It's a metaphor to which just about everyone can relate: a person perched on a diving board 12 feet above a swimming pool, too scared to dive, too embarrassed to turn back and take the ladder down. The image of the petrified diver-as-metaphor wasn't lost on actress-playwright Leslie Ayvazian - even as she, herself, was living the event. Three years ago, on a vacation in Greece with her family, Ayvazian tried to escape the blistering heat with a dip in the hotel pool, only to find herself paralyzed once she got to the top. Did she eventually conquer her fears? Audiences at Ayvazian's one-woman show, High Dive, which opened Feb. 26 at Off-Broadway's Manhattan Class Company, are finding out, even as they, themselves, are called upon to take a leap of sorts: Instead of using pre recorded voices as cues for the autobiographical play, High Dive calls upon 34 audience members to play cameo roles (from their seats) by calling out lines of dialogue throughout the 75-minute piece. The play has already made something of a splash, extending its five-week run to eight weeks even before the opening.
PLAYBILL ON-LINE: At what point did you see the events of your life as capable of being shaped into a dramatic play?
Leslie Ayvazian: Well, the event that is the central idea of the play — the high dive itself — was over a period of time of five days that we were in this Greek town in a heat wave. Every day I'd go up and I'd sit at one end of the platform and visually imagine stepping off the board and jumping. But it was physically impossible for me to do that. I'd be very faint; I'd have extreme vertigo. But even while I was up there, I was thinking "This was a remarkable metaphor." And at the time I was three weeks away from turning fifty. So I thought while I was on the board, "I need to write about this." I didn't think I'd be writing anything dramatic. Maybe something in my journals. But when I came back to New York and tried to write it into a prose piece, I realized I was writing dialogue into it. It occurred to me that it could be a story-telling piece with other characters. And very early, I had the idea that they be people in the audience, as though they were people sitting around the pool. It started as a 20-minute piece with nine characters. Then I took it to Ensemble Studio Theatre and did a reading in front of members and friends. It was so enjoyable and fun hearing these voices coming out of the darkness. It then moved from nine characters to 34 characters.
PBOL: I saw the show this past Friday, and it really came off without a hitch. But isn't it a risk counting on nearly three dozen strangers to respond with just the right timing every night?
LA: The show played a week at Trinity Rep and was done for four weeks at the Long Wharf Theatre, and it's now in its fifth week at MCC, so I've already had a lot of audience interaction. And yes, all sorts of things happen. People have fallen asleep before getting to their lines. One woman walked onstage to do her lines. Several people improvised lines. People get involved in the show and forget a line — that happens almost every night. The audience is willing to make the leap because of that. If things go awry, it's just part of the price. Which is why if there are well-known actors in the audience on a given night, I give them the smallest roles. I give non-actors the big roles. I want the sound of a "real" voice. And because I know the play so well, I can find a way to keep going or to say the line myself. In some way, there are back-up plans. It's just part of the evening. For me, process is very interesting, and I love to combine that with a finished product.
PBOL: Acting is a scary experience even for seasoned pros. Have audiences been okay with High Dive's level of participation?
LA: Every night at about twenty after seven I walk into the lobby. And there are generally already five or six people there. I walk out and approach them — and nine out of ten say "yes." People are willing to jump. The experience of the play itself is the point: jump in. The audience makes that leap. People have told me they're incredibly nervous. Even very established actors who've done it. But when they go, they're so proud they made this contribution. They're having a heightened experience.
PBOL: It's generally thought to be sexist when a journalist asks a female writer or actress how being a wife and mom might jibe with her professional obligations (as if husbands and dads are exempt from similar considerations). But family and autobiography play such a strong role in your work, I'm afraid I can't help it: How does being a wife and mom jibe with your professional obligations?
LA: My home life is extremely important to me. I have one son, Ivan, and I've been married for 25 years. I've changed my life very considerably since I've been a mother. I did stop acting altogether for awhile, but I then started writing seriously. I wrote my first full length play, Nine Armenians, after my son was born. I wanted to be home with him. However, he traveled with me entirely through all of those productions. I try to organize my creative life with my family so that they feel part of it. At E.S.T., my one-act, Plan Day, was about a woman in four different stages of her life. Another one-act, 24 Years, was inspired by my 24th anniversary with my husband. I write about my family all the time. In the previous productions of High Dive, Ivan played himself. In this production, he hasn't read himself but he's read other parts. The same for my husband. Other members of my family have come to the show and read their own roles. I acknowledged that to the audience at the end of the show. PBOL: Are you working on another play?
LA: Yes, a new full-length play that's had a private reading [at E.S.T.] I'm writing it for a specific person who I'm honored to be working with. I hope to be workshopping it by this summer. But I'm being very quiet about it at the moment because it's in a very early stage. I had a painful experience when my play, Singer's Boy, was done in San Francisco. The play was hot off the press, a first draft. And I couldn't write fast enough to get it complete before the opening. I was literally running into the theatre on opening night with six new pages. That was such a terrifying experience but a valuable lesson. I need to workshop my plays before productions. That's why High Dive has been in the works for two years. I need to reorganize and rewrite and have a play "listened to."
PBOL: So the timing has to be right? Sounds like good advice.
LA: My closest friend is [playwright] Richard Greenberg. He's the one who has supported me following my instincts and allowing the time. I'm ten years older than he is, and I'm aware time is passing. I'll say, "I've been working on this for three years," and he'll say, "Three years? That's nothing.'" It's an understanding of what each person's timing is. So I'm not tempted by fancy offers. I received a few on High Dive, but I didn't feel the play was ready. You have to stay alert and clearheaded and self-respecting in order to value your own process and not be put into other people's schedules. That's the most important thing.
— By David Lefkowitz