I’ve been in Armenia now for about a day and a half and so far all is going very well. Beautiful weather, extremely friendly people and very productive meetings so far. I will have a lot to think about (and do) when I return in order to turn some of these ideas/proposals into action. For now, though, I’m having coffee in the sun as I prepare for a meeting with Vahan from Small Theatre which will be followed by my first workshop which I am delivering a NPAK.
Getting here was a bit of an unexpected adventure… my BMI flight from Heathrow to Yerevan had a false start in its first take-off. As the plane started to accelerate, a loud alarm sound went off and the plane slowed down suddenly before stopping, turning off the runway and returning to a gate for an engineer to come on board and check out the problem. It added about two hours to the trip, but we eventually took off again without any alarming sounds. No idea what the problem was but I got to Yerevan safely so I couldn’t really worry about it.
When I arrived, I had to get a VISA from the Armenian border control and then I went through the passport control area. Because I have a temporary US passport (the US Embassy in London ‘lost’ my passport and are currently looking for it, so they gave me a temporary one – comforting, isn’t it?), the border agents were really suspicious of me. They passed my passport around between them, called a few managers over, looked at me suspiciously and after about twenty minutes decided it was either real or I wasn’t a threat enough to worry about. So, I finally crossed the threshold into Armenian territory around 1am on Friday morning/Thursday evening.
I then took a taxi to meet Narek, the amazing British Council officer who coordinated this trip for me, at the flat that I am staying in. It is in a really nice street and the flat itself is lovely. Reminds me a bit of some New York flats in terms of its setup and design – wood floors, high ceilings, tiny kitchen – perfect. I passed out pretty quickly and then overslept by about thirty minutes the next day. I still managed to make my first appointment on Friday though – which was with Lana from Tempus.
Tempus is a funding body that comes out of EU funds for supporting the development of curriculum, university governance and exchanges within Europe and countries close to Europe. Lana is the country coordinator and she looked over my itinerary of meetings, discussed my exchange ideas with me, and gave me some information about how Tempus might be able to support the work I want to do. It is a rather complicated process, as all EU funding systems are, but it looks like it could be perfect for the exchanges I am interested in establishing between MMU and higher education institutions within Armenia. Lana was excited that there might be a bid that deals with the arts, as they’ve never had one in their Armenian office. Lana also gave me some background about some of the institutions within Armenia which has already proved useful in my discussions. Lana also made me some Armenian coffee (yum) and offered up some very tasty Armenian pasteries.
After meeting Tempus, I walked to Lovers park with my translator for the day (Gohar, a lovely young person). Because I woke late, we went to a cafe in the park where I had a quick sandwich and bought a bottle of water. We then took the Metro (some images of this below) which reminded me very much of the metro in Moscow. It was nice and cool down there, which was helpful as it is very hot here (although not at all humid). We took the Metro to NPAK, which is the closest thing to Cornerhouse that they have in Yerevan – it is a contemporary arts centre in an very cool building. There main focus is on contemporary visual arts, but they also have a film/video programme and a theatre programme. NPAK are the organisation who provided me with the flat and who I am doing the workshops for. I met with their director and founder Mr. Balassanian. It turns out that he is an American citizen, along with being an Iranian and Armenian citizen and that his wife Sonia lives in New York City. He reminded me a lot of the people I met at La Mama when I used to work there in the early 1990s. He showed me their exhibition spaces and a lovely small theatre they have which is where my workshop will be. I also showed them some videos of my work and we discussed a bit about the workshops. I’m hoping I have pitched what I’m going to do appropriately – it is a bit tricky for me decoding what they mean when they say experimental and contemporary (especially as the words actor and plays keep coming up.). I have three possible plans ready to go, so I might have to go with what feels right in the moment.
Our next meeting was at the Theatre Institute with Artur from High Fest. I met Artur last year in Edinburgh at the British Council Showcase and he invited Proto-type to his festival last October. We had a brilliant, if insanely quick, time in High Fest so it was nice to see him in less pressured surroundings. Artur is full of energy – he is literally non stop – so our meeting was very rapid fire. It turns out that Artur has the role of International officer for the Theatre Institute, which is partly why we were meeting.
I was supposed to meet the Rector of the Theatre Institute, but he was suddenly called away so I instead met with the Dean of the Faculty. She and I met in the air conditioned office of the rector where we discussed the possible ways we might collaborate. Part of what she identified as a need for the institute was more of a focus on experimentation and on movement for actors. It was a good conversation that resulted in several outcomes which I’ll follow up on later. After this meeting, I then took a taxi back to the flat where I had a short nap and tried to get online (unsuccessfully). At 6pm, Narek met me again and we walked to the Small Theatre where they were putting on some promenade performances (photos below) in conjunction with Children’s Day. Small Theatre runs a school for you people and this was a chance for the kids to perform a bit. It had a lovely atmosphere although I wasn’t able to fully understand it all…
Because Vahan was too busy to meet I set a meeting with him for today (Saturday) at noon (soon!) and Narek and I walked to Opera park to sit outside and have a coffee. We ran into some friends of Narek’s who are planning on taking my workshop. They were a young theatre group made up of three male performers and a female administrator. The company was formed based on a workshop that they did in Forum Theatre a few years ago. Also at the table was the girlfriend of one of the performers (who is a pianist) and a Russian friend who is a photographer. I had another sandwich as I realized I hadn’t really had much food at all and more amazing Armenian coffee. Narek had to leave at some point but I stayed with the young performers and we had a really lovely time – once we got past the basics of understanding each other. Elena, the Russian photographer, showed me some of the images she has been working on which are all backstage photos from Circuses all over the world. Some of them were quite amazing – there was a Diane Arbus-esque quality to some of them.
After sitting for a while and chatting about everything from Alexander Blok to whether I could give the actors a job, we decided to take a walk. We went through town to this very long tunnel (it was dark by now) that is illuminated with a rather beautiful zigzagging overhead lighting system. The tunnel opened out into an area with a park, some restaurants and a few bar/cafes. The main reason we went though, was to see an old children’s railway that is left over from the Soviet times (photos below). We then walked into the dark to cross over a river and walk all the way back around the city to where we started from (about an hour long walk maybe). It was a perfect evening in many ways because I was able to talk to these young Armenians without any specific agenda. So often when I travel I only get to meet with the official people on the itinerary, so it was super nice to be able to hear a bit about their lives. We ended by going to a cafe to have a drink where we talked about a few personal things – like at what age young people move away from home, etc. There was some surprise at the fact that it is normal for people to leave home at 18 in the US. There were a few questions about my personal life but I tried to remain vague because I know that this is a very conservative country and I didn’t want to start off by having a weird experience around personal values/beliefs.
We ended the evening by talking about what actors and filmmakers we like (they all liked Almodovar -good sign) and then we walked back to my place. It turns out that one of them lives around the corner.
Now, I’m finishing an omelet and on to the adventures of Saturday in the summer in Yerevan! I’ll try to blog more when I can although internet is hard to come by here.
(images below are a random selection of my instagrams from the past two days – I have a large video of the walk through the tunnel which I’ll try to upload at some point as well).