Write. Perform. Teach!
Our Network member Jason Lasky's theatrical journey on and off stage
August 13, 2019 | by Creative Armenia
Actor, playwright, teacher and Network member Jason Lasky talks about his early acting career, his current plays and screenplays, and courses at UWC Dilijan.
CA: How did you choose the career path of theatre and acting?
JL: To be clear, my career path is teaching theatre, directing, and, above all, writing for stage, and now also for screen. It’s not something I really chose, but more what naturally evolved as I moved from high school to university, to living abroad in Shanghai. Yes, learning about acting, movement and voice in Binghamton University was the beginning, and writing for the stage began one semester abroad at Nottingham University’s New Theatre, when working with an international group of students. But a lot of my real training took place on the ground in China. Experience is still the best teacher, and there’s no such thing as a bad one, if you have the right attitude.
CA: In recent years you’ve been living in Armenia. Tell us how you made the decision to come and live here? In what ways did your expectations differ from reality?
JL: My family and I were living in Kenya at the time—I had been appointed Head of Drama at a prominent international school in Nairobi—but there were some problems with getting the proper paperwork together, so I ended up teaching English online for many months and took a position as a guest acting teacher at the Nairobi Performing Arts Studio at the Kenya National Theatre. We were deciding whether or not to stay in the country, and I did find a job at another international school, but then I found an open position for teaching at UWC Dilijan College, and we made our choice.
We did a bit of research into Armenia before arriving, with a specific focus on Dilijan, and what we’ve found is that living in a post-Soviet, developing country is not all rainbows and sunshine all the time. We have three small kids and we love the fact that we can give them a great natural environment to explore and play in. We’ve even brought in a couple of dogs, and my wife Svetlana routinely takes in stray dogs and cats to nurse back to health before finding loving homes for them.
CA: You teach Theatre and English Literature and Performance at UWC Dilijan College. Tell us a little about your experience of working with young students from Armenia and across the world.
JL: I’ve worked in international schools for my entire teaching career, but I was pretty blown away by meeting 18 students from 16 countries my first year in Dilijan. To date, I’ve taught students from 6 continents and 30-something countries. There’s something rather exciting about having all these teenagers from all these different backgrounds put their heads together to create something fresh. The number of students with Armenian ancestry has actually remained quite low, but I’m hoping to meet some more this coming year. All in all, my students generally come in with one or two ideas about theatre and they leave with a multitude, and it’s something that they determine for themselves, whether as actors, directors, writers, producers, or audio-visual designers. I introduce ideas about theatre from my training and experience, but that doesn’t at all mean that I possess any answers or secrets. I have my tools and talents, they have theirs, and I’m as much a student as they are at various times.
Teaching theatre is really the best job ever. I enjoyed my foray into Literature and Performance last year, and that was a wholly different dynamic because that course straddles the line between two subjects, and while I actually have a lengthier background in teaching English, theatre is what gets my gears moving.
The last two years we had the privilege of working on four special productions, one set in support of raising money for V-day, and the other two productions focusing on the Armenian genocide.
Speaking about the genocide plays, the first year was a collection of scenes with a loose narrative and a variety of performance-style dance, monologues, songs. We even had the Vanadzor Ladies Choir join us and we called it The Seeds of New Armenia. The project was spearheaded by a student named Boghos Boghossian, and this year he and I co-directed an in-the-works production of A Journey of Angels by playwright Brent Beerman based on the novel My Mother’s Voice by Dr. Kay Mouradian about her mother’s escape from the genocide. Svetlana volunteered her time to work on both productions, but she went all out on the latter’s scene and costume production. The students were amazing both years, but there was something especially touching about this year’s work. It was a marvel to witness Armenian and non-Armenian students and faculty create something so beautiful together in about one month’s time.
CA: Recently you received your MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen from the New Hampshire Institute of Art and held a public reading of your new screenplay. Tell us about your experience at the Institute. What skills, inspirations, or new opportunities did it provide you?
