LA-based writer and actor Sona Tatoyan located her great-great-grandfather’s shadow puppets, and will use them in a stage performance called ‘Azad.’
L.A.-based actor and writer Sona Tatoyan traveled to her family’s abandoned home in Aleppo, Syria with a mission. Tatoyan was searching for the shadow puppets that her great-great-grandfather used in his performances a century earlier. (Courtesy of Sona Tatoyan)
In 2019, L.A.-based actor and writer Sona Tatoyan traveled to her family’s abandoned home in Aleppo, Syria. Eight years had passed since she last visited and, in that time, war in the country had erupted and persisted. Her grandmother, who she last saw in early 2011, had since died and much of her extended family had left the country in the midst of the conflict. Still, she traveled back to the city where she spent many childhood summers with a mission. Tatoyan was searching for puppets.
Specifically, she was looking for the shadow puppets that her great-great-grandfather used in his performances a century earlier. Abkar Knadjian was a storyteller and puppeteer in Urfa, a city located in the southeast of present-day Turkey. When the Armenian Genocide occurred in 1915, Knadjian and his family were forced to flee their home, but he took the puppets with him. The puppets became what’s known as survivor objects, artifacts that have withstood a calamity, and Tatoyan learned of their existence while visiting an uncle in Armenia.
“I made this crazy joke, somebody’s got to save the puppets: Operation Save the Puppets,” Tatoyan recalls on a recent Zoom call.
And she did save the puppets. Moreover, she has been bringing them back to life. On April 21 through April 23 at The Pico in Los Angeles, Tatoyan will lead audiences into an immersive theatrical experience that incorporates these heirlooms with storytelling, as well as the sights and sounds of Aleppo. Called “Azad,” which is Armenian for free, the performance’s run coincides with the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide on April 24.
Born to ethnic Armenian parents from Syria, Tatoyan grew up in various small towns in the Southern and Midwestern United States, where her father was a doctor. During the summers, she headed to Aleppo to visit family. “It felt like getting ricocheted all the time, the straddling of these two very different worlds,” she says. “As a kid, it was weighty, it was heavy, to carry all of that. As an adult, I understand and appreciate the gift that it was.”
As she grew up, Tatoyan heard about Knadjian, the grandfather of her maternal grandfather, who was a hakawati, the Arabic word for storyteller. Tatoyan had a similar calling; She gravitated towards acting as a child, studied at Wake Forest University and went on to perform in productions at venues like the American Conservatory Theater and Yale Repertory Theatre. She has written screenplays too and is currently developing a television series inspired by Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s novel “Three Apples Fell From Heaven.”
In 2016, Tatoyan and her great-great-grandfather’s story began to converge. It started on a retreat in Finland where, sometime over the course of 10 days of silent meditation, Tatoyan had a revelation to launch a nonprofit with the goal of helping marginalized communities tell their stories. It’s a project that was inspired by her ancestors’ experiences during the Armenian Genocide and the impact that the Syrian War had on her family in recent years. The non-profit is called Hakawati, a nod to her great-great-grandfather’s profession, and the production of “Azad” is part of it.
It was around the same time that Tatoyan learned that Knadjian was also a puppeteer. She was fascinated by this bit of information and began to research Karagöz puppetry, a form of shadow puppetry revolving around two characters, Karagöz and Hacivat, which was performed at coffee houses throughout the Ottoman Empire. “It’s a screen, shadow and light and objects,” Tatoyan explains. “It was the form of cinema before cinema.”
When he lived in Urfa, Tatoyan says, Knadjian performed in Turkish, the common language in the Ottoman Empire, to ethnically mixed crowds. When the Genocide made ethnic minorities targets, Knadjian and his family traveled by foot to Aleppo, where there was already an Armenian community, as well as a network to help the survivors of the atrocity.
“Aleppo began to harbor Armenians and, slowly, they started to rebuild their lives there,” Tatoyan explains. While many Armenians went on to other cities and countries, others, like Tatoyan’s rebuilt their lives in Aleppo. There, Knadjian would begin his work with puppets again.
When Tatoyan made her way to the attic inside the old family home, she thought she might find a few of those old puppets. Instead, she discovered a wooden trunk filled with over 150 of them, handmade of leather and painted in colors that could show through a screen. She also found various contraptions used for magic tricks. Tatoyan likens it to a scene in a fairy tale, where she stumbled across a magic box in the midst of a war.
The puppets were now survivor objects twice over. After meeting with a historian, Tatoyan learned that some appeared to have been made in the 1920s and that the collection extended beyond the standard characters used in Karagöz puppetry. “They had to be puppets that he made in Aleppo,” Tatoyan explains. “He had started to make his own puppets out of the canon. He was inventing new characters and things.”
After returning to the U.S., Tatoyan reintroduced the puppets in a talk at Harvard University with help from puppeteer Ayhan Hülagü. She began writing “Azad,” a show that deals with trauma and healing, last year and first presented it at an event she co-created called “1001 Nights.” The positive response from that event led her to expand on the project.
For The Pico performances, Tatoyan is co-directing “Azad” with Jeremy Boxer. The show also includes puppetry by Ahmad Sayeed and sound design from electronic music artist Káryyn (who is also Tatoyan’s sister). Antoine Makdis of Warsha Production House in Aleppo provided visuals and sounds from the city for the show.
Also amongst the collaborators: Abkar Knadjian. “Azad” is also what Tatoyan calls a “quantum collaboration” with her great-great-grandfather. “It felt to me that I was summoned there because I’m a theater and film artist,” she says of the journey. “Essentially, that’s what my great-great-grandfather was, but I had no idea that’s what he was.”
Where: The Pico in Los Angeles, 10508 West Pico Blvd, LA
When: April 21-23