Playwright/actress Leslie Ayvazian lives in an ivy-covered three storied Victorian house in Leonia, New Jersey, with her husband, Sam, an architect, and 18-year-old son, Ivan. This is the same house where she lived for the first 12 years of her life. And this is the house where her mother, Gloria, lived with Ayvazian’s glamorous grandmother, Maria. This is the house that holds the secrets and stories that sparked the imagination of playwright and actress Leslie Ayvazian as she wrote "Rosemary and I," which opens at Passage Theater in Trenton on Thursday, February 10. Previews begin Thursday, February 3.
A friend of hers said, "Leslie’s all about family." And so it seems, her family (the generations behind her and now the circle of three) are central to her life and to the characters in "Rosemary and I."
In 1961, when Ayvazian was 12, her family, which included two younger sisters, left the house in Leonia for Lake Saranac, New York, where her father, an internist, became the head of a hospital, devoting himself to caring for patients with tuberculosis. Ayvasian graduated from the University of Vermont in 1970 where she majored in theatre then moved to New York City to pursue an acting career.
She met her husband in New York (her sister was dating Sam’s brother) and married in 1977. She appeared with Nathan Lane in "Lips Together, Teeth part," and in plays by several contemporary playwrights both in the city and in prominent regional theaters. After their son, Ivan, was born, she found herself standing by for Lucy Arnaz in the Broadway show "Lost in Yonkers," and missing too many events in her young son’s life. "It felt so wrong to leave him. I was gone every night. I was gone on birthdays," she says in a phone interview from her home. When her grandmother died, leaving Ayvazian the house in Leonia, the
glimmerings of a solution began to unfold.
It all seemed to fit together. In 1988, when Ivan was two, they left their mid-town Manhattan loft and moved to New Jersey. And with the house, Ayvazian also inherited an attic-full of treasures that led her to the answer to her dilemma. She had inherited her grandfather’s (the Reverend Antranig Arakel Bedikian) papers, Bibles, and even his typewriter. He had been a minister and a prolific writer. Ayvazian remembers that he used to work in the then-air-conditionless third floor of this house, dressed in his three-piece suit. Every time he came downstairs, he always carried reams of paper in his hands. In
all, he wrote 15 books about their Armenian heritage, in addition to weekly sermons and many, many letters.
Ayvazian sat down, with baby Ivan at her feet, and began to write. "Creativity is my engine," she says. Her first play, "Nine Armenians," initiated her career as a playwright in 1996 with productions first at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre and then at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York. The play gained widespread notice, went on to regional theatre productions, and garnered a number of awards, including the John Gassner Outer Critics Award for Best New Play, the Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center, the Anahid Literary Award from
Columbia University, and a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Arts. "Nine Armenians" was also published in the 1996 anthology, "Best Plays by Women."
The richness of her attic trove also included trunks from her grandmother, Maria, who had been a very theatrical person, a professional singer who toured and gave concerts. Before her marriage to the Reverend, she had spent ten years of her life in "velvet coats and cool-looking trunks." She even sang at Carnegie Hall. In her grandmother’s travel trunk, Ayvazian discovered concert programs, sheet music, diaries, costumes, and keepsakes. These were the items
that prompted the beginnings of her play, "Rosemary and I." Doing double duty in the Passage Theater production, Ayvazian also plays the role of the daughter, under the direction of director/actress Blair Brown.
Though "Rosemary and I" is not a biographical play, the characters did, however, spring from the ephemera buried in Ayvazian’s grandmother’s trunk. A story about personal desires, ambitions, and a mother/child relationship, the characters include a very theatrical mother who is a professional singer, the daughter, the father, and the accompanist/friend who toured with the singer.
In addition, Ayvazian has invented characters who have their own journey. Perhaps this play is a gift to her own mother, Gloria, a homemaker who also sang but never with the acclaim of grandmother Maria. "I want my mother to have more confidence in her own voice, and by that I mean `voice’ in every way. Not only did she have a most beautiful contralto singing voice, but in the thoughts and words that she spoke." Ayvazian appreciates her own mother’s "wisdom." Her
grandmother Maria was "wonderfully intentioned and a loving woman, but
very theatrical and self-involved."
Throughout the play, Ayvazian examines the relationship between mother to daughter. What has each desired? How can each be free to pursue her dreams? She says: "Daughters look to their mothers as role models to really see how to be in this world, to be full-bodied, present, how to be an equal and legitimate. We all need to figure out how to consider our voice. What does it take for us to believe that we are worthy of desire?"
The daughter in "Rosemary and I" is trying to figure out where she fits into the picture. Ayvazian seems to be retaking her own mother’s journey to explore what is true for all mothers and daughters. Her credo is: "We need to know where we have been in order to get to where we need to go. Children need their parent’s attention. They need to believe that they’re seen. It is hard sometimes in theatrical households." She has consciously tried to avoid that pitfall with her son Ivan. Writing has provided her with a creative outlet that has also allowed her to be a full-time mother. When she traveled for
productions of her work, Ivan would travel with her.
As her son has grown older, Ayvazian has returned to acting. During this "second act" of her career as an actress, she has appeared at McCarter Theatre in "Safe as Houses" by Richard Greenberg in the spring of 1998. In addition to the recurring role of Judge Valdera on "Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit," she recently played the guest lead on an episode of "Law and Order: Criminal Intent." Not slacking off on playwriting, she has written a number of full-length and shorter plays, including "High Dive" and "Footlights." For long-time friend and mentor Olympia Dukakis, she wrote several plays and a short film.
The house in Leonia has become a very lively place. This is remarkable to Ayvazian because she remembers it once held an aura of sadness. When she inherited the house, her mother begged her not to move back. When grandmother Maria originally moved there, she felt the house was a loss of status, "not grand enough" and that "her wings had been clipped." Her tears and distress transferred to her daughter Gloria.
But now, with the dynamics of Ayvazian’s family trio, the spell of sadness has been broken. It has been revived by the creative work of three people who each has a studio there. Leslie’s husband, Sam, who has his own architectural firm in New York City, works on his projects, which include the recent conservation lab at the Museum of Modern Art. Ayvazian pops in and out as she writes (she just finished a new play commissioned by South Coast Rep,) rushes out to perform in another episode of "Law and Order," or teach a master class or
workshop for student actors, or meet with a women’s writing circle. Each month 12 women meet for 12 hours around Ayvazian’s dining room table to eat and write and share their creative impulses. She sees her work now as "all of a piece."
And from that third floor aerie – now son Ivan’s domain – music permeates the whole house. With double-stacked amplifiers, the house is always filled with his music tumbling down from the third floor.
But generations move on. "Rock and Roll guy" Ivan is off to Brown University this fall. "He’ll be a writer, I think," says Ayvazian. Well, the gene pool is certainly there. He, too, can, as his mother says it, "consider his own voice, pursue his desire with his heart open."
Rosemary and I, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-0766. Drama about a writer struggling to come to terms with her family’s complicated history. Written by Leslie Ayvazian and directed by stage and television actress Blair Brown. Through February 27. Opening night is February 10. $22 to $28. Previews begin February 3.