Acting Inside Out: Theater group teaches inner values in Gyumri

On a stage in Gyumri two children in clown costume perform a scene that leaves its audience in laughter and hearty applause.

Among the gaiety, Mariam Kazhoyan, 43, has tears of happiness. Her son, 13-year old Levon played one of the clown roles, and the mother is not so much pleased with the performance as with what it represents.

“A year ago my Levon would not even dance with other children during school parties, because he was a very shy child,” Mariam says, “Now he yells and jumps on the stage openly.”

Mariam is happy, because openness is not the only achievement that Levon got attending rehearsals by Likidon, a Non Governmental Organization that uses theater for childhood development.

“Levon has become very sociable and outgoing,“ Mariam says excited,” He has started to do well at school and became more responsible and mature. We are very lucky to have found Likidon.”

Likidon (Latin for “face”) was founded last summer by 6 actors of Stepan Alikhanyan Puppet Theater in Gyumri. Later a volunteer psychologist joined them. The aim of the initiative was to make art serve esthetical, moral-psychological, educational and humanitarian causes of the children in Gyumri. Currently, 25 children aged 5-14, all from needy families, are involved in the project.

“We invented new roles in performances in order not to refuse any of the children,” the head of the organization Amalya Amirkhanyan says. “Children were not selected according to their talents, because every child is talented. We simply helped them open their abilities. For some it was easy, for others more time was required. But when you see a child who hardly would speak to a stranger a few days ago, dancing and playing before a public, you feel you have just had a victory.”

As an actor in the Gyumri Puppet Theater, Amirkhanyan has entertained children for 26 years. But she felt it was not enough.

“In regions people do not have jobs and means to live,” Amirkhanyan says, “Hopeless to find a job, many men have left and women stay with children, with scarce means to survive. In such families children grow up with psychological problems – their even petty wishes remain unrealized, their ego is depressed.”

Amirkhanyan says that child exploitation is widespread in Gyumri. Because of hard economic conditions many families send their minors to work. You can see 10-16 year olds dragging wagons for customers in the city market for some 50 drams, opening doors of marshrutkas for some 1000 drams (about $2) a day, or working as retailers or car-washers in the streets. Some of them work for 10-12 hours a day. Two members of Likidon, Hovhanness, 12, and Tsolak, 14, are engaged in such work. They attend the rehearsals occasionally, because they are the bread-winners for their families. Amirkhanyan hopes, though, Likidon will help those children feel happy as only children can be.

“Children, do not let grown-ups steal your childhood,” says the hero of “Lost Laughter”, a performance staged by Likidon. The 12-year-old hero of the play sells his laughter to an old woman for a candy-bar and after understanding its value gets it back with difficulties. The young actors know there are such children in Gyumri and wish they could regain their childhood back one day.

In another performance, in order to save their grandchild Hopik-Klorik from Snake-the-Long-Tail, who exploits the child, the grandpa and grandma have to learn provisions from the UN Convention for the protection of children.

“Along with developing esthetical taste in children, these plays teach the children their rights,” Amirkhanyan says, “During the rehearsals we discuss with the children the meaning of each performance and provisions from the UN convention. Now, even the smallest child in the group, six year old Phillip, knows them by heart.”

The idea of the team was also to organize a “Theater of A Small Actor” with the participation of the children who show greater interest in theatrical art. For this purpose the children were given an opportunity to stage a performance under the supervision of puppet actor Arshaluys Petrosyan, 56.

The children chose “The Red Cap” (“Red Riding Hood”) and suggested their version of the story. The director of the performance is Hayk Amirkhanyan, 14, and the musical director is Levon Kazhoyan.

“It was the children’s idea that nobody must be punished in the play,” says Petrosyan, who has worked as a puppet theater actor for 36 years, “Instead every personage, even the wolf, who understands it is bad eating grannies, gets a candy.”

Petrosyan, who makes puppets for sale, volunteers her time with the children. She made most of the puppets and costumes for the four Likidon performances.

Often the actors contribute from their own pockets, although their salaries are not high (13,000 to 20,000 drams, about $30-46). The theater provided its small hall for rehearsals and staging free of charge. However, the building and equipment of the theater is worn out and the stage is poorly decorated.

“We collected nothing from the parents. We know many of them would be unable to give anything,” says Amirkhanyan, “There are children from families with of 6000 drams (less than $12) income a month. How can we require anything from them?”

Recently, Likidon received a $1,000 grant from the Armenian Human Rights Center within its “Civil Society Initiatives” small grants program. Likidon bought a computer, a printer and hired a dance tutor, to teach children fluid movements for its four performances. However, the three-month project was finished last week.

“Because of lack of means we are not able to stage new performances with richer stage decorations, or involve more children in the group or perform at schools in order for other children learn their rights,” says Amirkhanyan, “Sometimes, children stay for hours, and it would be good to be able to give them some snacks, since they hardly get any good feeding at home.”

Despite the lack of means the Likidon team is determined not to stop showing their performances and holding rehearsals even without any financial aid.

The once-shy Levon says he loves the theater and dreams of becoming an actor. When he finishes school he will apply to the Gyumri Theatrical Institute and says he will make good enough grades to get a free education, since his family will not be able to pay for his studies.