopes that lights would come back on and I could actually see some theatre but I needed to get back to Yerevan.

As I snuggled deep in my comfy hotel bed that night, I reflected on all the other disastrous nights I had spent in theatres over the last twenty years--dreadfully boring plays, audience members passing out, actors injuring themselves on stage, toilets flooding, etc.-- and decided that this night may have been disastrous but the good naturedness of the audience made it also curiously pleasant and uplifting.


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