Michael Barakiva

Michael Barakiva: Writer, Director, Maker of Feasts

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YEREVAN/NEW YORK — Director, writer, producer Michael Barakiva of Israeli-Armenian descent, was born in Haifa, Israel and grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. He attended Vassar College, and Juilliard School as an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Directing. In 2014, he published his first young-adult novel, One Man Guy, and its stand-alone sequel, Hold My Hand (2019). Other writings include The Nature of Things, Paradise Lost and Stringy Theory (co-author). He served as the artistic director of the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, NY from 2013-2020. Michael is the founding artistic director of the Upstart Creatures theatre company. As a stage director, Michael has worked all over the US and world staging classics and developing new work (“Moriarty,” “Into the Woods,” “Perfect Arrangement,” “Up,” “Chicago,” “In Every Generation,” “The Clean House,” “A Doll’s House Part 2,” “White People,” “Blithe Spirit,” “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Seagull,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” “Stage Blood,” etc.).

Dear Michael, a couple of years ago I read your play, The Nature of Things.” There are lots of interesting things – philosophical thoughts of the heroes, various relationships, but I could not imagine it on the stage. I understand your intention is not to write a historical play, yet the usage of historical terms and Latin phrases made me check them all the time. What the spectators will do?

I find that I love using lots of languages in the things that I write, probably because the house in which I grew up was full of many languages. My parents would switch back and forth between English and Hebrew all the time, and use French when they did not want the kids understand what they were saying (my sister would study French, in no small part, I am sure, to decode our parents). My mother spoke Armenian with her family, and there were always phrases from Arabic thrown in. My husband is also a polyglot: Spanish, English, French, Italian, Russian, and now Portuguese.

Which is all to say – I hope I have written that play in a way that you do not need to understand the Latin to enjoy it in the play.

Your biography says that your established non-profit theatre company, The Upstart Creatures, presents (meta)physical feasts, feeding bodies and souls. Could you please explain it a bit? I understand theatre nourishing souls, but also bodies?

I would be delighted to! The Upstarts presents readings of texts from historically excluded artists, and we make multi-course, gourmet meals inspired by the material. Then we serve it all for free in the Metro Baptist Church off of Times Square. They are wonderfully, loving, community-building events.

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In literature and theatre, you inspired from old Greek myths (“Stringy Theory), ancient Roman poetry (The Nature of Things” according to Lucretious), medieval English literature (“Paradise Lost”). Might it happen one day you will be inspired by Armenian myths and literature?

I very much hope so! A re-telling of how Armenia was the first nation to convert to Christianity is a key passage in my second book, “Hold My Hand.” What books about Armenian mythology would you recommend I read?

I will recommend some of course. Michael, your novels are the first young adult novels featuring an Armenian protagonist and a queer Armenian protagonist. It is interesting what was the reaction of the Armenian audience sensitive for queer matters?

The reaction, as I’m sure you can imagine, ran the gamut. J. P. Der Boghossian, who runs the Queer Armenian Library reached out to me early on and was invaluable in connecting me to other writers who are both Armenian and queer. Arno Yeretzian runs Abril Bookstore in Los Angeles, and he’s been kind enough to host readings of both my books there. It’s been amazing to be connected to the queer Armenian community, and find organizations like GALA.

I’ve also been deeply moved by how people from other Christian denominations and other faiths altogether have reached out to me to share their own stories of reconciling their queerness with their religion. Hold My Hand has a substantial plotline in which Alek, the queer Armenian protagonist, goes through this journey.

For many people of Jewish-Armenian extraction, unfortunately, the Shoah and the genocide are the crucial components of their identity. Is it true also for you?

I think it is, but I do not necessarily find it unfortunate. It is a lot to carry around, for sure, but I think it also gives me a keener sense of social justice, greater empathy, and the ability to be an ally for other groups. I also think it is important to find the joy in the identities that transcend the trauma — like food!

Your mother’s last name is Boghossian. What is her family history? Do you intend to write it one day?

My mother’s family fled Turkey during the genocides, when my grandmother was just a baby, and ended up in Palestine. (Nana’s (granny’s) family, Yalenezian, was from Adana (southern Turkey). Dede’s (grandy’s) was from Kayseri in Central Anatolia. I would very much like to write that history one day, but even more, hope that my mother will write it.

Are you in touch with Armenians and have you ever been in Armenia?

I have never been to Armenia, but very much want to go. As does my husband! He’s traveled most of the world, and I would say that his desire to go will probably be the thing that inspires me and my family to finally make the trip.

You call yourself an avid food-lover and maker. Do you have any preferred Armenian and Jewish foods?

As anyone who read my first book One Man Guy will tell you, stuffed grapevine leaves are my favorite of the traditional Armenian dishes. My mother makes bureks from scratch – the spinach and cheese ones I can eat all day long. It is hard for me to keep baklava (with pistachios, of course) in the house because the temptation to eat it is so great. And I was just talking yesterday about how much I want to perfect my lahmajoun.

Being from Israel and spending my adult life in New York City, also gives me a love for the Ashkenazi Jewish culinary tradition: brisket, latkes, lox, kugel.

It is said you routinely cooked dinner for 100+. How so?

Through the Upstart Creatures events!

At the end I would like to know what you consider in your person typical Jewish and typical Armenian?

It is so hard for me to separate these. For most of us, I think, the household we grow up in is the norm, and it is not until decades later that you try to sort out how your childhood was different than other people’s. The Armenian side of my family are the aesthetes. The Jewish side of my family is where I can my work ethic. Together, they have produced me and my unlikely life: as a writer, a stage director, and a maker of feasts. I could not imagine it any other way, nor would I have it any other way!

Thank you for your answers, Michael! I hope we will meet in Yerevan in near future!

What fun to have this interview! I am sending you all my love and hope that the current horrible situation in Armenia corrects itself very soon.

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