Hangardz on tour in Armenia staging Saroyan’s “My Heart’s in the Highlands”

Photos by Berge Arabian

Hangardz rehearsing William Saroyan’s “My Heart’s in the Highlands” in Western Armenian before departure for Armenia, June 2024, Istanbul

The original interview, conducted by Vartan Estukyan, was published in Agos in Turkish on June 7, 2024 and translated to English for the Armenian Weekly by Vural Özdemir (also known as Artun E. Azad in the Hangardz Writers Collective). Estukyan is a journalist at Agos who reports on culture, art, music, human rights and current politics.

Hangardz Independent Theater Ensemble is on tour in Armenia to stage its latest play, “My Heart’s in the Highlands.” The play, which premiered in April in Istanbul last year, is preparing to meet the audiences in Armenia on June 24 at the Abelyan Theater, on June 26 at the Sundukyan Theater and on June 30 at NPAG (Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art).

Authored by William Saroyan, the play is directed by Yeğya Akgün and Tara Demircioğlu. Akgün also shares the leading role in the play with Diana Chilingaryan.

We talked with Yeğya Akgün before their tour in Armenia.

Hangardz rehearsing William Saroyan’s “My Heart’s in the Highlands” in Western Armenian before departure for Armenia, June 2024, Istanbul

Vartan Estukyan (V.E.): You have expressed your interest in staging the play in Armenian in our previous conversations, and now you will realize it in Armenia. Who translated the text into Armenian? When did you start the rehearsals?

Yeğya Akgün (Y.A.): I must say that we were very lucky in terms of the translation. We were able to access “My Heart’s in the Highlands” as a Western Armenian text by Rober Haddeciyan, one of the esteemed writers from the Istanbul Armenian community, and published by the Teachers’ Foundation [Ususçats Himnarg]. It’s a very finely crafted translation that flows like water. When we contacted him, we mentioned that we would like to stage the play with his translation, and he happily shared the translation with us without expecting anything in return.

We started our work in November 2023. We had to do some preparatory work on the text. Artun Gebenlioğlu, one of Hangardz team members, took the initiative in adapting some of the revisions we had already made on the Turkish text to the Armenian text. As a whole team, we started reading and studying the Western Armenian text in December.

There is one thing I wish to underline: Hangardz’s mission is to create plays that will come to life on stage with the spirit of the Western Armenian language, just like in our previous plays, but we are also aware of the possible difficulties. We use our native language in such a limited area in our daily lives that this inevitably affects our work negatively. As a team, we worked on articulation and dialect for a long period; on this point, I can say that Artun Gebenlioğlu carried out extremely patient and meticulous work. After solving the issue of correct pronunciation, we stood up with our texts and moved on to the stage with the guidance of Tara Demircioğlu. Currently, our rehearsals will continue until our departure for Armenia on June 22.

Hangardz rehearsing William Saroyan’s “My Heart’s in the Highlands” in Western Armenian before departure for Armenia, June 2024, Istanbul

V.E.: What kind of excitement does it create for Hangardz members to appear in front of the audience there?

Y.A.: We discuss this a lot among ourselves. Among our team members there are also people from Aleppo, Yerevan and Vanadzor. We are in a state of feeling similar to that in the question Saroyan asked and the answers he gave: Where is a person’s home — a mountain, a rock, the place where s/he was born, a flowing river, a garden where cheerful conversations take place? 

There is, on the one hand, the Western Armenian language, which is endangered, and on the other hand, our Eastern Armenian cultural richness. The excitement of appearing in front of an Armenian audience in Western Armenian, one of the venerable languages ​​of the geography we once lived in, which leaves a poetic timbre in the ear, and our curiosity of their reactions, is actually the excitement of experiencing how the colors of Western Armenian, in which we feel at home, will find a response in the East.

In fact, I must say that we are just as embroiled and excited. First of all, the fact that the language bridge will be built from Istanbul to Armenia, similar to Saroyan’s journey to Bitlis and then to Armenia, is one of the things that excites us very much. 

There is, on the one hand, the Western Armenian language, which is endangered, and on the other hand, our Eastern Armenian cultural richness. The excitement of appearing in front of an Armenian audience in Western Armenian, one of the venerable languages ​​of the geography we once lived in, which leaves a poetic timbre in the ear, and our curiosity of their reactions, is actually the excitement of experiencing how the colors of Western Armenian, in which we feel at home, will find a response in the East.

V.E.: All right, how did your dream of performing in Armenia come true? Did they invite you, or did you contact them?

Y.A.: We will perform in Armenia through a project. I must state that this tour became possible thanks to the intense and arduous efforts of the project principal applicants. Our team members Artun E. Azad, Lara Narin, Tara Demircioğlu and I worked to finance the project in a process that required long follow-up and intensive research. The project application dossier was designed, developed and written by Hangardz in 2023, and then funded by the European Union and the Eurasia Partnership Foundation after being evaluated and selected by the jury. We are happy that independent theater staged in Western Armenian is supported and performed internationally.

After qualifying for the fund, we contacted the venues in Armenia. Our goal was to stage our plays in Yerevan and Gyumri. Taking into consideration one of our team members Diana Chilingaryan’s request to play in Vanadzor, the city where she was born, we started talks with the Vanadzor Abelyan Theatre. In the following process, Lara Narin contacted the NPAG stage in Yerevan and reached an agreement, and with the initiatives of the esteemed theater artist Aram Gosdanyan, we also reached an agreement with the Sundukyan Theater in Yerevan, and finally, Diana also contacted the Abelyan Theater in Vanadzor, and we agreed on a performance. I can say that this tour came to life as a result of the effort and will of all of our members for about eight months. We will take our hearts on a journey through the mountains on June 24 at the Abelyan Theater, on June 26 at the Sundukyan Theater and on June 30 at the NPAG stage.

Hangardz rehearsing William Saroyan’s “My Heart’s in the Highlands” in Western Armenian before departure for Armenia, June 2024, Istanbul

About the play

Written before “The Bald Soprano” by Eugène Ionesco and “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett, and considered a predecessor of the Theatre of the Absurd theatrical movement, “My Heart’s in the Highlands” is set in Fresno, California in 1914. The play’s theme is based on Mac Gregor, a former Shakespearean actor who feels lost and disconnected from the world, and his encounter with a nuclear family of an elderly mother, son and grandchild.

The play, written by William Saroyan in 1938, was staged on Broadway the same year.

The Hangardz cast includes Diana Chilingaryan, Antranik Bakırcıoğlu, Artun Gebenlioğlu, Bared Çil, Dikran Peştemalcıgil, Miranda Şahinoğlu, Tvin Zeytounian, Garine Maral Çizmeciyan, Lara Narin, Nışan Şirinyan, Sevada Haçik Demirci and Yeğya Akgün.

Hangardz rehearsing William Saroyan’s “My Heart’s in the Highlands” in Western Armenian before departure for Armenia, June 2024, Istanbul
Vartan Estukyan

Vartan Estukyan

Vartan Estukyan is a journalist at Agos who reports on culture, art, music, human rights and current politics.

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