Jan Balakian: Praising American Playwrights


By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — Jan Balakian, professor of English at Kean University in New Jersey, teaches and writes about literature, specializing in American drama. One of her screenplays was made into a movie, her essays about American plays appear in the Cambridge Companion series, and she has just published a trade book about the plays of playwright Wendy Wasserstein with Applause Cinema and Theatre Books. She also happens to be a member of the same Balakian family that has produced many Armenian intellectuals over the past few generations.

While she occasionally has had the opportunity to write her own plays, Balakian’s primary career and livelihood have been in academia: “Academic writing is analytical, while creative writing comes from the heart. In order to advance my academic career, I needed to do scholarship. Now that I’ve finished a scholarly book, I’d like to try my hand at some creative work. I hope that I can write something that resonates with peoples’ lives.”

In the classroom, there is the thrill every year of watching some students take off: “The most exciting part about teaching are those class discussions where the students are on fire. It happens with Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House,’ Miller’s ‘[Death of a] Salesman’ and August Wilson’s ‘Fences.’ It does not happen often, but when it does, it’s exhilarating.”

Furthermore, Balakian found a subject that she loves — modern American drama: “In graduate school, I was amazed that academics did not regard American plays as worthy of study as they did the novel and poetry. After all, a dramatic text begins with words on a page which become a social event when performed. It’s really an amazing thing — everyone sitting together in the dark to watch a story unfold.”

She has interviewed and written about Arthur Miller, Wendy Wasserstein and Eugène Ionesco (while studying in Paris her junior year in college) and has written about the plays of Tennessee Williams, situating their plays in cultural context.

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From Miller to the Greeks and Back

Balakian’s dissertation at Cornell University (1991) explored the evolution of Arthur Miller’s dramaturgy from 1947 to 1991. “Those early plays grabbed me, because they are about the one person who has the courage to stand up to injustice. Most of us are too afraid of the consequences or are swept away by social pressures.”

Studying Miller led Balakian to understand Ibsen and the Greeks, who influenced him — especially the ideas that “your character is your fate,” and that “all great plays are about how to make of the outside world a home.”

Miller’s plays educated Balakian about playwriting, and how to structure action — “Though I still am trying to figure out how to do it the way Miller does!” This aesthetic approach was considered old fashioned in the 1990s, but it served Balakian well as a teacher of college students.

There is also an Armenian element to the Arthur Miller story. “I can’t believe that Miller was gracious enough to allow me two long interviews. After the one in Manhattan, which was an overview of his newer work, he invited me out to his place in Roxbury, Conn., where we discussed the new plays in detail.” In order to thank Miller, Balakian invited him to lunch at the Ararat restaurant, the only Armenian restaurant in Manhattan in 1990. “When we arrived, belly dancers were rehearsing their
evening gig, and so they were not serving lunch. I whispered to the owner, ‘But I have Arthur Miller here.’ And the doors opened. There was Arthur Miller chewing on shish kebab with belly dancers swirling around him.”

There is also Miller’s political involvement as president of PEN, the world’s oldest international literary and human rights organization. Miller and fellow playwright Harold Pinter traveled to Turkey to free imprisoned writers.

“Throughout his life, he pursued justice,” and so whenever I face a difficult, moral decision, I ask myself, “What would Miller do?”

Wendy Wasserstein

Balakian’s most recent book is Reading the Plays of Wendy Wasserstein: “I wanted to write about a contemporary American woman playwright with whom I could speak, and Wasserstein was right here in New York City. Her writing about the American women’s movement during the transitional period of the second half of the 20th century interested me.”

Wasserstein’s style is comedic and she writes for commercial Broadway audiences. Balakian explores Wasserstein’s seven plays: “The plays are the reflection of a whole society — its psychology, sociology, history, economics, gender, race and class. To understand Wasserstein’s plays, I needed to research the women’s movement, Beaux Arts architecture, Jefferson Airplane, the Reagan era, John Lennon, the collapse of communism, the Gilded Age and on and on. It was a fun exercise.”

She learned more about the difficulties American women had faced in the past decades: “I’m embarrassed to say that I did not realize how much inequality there was and continues to be. Growing up in the ’70s in New Jersey, I did not feel discriminated against…. But how is it possible that women still do not make the same salaries as men for the same work? Like racism, sexism seems impossible to erase.”

Balakian had started her book in the early 1990s, and had interviewed Wasserstein a number of times, but put the book aside to work on a screenplay. When Wasserstein passed away in 2006, her papers were sent to Mount Holyoke College. And so Balakian headed to the archives in South Hadley, Mass.: “It was like being in a candy shop. I read drafts, notebooks and letters,
which I could incorporate into the book. Those primary sources made the book come alive.”

Handwritten pages from Wasserstein’s notebooks and personal letters about the plays from Frank Rich and Betty Friedan are reproduced in the book. Balakian’s interviews with the playwright’s classmates, playwright Chris Durang and director Dan Sullivan further illuminate Wasserstein’s concerns. Wasserstein dramatizes the desire of some Jewish-Americans to assimilate. “I think that earlier generations of ethnic Americans wanted to be American. It was certainly that way at the Balakians’ in Tenafly, NJ.”

