Glendale: Building a theater of their own: Armenians join forces for

Building a theater of their own: Armenians join forces for project
By Naush Boghossian, Staff Writer

Los Angeles Daily News
Feb 14 2005

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

“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 [email protected] .