First-year insights: On staging ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ and Yale’s theatrical scene

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A scene from the Yale Dramat's production of "A Prayer for Owen Meany." (Photo by Tess Ryckman ’12)

Every spring semester, the Yale Dramatic Association presents a Freshman Show, staffed, crewed, and performed entirely by freshmen in Yale College.  Eric Sirakian ‘15, a member of Jonathan Edwards College, is directing this year’s show, “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” on stage at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., April 5-7. 

Sirakian, a graduate of Phillips Academy in Andover, spent a year after high school studying theater at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Earlier this semester, he arranged “The Sonnet Dessert,” part of the “Shakespeare at Yale” celebration. He has also performed at Yale in “Mesopotamia,” “Street Scenes,” “Almost Maine,” and “Coriolanus,” as well as two shows devised by the experimental theater company Control Group. Eric will spend the summer performing in King Lear at Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Massachusetts. He is also a writer and a leader in the FOOT (Freshman Outdoor Orientation Trips) program.

YaleNews caught up with him during the final rehearsals of the Dramat show to discuss life at Yale and the creative process.

Why did you choose Yale?

Eric Sirakian
Eric Sirakian

I felt a strong sense of community at Yale, more than at any other school of its size. I found that students here care about and look out for one another, that they are happy, and that they are engaged with each other and the outside world in many different ways. I was thrilled by the vibrant arts scene, namely the variety and appreciation of theater. Not to mention the academic programs!

You arranged a major project for Shakespeare at Yale and now you’re directing the freshman production at the Yale Dramat. Tell us about the climate for student initiative and creativity at Yale.

There are countless opportunities to make a dream come true at Yale. If you have an idea, you can make it happen, provided that you put in the time and energy. The resources here are extraordinary, as is the support from students, faculty, and administration alike.

“The Sonnet Dessert” brought together 154 very different people from across campus to read the entirety of Shakespeare’s sonnets. What did you learn about Yale and Yalies through that project?

I learned that all Yalies are different, and that we all lead very different lives on this campus. This is a huge university with an endless variety of people and experiences. It was a great joy and privilege, then, to be able to share an afternoon with such a diverse group of people. Yalies are good at that, at coming together, for important causes or just for fun. We all really care about what we do but we also care about each other, and about sharing time and space with each other. That is why, I believe, theater at Yale is so successful and well attended.

What role do you think theater should — and can — play in building community and having an impact outside the walls of the halls where plays are presented?

Theater is entertainment, yes, but it also has enormous potential to be a community forum: a place where ideas are shared and challenged. Great theater forces us to see the world in new ways. It forces us to test our assumptions, to ask impossible questions, and to consider possibilities we had never considered before. It builds community because it fosters empathy and offers a shared experience.

You chose to pitch John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany” to the Dramat as this year’s Freshman Show. What about that story speaks to your generation and to the current moment?

“A Prayer for Owen Meany” is a play about faith, and about the institutions in which we place our faith: the church, the school, America. Owen and John grow up in the polarized world of the Cold War, a world filled with uncertainty. The institutions they believe in fail them over and over again. Right now in America, we are also facing a crisis of faith. Do we trust our government? And what about organized religion? More and more Americans are finding an independent path to God. We are desperate for something, anything, to believe in.

John Irving himself is coming to campus on Saturday for a talk with students. Tell us how that came about and what his visit means to you and the production team.

I wrote to Mr. Irving and invited him to the production, telling him about the impact that his novel has had on me and about my enthusiasm for Simon Bent’s stage adaptation. Master [Penelope] Laurans very generously offered to host him, and he very generously agreed to come. He has only seen this adaptation once, when it was performed at his high school, Phillips Exeter, in 2005. I hope that our production will convince him once and for all that “Owen Meany can — and should! — be dramatized.

You and your freshman colleagues had to come together as a big team to mount this production on the main stage of the Yale Repertory Theatre. What’s your strategy for success in team building?

It has been a unique privilege and challenge working with a team of over 70 students. My job at the very beginning was to communicate a vision for this show that would inspire and excite everyone involved. I am proud to say that we all feel ownership and pride for this show — we feel we are telling a story that needs to be told, a story that is now our own.

Professor John Gaddis’ freshman seminar, “What History Teaches,” was one you took first semester. What lessons and insights did the professor and that course give you that you find useful for your work as a theater artist?

Theater and history are very closely related; they both deal with narrative, and with the exploration of worlds separate from our own. As we go on a journey, whether in a period of history or a play, we discover similarities and differences that illuminate our own place in time, our own identity. By understanding something different we can better understand ourselves.

The Yale Dramat takes pride in being the second oldest college theater association in the country and has a rather distinguished history over its 112 years. What does it mean to you and your colleagues to be part of that tradition?

The Yale Dramat is an incredible organization. The board members are experienced, dedicated, and extremely supportive. Despite its illustrious history and tremendous resources, however, the Dramat is only as good as the shows it puts up today, in this moment. My responsibility as director has been to create a work that upholds the Dramat’s tradition of excellence.

What has surprised you the most during your time at Yale?

It is very easy to get lost at Yale — lost in the endless possibility. What once seemed like a clear course for the future is now complicated by all the ideas and people I have encountered. I am not worried, however. Yale has forced me to live life one day at a time.

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