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.

 

 

 

My Guest Piece in “The Dramatist”

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Writers often get the question, “So what are you working on?” and most of us enjoy answering with our latest project.

But what’s even more interesting is not when people ask “What,” but when people ask “Why.” “Why are you working on that particular project? Why do you like to write about XYZ?”

I recently had the opportunity to contribute a piece to the May/June 2016 issue of The Dramatist magazine, a magazine for members of The Dramatists Guild, which supports professional playwrights and other theater artists.

This issue was entitled, “The Ethics of Ethnic,” exploring a variety of issues for writers writing about ethnicity.

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Although the magazine is for members only, they allowed me to reprint it here, in the text below or the PDF link here: My Piece in The Dramatist

Let me know your thoughts!

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“In your opinion, what are the obligations of a dramatist writing outside her/his own ethnicity?”

When I once told a fellow playwright, far more famous than I, how I rarely write about my own ethnicity, she looked at me incredulously and said, “I can’t imagine not writing about it!”

But isn’t that what our playwriting, and our life in the arts, should be about? Doing the very thing we cannot imagine? Getting out of our comfort zone, losing ourselves in the wonderful and scary ‘otherness’ of life, of our world, of our friends – and enemies?

One of the best compliments I ever received as a playwright was when I wrote a play about an African American poet/civil rights activist. At the first staged reading at the Fountain Theater in Los Angeles, one of the elder actors (African American) looked at me shocked when I was introduced as the playwright. He told me later: “I thought the person who wrote this was black. There are things in here I thought only a black person would know and understand. I was a boy sitting in the pew at my Baptist church in Chicago when Dr. King came and spoke – no one talks about that speech. But you did.”

I relish the opportunity to research about ethnicities and histories other than my own – just as I am always beyond thrilled and honored when non-Armenian playwrights choose to explore “my” Armenian history. I serve on the board of the Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance, which helps get the Armenian story, and other human rights stories, told onstage (www.armeniandrama.org). And when the work of non-Armenian playwrights writing about Armenian topics gives me insight into my own ethnic identity – strengths and weaknesses alike – it inspires and reminds me that the interdependence of art and artists across boundaries makes us all better, wiser and stronger.

Several years ago I wrote a play about multi-faith immigrants across ethnicities living in San Diego, commissioned by the Playwrights Project, which builds literacy, creativity, and communication by empowering individuals to voice their stories through playwriting (www.playwrightsproject.org). In researching the writing of other playwrights – and in speaking with everyone from a surviving Lost Boy of Sudan, to a Vietnamese refugee, to recently emigrated Muslims trying to navigate their post 9/11 community – I found such resonance with my own Armenian history, and that of so many other people groups: the pulls of passion and pride, misplaced trust leading to tragedy, glimmers of grace and help amid war horrors, clinging to hope over bitterness, perseverance over surrender. Audience members of all backgrounds came up to me after the performances, thanking me for ‘understanding’ and sharing their story.

Our story.

Shared suffering, shared survival, shared triumph. Oh, how we are not alone!

The responsibility I hold in writing about other ethnicities works hand in hand with the responsibility I believe we all have as artists — to understand and encourage our audiences and each other. Writing outside of our ethnicity, embracing and sharing its new insights, helps us recognize that our ‘otherness’ is, perhaps, not so ‘other’ after all.

 


LISA KIRAZIAN’s plays include On Air, The Blackstone Sessions, Switch, The Visitor, Six Views, and numerous one-acts. Productions & Readings: Fountain Theatre, Long Beach Playhouse, Scripps Ranch Theatre, DG Friday Night Footlights, Playwrights Project, Barrow Group, and several festivals. Publications: Los Angeles Times, Performing Arts Magazine, San Diego Union Tribune, Audition Monologues for Young Women #2 (Ratliff), various literary journals. Boards: Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance (ADAA), Playwrights Project (Past President). Lisa is a Stanford graduate. www.lisakirazian.com.


 

Onward!

 

 

The Beauty of Book Clubs

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I’ve enjoyed three book club experiences in the past several months where my book “Bravura” was featured and read by a group of women (and men!) Each of them was markedly different and yet I learned amazing things from all of them. Continue reading

Why I’ll Never Win an Oscar — and Why That’s Okay

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No, I’m not trying reverse psychology so that the powers that be will one day reverse course and give me one.

This is not a lament. There was never an illusion of entitlement. I’m just sharing a series of recent, interconnected revelations that have brought me a lot of peace.

I’m never going to win an Oscar, and in addition to the fact that I’m a far-from-perfect writer who’s still trying to get my ‘big’ works produced, here are the other reasons why it’ll never happen — and why it’s okay: Continue reading

Why the Arts Should Embrace Sports and Sports Should Embrace the Arts

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On days like the Super Bowl, as fun as they are — it’s hard for working/struggling artists not to shake their head, at least a little, about the millions, even billions, of dollars worshipfully spent on sports. It’s hard not to think about all the kids who could get music funded in their inner-city school, or who could be inspired by their first museum or play on a school field trip, with such money, if only a portion were directed to different values and priorities.

But at the same time, for someone like me, who grew up with both the arts (playing violin and acting in plays) and sports (playing softball and watching pro baseball), I can’t help but think about how connected they are, and how rich life is when we embrace both.

“Ars Longa, Vita Brevis” (Art is Long, Life is Short)

The arts represent our vision for life here and beyond; our dreams and destiny; our realities and ideals. They accomplish this with stories and songs, images and characters that capture our world and our lives as nothing else can.

But the arts are not just about the actual stories/images/sounds presented; they are about how our own lives relate — the story, painting or symphony helps us think about our own situations, choices and needs differently. They show us another way to deal with things, just when we thought there was no other way.

“Make Each Day Your Masterpiece” – UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden

Similarly, sports is a performance, with an audience. It’s theater, with its rituals, sights and sounds. It’s often poetry in motion. And at its best, sport is about showing people excellence. Like the arts, sports are never just about sports — they, too, are about the people behind the game: their hearts, minds and characters, their families, illnesses, the challenges they’ve overcome, the way they keep coming back. Sports are about finishing well. And as we watch, we think of our own lives, our own obstacles. A great performance can remind us that we, too, can make it through if we perservere.

Coming Together

At the end of the day, both the arts and sports are about overcoming conflict: both are about man versus antagonistic forces, and how he deals with those forces. How he learns and grows from them, whether there is a victory/happy ending or not. Both take us on a journey where we are eager to find out what happens at the end.

Artists can learn much from the boldness and discipline of professional sportspeople — how hard they work, how they faithfully stick to routines to reach benchmarks of success, how they work within a team and respect their peers and leaders instead of being their own island.

Similarly, athletes and coaches can learn much about themselves and others when they embrace literature, art and music. They can learn how to understand people vastly different from themselves; how to recognize, empathize, and deal with any type of personality or situation; how to encourage a peer with a timeless quote and bring the best out of them — all invaluable assets when you are on a team.

Perhaps that’s also why stories or movies about sports have been so memorable and compelling — because they combine the best of both worlds. John Updike’s essays on Red Sox slugger Ted Williams. Films like Chariots of Fire. Rocky. A League of Their Own. Brian’s Song. Rudy. Name your favorite.

People, ultimately, want to be inspired. They want to see their fellow man/woman at their best, so that they can be reminded of what’s possible for themselves.

Finally, both the arts and sports are about surrendering to something beyond ourselves. Whether we are dedicating ourselves to God, a team, a production, a message, or any big-picture purpose, we are most fully who we were meant to be when we devote ourselves to a purpose larger than our little sphere of life.

The arts and sports both remind us of that.

Onward!