Sacramento theater audiences can welcome back an old friend this weekend as writer-director Aram Kouyoumdjian returns with a new play. His “Happy Armenians” will open for a two-weekend, six-performance run at California Stage.
Kouyoumdjian, who now lives in Los Angeles, founded and led the Sacramento-based Vista Players between 1999 and 2004. The classy company elevated community theater to a professional level with crisp, intelligent, detail-oriented productions. To maintain quality, the company only once produced more than one show in a year. After an initial outing at the midtown Geery Theatre, Vista Players performed their shows at what was then the Actor’s Theatre of Sacramento on Del Paso Boulevard, now home to Big Idea Theatre.
Kouyoumdjian won Elly Awards for playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (Jon Robin Baitz’s “Three Hotels”), working with a consistent company of actors including Jan Ahders, J.D. Rudometkin, Blair Leatherwood and Claire Lipschultz.
The company also produced Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” Edward Albee’s “The Play About the Baby” and John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation.” Kouyoumdjian has revived Vista for “Happy Armenians,” again including managing director Ellen Riddell, who he claimed was “vital to its operations.” “Happy Armenians” had its world premiere at the NoHo Theater in Los Angeles in October, and the original cast members reprise their roles here.
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The idea for “Happy Armenians” came from Kouyoumdjian wanting to write something commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide without writing what he considered a “genocide play.”
The genocide carried out by the Ottoman Empire in what is now called Turkey began April 24, 1915, and continued through World War I and after with the systematic arrest and murder of male Armenians. Women, children and others were deported and forced to march into the Syrian desert. It is estimated there were more than 1 million victims.
“The notion (of the play) became this alternative version of Armenian history in which everything goes right,” Kouyoumdjian said. “That was the premise, and the challenge then became how do I convert a premise of that sort into an actual plot and a conflict?”
He decided in this alternative universe that Armenia would have become a modern-day empire. Europe has been colonized, the Aztecs never disappeared, and African nations have the global economic power. The Armenian empire has a king, but he is expected to die soon. His successor is his nearest blood relative, an average guy with no interest in being king.
“I wanted to look at our history through a different paradigm,” Kouyoumdjian said. “For those of us who’ve grown up under the shadow of the genocide as a defining moment in our history, we’ve come to think of it in tones of lament and grief. Even though memory and remembrance are important, it’s a question of how do we remember it now moving forward.”
Kouyoumdjian also wanted to create a theater piece of empowerment.
“When you meet Armenians like me who were born in Lebanon or Syria – we’re the descendants of genocide survivors who ended settling there after the forced deportations.”
Kouyoumdjian, who works as an attorney for the L.A. Unified School District, took his time pushing into the Los Angeles theater scene after moving back to where he was raised. He earned a master’s degree in English literature but always knew he’d return to the theater eventually.
“It’s a far, far more competitive market down here (Los Angeles), It’s harder to establish a presence,” he said. “So it wasn’t an immediate re-start or reboot of the theater activity, but I absolutely have the intention of recreating the Vista Players-caliber of work, and we have with the productions so far.”
The play was well-received in Los Angeles, which has a large Armenian population, and Kouyoumdjian is eager is see how it plays in his former home.
What: Playwright-director Aram Kouyoumdjian returns to Sacramento for the local premiere of his latest work, a joint production with California Stage Theater Company and Vista Players.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; through Feb. 28. No late seating will be allowed.
Where: Wilkerson Theater inside the R25 Arts Complex, 2509 R St., Sacramento
Information: www.calstage.org, 916-451-5822