Joe Assadourian (Photo credit Ben Mann)

Assadourian Goes From Hard Time to Stage Presence

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ORADELL, N.J. — Joe Assadourian is a hugger. He doesn’t offer a half-hearted greeting, but a tight embrace, holding on for a few seconds as if enveloping a long-lost friend. He hugs and talks to everyone, removing any barriers with strangers at first glance, bringing his street charm into an eclectic suburban coffee shop here in Northern New Jersey.

Perhaps it’s that genuine nature and heart-on-his-sleeve persona that made him popular on stage as he assumed 18 characters in his one-man show “The Bullpen,” which he wrote and performed in over the course of two years at the off-Broadway venue The Playroom Theater. The show, which earned accolades and was dubbed as “wildly funny” by the New York Times, is currently in the process of being filmed for a comedy special on cable television with producer Larry Meistrich (who was behind the Academy Award winning “Sling Blade”) at the helm.

“The Bullpen,” which focuses on a man’s arrest and arraignment as he awaits trial for a crime he claims he did not commit, incorporates a multitude of true-to-life characters surrounding the confined space inside the bullpen and the courtroom, is based on Assadourian’s personal experiences during his own arrest and subsequent trial in 2001. The play, which was nominated for the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Solo Performance, hit the stage in July 2014, a few months after his release, and extended its run numerous times.

While “The Bullpen” was billed as a “jail show” by the media, Joe counters that claim, clarifying that it is about people. He gives heart to fully fleshed characters on stage, particularly the accused man who is convicted of a crime and how he is judged both by a jury and fellow prisoners.

Joe Assadourian (New York Times)

“I got a PhD in people,” said Joe. “I been around a lot of different kinds of people and I absorbed them if they were interesting.”

A natural born performer, Joe inadvertently prepared for his career early on, growing up in industrial Paterson, New Jersey, where he was surrounded by individuals of all races. He always made it a point to observe and listen to the many dialects around him, particularly the Middle Eastern, African-American and Spanish populations he was immersed in. He emerged as a class clown, inciting laughter among his classmates, but facing a reprimand by his teachers and parents.

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“I used to get in trouble for the way I was in school,” said Joe who is now 40 years old. “But sometimes you can’t stop the energy that comes out because if there is some funny s***t going on, let’s laugh at it.”

As a teenager, Assadourian and his family moved to suburban Paramus, New Jersey, where he couldn’t shake off being entertainer, but didn’t take the craft seriously because he “didn’t know what to do or how to go about it.”

“A lot of people want to go into the industry,” said Assadourian. “Sure I thought about it but never took steps toward it.” His dreams, instead, revolved around becoming a baseball player.

Instead of developing his inherent charisma and talent, he started his own business in Fort Lee, NJ, after graduating from high school. He worked at the Palisades Grill during the day and at night crossed the bridge to go clubbing, a poster child of the New York City nightlife scene in the early aughts at venues such as the infamous Limelight.

When asked how it felt to create art during a challenging time in his life as a prisoner, his lighthearted and self-deprecating attitude kicks into gear.

“Is that the first mention of that today?” he asks with a smile. “You were holding onto that, weren’t you?”

Topics: Theater

He pauses for a moment.

“If I go there and do nothing, then the time was taken from me,” said Joe. “If I go there and better myself, then that’s my time that I’m taking back.”

A fateful night in downtown New York in 2001 changed the course of his life, putting a halt to his self-indulgent ways. After an altercation that became violent, Assadourian was charged with attempted murder, to which he plead not guilty; he was convicted of assault in the first degree, spending the next 12 years — and the chunk of his 20s and 30s — behind bars at the Otisville Correctional Facility in upstate New York. He reflects on the conviction as a turning point in his life.

“I didn’t get locked up,” said Assadourian with certainty. “I got rescued.”

If prison saved him from a potential life of crime, then the theatre workshop he enrolled in by writer and director Richard Hoehler at Otisville, gave his life its purpose. During his time in the penitentiary, Assadourian shifted his focus and began reading books while his street smarts kept him out of trouble as fellow inmates became entangled with gangs, like the notorious Bloods and the Crips. Partnering up with a fellow prisoner who became his friend, Joe started writing a play, though he had never seen one. The duo received back-to-back PEN Prison Writing Awards in 2002 for Heaven and in 2003 for Joey Shakespeare, a play that also became part of the New York Now reading series at The Public Theater, followed by a presentation by The Collective Theatre in Miami.

Assadourian felt ready to put pen to paper on his own and bring to life all the authentic characters who had seeped into his subconscious and whom he observed with a keen eye throughout his life, and particularly in prison, notating each detail carefully on a daily basis.

“Back then I used to walk around with a notebook in my pocket,” said Joe. “When I write anything, I pull out this book and see if there is anything applicable to what I’m working on.”

“The Bullpen” was the creation of Joe’s rich imagination and his stark reality as he seamlessly slips in and out of the 18 characters during the 65-minute non-stop performance, from a Latino to a Jamaican to an African-American, among many other vivid personalities, who were “inspired” by Assadourian’s time in prison.

“Don’t write the characters, become the characters,” he said. “That’s my motto because the audience is really smart.”

