Corrections or additions?

This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the August 15, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

From Bristol to Armenia

I‘m really amazed by this," says Bristol Riverside

Theater’s artistic director Edward Keith Baker. "It just happened

so quickly. I don’t really know what to expect. If you’d put this

as a part of a plot in a movie, you’d be hard-pressed to find it


In early July, Baker was chosen by the State Department to travel

to Armenia and serve as a cultural ambassador representing the United

States. Three weeks later, Baker boarded a plane for Armenia where

he is now spending five weeks ( through August 29) giving lectures,

presentations, workshops, and leading discussions on the development

of America’s performing arts. He has also been invited by the famous

Armenian director Vartan Petrosyan to perform in a play written in

celebration of the 1,700th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity

as Armenia’s state religion. Actors from Russia, France, Germany,

and Italy are also traveling to Armenia to participate in the epic


In an interview at his office at Bristol Riverside Theater, along

the Delaware in Bristol, Pennsylvania, two days before his departure,

Baker spoke with enthusiasm of his upcoming adventure.

"Evidently, my participation in this play is very important to

the Armenians. I’ve been told that I’m the first American actor ever

to participate in an Armenian theater project. Apparently, up to this

point, the United States hasn’t been very forthcoming with supporting

cultural projects over there, although I really don’t know why."

Armenia’s long history is not widely known here in the U.S. Some


Armenians you may or may not recognize include Yeghishe Charentz


Aram Khachatourian (composer), Sergei Paradjanov (filmmaker), William

Saroyan (writer), Charles Aznavour (actor and singer), Eric Bogosian

(actor, playwright, and performance artist), and Cher (a k a Cherylin

Sarkissian, Queen of the World).

In the 20th century the Armenian people suffered genocide, political

repression by the Soviet Union, and the massive destruction of a 1988

earthquake. Following its 1991 vote for independence, the country

found itself surrounded by hostile neighbors, with some areas deprived

of power and even water for a period of three years. With Turkey and

Azerbaijan to the east and west, and Russia and Iran to the north

and south, cultural interchange with other nations has been difficult.

Furthermore, since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the


to independence, Armenia’s cultural enterprises, especially the


arts, have been severely neglected.

Although his selection seemed sudden for Baker, in reality it was

the result of a fairly lengthy process. Having searched in vain for

over a year for an all-encompassing American theater arts specialist

— someone who was an actor, director, musician, and singer, as

well as having had significant experience running a professional


— Katheryne Wainscott of the U.S. State Department finally arrived

in Philadelphia in June to attend the Theater Communications Group

national conference (an annual meeting of representatives of


regional theaters from across the country).

For Wainscott, it was a last-ditch effort to find someone who


the spectrum of qualifications required by the State Department.


her problem with Derek Gordon, director of the Pennsylvania Council

of the Arts, and Marcia Salvatore, of the Pew Charitable Trusts,


name came up, and the following day he was asked to submit a resume.

Two days later Baker was notified that he had been selected for the


Baker’s itinerary in Armenia is fully scheduled. After

Petrosyan’s play goes into performance, he will have time to visit

theaters all over the country and meet with Armenian theater


"I’ll be teaching. They want to know about American theater


and new techniques, in particular those dealing with Shakespeare.

They also want to know about American musical theater. It’s going

to be really fascinating."

Baker was born in Macon, Georgia, but grew up in New York City.


Street and Broadway is a long way from Macon — in more ways than

one," he says with a laugh. His mother was an opera singer who

sang in the New York City Opera and the Philadelphia Grand Opera.

His father left the family when Baker was very young.

"I didn’t really know my father," he says. "The last I

heard he was working for the Ford Motor Company in Beirut, supervising

the assembly of cars over there. This was before the 1967 War. I


he got out of there in the late 1960s. Whatever he did after that

time, I have no idea."

In no rush to attend college after high school, Baker instead studied

with legendary theater educator Sanford Meisner. "Going into


was a kind of natural progression for me, I guess," he says.


was the first thing I did right out of high school." He went on

to study music, opera, and directing at Juilliard and the University

of Freiberg, in Germany, graduating in 1967.

Baker was the original director of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival,

mounting 18 productions by the Bard. "I was one of the first


in the country to have a Shakespeare in the Park series, and it’s

still going on there, quite healthfully," he says. "But back

then it was more of a minor league operation." Baker then went

on to head the Florida Repertory Theater for seven years before coming

to Bristol Riverside Theater in 1991.

One adjustment that Baker needed to make while preparing for his trip

to Armenia is that he had to hand over the reins for the final


of BRT’s summer concert series, "Love, Luck, and Ladies,"

featuring an evening of tunes by Frank Loesser, Burton Lane and


Loewe. This is something he is not quite used to doing. The show


August 9, and performances continue Thursday through Sunday, August

16 to 19.

