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By Tamar Minasian

AZG Armenian Daily #174


"Innocent Light" performance of Singapore's "Odyssey" dance theatre opened the 3d "High Fest" International Theatre Festival yesterday. But before the play, young actors paraded from the Theatre and Cinema Institute to Gabriel Sundukian Academic Theatre. The same day "Hope" mono opera was staged at the Young Spectator's Theatre.

At a press conference that followed president of "Kuk Art" international puppet theatre, David Burman (Russia) said that he arrived in Yerevan with great pleasure and is very glad to take part in this festival. "With its dynamic developments, "High Fest" is the forth of its kind in the world. You managed to gather a great deal of participants in a very short time", he said. This year's festival hosts 250 participants from 28 countries.

Austrian producer Christian Proney told the conference that he knows all plays presented at the festival but the European ones. He was sure that cultural differences will make the festival even more interesting.

Speaking about the master classes that the guests will give within the frameworks of the festival, Mr. Proney and Mr. Burman said they will stress theatre management. David Burman thinks that culture management in Russia and Armenia are rather alike. "I'll speak about art management in my seminars. It's very important that state officials pay attention to this sphere", he said.

Christina Proney assured that educational establishments in Austria are closely watching that cultural arrangements get money they need.

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Critics’ Forum

In Search of “Armenian Theater”
By Aram Kouyoumdjian

It seems like a simple enough question: “What is Armenian theater?” Indeed, if I intend to write about it, a definition should come easily. But it proves quite elusive.

The difficulty does not pertain to dramas written in the Armenian language. Rather, it concerns the works of Armenian playwrights who, in a diasporan setting, compose in the language of an adopted country. Sometimes, they take up Armenian subjects; sometimes, they don’t. Can we consider their works a part of “Armenian theater”?

William Saroyan, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his masterful “The Time of Your Life,” certainly wrote plays that revolve around Armenian characters and themes – but he did so in English. Three of these plays have been published as “An Armenian Trilogy.” Is that title a misnomer? Saroyan also penned numerous plays with nary a mention of Armenians. Can they be catalogued as “Armenian theater” solely on the basis of their author’s ancestry? Can “Armenian theater” include some of Saroyan’s plays, while rejecting the rest?

And how exactly do we classify plays about Armenians written by non-Armenians? Richard Kalinoski’s “Beast on the Moon,” for instance, tells the story of an Armenian couple trying to overcome the trauma of the Genocide to build a new life in its aftermath.

From a purely literary perspective, plays that are not written in the Armenian language do not constitute “Armenian theater.” (In academic settings, courses in the literature of a certain language typically exclude works in translation). From a broader cultural perspective, however, dramas by or about Armenians must qualify as “Armenian theater” – even if they are written in English or another foreign language – since they capture and reflect our diasporan existence. In fact, the non-Armenian language itself forms an essential element of such an existence, often supplanting the mother tongue altogether.

If we do not adopt this broader definition, we can declare Armenian theater in the Diaspora practically moribund. Plays in the Armenian language have never been too numerous in our literature and nowadays have become virtually non-existent outside of Armenia. In California, home to the largest concentration of Armenians in the Diaspora, the last original Armenian-language drama of significance was Vahe Berberian’s “200,” which appeared more than a dozen years ago as the final installment of a trilogy that began with “The Pink Elephant.” Since then, the occasional farce has popped up, only to be quickly (and deservedly) forgotten. From the existing canon, a few operettas have been staged, but weightier pieces are hardly visited. The most recent revival of a classic – Levon Shant’s “Ancient Gods” – had to be imported from Armenia in a production of the Sundukian National Academic Theatre that was mired in outmoded styles of acting and direction.

Even when we add the English-language plays by or about Armenians, the numbers do not climb all that exponentially. Saroyan’s body of work is substantial but several decades removed from the present day. In modern times, perhaps the only Armenian playwrights of note are Eric Bogosian and Leslie Ayvazian, if we use name recognition, publications, and regional productions as our measures. Ayvazian’s play “Nine Armenians” has been produced by prestigious companies coast to coast – from the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York to the Intiman Theatre in Seattle – with a prominent staging in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum. I have heard the play be criticized within our community as lightweight and stereotypical. True enough – the writing does not delve too deep; still, it has many strong moments that are alternately poignant or hilarious. (I save my harsher words for Ayvazian’s “Singer’s Boy,” a truly exasperating exercise, despite the presence of Olympia Dukakis to head the cast of its world premiere at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco).

“Nine Armenians” is not as important for what it is, as for what it should have been – a precursor, a forerunner, and ultimately a launching pad for a new generation of plays that explored the various manifestations of the Armenian diasporan existence and engaged in a dialogue about its underlying complexities through an artistic medium that is arguably the best suited for it.

We are still waiting.

All Rights Reserved: Critics Forum, 2005

Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His performance piece, “Protest,” is currently being staged at the Finborough Theatre in London.

