A Review of “On Air”

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My new play, On Air, which I blogged about earlier this summer, received a wonderful production at Scripps Ranch Theatre, San Diego, in July 2016, produced by Robert May.

I’m happy to feature here a review of the play by San Diego-based writer, artist and professor Mindy Donner.


ON AIR
Scripps Ranch Theatre (SRT) presents the 5th Annual OUT ON A LIMB:
New Plays from America’s Finest City 2016

ON AIR is one of those plays informed by and telling about the Viet Nam War
era, and they get it right! “They” are the powerful playwright, Lisa Kirazian; director,
Liz Shipman; their fine cast, and the tech folks at Scripps Ranch Theatre.
The plot takes us along the journey of a dedicated educator, writer and on-air
producer of a reader’s theater hour at a local east county, San Diego radio station. The
entire production echoes and amplifies the eidetic quality of the writing, and that of our
central character, Gary Gordian, a community college professor who believes not only in
his students, but in the transformational possibilities inherent in delving into great works
of literature.

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Gary Gordian’s character and story is based upon and inspired by a real-life Gary
and his wife, Siran. Francis Gercke’s Gary was so believable and passionate that I could
hardly believe he was cast just two weeks prior to the opening. This is a great love story:
the love of Gary for Siran, a poetic seamstress who emigrated from Beirut; her love for
Gary and family; and Gary’s love of teaching the great books to a cadre of students
with limited resources. Siran, as played by Mariel Shaw, is graceful in all aspects,
shimmers with an ethereal beauty and has a core made of steel.

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Throughout the play, the pervasive thread is that of Gary longing for “greatness”–
to be a successful writer, to teach at Berkeley, to earn a real salary–and that of Siran’s
longing for home and family–her need to stay in one place close to extended family.
Siran’s rather old-world brother, Van, is asked to not visit after a boorish evening at
dinner at which he orders his sister around and around! Van is performed by Carlos
Angel-Barajas, who takes another turn as Juan, a Spanish writer with whom Gary has a
meaningful correspondence. While Juan is a more empathetic character, it is revealed
that Van wanted to be a priest, rather than a banker. No character is allowed to be one dimensional in this production.

And that is not the only relationship which becomes strained and frayed—Gary’s
“friend” at the college warns him that he is up for review and suspected of altering
students’ grade in order to give them a military deferment. Charles Peters is jocular and
almost despicable as Ben, fellow professor—who is on the make with his female
students. Gary’s radio station threatens to cut his show, as the listening audience for
“great books” in San Diego is on the wane. Disillusionment threatens to take over Gary’s
soul, if not livelihood.

The stage, which is long and shallow, is deftly designed into smaller focus areas
which become Gary’s college office with desk, his tiny writing study, the Gordian’s living
room, and offstage is quite believable as their bedroom. This suited the play, and the
acting within to a tee. Kudos to Bob Shuttleworth, scenic designer, and Liz Shipman,
who envisioned the perfect world for this play.

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Gary’s college students were delightful with earnest longings, confusion, angst
and all that students really experienced during that fateful era. Robert Bradvica, as
Steven; Michael Crosby as Mitch; Christopher Torborg as Shay, and Michelle Marie
Trester as Abbey/Toni—all were praiseworthy.

Gary gets his opportunity to take a job at Berkeley; Siran almost dies bearing their
child; and they transform into people who now know what is most important.
Siran realizes that “home” is where Gary and their child reside. Gary knows he is
committed to teach these community college students, who truly need him.

The delicacy and beauty of Siran in the “hospital”, a chair, her child which is
birthed from a blanket folded just so, and nurtured by mother and father, and Siran’s
Armenian dance of joie de vivre to follow are traces of director and choreographer Liz
Shipman’s imaginative fingerprint on this production.

This memorable and inspiring production needs to be mounted again for a longer
run, so that more audiences can enjoy this work.


Thank you, Mindy. Thank you, director Liz and cast. And thank you, producer Robert May and SRT!

Onward!

(all photos by Darren Scott)

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Walking “On Air” – Journey of a Play

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Sometimes our life and work synergize in ways that we don’t expect.

