Van Dyke: The Making Of ‘deported / A Dream Play’

by Joyce Van Dyke

The Armenian Weekly Magazine
May 14, 2012

Joyce Van Dyke’s “Deported / a dream play” tells the story of
two women deported together from Mezireh in 1915: the playwright’s
grandmother, and her best friend, Varter, the mother of Dr. H. Martin
Deranian. “Deported” just received its first professional production,
playing to sold-out houses at the Modern Theatre in Boston from March
8 to April 1, 2012. The play was directed by Judy Braha and produced
by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre in association with Suffolk University.

How can you make a play about the genocide and its aftermath? How do
you tell a story that is unspeakable, unimaginable even? And if you do,
will anybody come see it? Those were questions I started struggling
with five years ago.

The playwright’s grandparents and mother – Elmas Boyajian (called
Victoria in the play) with her husband Harry and daughter Rose,
Providence. All three are characters in the play.

At the same time, director Judy Braha and a company of actors began
collaborating with me to explore and shape the material that would
eventually become Deported / a dream play. The story of two women
friends, Victoria and Varter, Deported fuses the everyday and the
surreal. It opens in Providence in 1938, then jumps forward 40 years
to LA in 1978, and finally moves into a dream world of the future.

Early on I decided to tell the story of these two women genocide
survivors as a “dream play.” The play would be composed out of dreams.

When the lights first come up, we see the main character, Victoria,
lying asleep on a table, dreaming about her friend, Varter. Dreams are
woven throughout the action, and the entire final Act of the play,
set in the future beyond 2015, interweaves Victoria’s dreams with
those of other characters.

Dreams allowed me to crystallize a complicated history in visual
images onstage. Dreams could accordion a great expanse of time into a
moment. People and objects could magically appear and disappear. Real
doors on stage could open into the past or the future. In the twinkling
of an eye, we could slide from one world to another.

Making the play out of dreams was exciting and artistically challenging
for me. It was also an attempt to wrest something beautiful out of
this dreadful subject matter. That was an imperative I felt from
the very beginning, for myself and for the audience: that if I was
to write this play it had to embody a kind of beauty and vitality,
that it had to represent humor and hope, that it couldn’t just reflect
the genocide but had to reflect life beyond it too. The resurgence
of life and dreams of the future-these needed to be a part of the play.

But at a deep level, it felt like a necessity rather than an artistic
choice to make this a dream play. The form of the play was dictated
by the need to tell the truth. What these characters had actually
experienced in their lifetimes was surreal, nightmarish-the swift
destruction and transformation of a whole world. How could I be
true to the strangeness of their experience, to the way the genocide
shattered not only family and culture, but space and time? How could I
show their dislocation and disorientation? These were people for whom,
as the main character Victoria says, “too much has happened,” like an
earthquake whose repercussions went on and on, down through the years.

I could never recreate that story in a realistic play. But I could
evoke it in dreams.

Varter and her first husband, Mr. Nazarian, Mezireh. Both are
characters in the play.

So, a dream play, but also a documentary play. Half of the play’s
characters are invented, but the others are historical. Much that
the historical characters say and do in the play was taken from
life. I used their real names, with just one exception. That, too,
was a decision made early on. I wanted to save things. I wanted to
use the literal facts where I could. These remnants felt precious,
and whenever I could use real details in the play it gave me a special
satisfaction. So, for example, Varter’s artistry in making Armenian
needle lace; her husband taken away in the middle of the night in his
pajamas; the house Harry built at 74 Sargent Avenue in Providence;
Victoria rehearsing a play in the attic of that house for the Armenian
Euphrates Evangelical Church theatre group; the Turkish sergeant who
followed Varter from Ourfa to Aleppo after she escaped. All of these
and many more real-life details became motifs and events in the play.

In larger matters, too, the play’s stories are true, including the
story of how these two women lost their children on the deportation.

As I began to work on the play, my original dread of confronting
the subject matter gave way to a sense of happiness and release that
took me by surprise. Although the writing process was often painful,
it greatly deepened my knowledge and love for my grandparents, and
for my grandmother’s best friend, Varter, Martin Deranian’s mother,
whom I never met but came to love. The more I worked on the play,
the more I felt the living miracle of their strength and heroism.

