Despite the gloom of Russian poets’ thoughts during the Stalinist era, visiting artist Aram Saroyan could be seen smiling amid the audience as Columbia theater students rehearsed for his play’s first theatrical performance.
On Jan. 25, Columbia students performed “Four Monologues,” a play based on the lives of four Russian poets, at the Poetry Foundation, 61 W. Superior St. Saroyan, a poet, novelist, playwright and biographer, visited at the invitation of the Center for Book and Paper Arts where he gave a lecture on his journey as a writer on Jan. 24.
“For some reason, I found myself reading these huge memoirs,” Saroyan said. “I’m figuring, ‘Why am I so obsessed with this?’ And I believed I’m supposed to write a biography. But by that time, I found that I’m not really a scholar; I’m more of some kind of creative writer.”
Aside from writing biographies, he began writing plays in 1990 and soon added biographical monologues. Saroyan has been awarded two National Endowment for the Arts awards, one in 1965 for his one-word poem “lighght.” He said his art media fluctuated as he aged because he was “a different person.”
The idea for Saroyan’s visit originated with Don Share, senior editor of Poetry magazine, who wanted to give Saroyan a gift of chapbooks—pocket-sized booklets. His monologues were then published and assembled into 300 limited edition chapbooks by CBPA students in the Master of Fine Arts program, said Steve Woodall, director of the CBPA.
Four Columbia theatre students brought the monologues to life: Benjamin Peterson as Osip Mandelstam, Katherine Acosta as Nadezhda Mandelstam, Robert Francis Curtis as Boris Pasternak and Alyssa Thordarson as Anna Akhmatova. All were chosen by director and associate theatre professor Brian Shaw. He described the poets as having deep individuality in themselves as artists, and living in a world where individuality could be wiped out very quickly.
“To do that, which is one of those amazing things, in the middle of mayhem, babies are being born and people are losing their lives,” Shaw said. “But because they’re writers, they’re trying to find expression for this.”
With a bit of research, the play’s history can be easily grasped, Curtis said. However, achieving differentiation within the monologues was difficult without character attraction or scene study. Also challenging was line memorization after rehearsing sparingly with the cast for a month over winter break, he said.
Focusing on his words and not the reaction from Saroyan who sat five feet away was “nerve-wracking,” he said. After the performance, Saroyan said he was thrilled.
Despite the pressure, Saroyan’s visit created an opportunity for interdisciplinary experiences, Curtis said.
“I really enjoy the interdepartmental mix that’s going on,” he said. “Columbia’s all about creating change and collaboration, and this was a great chance for two departments to get together and do something different.”
Because the collaboration was successful, CBPA’s artist visitation program will become an annual project, Woodall said. Poet and novelist Ben Lerner is scheduled to visit Columbia later this year, he said.
Saroyan said he developed interest in theater and will keep in touch with Columbia.
“For a writer, [playwriting] is a wonderful medium because you’re used to being alone in your room, and when a book is published, you get reviewed and you get letters,” Saroyan said. “When a play is performed, the audience goes in, and two hours later, they come out. And if they like the play, it’s very gratifying. It’s unusual.”