In writing my new play, On Air, that certainly happened, with the added synergy of such dedicated theater artists who brought it to life at San Diego’s Scripps Ranch Theatre (SRT) and its new play festival, “Out on a Limb,” which concluded yesterday.

In On Air, a young, principled professor at a San Diego community college navigates his family obligations and professional ambitions against the backdrop of a campus in crisis from the Vietnam War.

The one-act version of On Air premiered in the inaugural year of SRT’s Out on a Limb New Play Festival in 2012, with the outstanding cast (shown clockwise, below) of lead actor Jeffrey Jones, Vimel Sephus, Charles Peters, Joshua Jones, Steven Smith, and Tyler Jones, directed by Antonio TJ Johnson.

(All Photos by Darren Scott)

That original one-act version focused only on the professor, Gary Gordian, and four students who come to him in various stages of crisis — amid being drafted to Vietnam, family dysfunction, relationships. Gary’s dedication to his ideals, amid campus politics and pressures, results in his job and future being at risk.

When the play drew such a strong response from audiences, SRT Artistic Director and festival producer Robert May asked me to expand the play to fill out the picture of Gary, to include his personal life and challenges.

Four years and much soul-searching later, the full length version of On Air premiered this past week, with the spectacular cast of Fran Gercke, Mariel Shaw, Charles Peters, Carlos Angel Barajas, Michelle Marie Trester, Robert Bradvica, Chris Torborg, Michael Crosby, and directed by Liz Shipman.

My heart and mind are still spinning. Why?

Because On Air and Gary’s story are loosely based on the life of my own father, a retired and courageous literature professor, who endured much of what is chronicled in the play.

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Fran Gercke as Gary

And in the full length, I introduced the character of Gary’s wife, Siran, loosely based on my mother.

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Mariel Shaw as Siran

Their life together, amid Vietnam, family challenges, and the early days of the tumultuous San Diego Armenian community, are my main expansions to the play.

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Writing about family, about personal events, is never easy. I don’t do it often. Of course I poured over old letters, photos, articles, recordings. But how can one do the subject matter justice, truly? How can a writer be objective in these situations? Or maintain a workable balance between fact and fictionalizing? These challenges, among others, are why it took me so long to complete.

And of course I eventually had to show my family the script. I was braced for the worst, because I could only imagine what my parents, nearly 50 years later, would feel as they revisit one of the hardest times in their young lives. But they couldn’t have been more supportive. A few requests for changes, sure, but just when I was expecting a full-throated veto or a boot out the door, I instead got a thank you. “Thank you for acknowledging that it was such a difficult time in our lives,” my father said. It was a time in their lives that pre-dated me and yet which they always mentioned as I grew up, hence my desire to explore it in writing. I wanted to show them coming through, victoriously.

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With the remarkable dedication of Robert May, SRT and actors who sat to table read the working versions of the script so many times over the past four years (Thank you!), as well as the heartfelt new cast of the full-length version, I saw the story come to life in ways I did not expect.

Even with the fictionalizing I felt necessary in various portions of the play, the fact was that I saw the spirit of my parents, and I saw the spirits of all the students my father used to talk about, even years after their interactions…

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I saw the dilemmas relived of a young married couple facing difficult family choices and pressures, community politics and dynamics.

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Carlos Angel Barajas as Van

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L-R Michael Crosby, Carlos Angel Barajas, Robert Bradvica, Michelle Marie Trester, Chris Torborg, Sarah David, Morgan Kirby

I saw how seminal events and interactions in our lives can stay with us for decades, for a lifetime, and remain as vivid as the day we first experienced them.

IMG_3686L-R: Robert Bradvica, Chris Torborg, Charles Peters, Michelle Marie Trester

The production had its challenges — a key last minute cast change due to illness, and even an accidental campus lockdown where students spotted rehearsal of a tense scene involving a (fake) gun and called the police, fearing the worst, only to be told it was a play. In the very same scene, on opening night of the earlier one-act version, the power went out in the theater, and audience members thought the darkness was part of the scene as stage managers quickly shined flashlights on the actors. The unexpected should always be expected in theater…

But I’m grateful for all of it — and for the conversations the play is generating among audiences, artists, family members, everyone. My father, after watching a period of his life pass before him onstage, thanked me for the play and the “love letter” that it is. Not sure if he even knew that those are the words I always govern my writing by, to make my words a love letter to the story and characters I create. So I was beyond grateful, and at peace, after that.