This and all other articles published in this series are available online at[1]. To sign up for a weekly electronic version of new articles, go to[2]. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.


From Constantinople to LA: Three Centuries of Western Armenian Theater

Friday, January 2nd, 2015 | Posted by Aram Kouyoumdjian

A late 19th-century theater troupe in Constantinople, led by Mardiros Mnagian; although predominantly comprised of Armenians, Mnagian's troupe performed Turkish plays during an era when Armenian plays were banned.


This past fall, at a conference on "Armenian Art and Culture in the Ottoman Empire Before 1915," I presented a paper entitled "Arrested Development: Western Armenian Theater in the Nineteenth Century." The paper examined the emergence of Western Armenian theater in Constantinople - or "Bolis" - amidst a period of national awakening known as "Zartonk" and of linguistic transition from classical to vernacular Armenian.

As I delved into my research, I could not help contemplating that in all of Los Angeles there had been two - just two - productions in Western Armenian the whole year, and that both of them had direct links to 19th-century Constantinople: the Krikor Satamian Theater Company's rendition of "Shoghokort" (The Flatterer) by Hagop Baronian was written in that time and place, while my own revival of "Hin Asdvadzner" (Ancient Gods) adapted an iconic work by Levon Shant, who was born in Bolis and spent formative years there prior to the Genocide.

Was this sheer coincidence? Not really. Various aspects of modern diasporan theater hark back to the beginnings of Western Armenian theater nearly two centuries ago. They explain a number of tendencies and shortcomings - and the reason why Armenian theater arguably remains the least developed of our art forms.

CONSTANTINOPLE -- 19th Century Western Armenian theater as we know it today did not really emerge as an art form until the 1850s. Pioneering productions by Mgrdich Beshigtashlian and Srabion Hekimian led to the formation of the Eastern Theater, the first professional Armenian troupe. The early 1860s were years of upswing for the Eastern Theater, which boasted an extensive playlist of historical plays and staged over 40 works in translation. Imports included escapist fare (from French and Italian originals), melodramas, and both traditional and musical comedies. The works of Goldoni and Moliere were particularly favored.

In the late 1860s, a producer named Hagop Vartovian founded the Ottoman Theater under a 10-year government license that allowed him a monopoly of sorts. His venue, the Gedikpasha Theater, was the largest of its kind in Constantinople, seating nearly 900. Over the course of the ensuing decade, Vartovian staged an estimated 200 productions in Armenian and a similar number in Turkish; these consisted of historical plays, melodramas, comedies, and operettas - many of them in translation. A controversial figure, Vartovian soon began catering to Turkish playwrights and audiences, to the detriment of Armenian productions.

An alternative to the Ottoman Theater was Bedros Maghakian's short-lived Volunteer Society, which solely staged plays in Armenian, and Serovpe Benglian's operetta company, devoted exclusively to musical theater. Benglian's repertoire featured the works of Dikran Tchouhadjian, the composer of the first Armenian opera, "Arshak II," and operettas with Turkish librettos, such as "Leblebiji Hor Hor Agha" and "Zemire."

Several Armenian playwrights were prolific during this era, including Bedros Tourian, who is best remembered today as a poet. In general, however, the caliber of playwriting was subpar, and virtually no scripts written in the 1800s remain a part of the Armenian theatrical canon. Hagop Baronian's brilliant satires, like "Medzabadiv Mouratsganner" (Honorable Beggars) and "Baghdasar Aghpar" (Uncle Balthazar), constitute the sole exceptions, although they were never performed during their author's lifetime. Levon Shant, the only other major dramatist to come out of Constantinople, did not actually begin writing plays until the dawn of the 20th century.

After a mere three decades, Western Armenian theater in Constantinople essentially came to a halt in 1880 because of government bans. Its arrested development meant that it never weaned itself from European translations and never transcended the genre of historical plays to reflect contemporary society (unlike Eastern Armenian theater, which embraced social realism). Rather than establishing a foundation for diasporan theater to build upon, the 19th century provided more of a blueprint to imitate.

BEIRUT - 20th Century The western dialect of Armenian became the language of the Diaspora in the post-Genocide era, and theater in that dialect proliferated in communities scattered across the globe thanks to the efforts of organizations like the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) and the Hamazkayin Educational and Cultural Society.

Diasporan theater in the 20th century, however, had its heyday in Beirut, where Hamazkayin blazed a trail with its formidable ensemble, the Kasbar Ipegian Theater Company.

Ipegian staged his first play in Beirut in 1931 - an extraordinary feat, considering that the Armenian community in Lebanon was the product of a recent genocide and still suffered the immediate trauma of that calamity. Ipegian's premier production was Levon Shant's "Oshin Bayl" (Bailey Oshin).

