Will Maizel as young Willie and Robert Walters as his brother, Henry, in "O, Bitlis"

Embracing Saroyan on His 110th Birthday

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LOS ANGELES — His Armenian identity was a paramount force in writer William Saroyan’s life, his stories and pages filled with characters, dialogues and themes that reflected his cultural values, mores and history. For the first time ever, Saroyan’s never-before-seen plays revolving around the Armenian national identity were staged for the public in a world premiere production by Elly Award-winning playwright and director Aram Kouyoumdjian on the occasion of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s 110th birthday at the Los Angeles Central Library’s Taper Auditorium on Saturday, September 15.

Spirited scenes from “The Armenian Play (or Opera),” “Home to Hayastan,” and “Ouzenk Choozenk Hai Yenk (Like It or Not, We’re Armenians),” were performed by Vista Players,  a non-profit theater company committed to staging contemporary works of social relevance. The feature cast of five performers, including Jade Hykush, Will Maizel, Bailey Sorrel and Robert Walters, portrayed 30 dynamic characters throughout a brisk 75-minute performance.

Will Maizel, Robert Walters, and Bailey Sorrel play various characters and share the role of narrator in “William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance”

Each scene was interwoven through narration that shed further light on the writer’s life and the themes he expressed through his plays, including immigrant life in the Diaspora, the Armenian Genocide and the idea of repatriation.

“The selection process and how to select and order the scenes presented were probably the biggest challenges of this whole project,” said Kouyoumdjian, in an exclusive interview. “I wanted the overall production to have a through-line and for there to be a progression in terms of the audience’s emotional experience.”

Kouyoumdjian, who was granted special permission by Stanford University (where Saroyan’s manuscripts are housed) to stage the excerpts from these plays, struck a balance between Saroyan’s dramaturgy and lighter comic touches throughout the performance.

“This is supposed to be a journey for the audience,” said Kouyoumdjian. “Our dialogue with these works is also important and how we are engaging on stage with these pieces.”

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Bridging together excerpts from the various plays, Kouyoumdjian created a running commentary and established a larger historical and cultural context for the motivations and emotions driving Saroyan’s work to further engage the audience with the theatrical experience.

Born and raised in Fresno at the turn of the 20th century, Saroyan was a reputable and groundbreaking writer in contemporary American literature, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his play, “The Time of Your Life,” which was published in 1939. Other notable works by him include the critically acclaimed collection of short stories, “My Name is Aram” and The Human Comedy, a novel Saroyan adapted for the silver screen, leading to an Academy Award. He wrote in all genres and forms, from short stories to novels to plays and memoirs over his five-decade career.

Will Maizel and Bailey Sorrel portray young Willie and his mother, Takoohi, in “William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance”

“Saroyan’s writing is both timeless and in some ways ahead of his time,” said Kouyoumdjian, who noted that Saroyan’s writing had elements of absurdism in the 1930s even before the label existed. “Many of the themes that I brought to the forefront, such as immigration, are issues we contend with today in our lives.”

Drawn to Saroyan’s work early on, Kouyoumdjian knew he wanted to focus his master’s thesis on drama that related to Armenian-American literature, digging deep into Saroyan’s works and “learning that there was this treasure trove of unpublished works I thought needed to be explored.”

A recurring theme that coursed through the unpublished passages that resonates with Armenians today is the relationship between the Diaspora and the homeland and the hand it plays in shaping national identity. The production brought to life scenes of Saroyan’s family on Ellis Island after having left their ancestral home in Bitlis, their aching for home after settling in Northern California, and contending with the death of Saroyan’s minister father when the writer was just a toddler, forcing his mother to place him and his two siblings in an orphanage until she found work.

“Armenians have sort of developed a rather Jingoistic version of Saroyan but as these unpublished works show, there are a lot of conflicting thoughts he grapples with in terms of identity, the impact of the genocide, attitude towards Turkish denial and notions of repatriation,” Kouyoumdjian said.

Topics: Theater

Saroyan’s voice is one that transcends to the present day and continues to be discovered by individuals of all generations and backgrounds who maintain a connection with him as he himself unearths his own self and thoughts through his words.

“Saroyan is encountering and facing these rather difficult topics and not necessarily coming up with easy answers,” said Kouyoumdjian. “Because of this, audiences can find another side to him through his works.”

The production, which was underwritten by the George Ignatius Foundation and donors from the Armenian community, was presented as part of the Central Library’s “L.A. Made” series and was co-sponsored by Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Krekorian, who was in attendance with his wife, Tamar.

“William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance” will perform at the UC Center in Fresno, on September 28; at the University of California Irvine in Orange County on October 6; and at the Ararat Eskijian Museum in Los Angeles on October 7. All performances are free and open to the public.

-Taleen Babayan

 

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