Carmel Valley writer explores the challenging world of foster youth in new drama at 26th annual Playwrights Project Festival
By Arthur Lightbourn
For San Diego playwright Lisa Kirazian, writing plays is an affair of the heart.
Or as she explains to young aspiring writers who may wish to follow in her footsteps, playwriting comes down to, “not being afraid to speak what’s coming from your heart because in a play it’s all out there for the world to see and if it’s fake and not genuine, people will be able to tell pretty quickly. So it really has to be visceral, from your heart.”
Her newest full-length play, “Switch,” is an exploration of the world of foster care with four actors playing multiple characters in a game show setting. It is being featured in five performances in the ‘Telling Stories: Giving Voice to Foster Youth’ program during the 26th annual Playwrights Project Festival at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza April 1-10.
“I wanted to show the difficulties and the challenges in the world of foster care as well as those moments of joy and inspiration,” Kirazian said. “There’s a lot of sound and light and lots of effects in this play because I’m sort of creating an absurdist world, but set very much in the realities of foster care.”
“Switch” was commissioned to rotate between performances of this year’s winning entries in the project’s California Young Playwrights Contest, which is open to writers 19 and younger.
Performance schedules are available at the project’s Website: www.playwrightsproject.org and tickets may be purchased online at: www.lyceumevents.org
Kirazian, a Carmel Valley wife and mother of two young children, is a professional playwright and screenwriter with nearly 20 scripts to her credit. Six of her plays have been produced across California.
Her screenplay scripts include “Cassatt and Degas,” based on the life of painter Mary Cassatt and her love-hate relationship with artist Edgar Degas, which won the Telluride Indiefest Screenplay Contest in 2002 and has been optioned for a Hollywood movie.
We interviewed Kirazian in the offices of this newspaper.
Asked if she herself was a foster child, she said, “I wasn’t.”
She came from a very happy cohesive family, but, growing up in San Diego’s Del Cerro neighborhood, she had a friend who was in foster care and other friends who were adopted or were the parents of foster children.
“That was my first exposure to foster care, but much of the material for my play came from research and talking to people in the system,” she said.
“So many of these kids,” she said, “regardless of the circumstances they are facing are still so positive and that’s very inspiring to me.”
In her family, Kirazian was the youngest of three daughters born in San Diego. Her father, George Kirazian, is a retired professor of literature who taught for 40 years at Grossmont College.
“I was very much influenced by him growing up,” she said of her father. “Reading plays and seeing operas and discussing them was very much a big part of my education.”
She describes her mother as a “wonderful mother, singer, and seamstress who taught us a lot about empathy.”
Kirazian was introduced to playwrighting per se in high school by visiting playwright and teaching artist Janet Tiger from the Playwrights Project. The project teaches literacy, communication skills, playwriting and theater during and after school hours in elementary, middle and high schools throughout San Diego.
While a student at Patrick Henry High School, Kirazian first entered the Playwrights Project’s California Young Playwrights Contest when she was 16. She didn’t win, but she received encouragement and a page of constructive criticism, which inspired her to try again with another play when she was 17. Again, not a winner, but another critique and more encouragement.
When she was 18, she hit the jackpot with her third play, “Not What the Doctor Ordered,” the story of a young man trying to decide what to do with his life the night before his college applications were due. The contest-winning play was produced and performed at the festival — and, in fact, emboldened her dream of becoming a professional playwright.
“I grew up trained in music and in theater. I did a lot of acting in school and I also trained as a violinist. And those were wonderful activities, but getting into college, I started thinking that at best those are interpretive acts. I’m interpreting somebody else’s piece. I’m reciting somebody else’s words when I’m an actor. But the idea of creating something of my own was more attractive. So I felt that writing plays was ultimately a more creative and daring act.”
Over the years, she has stayed in touch with the Playwrights Project, and, in fact, her latest play, “Switch,” is her fourth play commissioned by the project. In addition, Kirazian now also serves as the project’s president.
In 1992, she earned her B.A. from Stanford University with honors in English. In lieu of a minor, she was mentored in playwriting by playwright/actress Anna Deavere Smith.
In addition to writing stage and screenplays, Kirazian freelances writing articles, editing books, and writing and editing narrative introductions for audio books.
She also serves on the board of the Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance whose mission is to project the Armenian voice on the world stage through theatre and sound projects.
The Alliance has produced a number of her Kirazian’s plays and she currently administers the William Saroyan Prize for Playwriting that awards a $10,000 prize biannually to plays on Armenian themes.
Saroyan (1908-1981), of course, was the Fresno-born Armenian American writer who gained a worldwide reputation as a dramatist, novelist, essayist, and writer of short stories and memoirs.
His play, “The Time of Your Life,” (1939), won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, which he happily accepted, and a Pulitzer Prize, which he resolutely declined, on the grounds that commerce should not judge the arts.
“The Time of Your Life” was later made into a 1948 Hollywood film starring James Cagney.
Saroyan’s impressionistic style of writing and his zest for life came to be called “Saroyanesque.”
He once advised a young aspiring writer to “Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell.”
Despite the horrific circumstances of massacres, genocide, mass deportations and dispersion endured by the Armenian people during their long history, Kirazian said what attracts her to her Armenian heritage and culture is its enduring “joie de vivre” expressed and lived with music, singing, food, dancing and passion.
“They have always found a way to survive and create new life wherever they go — starting over, starting over, starting over. That’s my sense of it,” she said.
Kirazian is currently working on a play cycle on the Armenian experience in the 20th century.
Name: Lisa Kirazian
Distinction: San Diego playwright, screenwriter and freelance writer whose latest play, “Switch,” is being featured during the 26th annual Playwrights Project Festival, April 1-10, at the Lyceum Theatre
Resident of: Carmel Valley since 2006
Born: San Diego
Education: B.A. in English with honors, Stanford University, 1992
Family: She and her husband, Steve Kradjian, have two daughters, Ani, 5, a kindergartener at Ocean Air Elementary School, and Mari, 2. Her husband is a chemist and president/CEO of Conventus Biomedical Solutions in Sorrento Valley.
Interests: Playing piano and guitar with her children and rooting for the San Diego Padres. “I’m a Padres fanatic.”
Reading: Currently reading poetry by Denise Levertov and short stories by Alice Munro.
Favorite playwrights: Shakespeare, Thornton Wilder, Tom Stoppard, William Saroyan and Wendy Wasserstein
Favorite films: Those by director David Lean (“Lawrence of Arabia,” “Passage to India,” and MGM musicals)
Philosophy: “I love God, my family and my culture. I feel they give me so much to think about and write about. I want to live a life of joy and I want my writing to reflect that joy.”
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