By the early 1940s, a formal company had been formed under the aegis of Hamazkayin, and three Shant plays were staged in quick succession: "Ingadz Perti Ishkhanouhin" (The Princess of the Fallen Fortress) in 1942; "Hin Asdvadzner" (Ancient Gods) in 1944; and "Gaysruh" (The Caesar) in 1945.

Interior of the Hagop Der Melkonian Theater

The troupe was renamed to memorialize Ipegian after his passing in 1952. George Sarkissian, who succeeded Ipegian as artistic director, enhanced his predecessor's achievements and left a rich legacy of his own. It was during Sarkissian's decades-long tenure that the company acquired its own venue - the Hagop Der Melkonian Theater, which was constructed in 1969 and operates to this day.

Remarkably, alongside the Ipegian company, Hamazkayin sustained theater ensembles sponsored by its local chapters. Independent troupes like Varoujan Khedeshian's Theatre 67 and Zohrab Yacoubian's Experimental Theatre also had successful tenures in Beirut, but the only ensemble that has managed to survive nearly as long as Ipegian is the AGBU's Vahram Papazian Theater Company, founded in the late 1950s by esteemed actor and director Berj Fazlian.

Shant's plays were mainstays of Ipegian productions, and Hagop Baronian was a frequent presence across a number of theater companies, but these companies were committed to producing original works as well. Many of these works, like Jacques Hagopian's "Grunguh Guh Gancheh" (The Crane Beckons), dealt with the diasporan condition, while some pieces, such as "Bourj Hammoud '78," specifically focused on the Lebanese-Armenian community.

Translations were never in short supply, and farces were aplenty, but substantive works by Ibsen, Ionesco, Miller and, unsurprisingly, Saroyan, were given their due.

Western Armenian theater in Beirut was not limited to patriotic fare or light entertainment, like it had been in Constantinople; rather, it was frequently peppered with weighty dramas that tackled moral issues and sophisticated comedies that toyed with absurdism. Still, its development was arrested by civil war and an ever-dwindling Armenian population.

It goes without saying that Armenian theater remains very much alive in Lebanon; just this year, the Ipegian company staged "Asdvadzayin Gadagerkoutyun" (Divine Comedy) and the Papazian troupe produced "Bidi Ella . . . Bidi Chella" (It's On . . . It's Off). Beirut is probably still the place where most new plays written in Western Armenian originate. But levels of productivity there are a fraction of what they used to be, and the current trajectory suggests that the future of Western Armenian theater, whatever it might be, will unfold elsewhere.

LOS ANGELES - 21st Century So is Los Angeles the future of Western Armenian theater? Not yet - though it should be. Los Angeles is a unique - and perhaps unprecedented - diasporan community in that it boasts huge numbers of both Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian speakers. At the same time, it is a community large enough, educated enough, and affluent enough to sustain a thriving theater scene in both dialects. Los Angeles could never supplant Yerevan as the place where Eastern Armenian theater burgeons, but it could well become the next center of Western Armenian theater.

The road to that goal is one fraught with challenges. Los Angeles, unlike Constantinople in the 19th century and Beirut in the 20th, does not even have an Armenian theater space. It has only one standing theater company - comprised of non-professionals. In the current century, a single individual, Vahe Berberian, has perhaps created more original works in Western Armenian - a pair of full-length plays, along with monologues, sketch comedy, and an improv show - than any other L.A.-based theater organization.

Hamazkayin has been unable to form a main troupe, and the quality of productions by its chapters has tended to be low-end. AGBU's Krikor Satamian Theater Company (formerly Ardavazt) has been the only steady presence, although the caliber of its output has been inconsistent. Satamian, an alum of AGBU's Papazian ensemble in Beirut, typically programs tame entertainment that's exclusively comedic, often in translation, and frequently dated.

To become the center of Western Armenian theater in the 21st century, Los Angeles needs an Armenian theater venue, some version of a training academy for actors, financial resources to commission plays, and a mechanism to cultivate audiences. How does all that happen?

It happens through the work of producers - whether organizational, individual, or both. Theater is not a solitary art form like writing a novel or painting a canvas. It requires producers who can secure funding and provide the infrastructure necessary to stage plays. History proves this point: Theater in Constantinople was made possible by producers like Vartovian; the Ipegian ensemble in Beirut enjoyed Hamazkayin's support; and the AGBU provides backing for the Satamian company in Los Angeles and for similar troupes in diasporan communities as far-flung as Buenos Aires and Sydney.

Producers need to develop strategic plans that contemplate the growth of Western Armenian theater, so that each success leads to a greater one. Such long-term thinking is needed to ensure that the third century of Western Armenian theater does not become another instance of a brief heyday or a period of arrested development.

Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting ("The Farewells") and directing ("Three Hotels"). His latest work is "49 States." He or any of the other contributors to Critics' Forum may be reached at HYPERLINK ""; This and all other articles published in this series are available online at HYPERLINK ""; To sign up for an electronic version of new articles, go to HYPERLINK ""; Critics' Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.

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