Jan’s older brother, Peter Balakian, describes his experience of being Armenian-American in his prize-winning memoir, The Black Dog of Fate. Jan Balakian had the same suburban, American childhood, with an emphasis on family, friends, sports and school. “The love of sports must be in the genes,” she felt, because her father’s mother was a physical education teacher before coming to the United States. At one point, Jan Balakian’s father — the inventor of the first electrolyte drink, Sportade, in 1969 — sometimes suggested she become a physical education teacher herself. Her first job, as an English teacher and tennis coach at The Peddie School, combined both of her interests.

The difference in age and birth order among the four siblings led to some  different experiences. Growing up in the 1960s-’70s, Jan Balakian was too young to have had much contact with her grandparents: “The only one remaining
was my mother’s mother (my namesake, Nafena), and I was pretty little when she passed away.” Thus, she had much less knowledge of things Armenian than her brothers and sister. “My parents encouraged us to be American. And we
similarly encouraged them; I remember buying my father a pair of Levi’s, so he would look really American. And as the fourth kid, even church wasn’t mandatory any more.”

Armenian was not spoken much at home, except as a means of keeping secrets from the children. Armenian foods were the only part of the culture that remained alive for her, though she has some vivid Armenian memories: “I do remember Archbishop [Tiran] Nersoyan coming for dinner. And, I was the first one to be baptized in St. Thomas [Armenian Church] in 1961. I also remember the music, the incense and the opening and closing of the curtain. Maybe that was my first introduction to theater.”

Family and Ancestry

Despite being raised thoroughly American, the influences of family and ancestry periodically emerge in Balakian’s work. Family certainly was crucial in her career trajectory.

Balakian explains: “I’m sure that if I had not been exposed to my aunts, Anna, who was a professor of French literature at NYU, Nona, who was a literary critic for The New York Times, and my brother Peter, a poet, Genocide scholar and professor at Colgate, I would not have taken this route. But I equally admire my family members who work in finance and business. Without money, art could not be produced. (I also think you work better when you eat really good food!)”

Family also brought her to Armenian themes and other Armenians. Balakian remembers seeing William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life” and finding it exciting. She teaches this play to students now, and after lecturing on it at the
American Literature Association last year, wonders if she might publish it as the introduction to a new edition of the play. She met Saroyan as a teenager at one of Nona’s literary soirees on 116th Street in Manhattan. “Nona embarrassed
me by introducing me as a writer, so I said, ‘I’m not really a writer.’ Saroyan responded, ‘None of us are really writers.’ That put me at ease.” Later, her older brother Peter encouraged Balakian to write her college senior thesis on Saroyan’s plays.

As an undergraduate at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Penn. (attending Bucknell practically was a family tradition started by her mother, who earned a BA. in chemistry in 1948), Jan Balakian wrote her first short story, “Meeting
with the Archbishop,” during an independent study course with Prof. Jack Wheatcroft. The story, about coming home from swim practice and meeting the archbishop, won Bucknell’s Julia Fonville Smith prize. A 1985 trip with the Balakian family while in graduate school, to Soviet Armenia, however, did not feel like a return home: “After all, I’m a Jersey girl. It felt exotic and it was beautiful.”

Instead, it was her older brother, Peter’s, exploration of his Armenian heritage in his poetry (and later in his memoir) which “cracked open our family history” — that most of her maternal grandmother’s family had been killed in the Armenian Genocide. Consequently, while in graduate school Jan Balakian wrote two plays, “The Ceiling Will Open” and the sequel, “Home.” In the first play, which won Cornell’s playwriting award, a brother and sister of Armenian background discover their family history — their grandmother is having a breakdown because she imagines the Genocide is happening again. The prize was a check and a concert reading, directed by Irene Lewis from Baltimore Stage.

“Producers tried to take the play off-Broadway, but it never happened.Arthur
Miller was kind enough to read it and encouraged me, but you can tell it’s a first play.”

Incidentally, the producer of the 2001 movie “Everyone’s Depressed” wanted Jan Balakian to make the protagonist of her screenplay Armenian for the sake of uniqueness, something she was not eager to do “because everyone would think it’s about me.” But the producer won and the main character is Prof. Sophia Hagopian.

Just starting her career, Sophia faces anxieties about her work, and her undergraduate students have their own troubles, all of which the study of literature helps overcome. Balakian feels that “as much as external forces are problems, I’ve always been convinced that people’s internal struggles are often more debilitating than the external ones.” The New Jersey Mental Health Association  awarded the screenplay its Golden Bell prize in 2005. For the occasion, Balakian gave a lecture about the importance of mental health. She feels so strongly about this issue that she is running races to raise money for Columbia University’s mental health research.  “Everyone’s Depressed” is available on NetFlix, but still needs a distributor.

Balakian is organizing an international conference on American drama this fall at Kean University, in conjunction with Kean’s production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” In addition to featuring prominent scholars on American theater, it will include playwright Emily Mann, and if she can find sufficient funding, other major contemporary American playwrights like Amiri Baraka, Donald Margulies, David Henry Hwang, Anna Deveare-Smith and Leslie Ayvazian. She is applying for a grant from the NJ Humanities Council and keeping her fingers crossed.

After the conference, Balakian wants to write a play about a family vacationing in the Hamptons on the eve of the 2008 US presidential election, and have the national conflict between conservatives and liberals resonate with family conflicts.

Experience has taught her an important lesson: “I’m not sure how or if I can write that play, but as I get older, I’m learning not to be afraid of not knowing how to do something. Working through uncertainty with patience is essential to creating anything, because you cannot see how it will turn out. It’s like driving on a dark road with no lights. She added, “I always open the first day of the semester by
telling students, ‘there is no failure, except in not trying.’”

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