Yerevan’s Hovhannes Tumanyan State Puppet Theater Visits East Coast

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By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

RICHMOND, Va. — For the first time ever, the Hovhannes Tumanyan State Puppet Theater of Yerevan visited the United States this January. Its East Coast performance tour began on January 20 at St. James Armenian Church here and continued to various Armenian churches and communities in Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Fair Lawn, NJ, New York City and White Plains, NY, as well as Boston and Providence. A five-member ensemble of the group, including its artistic director, performed Robert Arakelian’s short story, “The Birthday Gift,” in Armenian, and Hovhannes Tumanyan’s “The Foolish Man” in English with floor puppets. The initial presentation was directed in particular at younger children. The four actors of the ensemble also sang a medley of lively Armenian traditional and folk songs.

The Richmond premiere was well attended, with some 65 Armenians in the audience, including a strong contingent of children. St. James pastor, Fr. Mesrob Hovsepyan, introduced the performance, explaining the importance of introducing various aspects of Armenian culture to Armenian children (and adults) in the United States. Artistic director and theater manager Ruben Babayan coordinated the sound system for the performance, providing the background music and some prerecorded dialogue for the puppets.

The two stories had important moral messages for children. The animals of “The Birthday Gift” showed the importance of giving and not just receiving, while the famous Tumanyan short story, “The Foolish Man,” based on a folk story, depicted a man who was unable to recognize and take advantage of good fortune.

The puppeteers skillfully manipulated their charges, and spoke or lip-synched their dialogue distinctly. Though the English dialogue was understandable, one suggestion for improvement would be to correct some aspects of English pronunciation and style in the prerecorded portions.

The four principal puppet actors were Aghasi Melkonyan, Inga Zahalyan, Naira Hakobyan and Robert Sargsyan. The youthful Aghasi Melkonyan said in an interview that he fell in love with puppetry as a youth, and soon graduated the Puppet Institute in Yerevan. He has been working as part of the Tumanyan Puppet Theater for 16 years. While this may be his first visit to the United States, he has traveled a lot with the puppet ensemble to many other countries. In particular, he enjoys participating in international festivals, as he can learn a lot from other puppeteers there, both technically and stylistically.

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The Tumanyan Puppet Theater was founded in 1935 and has a building as its headquarters in Yerevan along with a distinguished history. With a large staff, its presentations can include as many as 17 performers.

Babayan said in an interview that he began working in the puppet theater from 1980 as head of its literary division and then as a stage director. In 1998 he became its chief artistic director and manager. The theater maintains a large permanent repertoire of 34 different pieces. They include both Armenian works and various famous international ones and represent all the types of puppetry art ranging from finger and hand puppets to marionettes. The theater has given presentations all over the world, in countries as distant as India or Kazakhstan. In these places, English only is used. Last year in 2011 it participated in seven international festivals.

Babayan teaches at Yerevan’s Theater and Film Institute where he holds a chair in Acting Skills and Production. He has prepared three generations of puppeteers who all are now working at his puppet theater. In general, there are a large number of young people working there.

Babayan said, “The theater changes with time and must always remain contemporary. At the same time, some of its presentations have continued in the repertory for 35 years. The stories of Tumanyan, Alexander Pushkin, Hans Christian Anderson, Shakespeare and others are classics, so the main changes in their productions are new actors.” However, Babayan pointed out, there is one chief aspect in his work that has changed: “The rhythm of the times has become more rapid and so the production must also become more condensed. For example, a trip to the United States used to take one month a century ago and now it is just a matter of hours. Staging cannot avoid taking this into consideration.”

This East Coast tour is a first in a number of aspects. Not only is it the first visit of the theater to the US, but this is the first time that it travels as the result of an invitation from Armenian communities. Babayan pointed out that while outside Armenia, its role is often to introduce Armenian culture to non-Armenians, though sometimes Armenians turn up at performances too. He related one amusing anecdote: “We primarily participate in international festivals. Last year we went to Hungary for a festival and performed. The festival director afterwards introduced himself and said that I am Armenian. He said that he was waiting to see how the performance would be before revealing that he is Armenian.”

Babayan felt that videos, films and modern technology have not lessened the value of puppet theater. Each time a new technology is introduced, people fear that older forms of art will die out. It was the same with theater when film was introduced, or film when television began to be available, yet these fears turned out to be largely unfounded. The live connection with an audience is unique.

The Republic of Armenia’s Ministry of Culture provided subventions for the East Coast tour of the theater. A number of local Armenians, Chuck Ashjian, Bedros Bandazian, Sam and Maral Haboush, Karen and Nouneh Karapetian and Harry Deloian, subsidized the Virginia performance, while local company Party Perfect donated the stage equipment for the performance.

For a video trailer of the show, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GkE9XQ2BQiQ. More information on the theater itself is available at www.armpuppet.am.

The group has the following performances: Fair Lawn, NJ, Saturday, January 28, 6 p.m., at St. Leon Armenian Church (karinekocharyan73@gmail.com); New York, NY, Friday, January 29, 3 p.m., St. Illuminator’s Cathedral, (gradaranik@gmail.com); Providence, Saturday, February 4, 6 p.m., sponsored by Sts. Sahag & Mesrob Armenian Church, Egavian Cultural Center and Watertown, Sunday, February 5, 3 p.m., Watertown Middle School, sponsored by the Erebouni Saturday School and Amaras Art Alliance(www.AmarasOnline.com).

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