Richard Kalinoski

For Kalinoski, the Play’s the Thing

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OSHKOSH, Wis. — Richard Kalinoski is not Armenian, yet three of his works — including the most famous — deal with tragic chapters of Armenian history.

“I’m proud of each one of them,” he said in a recent interview.

One, the multi-award-winning “Beast on the Moon,” written and performed hundreds of times since 1995, has been translated into more than a dozen languages. It deals with the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, when many young women became picture brides and married men they had not set eyes on in the US or Europe.

A subsequent play, “My Genius of Humanity,” regards the nergakht, or repatriation of the 1930s and 1940s, when Soviet Armenia presented itself as heaven on earth for Diasporan Armenians. Thousands of Armenians from all over the world flocked to Soviet Armenia, only to be regarded with suspicion, have their money confiscated or even exiled to Siberia to work in gulags.

The play just finished an acclaimed production in Oshkosh.

A scene from “Beast on the Moon” (Scott Rylander photo)

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Kalinoski is a prolific writer, with several plays to his credit — about 23, adding that between “8-10 are viable.”

In a recent interview from his office at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, where he had been a director and resident playwright since 1998 (he just retired), he spoke about his writing process, as well as his connection with Armenian history and passion for writing about it.

Kalinoski said that he started to write plays in his teens and never stopped.

He studied at the UW-Whitewater. “I was an English major but had the opportunity to study part of the summer at Oxford University. … There were two areas we were studying: 17th century poetry and the play King Lear. I took part in an outdoor reading of ‘King Lear’ and I told myself if Shakespeare could write plays, so could I,” he said with a chuckle.

Returning as a junior, he wrote a play called “Lifetime,” about a generational battle between a father and son. “I submitted that play and another that I wrote as well, I submitted to Carnegie Mellon University and they accepted me into their graduate program in playwriting.”

“The last 30 years have been rewarding” in terms of creativity, he said.

Between 1973 and 1979, Kalinoski was married to an Armenian-American woman. “She wasn’t particularly interested in Armenian history, which is slightly ironic, but I was,” he noted.

One play he wrote about Armenians in America in a small community, “inspired by her grandparents, both of whom had survived the genocide,” helped him get into graduate school at Carnegie Mellon College “They [her grandparents] weren’t desperately old, but they were older,” he said. “My former wife’s grandfather established himself in a business in Racine, Wis. but he never learned to speak English. But his wife did and I spent a lot of time with her.”

He continued, “They had children. The children eventually became adults and the adult children helped him out. He knew a few words but I have an image of him walking around the yard and grumbling in Armenian.”

“I’ve always looked at the Armenian struggle from a little more distance than a lot of Armenians because they have a different kind of emotional investment in it,” he said, such as “what happened to their parents or grandparents. If my plays are successful with audiences, it’s because I make the assumption that American audiences know nothing about Armenians. I think that’s mostly true. I have a whole lot of students who don’t know that Armenians are actually Armenians.”

“Beast on the Moon,” of course, is his most famous play. It has been translated into at least thirteen languages and has had long runs at theatres in Athens, Moscow (the Moscow Art Theatre), Buenos Aires, London and New York. In March 2010, “Beast” was installed as part of the permanent repertory of the Tallinn City Theatre, Estonia. In France, its success has been even more stellar; there have been several productions of the play in France including winning several Moliere awards in 2001, more than any other play.

Kalinoski said, he had researched the issue a long time. “I came upon the notion of an Armenian orphan girl, which is of course based on reality, in Istanbul, sometime after the cover of World War I or after, there were orphanages/holding places for orphan girls who were Armenian. Over time, I learned that some of these orphan girls were understood to be potential picture brides, who might in effect be imported to be a bride in the US,” he said. “My energy was all about the courage of this young woman.”

He noted that he ended up creating that character, Seta, by reading about accounts of real-life picture brides.

“While there was no individual person I was able to identify and know about,” he said, Seta is created out of “generalized historical accounts.”

The age difference (15-year-old Seta and 23-year-old Aram) is a little unnerving. “In the play Seta is befuddled by the whole business, by how she got there. Aram, her would-be husband, is an industrious young man and he manages to find a way to bring her to the US and has expectations of her which initially are at least uncomfortable for her. I think the play does a fairly good job in showing that.”

He continued, “The play shows it takes years for this couple to come together.”

Kalinoski said he is expecting to receive confirmation that the play will have a new production in Paris in French.

Actress Andrea Uppling

‘My Genius of Humanity’

“My ‘Genius of Humanity,’” he said, is his most recent play on the Armenian experience and one which is undergoing further honing with different performances. It is about the Davidian family as they repatriate to Armenia from Michigan and get the shock of a lifetime. The matriarch, Nina, had lost her father to the Genocide and wanted to reclaim her heritage and homeland. Little could she and her family have imagined that they would be saying goodbye to any comfort and would need to fight for survival every day.