It seems that the play will have a life beyond this lovely first production, which is encouraging. Because once again as a writer I’ve experienced first-hand that facing our biggest fears and challenges in our life and work yields the deepest meaning in both, a combination of inspiration and release that our souls never get enough of.

As I always say, yet with more conviction every time:

Onward.

 

Heart Full of Fire

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My heart is full today.

Coming off of my daughters’ completion of a brave and whirlwind school year — followed by a beautiful trip east celebrating my nephew’s graduation.

And back home soon after, enjoying the first moments of summer with pajamas, basketball and videos.

Then seeing the horror today in Orlando. The vicious killing. The families forever torn apart.  Somehow hearing the screams of my martyred Armenian ancestors all over again, like I’ve been hearing them lately from Syria and around the world. And knowing in my bones that no matter what is said by this faction or that, God is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).

But then on the night following this tragic morning, seeing the Tony Awards, and being reminded of the transforming power of storytelling — of theater, like nothing else — to return our minds and hearts to hope, to truth, to love.

And all this … on the eve of a playwriting deadline I must complete. One of the most important ones I’ll ever have. How do I complete the story now, as I had planned before? With all of this new tumult, both good and horrible? Even with the story remaining intact, what changes now in my approach or mindset?

Tonight I realized: it’s exactly the right time to finish this play. Because my heart is more full of fire now than I can remember, and this play is about a character who stands up for what matters most to him, no matter what the consequence. (More on that in a future post). Countless inspirers surround me, here and in the heavens, so I am more humbled, and more grateful now, for the opportunity to tell this story that means the world to me. I’m more convicted than ever that it needs to be told. And that all our stories of courage, faith and persistence must be told, no matter who tells us otherwise. I can only hope I do this particular one justice.

Onward.

 

 

 

The Best Birthday Gift

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When I celebrated my birthday earlier this week, I looked forward to (and enjoyed!) the special times I had with my husband, family and friends. I loved using my birthday freebies at some of my favorite places. I had a massage and manicure. Ahhh…some of the relaxing I’ve rarely had a chance to do all year.

I also looked forward to whatever verse/quote of the day I’d get that day on my email, since I subscribe. Thinking the e-subscription would perfectly select a Rah, Rah, Rah, You Can Do Anything statement for that day, I instead got this: Continue reading

Is It Still Mother’s Day?

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Ah, it’s a week after Mother’s Day.

Still celebrating her? Still bringing Mom flowers or breakfast in bed? Still doing the dishes for her? Still listening to what she has to say? Still telling her you love her?

Or is it back to normal?

Just like my Mom has always told me, I told my girls: if you listen to me, respect me, help me out with the little things each day — then every day can be Mother’s Day. Those would be the best gifts of all!

So yesterday, one of my daughters cleaned her room. The other one collected and took out the trash. Both of them set the table for family dinner. They didn’t do it without being asked — I still had to ask them. But today they listened; they did what I asked. Right away. And it was as great a gift as the beautiful picture frames they made and gave me last weekend…

So at our Family Movie night last night where Mommy, Daddy and the girls watched The Peanuts Movie (great movie, by the way), I finally noticed a bit of Meghan Trainor’s lyrics to her song that plays during the final credits, “Good to be Alive” (great song, by the way):

Gonna wake up every day like it’s Christmas
Gonna celebrate this life I’m given
From now on (from now on)
Gonna tell my mother every day I love her
And tell her “thanks for being such a good mother”
From now on

Oh, it feels so good to be alive
Oh, it feels so good to be alive

It does feel good. And what gifts we have each day — in each other. Let’s celebrate while we can.

I love you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

And thanks, girls, for the continued ‘gifts’!

Onward!

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The Best Laid Plans…A Mother’s Day Reflection

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On this Mother’s Day, at least for a moment, I think about all the unrealistic things I once planned to do (and be) as a mother:

I’ll never have them watch TV until they are 5.