"I put together these summer concerts, I conceive them, find the

music, arrange them, as well as usually perform in them. I expected

to perform in this one too, but this Armenian trip came about all

of a sudden,’ he says. "The show has already been prepared, as

far as its structure and what songs are going to be in it, but it

is going to be a little bit different for me not to perform in it."

The summer concert series is becoming an annual tradition at Bristol

Riverside Theater. "Susan Atkinson (Bristol Riverside Theater’s

founding producing director) already had a version of it going on

before I got involved," says Baker. "But it wasn’t really

an ongoing program."

Consistency has bred familiarity, however, and each summer the concert

series has drawn a larger audience. "This is our fourth year,"

says Baker. "And it’s really taken off. Last summer we opened

with maybe a 40 percent house, but this year, at the opening of our

first show, `As Time Goes By, The Songs of World War II,’ we had a

near capacity crowd, and it continued throughout the run."

Despite the laid back, lazy-hazy feel to the summer concerts, there

is nothing lackluster about the work and care that goes into each

show. Just as much work is put into them as BRT’s regular productions.

The shows are carefully arranged and exceptionally well performed,

with all the lighting and set design elements of a top-drawer



And the audience response has been particularly gratifying for Baker.

"Some of those World War II songs we did, the whole audience was

just singing along through every song. I had one woman come up to

me after a show and say, `I not only knew every one of those songs,

I knew a story for every one too.’ We really touched an area of her

life, and when that happens, you know you’ve done your job," he


"Love, Luck, and Ladies" continues the feel-good formula.

"It’s a concert event of some songs you haven’t heard, or haven’t

heard for a long time, as well as some very familiar tunes," says

Baker. "And the audience gets to sing along a bit too."

After stepping from the stage following the final


of the second concert series, "By Popular Demand" (which


favorite songs from many of the musicals that Bristol Riverside


has staged over the past 14 years), Baker went directly to the airport

and flew to Armenia. He is keeping an online journal of his


there which he updates every week, Monday through Friday. These


and constantly surprising journals can be read by all at Bristol


Theater’s website,

One of Baker’s early entries includes the information that, "I’m

called Edward here, pronounced `ED-OU-ARD,’ because they like it so

much and apparently Keith in Armenian sounds like their word


Baker writes in his journal that Petrosyan’s new play has to do with

contrasting, in a satirical way, the divine life of Jesus and the

reality of everyday existence in Armenia today. "There is a jazz

band on stage, he does a one-man comic routine dressed in a tuxedo,

and Jesus feeds the 5,000 and actually comes into the audience and

feeds them."

Later he describes how: "We are deep into rehearsals now,


from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. It’s amazing how many different ways you

can do this work and it still work. They have no stage manager in

our sense. They have a person who keeps track of everything, but only

the director runs the rehearsal. The director works on what they want

until they are finished and then we break. Yesterday we worked at

times for three hours at a stretch. When I mentioned our U.S. system,

the actors looked at me as if I was crazy. How can you stay in the

mood? How can you keep concentration? Why, so many breaks? Why?"

Baker’s understanding of the play he is in is somewhat fuzzy, but

his comprehension of the theatrics is clear. "When Jesus calls

the 12 apostles to follow him, all of us come onto the stage,"

he writes. "Judas is introduced as the one who betrayed Jesus.

We turn to him and we hear an enormous clap of thunder


directors are very fond of thunder, I’ve noticed). Melodramatic to

say the least. Yet, one of the things I love about Armenian theater

is that they are unafraid of what we would call the `melodramatic

gesture.’ They make it completely believable. A good lesson!"

Finally he ends the week with the commentary: "Hard to believe

this is end of the only week of rehearsal. We open on Tuesday night

and it is sold out. Armenians love their theater. And they love Vartan

Petrosyan! His concept for this piece is terrific. I’ve still only

seen bits and pieces and don’t understand it all yet. None of the

foreigners do. But, little by little, we see how this fits


Two days before the beginning of his big Armenian adventure, Baker

admitted that he didn’t quite know what to expect. He did know,


that he needed to be open to any and all possibilities that his


may offer.

"I don’t know where this opportunity came from, what it’s about,

what its meaning is for me personally and for Bristol Riverside


It could be a kind of harbinger of something new. Perhaps there could

be some sort of on-going cultural exchange; Armenia stage artists

could come here, we could go there. Maybe, who knows. It’s just the

beginning of something."

Love, Luck, and Ladies , Bristol Riverside Theater,

120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. An evening of music and

songs featuring Sharon Alexander, Bethe B. Austin, Anthony Cummings,

Mark Bradley Miller, Fran Prisco, Lois Anne Sach, and Maura O’Neill

Schorpp. $25. Show continues Friday and Saturday, August 17 and 18,

at 8 p.m., and Sunday, August 19, at 3 p.m.

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