The Republic of Armenia (Armenian: Հայաստանի Հանրապետություն, Hayastani Hanrapetut’yun) is a mountainous country in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia, bordered by Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. Armenia is one of the oldest nations in the world and its theatrical traditions are also very ancient.
The country’s folkloric festivals were very early on accompanied by ritual and pagan games. Records dating from the first century BCE have mentioned the arrival of travelling actors called gusan. Mime actresses called vardzak performed with masks, the most interesting of which represented werewolves with two reversible faces.
Armenian culture was then strongly influenced by the Turkish and Iranian supremacies of the 17th and 18th centuries. This explains the predominance of shadow theatre and the character of Karagöz, who progressively adapted to local culture, taking on ethnic Armenian traits. As a glove puppet, seen in streets, this character assumed the name of Karapet.
In 1920, Armenia became integrated in to the newly formed Soviet Union. This change of regime was felt in Armenia just like in the rest of the Federation, as much in the administration of the first State puppet theatres created at the end of the 1920s as in the aesthetics of theatre. The largest of these theatres was the youth-oriented State Armenian Theatre, Hovhannes Tumanyan – officially the Yerevan State Puppet Theatre named after Hovhannes Tumanyan (Yerevani Hovhannes T’umanyani anvan Petakan Tiknikayin T’atron; in Armenian: Երևանի Հովհաննես Թումանյանի անվան Պետական Տիկնիկային Թատրոն) – which opened in 1935 in Yerevan and named after Armenia’s national poet in 1938. The founders of the theatre were performer Sofia Bejanyan, painter Gevorg Arakelyan, actors Pavlos Boroyan and Araqsya Arabyan. The first director was Varya Stepanyan. Early performances included Naughty Petik and The Dog and the Cat. In 1937, the theatre took part in the All-Union Festival of Puppet Theaters held in Moscow and performed Tumanyan’s The Master and the Servant, winning second prize.
Another theatre also created in 1935 was the State Theatre of Leninakan (today, the Gyumri Puppet Theatre, Gyumri Tiknikayin T’atron; in Armenian: Գյումրի Տիկնիկային թատրոն). Their repertory catered to children and favoured education in relation to aesthetic innovations.
Armenian fairy tales produced by author Hovhannes Tumanyan included Gikor, The Dog and The Cat, Garnuk Akhper, The Czar Chakh-Chakh, and works by Agayan Aregnazan, such as The Wild Reed, as well as by other Armenian writers were part of the puppet theatres’ repertoire. However, their foundation resulted in professionalizing the milieu of puppetry and promoting a classical repertory, performing national and international plays (Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Evgeny Shvarts Yevgeny Schwartz, Nina Gernet, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Cervantes, Hans Christian Andersen, Mark Twain, Carlo Gozzi … )
During World War II, the Hovhannes Toumanyan State Puppet Theatre produced patriotic shows inspired by national folklore, and some satirical pieces of propaganda, such as Hitler at the Zoo (1942).
After 1945, the Armenian puppet theatre companies were forced to follow a parallel development as that of the Sergei Obraztsov theatre (see Russia, Sergei Obraztsov State Academic Central Puppet Theatre, Gosudarstvenny akademichesky tsentralny teatr kukol imeni S.V. Obraztsova). Up to the 1950s, only glove and rod puppets were used. It was not until the 1960s that the Armenian stage began a modernization influenced by international festivals and notably by the renewal of Romanian puppetry (see Romania). At the Hovhannes Tumanyan State Puppet Theatre, thanks to director Yervand Manarian and stage designer Aramis Sargsian, new poetic, more abstract forms of design and action replaced old naturalistic puppets and dull, academic stagings. New types of materials (at least new at that time for the USSR), such as foam rubber, and new technologies began to be used, as in Mister-Twister (1966), Ole Lucove (1966), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1969), The Love for Three Oranges (1972).
In 1975, the Hovhannes Tumanyan State Puppet Theatre moved to a more spacious building with two stages (seating 350 and 100, respectively), which encouraged experimentation. Mania Aslanian, for example, created a solo performance inspired by the Greek myth of Galatea, Beautiful Galatea (1976).
At the heart of the Hovhannes Tumanyan is a museum of puppetry, created in 1977 by the actor and collector Pavlos Boroian.
Several municipal companies were created during the 1980s with the support of screenwriter, playwright, and actor Yervand Manarian, who became the artistic director of the Hovhannes Tumanyan.
In 1987, the Yerevan State Marionette Theatre was created, the starting point having been a studio at the St Petersburg State Theatre Arts Academy. One of its students, Mnatsagan Piloian, took over the helm and directed string puppet shows for adults in an intimate style: The Old Yard Court (1995), Paradjanov (1996), and Caucasus Tamasha (1999).
At the beginning of the 21st century, there were four national theatres in Armenia: two in Yerevan, one in Gyumri, and the fourth in Vanadzor. Moreover, there are about twenty or so private puppet theatre companies, among which are the Agulis Puppet Theatre, led by Ervand Manaryan; the Puppet Theatre, led by Armen Safaryan, which is also host to the local UNIMA centre; and a few interesting theatres in Goris, Sevan, and Charentsavan. All of these were created after Armenia’s independence in 1991 and cater exclusively to children. Only the Hovhannes Tumanyan Theatre and the Yerevan State Marionette Theatre have adapted their repertory for adults.