I’ll never lose my patience.

I will teach them to make their bed and keep their room clean.

They will never snap back at me.

All the things that I hoped would make them ‘good,’ ‘normal’ children.

My mother was (and is) a bedrock of patience and humility — the most inspiring mom a girl could have. So I will be too — right?

Continue reading

The Truth Will Set You Free: Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day

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Yesterday, Armenians around the world commemorated the 101st anniversary of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, when 1.5 million Armenians were systematically murdered by the Ottoman Turkish Empire for refusing to renounce their Christian faith and Armenian culture.

There were marches of 100,000+ people over the weekend; performances of new music, films and plays; peaceful demonstrations at memorial monuments, lectures and sacred services; and a shining new tribute: the recently inaugurated Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, co-developed by Armenian and non-Armenian philanthropists, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel and George and Amal Clooney — “On behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors” — and awarded “to an individual whose actions have had an exceptional impact on preserving human life and advancing humanitarian causes.” The award was announced yesterday in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital (click here for announcement), and will be announced there each year.

These forward-looking, inspiring events help show that the Turks and their Genocide of Armenians did not succeed in eliminating Armenians — they show that the world is starting to understand and embrace the truth of our history. But whether the world ever fully accepts it or not, Armenians are stronger and freer than ever by faith in God, and by perseverance to the values that matter most: love, compassion, dignity, spiritual commitment, regardless of what lies or horrors swarm around us. Although Turkey’s recogition would go a long way in healing many hearts and souls, Armenians don’t have to wait for that reluctant recognition to accomplish all they were put on this earth to do.

But genocides continue, as we see in today’s news. Christians and other groups keep getting persecuted for their beliefs, particularly in the Muslim world. And countries, because of their power, allies or strategic connections and resources, continue to literally get away with murder. Even today, Turkey denies carrying out the Armenian Genocide 100 years ago.

On the PR battlefront, the current Turkish goverment is also trying to murder the truth of history by funding full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post, buying up billboards near Genocide recogition event sites, and even creating websites claiming to seek truth and peace about the 1915 genocide yet which only deny its realities.

So the fight continues to advocate for full recognition, to tell our own true stories, and to sustain our heritage, culture and faith in new ways. One theater organization, the Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance (ADAA), accomplishes this mission by encouraging Armenian stories and wider human-rights stories to be told onstage via playwriting contests and readings. As ADAA’s slogan reads: “It’s Time Our Stories Were Told.” We can never stop telling them.

For my husband and me, our day took place at the 31st Times Square Armenian Genocide Commemoration in New York, co-sponsored by the Armenian fraternal and charitable organizations we are deeply involved in, The Knights and Daughters of Vartan.

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More than 3,000 people congregated in Times Square, to hear politicians, academics, advocates, clergy and community leaders (including my husband) speak the truth and to urge everyone to participate in local advocacy as much as possible — calling your congressman to get an Armenian Genocide resolution passed; writing your State Assemblyman to get the Armenian Genocide taught in the schools, building relationships and telling our stories as much as possible to raise awareness. It was an inspiring event.

And yet, just two days before, a pro-Turkish group hired a plane to skywrite messages of Armenian Genocide denial high in the New York skies, also paying a troupe of people to dance below as the messages appeared.

Really?

The mere presence of denial and antagonism does not mean that truth-tellers should stop telling the truth, or stop advocating for it. In fact, the presence of opposition affirms our need to get the truth out there even more. Not with hatred or closedmindedness, but with an honest view toward recognition, repararation and perhaps, even reconciliation. And I think only God can change people’s hearts, if they are open to it.

But even if those things never occur, the victory is won. We were not wiped out. We are still here. And as voices young and old rang out to the heavens yesterday, our sainted ancestors heard and smiled in glory.

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:38

Onward.

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For more information:

About the Armenian Genocide:

http://www.armenian-genocide.org/

http://www.armeniangenocidemuseum.org/#home

http://armeniangenocide100.org/en/

About The Aurora Prize: https://auroraprize.com/en/prize

About the Knights and Daughters of Vartan: www.kofv.org

About the Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance: www.armeniandrama.org