Saturday, 16 May 2015

Armenian News...A Topalian


18:36, 14 May, 2015

YEREVAN, MAY 14, ARMENPRESS. "I Wish To Die Singing" is a powerful new
documentary drama that has brought the story of the Armenian Genocide
to a London stage. Combining vivid characters drawn from survivor
testimonies with a final section entirely focused on the current
political realities of genocide recognition and non-recognition,
it has both informed and moved its audiences.

The story is simple and shocking, carried along by the experiences
of three Armenian children who bear witness to the attempted
extermination of a people, interspersed by a variety of voices from
history to contextualise the events. The audience watches as the
children's innocence is permanently stripped away from them, their
lives shattered by the brutality they are forced to experience and
witness on death marches across the desert.

The play's writer and producer, Neil McPherson, discusses the play's
reception, its political message, and the experience of bringing this
100 year old national tragedy into a fifty seat London theatre.

- What gave you the idea to produce a play about the Armenian Genocide?

- I actually first wrote a play about the genocide for the 90th
anniversary, ten years ago. Then, as the centenary was coming up,
I looked around to see whether anyone was putting on a play to
commemorate it. There were some really good ones by American Armenians
- but they were short, focused on the experience of the Armenian
diaspora in America, and you also had to know a lot about the genocide
before you saw them - so a lot of the audience in London would just
get lost because they weren't already experts in the history. So I
wanted to present the facts for people who were coming at this fresh.

I couldn't find anyone who was already doing that - so I did it myself!

- Do you have personal links to Armenia yourself?

No. I'm Scottish. But you can find connections to genocides and ethnic
cleansing everywhere, and the Scots were ethnically cleansed in the
19th century [during the 'Highland Clearances']. In fact, before we
had to cut the play for length, we had all these past genocides flash
up on the screen behind the stage - the Holocaust obviously, but also
atrocities perpetrated by Russia, France and of course the UK - the
cleansing of the vales of Scotland and the Irish potato famine. But
for me the thing about the Armenian genocide was just the fact that
it was so totally forgotten and denied, and so many people had never
heard of it.

One of the good things about this particular project is actually
that it's not an Armenian or a Turk or anyone with a vested interest
producing this play. So when people tweet me saying "Ah of course
you're putting on this play - you must be Armenian!', I can tell them
I'm Scottish - which shuts them up!

- What was your main purpose for putting on the play, then? To
educate people about the genocide? To encourage people to call for
its recognition?

- We didn't have a single purpose. But we did want to send the
audience out angry - wanting to change things and to recognise a
wrong. Particularly because the UK has been so bad with denying this
genocide - I mean, the Turkish foreign ministry even quotes the UK
government's denial on their website! For the 90th anniversary,
we had a petition that people would sign instead of the curtain
call. Now we hope people will go and sign a petition online.

- In terms of the script - it's based on testimonies of survivors.

What research went into gathering these?

- Our main source was actually this incredibly dedicated woman in
Armenia [Verjine Svazlian] who went around interviewing absolutely
everyone. She collected testimony after testimony and put them
all together in a huge book. I took four stories which I found
most interesting, and wrote the play around them. There's a bit of
dramatic licence in the sense that the odd quote is borrowed from
a different survivor, but absolutely everything is based on real
life. It took me from the first of January right up until opening
night - the director was a bit annoyed by that! But although simply
recounting the historical and political facts is important - and the
whole last section of the play is dedicated to them - I wanted to
incorporate these personal stories so that you have someone to engage
with emotionally. You should leave the theatre angry, but you should
also have cried.

- There must have been so many to choose from. Was it a difficult
selection process?

- Absolutely - there's so much material. The play would have been ten
hours long if I'd included everything I'd have liked to. Our choice to
base it around children - it wasn't originally a deliberate decision.

It just so happened that's who these interesting testimonies come
from. We realised it would either have to be a lot of children talking
in the present tense, or a lot of older people talking in the past
tense - and we knew that having it in the past tense would be very
dull. Using children's testimonies, we wanted to make as much of it as
we could. So of course we explored the 'loss of innocence' and so on.

- In the play you make a point of mentioning the Turkish families who
helped Armenians escape and who protected them in 1915. Did you feel
that was an important point to include?

- Absolutely yes. What we didn't want it to do - and what it would
have been very easy to do with something like this - was turn it into
a piece of Islam-bashing. That's not what it is. We want to emphasise
that the genocide wasn't racist or religious - it was nationalist. We
spent a lot of time making sure the story didn't come across as a
UKIP-like message that would incite people to hatred. We were very

- What has the reception for the play been like?

- Amazing! Admittedly, it's quite a hard one to sell. Getting people
to come and watch a play about genocide when the X-Factor is on the
telly is never going to be easy! Of course there's been a really good
Armenian response - we even had a lady fly in from Yerevan to see it!

But what's been really nice, particularly compared with ten years ago,
is the non-Armenian response. British people who have never heard
of the genocide before have come and have been equally affected by
the play.

- And what was it like having the play performed on the 24th April?

- It was a press night so it was absolutely packed - it had quite
a punch. As, interestingly, did the next day - 100 years since
Gallipoli. There were services in London commemorating Gallipoli
throughout the day, with the Turkish national anthem sung by the
cenotaph, and then a lot of people came to see our play for a very
different perspective.

- So what next for "I Wish To Die Singing"? Would you like to stage
it in Yerevan?

- Of course! An extract from it was actually performed in Los Angeles
on 28th April. The Center Theater Group in LA collaborated with the
Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance to produce a reading of extracts from
new genocide plays, and this was one of them. So that was good. Right
now, I'm trying to find ways to give the play a longer life and to
bring it to a wider audience.

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