From the earliest days of theatre’s development till now, we can see how Armenians are able to establish theatre as an inseparable part of the culture. Many historical factors had affected the evolution of the theatrical process, but at the present, Armenian theatre is at its best. That is up-to-date no matter how the world changes. People will always value this form of art.
Historically, Armenian theatre has its roots in Ancient Greek theatre. The Bible also has a few pages dedicated to theatre. A number of plays deal with religious subjects, including the Armenian church’s history.
Armenian King Tigranes II the Great constructed an amphitheater in the 1st century BC. Greek actors were invited by to perform Greek tragedies and comedies.
Armenia is a major cultural bridge between Europe and Western Asia and has been so for many centuries. Armenia has cooperated with Russia, France, Georgia, a few American States and so on.
As Armenians are spread all over the world, it would be impossible to not have connections with them, more importantly by cultural means. We would be wrong to say that Armenian theatre can flourish without the help of its neighbors.
From Constantinople to LA
Various aspects of modern diasporan theater go back to the beginnings of Western Armenian theatre nearly two centuries ago. Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for playwriting “The Farewells” and directing “Three Hotels”.
He pointed out the main three centuries of Western Armenian theatre in “Asbarez” magazine: “From Constantinople to LA”.
Constantinople – 19th century
The first professional Armenian team was created by Mgrdich Beshigtashlian and Srabion Hekimian. They were the founders of the Eastern theater.
The early 1860s were the phenomenal years for the Eastern theater, which possessed a wide list of historical plays. In the late 1860s, a producer named Hagop Vartovian founded the Ottoman theater. His venue, the Gedikpasha Theater, was the largest of its kind in Constantinople.
Over the course of the following decades, Vartovian staged 200 productions in Armenian and Turkish. Those plays consisted of historical plays, melodramas, comedies, and operettas – many of them in translation.
Seeral Armenian prolific playwrights were there during this era including Bedros Tourian, who is best remembered today as a poet. 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.
Just after three decades, Western Armenian theater in Constantinople basically came to a halt because of government bans in 1880.
Beirut – 20th century
The western dialect of Armenian became the language of the Diaspora in the post-Genocide era. Theater in that dialect generated in communities and was spread across the globe.
Diasporan theater in the 20th century, however, was at its prime in Beirut, where Hamazkayin flashed a mark with its formidable ensemble, the Kasbar Ipegian Theater Company.
Ipegian staged his first play in Beirut in 1931 – an extraordinary performance considering that the Armenian community in Lebanon was the product of a recent genocide. In Beirut, the plays were not limited to patriotic fare or light like it had been in Constantinople.
Unfortunately, its development was prevented by civil war and an ever-dwindling Armenian population.
Los Angeles – 21st century
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 blooming theater scene in both dialects. 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.
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. That all happens through the work of producers.
Theatre is not a solitary art form like writing a novel or painting a canvas. It requires producers who can provide the necessary infrastructure to stage plays. Producers need to develop strategic plans that contemplate the growth of Western Armenian theatre so that each success leads to a greater one.
Names That Should Be Remembered
No theatre would be created without the masters who worked to set the name of the building where they established their theatrical life. A few names are not enough to give the whole image of theatrical people, especially in those times.
One of the most interesting actresses who toured around Bulgaria, Greece, Egypt, was Siranush. Her acting career began in Tbilisi. She soon got the part of Ophelia and became an irreplaceable partner of Hamlet Adamyan.
Siranush did not limit herself to similar roles, but she played a wide variety of characters. This decision of hers was not always supported by the audience.
Another representative of great acting was Vahram Papazyan who achieved global fame for playing Othello. Armenians are proud to name those actors who took the responsibility of showing the world Armenians’ names and rich culture.
It is very important to mention the founders of theatre: Hakob Vardovyan, Petros Adamyan, Gabriel Sundukyan. Also, it is of great honor to mention that alongside with Greece, Armenia has the most ancient theatre in the world.
A Theatre Critic About Armenian Theatre
Theatre critics have written so many reviews about Armenian theatre, one of them being Mehdi Nasiri, a critic for theatre magazines in Tehran.
He starts his speech by first of all pointing the role of Christianity among Armenians, most importantly about its significant influence in Armenian theatre.
Even today, theatre and religion are closely intertwined. Numerous plays deal with religious subjects including Armenian religious history as a whole.
Mehdi found very important the role of music in Armenian plays, as producers wishing to attract local audiences tend to include music in their productions.
On the more spectacular side is Armenian ballet and opera plays, where we can heavily see the influence of Russian styles, but still, the Armenian approaches remain. Theatres in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and even Georgia have utilized Armenian connections in their own developing styles.
Mehdi says “In Armenia, the playwright is always the most important element in the theatrical event, even more so than the director, a clear difference between the Armenian theatre and other theatres in Europe today.”
Armenian Theatre was a unique icon in every period of time, and its transformation into what it is now is not surprising. Today, the lifestyle of theatre differs from the past, it is more developed and is partially changed.
There are many theatres in Yerevan that undoubtedly all have their permanent audience and popularity: the Sundukian Theater, the Dramatic Theater, the Paronian Comedic Theater, the Yerevan State Chamber Theater, the Stanislavsky Russian Drama Theater, the Theater of Mime, the State (Tumanyan) Puppet Theater, the Yerevan Musical Theatre, the Yerevan Opera and Ballet Theater.
Architecture, music, poetry and finally theatre are all various and integral branches of Armenian culture. Today, the theatrical life is very different and more developed.
This proves the way of creating plays, the actors’ way of thinking and even the audience. Along with culture, the society also has an important role. Armenians believe that “What is old is gold” and based on the old, it is possible to create the new.
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