JL: NHIA’s MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen is something of a gem, and it’s thanks to former dean Lucinda Bliss and program director Buzz McLaughlin that I am in a better place craft-wise than I was before. I should also mention Russell Davis, Karen Sunde, and Shelley Evans as being the most influential teachers I had. It’s a low-residency program, and so in June 2018, January 2019, and June 2019 I spent ten days together with faculty and students from various MFA tracks who were all together to take seminars and workshops, hear readings of new work, and participate in presentations of graduating students and guest artists.
In addition to writing a new full-length play entitled A Fishbowl in the Desert and completing my first screenplay Jam session ‘72, my biggest takeaway is my approach to pre-writing. I also feel a greater sense of freedom now with the writing. Part of the residencies were also devoted to pitching new ideas, and I now have a web series, two other screenplays, and a TV show that I want to work on this year in addition to refining Fishbowl and Jam. Svetlana and I also have new play and screenplay ideas that we want to attack. There’s no shortage of play and screenwriting festivals, and we have been establishing a good track record for working with international artists and partners these last few years.
CA: Tell us about your creative influences.
JL: I have a certain amount of musicality in my work, a certain degree of rhythm is at play. I grew up going to a lot of live rock concerts, especially when I was a teenager, and the theatricality inherent in any kind of live performance—be it Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Billy Joel, Green Day, Kiss, The Foo Fighters, and on and on—left a great impression on me. I’m also a Walt Whitman fan, and he was the first poet I discovered that spoke to me on some level when I was in high school as his form broke away from any kind of rhythm.
But I’d have to say that Svetlana has been my main source of inspiration and my biggest support since 2012 when we first met. She’d tell me the barebone truths about something I’d written, and I’d give her the same about something she had penned, too. We’re equal partners in our theatre company, J. Lasky Productions, and so we are inspired by our own globetrotting, the things we say, the experiences we have, our small brood growing up. Without her, there’s a very good chance I would have stayed in New York and tried to break into that theatre world instead of living a more diversified existence and drawing on that broader view of the world for inspiration. That approach contributed to J. Lasky Productions winning a grant from Theatre Communications Group a few years ago for our 40 Days of Night project with our partners in Russia.
CA: You are also a playwright. Tell us a little about your plays and how being an actor influences your writing.
JL: Family, faith, and identity are overarching subjects because they are so deeply complex and intertwined and demand examination. One of my one-act plays, Mend the Envelope, is about a married couple from different religious backgrounds coming to terms with the tragic death of their son and the crippling of the husband. A full length play that Svetlana and I wrote and directed together—Rendezvous: A Tragicomedy—was the first English-language play in mainland China to feature two transgender characters, and it was co-produced with Shanghai LGBT in 2014.
My acting background has allowed me to better live in the characters’ headspaces because acting has a certain inherent freedom about it, and that freedom breeds freedom with the words. Acting in Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit at UWCD this year was also healthy for me because I needed a new acting and storytelling challenge, and playing that role helped open up some new creative doorways with my writing. As a philosophical sidenote, we’re all acting at all moments of our lives, and so it’s important to be present and open to what’s happening as that may lead to some great new ideas. We’re proof of that!
CA: What is your long-term vision for your creative career?
Our writing and approach to theatre are going to be what helps move us around the world. Already, we’ve staged work in the US, Russia, China, and Armenia and have been invited to projects, workshops, and festivals in Russia, Croatia, Brazil, and Armenia based on the strength of our ideas and words. We offer a workshop called “The Experiment: See-Act-Share” that started in Kenya, presented at Highfest 15 and at the Yerevan State Institute of Theatre and Cinematography in Armenia, and has been tentatively accepted for inclusion in the International Festival of Making Theatre in Greece in Summer 2020.
We’ll have our own theatre school and performance space where we present our work and train our own company of actors. In the morning we’ll write, teach, and train, in the afternoon, we’ll rehearse, and in the evening we’ll perform. We would love to see everything we write be produced. I mean, why else are we doing it?