Ghost Light, Meet the Dramaturg: Professor Leslie Ayvazian

BY Emma Schillage, December 10, 2021

Ghost Light, Meet the Dramaturgs is a Theatre series featuring Columbia Dramaturg students, faculty, and alumni, learning about their work, aspirations, and pandemic passion projects.


In Michael Mark Chemer’s book Ghost Light, he uses the metaphor of a ghost light to represent the work of a Dramaturg. Dramaturgs work behind the scenes, always thinking and searching for creative possibilities, guiding the way, even once the stage goes dark. In this series, we shine a light on Columbia Dramaturgs.


This week we are featuring Adjunct Associate Professor Leslie Ayvazian (she/her). Ayvazian is the author of 8 full-length plays and 7 one-act plays, published variously by Samuel French and Dramatist Play Service. Nine Armenians won the John Gassner/Outer Critics Circle Award for best new American play, The Roger L. Stevens Award, and second place for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Ayvazian is an Adjunct Associate Professor of dramaturgy at the Columbia University Graduate School of the Arts, where she teaches playwriting to dramaturgs. Her credits as an actress include a recurring role on Law & Order – SVU and roles on Broadway in Lost in Yonkers and Naked Girl on the Appian Way.

How would you describe dramaturgy?


Leslie Ayvazian [LA]: I think dramaturgy is sort of a magical science. It really is. It requires on the spot decisions. It requires a certain language. It is the question of: “How do you keep the playwright moving forward without shutting them down?” That is a very delicate thing to do. You can over talk, over prescribe, talk at the wrong time. There are tons of things that can happen that can make the playwright lose that delicate thing that they are running after. I have had that happen to me. And the dramaturgs that come out of Columbia don’t do that. They are incredibly sensitive. They are an amazing group of people. They really rock.  


How do you approach teaching Playwriting to dramaturgs?


LA: It is a very organic process. I write with them in every class, so I can set some sort of example of something wider, broader, harder, and riskier just by doing it with them. So in every class we write together. I give ten prompts, we choose from one of those prompts and then we write into it. Then we decide what we are writing and what is coming up for us. Do I have a theme or a question? We do exercises that are two people, then three people, then ten people. We do ways of critiquing one another so that we practice listening to each other all the time. The conversation goes on for as long as it needs to go on with every person, and what we all do is try to show each person what it is that they are writing. In the second semester, everyone in the class dramaturgs everyone else in the class. In other words, whoever is sitting next to them will be their dramaturg. They meet every week and give each other questions. So they practice dramaturgy that way, in respect to playwriting. 


I also really try to examine all the rules that belong to dramaturgy and try to break them, so that we do not in any way have to deal with the constraints of trying to do it right.  But in this third part of the second semester, we start applying every rule we know to finish the play. But allow it to be messy, confusing, don’t worry about segues. That way, we can work our way through the weeds until we latch on to something that equals a story with a question that can be resolved in a certain way. That’s how it happens. It is utterly organic, it is in the moment, it is instinctive behavior. I try to ask more questions than teach. 


Why was it important for you to teach dramaturgs specifically?


LA: For me, teaching dramaturgy made a lot of sense, because dramaturgs are so curious. They know they have to go into a room and define themselves. They know they have to prove their work, and they are there because they are interested in having an effective experience in the theatre where people can get devastated or can laugh their heads off. So, how do we get the story clear? How do we make sure that we are not being taught? How do we make sure that we are not being told something is important, but rather that we are just experiencing human life. That is what dramaturgs do, they help the playwright discover what is authentic about that playwright’s voice. Don’t write to what you think is popular. Don’t write the current trends. Write what you are trying to learn. Write into your questions. I really do think that writing a play is pursuing a question and you may not get the answer. You may ask the same question over and over and over again, and that is what you do. The play is the process of your question and the journey of your questioning. And it can be a small thing. It doesn’t have to change the world. It just needs to be sincere human wondering. And in pursuit of that, you will find the story. 


You act in a lot of your own work. How do you separate the acting process from the playwriting process?  


LA: You know it’s different according to plays and how we handle it. I have to tell you that I also very much enjoy having other people in my plays. It is also really nice to sit in the back row and watch a world that you penned entirely. But if you have good actors and they are really working to inhabit it truthfully for themselves, sometimes it has a different tone than you expected.But it is still fulfilling the story of the play and that’s always fun for me. The reason I acted in my own play, I was an actress before I was a writer. As an actress, I would say I had a moderate career. I had enough work to support myself. But I never chose to go to Los Angeles. Then I got put in a niche of being everybody’s understudy on Broadway. That allowed me to earn money and to meet some wonderful people, but I didn’t have the opportunity to actually perform. It is a tough way to go and not one of the reasons one goes into theatre. It’s never "Oh goodie, I get to be an understudy." 