Although he wrote “The Bullpen” in two days, the editing and rewriting process, he says, “never stops.” Even during the show’s run, he continued to polish the script and change around a line or two in order to keep the material fresh. Released from prison a few days shy of his 36th birthday, he hit the ground running with rehearsals while securing a manager and agent, however nothing prepared him for his first live performance. On opening night of “The Bullpen,” Assadourian had trouble breathing before he stepped onto the stage.

“It was scary because I’ve never been in front of a crowd before and the first time I did it was in New York,” said Joe. “It felt like I was in freezing cold water that had gone into my lungs.” He remarked that all of his stage fright slipped away as soon as he delivered his first line, heeding the advice of one of his producers, who told him to remember that if the audience was any better, they would be the ones performing on stage.

The original run, which was supposed to last a month, ran on for almost two years, where day in and day out, Assadourian performed up to seven times a week. Although it was nerve wracking to perform in front of the public, he said he always appreciated the audience feedback, their energy, and the chance to connect with them after the show. Aside from the audience, critics also positively-reviewed “The Bullpen,” with the New York Times noting that it is an “extremely funny look at a particularly dreadful situation.”

After an initial successful run, he returned to the prison where he wrote the play, performing two shows for the inmates.

“I went there to do that for the guys,” said Assadourian, who returned a little over a year after his release. “You don’t want to leave there and be the same or worse so I really hope I inspired them.”

He also appreciated thinking on his feet and incorporating unscripted moments — like falling hard when he approached the stage — into the show and feeding off the laughter of the inmates.

“On stage if you make a mistake you have to keep going and make it part of the show because that is real acting,” said Joe. “It’s inorganic to be on a film set because you’re always waiting around on set and that’s less exciting than performing in the now in theater.” Assadourian understands why film stars return to the theater every year because it helps them sharpen their acting skills in front of a live audience, whereas filming becomes redundant and “even if it’s not stale coming out of my mouth, it’s stale in my head.”

Following the conclusion of “The Bullpen” at The Playroom Theater, Assadourian went on to star in the Amazon series “The Grind,” as well as assuming a role in the Showtime series “Billions,” and receiving his Screen Actors Guild membership. He remains committed to “The Bullpen,” and in addition to filming it for an upcoming comedy special, he continues to perform the show in exclusive appearances across the country, particularly at educational institutions, including Princeton, Rutgers and Baruch College. Writing is a steadfast portion of his daily life as he works on penning a television show.

“My mind won’t shut the f**k up,” said Assadourian. “Experience is everything.”

That experience is rooted in growing up in an Armenian household, shaping him as a person and as an artist.

“There’s a deep pride in me that I am Armenian,” said Assadourian. “I feel we have an obligation to ourselves and ancestors and while some people are letting it go, I can’t and I won’t.”

Acknowledging the parameters of any tight-knit ethnic community, he encourages Armenians to search for and excel at whatever it is he or she is passionate about.

“Do what you could possibly be great at, and I think we could all possibly be great at something, because it shouldn’t be work,” said Joe. “I’m fortunate I get to do what I do because if I went to work for someone else on a daily basis, I know I would be disappointed in myself.”

His craft and writing is inspired by “everyday people” and the likes of performers such as Eddie Murphy “who is great at every aspect, timing, delivery, mimicry and material.”

He hasn’t traveled to Armenia but yearns to journey there, saying it’s his “home.”

“Money is nothing, you can print that s**t” said Assadourian. “But land is priceless and nobody can give up that territory so that is on us to preserve.”

His grandparents were survivors of the Armenian Genocide and he is well-aware of their stories of survival. He recounts his grandfather’s determination to escape the massacres as a 15-year-old, gripping desperately onto a moving train, only to fall off and lose his hand. He eventually found refuge in Lebanon where he married his wife, also a genocide survivor, as they started a new life together.

As if feeling that suffering in his blood, Assadourian says that “pain builds you up over time” and serves as a drive to create.

“You get nothing from happiness except instant gratification,” said Assadourian. “These days kids are soft and they don’t know how to handle the smallest challenge.”

He draws a parallel to his grandparents, who at a young age had a completely different reality where they had to deal with gutting loss while also rebuilding their lives with virtually nothing. Parents to 11 boys, Assadourian’s father being one of them, they created a new Armenian family in Antelias, Lebanon, as his grandfather owned and operated a shoe store in the Armenian enclave of Bourdj Hammoud.

During the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s, Joe Assadourian’s parents immigrated to New Jersey, where he and his four siblings were born. His family history isn’t lost on him and perhaps he buried himself in humor to contrast the hardships of his ancestors.

“Ever since I was a kid, whether I knew it or not, I was performing so I have been training for this my whole life,” said Joe. “And to get paid to do what I love is the best thing in the world.”

He imparts words of wisdom as he looks forward to his own new beginnings.

“Confidence is more than half the battle,” said Joe. “You can have all the talent in the world but if you ain’t got no confidence, your talent won’t reach the ears or eyes of the audience.”

True to Hollywood form, Assadourian has rewritten the ending to his own story.

For more information about the actor, see http://www.joeassadourian.com/

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