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, April 04, 2006

They Saved Lenin's Brain

This is one of my husband's favorite images in Yerevan. A huge statue of Vladimir Lenin's head sits on the floor in the corner
of the post office on Sarian Street. We think that this is the head from the statue of Lenin that used to stand in the middle of Repbulic Square.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Basment Theatre

Lift Operator (c) 2005, Basement Theatre

Below is a link to the Basement Theatre Website (in English, Russian and Georgian)

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.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Travelling to Georgia

If you are living in Armenia and you want to visit another country without resorting to flying, you have two choices--you can travel north to Georgia or south to Iran. Travel to Iran with its world-class city, ski resorts and wealth of historic sites conjuring up Ancient Persia tempts. But for the casual American traveller, Iran holds the promise more of danger than of simple pleasure.
Georgia, Armenia's kissing cousin, presents a more likely vacation destination, a less abrupt change of worlds. Linked by the Caucasus mountains, a shared history, and the Russian language, the Georgians and the Armenians have become flip sides of the same coin. The southern cousin Armenia, to its cultural detriment, is quite amazingly ethnically homogenous. The northern cousin, Georgia, to its political and economic detriment, is ethnically diverse. Georgia's capital Tbilisi--charming, cosy, historically rich, alp-like--perches on the cliffs and banks of a scenic river. Armenia's capital Yerevan bustles with modern energy, constantly challenging itself to become ever more cosmopolitan.

The route between the two capitals is slow and hazardous, particularly in winter. The main road connecting Yerevan and Tbilisi is a winding, two-lane, black top which weaves its way up and down the peaks and valleys of the Southern Caucasus. Snowfall is frequent, snowplows less common than mountain goats, and public rest stops unheard of. A train runs between the two cities once a day but, for unknown reasons, it stretches the 5-7 hour car drive out to 14-20 hours. The train compartments are snug but the restaurant car serves only vodka, beer and coffee.

Any trip between Yerevan and Tbilisi may be further complicated by violent unrest in Georgia which results from time to time in skirmishes, kidnappings and power outages. Public officials on boths of the border demand bribes from randomly selected travellers. But every journey also holds the promise of being lightened by the great friendliness, generosity and inquisitiveness of the Georgian and Armenian people. The bathrooms along the way may be filthy or holes in the ground, but the food will be tasty, the laughter will be frequent and the good wishes and blessings many.

Once, when travelling through western Europe with a friend, he said that Europe reminded him of a well-laid out amusement park. Everything was so cute, clean, and toy-like. You could go from "France-land" to "Switzerland-land" to "Germany-land" on fun, brightly-colored trains, eat tasty, high-fat and expensive snacks, and buy tacky souvenirs mass-produced in China, all the while speaking English and walking past McDonalds, Burger Kings, and Starbucks.

Armenia and Georgia would not be in that amusement park. They are still rough enough, unique enough and remote enough to retain their own authenticity, their own reality, one unlikely to be duplicated by consumer culture in this experience economy.

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.