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Building a theater of their own

Armenians join forces for project

By Naush Boghossian, Staff Writer

GLENDALE– Several Armenian-American doctors, lawyers, businessmen and artists have gotten together to realize a dream: building the first Armenian arts venue in Los Angeles.
The force behind the project is Aram Kouyoumdjian, who got a group of friends together in November to attend a critically acclaimed play in Los Angeles. The group has now grown to 56, and they have five plays under their belt, including “The Goat, or, Who Is Sylvia?” at the Mark Taper Forum, Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” at A Noise Within and “Doubt” at the Pasadena Playhouse.

The success of the outings confirmed what Kouyoumdjian — a civil litigation attorney by day and a theater buff by night — had known all along: The theater-loving Armenian community needed a place to call home.

“I think we have the sense that not only it’s time for something like this, but that it’s overdue,” said Kouyoumdjian, 36, who co-founded a theater company in Sacramento in 1999 and worked as its artistic director.

“People sense the importance of filling the void and doing so in a way that will have permanence. Our predecessors have been successful in building schools and churches, and many of us who are now in our mid-30s feel that it’s our turn to step up and make a contribution. It’s sort of picking up the responsibility.”

Feeling the need and the importance of the endeavor, this group, which includes an architect, a poet, a scientist, the CEO of a software company, attorneys and businessmen, is not approaching the task willy-nilly.

“The combined efforts of everybody makes this ambitious project far more realistic,” Kouyoumdjian said. “We’re making sure that the project is rooted in the best foundation possible.”

The architect in the group has already started the initial drawings for the group’s vision of the facility: a building with two performance spaces — a 400-seat performance hall and a 99-seat theater — an exhibition gallery and space for workshops, labs and rehearsals. Initial estimates put the cost at between $4 to $5 million.

At a time when theaters are struggling to stay afloat, Kouyoumdjian said, all the group’s members are all aware of the financial challenges of opening and operating a theater.

They have created an aggressive fund-raising plan to get started on a building, and they plan to create a center with multiple uses that they would be able to rent out to the artistic community.

Members of the organizing group, many of whom regularly write, produce and perform plays, have no doubt there is a demand for an Armenian arts center in Los Angeles. There are an estimated 400,000 Armenians living in Los Angeles County.

Betty Berberian, a film set decorator, recalled that, when she, her husband and friends formed the Armenian Experimental Theater in the 1980s, they always played to full houses, but they had to spend up to $10,000 each month to rent spaces to perform.

But when they tried to raise money to build a theater, the support simply was not there.

“I think the community would be much more open to it now,” Berberian said. “I think we’ve shown the audiences and Armenian people that this is a necessity.

“Theater is the lifeblood of the community. For a small community, especially an ethnic community, theater is the pulse, and it keeps the youth together.”

But so-called ethnic theater in a diverse Los Angeles is now experiencing an interest and reception it never had before.

Jose Luis Valenzuela, theater professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the group of young Armenians is responding to its community’s needs, which is always how ethnic theater is created.

“Ethnic theater is in response to the needs and aspirations of their communities, a need to express something of your own history, of who you are,” said Valenzuela, the artistic director of the 19-year-old Latino Theatre Company. His group, which currently rents a space in downtown, is currently in discussions with the city of Los Angeles to renovate the Los Angeles Theater Center.

“When you have a lack of opportunity for ethnic theater in Los Angeles, you have groups responding to the needs of the community because nobody else is giving them access.”

But financially, it’s not going to be easy, said Tim Dang, producing artistic director of the East West Players, an Asian-American theater that has been in Los Angeles since 1965.

The Players’ main source of financial support is the Asian-Pacific community, Dang said. But what happens over time is that, as the audience grows, drawing non-Armenians to the facility, the donor base slowly diversifies.

It took 20 years for the theater to get financially comfortable. They started out in a 99-seat theater in Silver Lake until they moved into their current 240-seat theater in downtown.

But what ultimately drives an ethnic group’s desire to have its own theater and take on the struggles is that need to share its culture.

“It’s a double perspective in that, yes, we want to do this for our community to see ourselves on the stage because we rarely see ourselves on the stage or in the media, but we also want to enlighten the greater community about us,” he said.

For more information on the Armenian Center for the Arts or to get involved, e-mail artscenterproject@yahoo.com .

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