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Young Playwright Sets Out to Learn Video Journalism

Seda Stepanyan of Armenia is barely 21, but is already an established playwright and promising journalist whose work has been honored in a number of national and international competitions. Most recently she won the BBC’s International Radio Playwriting Competition 2012 Best of Europe Prize. In September 2012, Seda joined RFE/RL as a Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow. Seda spoke with RFE/RL about her background and what she hopes to learn during her fellowship.

RFE/RL: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be here.

Seda Stepanyan: I was born in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed and an independent Armenian Republic emerged. Soon my country was at war over Nagorno-Karabakh (a disputed region within the territory of Azerbaijan). These were turbulent times: we did not have hot water, the electricity was often out, and money was scarce, but being a small child at that time, I never felt any hardship. I once saw a tank in Yerevan, but I did not know what it was, though somehow I felt that people were not happy with it being there.

I come from a family of artists. My grandmother organized concerts, literary readings and poetry recitals. I think it's from her that I inherited a passion for literature, though it was not until my university years that I became passionate about writing.

At the age of 16, I enrolled at Yerevan's Linguistics University to study the English language and international journalism. I began writing when one of my professors of journalism, Mesrop Harutyunyan, one of the most highly respected figures in journalism in Armenia, encouraged me to do so. My first serious piece was a travelogue entitled "To The Sea." It was about my journey to the Black Sea, which started on August 8, 2008, the same day the war between Russia and Georgia broke out.

On that day, my mother and I arrived at Batumi, near Gori in Eastern Georgia, but we decided not to change our holiday plans. It was not a very happy holiday, but it was a life experience: bars and cafes were closed, lights were out, the people were in a panic, and families were grieving for their lost sons. We were renting a room in a family house, and so we became part of that family as we lived through the war together with them. I wrote all about what I saw: sad things and funny things.

Seda Stepanyan whose play was the regional winner of of the BBC Radio Playwriting Competition
Seda Stepanyan whose play was the regional winner of of the BBC Radio Playwriting Competition
In 2010, I won first prize in the British Council's NA/NE journalistic competition in Armenia for professionally prepared student work. My submission was called "I Will Not Shut Up." It's a piece about a woman who got badly hurt because she did not follow traditions. She divorced her husband who had beaten her and then she remarried, but because of her divorce, her farther, a deeply traditional man, refused to recognize her.

The success of the piece fuelled my enthusiasm further, and I began writing short stories and plays, and my radio piece “Waiting for Death,” was awarded ninth place among the commended plays in the BBC World Service’s 2011 Radio Playwriting Competition. It's a funny story about a man who is diagnosed with terminal illness and knows that he is going to die, so he wants to take revenge on medical workers, and kidnaps three of them with the aim to kill them. It's about relationships between people who, despite their previous status in society, become all equal when facing death. Another play of mine, "Striptiz,” has won an OSI (Open Society Institute) grant to be staged, and so it will be staged in March in Yerevan. It's about a woman who is naked, but her soul is closed to others.

My third play, "And The Sun Went On Shining Cynically," won the Best of Europe regional prize out of seven selected finalists in the BBC’s 2012 International Radio Playwriting Competition.

RFE/RL: How did you learn about RFE/RL and the Vaclav Havel Fellowship Program?

SS: Again, my mentor and professor, Mesrop Harutyunyan, who first recognized my writing skills, sent me a Facebook link about this program, and encouraged me to apply. He also wrote a recommendation letter for me.

RFE/RL:The fellowship program is specially tailored for you based on your professional interests, so what are you hoping to achieve at RFE/RL?

SS: Here at RFE/RL, I would like to learn something that I've never done before—how to shoot, edit and produce video features. It's a new experience for me, but in a very short time here, I have already done three videos, two of which have been posted on our Armenian site. I shot those videos during my trip to Vienna. The first one is about a 200-year old Armenian monastery there—about its treasures and the people who visit it. During the same trip, I shot another video "Against Testing On Animals." I was on my way to a hostel when I saw a cage with a man in a rabbit costume in it. I put my luggage aside, pulled out a camera and started filming. Later, I interviewed the “rabbit man” and the passers-by. The only problem was I did not take a tripod with me, hence there are some shaky shots in the video.

Also, Salome Asatiane, an experienced journalist at the Georgian Service, is my designated mentor at RFE/RL, so I'm looking forwarding to working with her and learning more about journalism.

RFE/RL: How you are going to apply the knowledge gained at RFE/RL?

SS: I really would like to become a professional documentary film maker, so the knowledge and experience gained here at RFE/RL are of great value to me. I would like to get an MA in documentary film making, and continue journalistic work and drama writing.

Launched in 2011, the Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship program is made possible through support by the Czech Foreign Ministry.

-- Zydrone Krasauskiene [this article first appeared on RFE/RL's "LibertyNet" intranet]