I was sustained throughout the creation of the play by the many people
and Armenian organizations that gave me support: our Deported Advisory
Board, Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA), Armenian
Library and Museum of America (ALMA), Knights and Daughters of Vartan,
National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), Project
SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives, Sayat Nova Dance Company, and the
many individuals who generously contributed to our special fundraising
campaign to help support the production. We were thrilled when Boston
Playwrights’ Theatre agreed to produce the play in association with
Suffolk University at the newly renovated Modern Theatre.

I would like to mention two particularly wonderful features of this
production. One was the beautiful photo exhibit in the lobby of
the Modern Theatre, curated by Ruth Thomasian of Project SAVE. The
exhibit was specially keyed to the “Deported” story and included
photos of characters in the play, providing a moving complement to
the production and drawing the attention of audiences before and
after the show, many of whom were given a guided tour of the exhibit
by Thomasian herself. I also cherished the Armenian dancing in the
play choreographed by Apo Ashjian of Sayat Nova, who taught our whole
company how to dance. Ashjian’s beautiful weaving of those dances
into the play made them a highlight of the production, communicating
the joy and vitality that I so hoped the show would convey.

Bobbie Steinbach as Victoria and Jeanine Kane as Varter, in Deported.

There are certain people without whom this play would never have come
to be. I call Martin Deranian the godfather of this play. He inspired
me to write it and was the source of everything I know about Varter,
as well as, remarkably, much that I learned from him about my own

My artistic collaborator, director Judy Braha, was my partner in the
creation of this play from the very start. Braha not only directed
the beautifully realized Boston Playwrights’ Theatre production at
the Modern, but had worked with me over a five-year period to develop
the play. Starting before we had any script or even a story, she held
improvisational workshops with our company of actors, which became the
laboratory for developing the play. Most of these actors appeared in
the production at the Modern. Their creative work, as well as public
readings and an earlier workshop production at Boston University that
Braha directed, all contributed to the evolution of the script.

“Deported” is a challenging play to stage. In Braha’s words: “The
play leaps from the intimate to the epic, and it leaps quickly. Dreams
tumble out of Victoria’s imagination in multiple layers and leave as
fast as they arrived… One of our greatest challenges was arriving
at a scenic design that could easily, almost magically, shift from
an attic in 1938 to a garden in LA in 1978 to a dream space in the

An especially evocative and affecting element of the production
was not my invention at all, but Braha’s idea: that the Suffolk
University students, who were cast as Armenian dancers in the show,
should double as “Dreamers”-beings who swirled in and out and made the
magic happen in the play, making lace and chairs appear and disappear,
and repeatedly transforming the world before our eyes.

To my enormous gratification, large audiences came to see the show,
and we even sold out most performances. People wept, and they laughed.

I was thrilled to see that the audience members were of all ages
and backgrounds. One night a busload of 40 college students from
North Carolina came; they’d just seen “Les Miserables” at the Opera
House next door, and were now taking in “Deported.” Parents brought
their children. Adults brought their elderly parents. A group of half
a dozen women in headscarves came one night. A teacher brought his
entire high school class. A lot of Armenians came to see the show, yet
they made up less than half of the total audience, in my estimation.

A friend said to me, “Every Armenian’s story is different, and they’re
all the same.” Many came up to me after the play and said, “That was
my story,” “You told my mother’s story,” “my grandparents’ story”
“my uncle’s,” although not all of those people were Armenian. As
we heard from many audience members-and as we had hoped in creating
the play-it resonated with those whose families were changed by the
Holocaust, by more recent genocides, by fighting in World War II,
and by American slavery.

As for what comes next: My goal is for “Deported / a dream play”
to go on to productions in other cities, between now and 2015, and
beyond. I believe the theatre is uniquely able to convey the visceral
and emotional reality of this story. But I would also like to say that
the play ends with hope. In the last scene, set some years beyond
2015, Turks and Armenians from the past and from the future gather
together onstage, searching for the words that will allow them to
speak. I hope this play can contribute to that conversation.

1. See for the story
told in a March 3 Boston Globe article.

2. See

for the interview with Braha and Van Dyke.

From: A. Papazian

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