So once I had a child, I decided to break from it. Leaving acting wasn’t that hard for me. And if I hadn’t had my son, I probably wouldn’t have taken myself seriously as a writer. So once I had my son, I decided to concentrate on him, because he was clearly an artistic little boy. I liked watching him think. That’s when I started writing. I didn’t initially write for me. The first full-length play I wrote was called Nine Armenians. It was because I am one hundred percent Armenian, and there aren’t that many Armenians in the world and Armenian history is one that not everyone knows. Not even everyone knows an Armenian. It was a race that was reduced down due to a horrifying genocide in 1915 in Turkey, which included my grandparents. 


So, my parents witnessed the genocide and I am first generation American Armenian. I grew up with the horrifying story of the slaughter of the Armenian people. I also grew up in a small town in Upstate New York where there were no other Armenians. It was a very outsider feeling for a while. We had a culture in that we had a language that was foreign to our surroundings. That's rich material if you are a writer. 


How do you remain true to your own voice and your own culture in your writing? 


LA: When I wrote Nine Armenians, what inspired it was the image of Armenians standing in a driveway saying Goodbye. The first word of the play would be “Goodbye” and then it would take them an hour and a half to leave, which is what Armenians do. The play happened with them trying to get in the car. I had sixteen scenes, nine characters, four seasons, and everyone wore coats. It was a big moment when I gave it to my Dad, because he is a writer. He wrote several books. He was a doctor and he wrote under a pen name. He was brilliant and he was an extremely sad man, having lost his mother, and having witnessed the genocide. He carried enormous sadness in him. I wanted to make him happy. I wanted to give him something, so when I finished it, I went to my parents house and he read it over the night. In the morning, he was standing in the doorway of the bedroom and he had tears coming down his face. All he said was, “Thank you.” 


The other thing that happened due to Nine Armenians, was when it got reviewed in the New York Times. It was the first time since the genocide in 1915 that genocide was mentioned without the word "alleged." So then it became incredibly popular in the Armenian community which was hard for me to handle for many reasons. It was very hard to handle what they now wanted from me. I couldn’t be that. I wanted so much to give to my community and it was just too hard to continually write about something so devastating despite the fact that I think you go to the theatre to be shaken up. I needed to write about other subjects. I wanted to write about love. 


In finding your own style, would you say that love is what you are in pursuit of with every play and project that you write?


LA: It’s certainly what I want to do right now. I decided last week that I wanted to write a book about my marriage. That will be a love story. Love stories are hard to write. But I want to be the girl that went from the broken family to the truth of my life which is that I’ve found love. I literally proposed to my husband on my second date. It’s true. What I’ve always wanted to do was to give voice to the marginalized. All of my plays, I want them to be mostly women. One of the problems I dealt with in Nine Armenians was that it was six women and three men and I always in feedback sessions get asked why there weren’t more men. Whereas nobody asked Arthur Miller why there aren’t more women in his plays. But I get asked that all the time. And then I have to explain why I want to write from a women’s point of view.


Did you have any Passion Projects you worked on during the Pandemic? 


LA: Over the pandemic, I tried to be as experimental as possible. I wrote a story of a young girl who is looking out her bedroom window into a zoo. The zoo has been deserted and the only animal left is a porcupine. She has a relationship with the porcupine, and the whole thing happens in the dark, because porcupine’s are nocturnal. So, the only thing you hear is my voice. She believes she is also a porcupine. She has quills. When a woman has quills, what is that? So that’s what I wrote and that is what I want to do next. I also have a play that is in line to go to Broadway. It is a three character play about a family. I have been super fortunate in terms of making dreams come true. I have support and I have love. 


What is something that you are looking forward to now that theatre is starting to come back?


LA: You know, I’ve never wanted fame. I have only always wanted opportunity. I want the opportunity to sit in rooms with people and collaborate together. I think that changes people's lives. I really do. For me, theatre is a sacred place because people can change you on the inside. It can show you something about yourself. I go to the theatre to be devastated, to be totally shaken up so that I can rearrange myself a little bit. I am excited to learn and to teach. I think that one of the ways I teach is that I want to learn. I do truly want to learn from my students, and they know that. So, they know that I hold them in high regard. Every class. Everyone.