“In some ways I think ‘My Genius of Humanity’ is as good as ‘Beast on the Moon,’ Kalinoski said.

He said that the play came to be through a result of in-depth interviews with survivors of the experience.

The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh recently put together the play, starring a former student and current Chicago actress, Andrea Uppling.

The play was staged in a hybrid format, in December, at the university’s Theater Department, with Kalinoski directing.

Since the production Kalinoski has been further honing the play, something he said is typical for a new play, when the words on the page come to life.

“It’s pretty fundamental to have it acted. In fact, 98 percent of the time, that’s really the starting place, usually starting with the reading,” Kalinoski said.

The first reading of the “Genius” happened in Fresno but then Covid hit and everything shut down. “The Theater is still trying to recover,” he said.

“Long story short, some 20 plus years when I started, I had a very talented student. I recruited her,” he said, a Chicago-based actress.

“She is remarkable. For me, it was transforming. The length and breadth of the main character, Nina Davidian, was shown because of her powerful performance,” he said. “I always want to give actors credit.”

In written answers, Uppling said, “As a 2001 graduate of the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, I met Richard Kalinoski as a student in the Theatre Department. I was cast in the first play that he directed there. It was “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and I played the role of Candy. It was a very exciting time for our Theatre Department to have such a distinguished and celebrated playwright as our professor. It was only through reading Richard’s play, “Beast on the Moon,” that I became aware of the atrocities of the Armenian Genocide. It became a lesson for me as to the impact the arts have in bringing awareness to histories that should never be forgotten and the power that art can have in expanding our breadth of understanding. It was only, again, now 21 years later, through reading and participating so intimately in ‘My Genius of Humanity’ that I learned about, as you so eloquently stated, ‘this chapter in history where many diasporan Armenians returned to the Soviet Union to live in their ancestral homeland only to enter a hellish reality.’ Richard, once again, shed further light into an already dark and ugly corner of history.”

As for “Genius,” she said, “You ask me, ‘What have you taken away from your work in the play?’ I can only humbly respond from an actor’s point of view. The circumstances given to Nina, the Mother, Wife, Daughter that she is, can only be likened to the Greek Tragedies or heightened circumstances of a Shakespearean play. The pain, loss, love, mourning, searching, betrayal, devastation, and, finally, reclamation and redefining of home for Nina, and this family, goes beyond comprehension and yet it is all based in facts. As an artist, I feel that we unite our world through storytelling. Storytelling calls upon our divine thread: empathy. No one can deny the heartbreak of this story nor its fighting spirit. For me, those who watch or perform in it, all become Armenians in a collective cry and the triumph of spirit that lives on.”

Uppling is a 2001 UW Oshkosh graduate having received a BFA in Theatre and Communications. She is currently in Chicago, performing with local theater companies including with the Invictus Theater and Storefront Theater, where she starred in their recent production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

The recent production of the “Genius” at Oshkosh got standing ovations every night.

“A play comes about for me if there is something that I can’t identify in a character where that character’s moral center is tested. I am always looking for characters whose dilemmas are considerable, who inspire me to pursue even further what their dilemmas are,” he said.

Kalinoski is also going to do a fundraiser to see if he can stage “Genius” again, this time as a full production.

Kalinoski’s third Armenian-themed play is “A Crooked Man,” based on Soghomon Tehlirian’s assassination of Talaat Pasha in Berlin.

“Instead of just documenting it, I decided to write a fictionalized play on that. It’s about an elderly, Armenian man who is very stubborn, does not have dementia but he is also not taking very good care of himself at his home and his daughter is trying to get him to agree to find some level of comfort in his life. He resist it. Ultimately his grandson befriends him,” he said.

In the play, the older man has a habit of going up on the roof, one which is not particularly safe. “The character is very idiosyncratic and vexing for the audiences but I think it’s a viable play.”

In addition, he has two newer plays that have similar themes, this time American football.

“They couldn’t be more different,” he said.

A scene from “Beast on the Moon”

‘Front Room’

There is a production pending of “Front Room” in Kosovo in February, about a mother-daughter . Mother is a hoarder and is unable to see the consequences of her hoarding. She and her daughter, a theater professor, “have this terrible love-hate relationship and the play explores that relationship.”

Along the way, in the play, the daughter finds a love interest and her mother tries to sabotage the relationship.

Again, the play came from Kalinoski’s life. “That play was very directly influenced by my wife’s mother. We were dating for 20 years and finally married in August 2022.”

He added, “There is seemingly no answer and I am fascinated by it. I have had to deal with the consequences of it.”

Kalinoski has taught theater or drama “most of my entire adult life,” he said. He was born and raised in Racine, Wis., and as a teenager was “obsessed” with playing basketball “but I was also writing poetry. Usually the two things don’t necessarily mesh.”

To find out more about Kalinoski and his works, visit www.richardkalinoski.com.

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