Leslie Ayvazian's instructions to her fellow cast members are simple:
Your part is in boldface, marked with pink highlighter.
Read those lines. Just those lines. Read them loudly.
Be really loud. Louder than you ordinarily would be.
No need to create a complex psychological profile for your character. Loud will do. Oh, and if you suddenly feel the urge to improvise -- just suppress it.
"I've learned from experience," she explains with a broad grin.
Then Leslie Ayvazian, acting coach, turns away from the audience, steps onto the bare stage at MetroStage in Alexandria and becomes Leslie Ayvazian, performance artist. For 75 minutes, with the help of audience members reading out various parts from their seats, she portrays Leslie Ayvazian, mother, wife, actress, adventurer -- and magnet for disaster.
This is "High Dive," a true story about things that Ayvazian might prefer had not happened. Told with wit and verve, it's a hugely entertaining ride, sure to elicit yowls of laughter and recognition from anyone who has ever been bruised by life.
The production at MetroStage is the Washington premiere. Ayvazian has performed the piece in a number of other venues, including MCC Theater in New York and at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. (She may be more familiar to some for her recurring role as Judge Valdera on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.")
"High Dive" opens with the author, just three weeks shy of her 50th birthday, standing on a diving board 12 feet above the shimmering chlorinated water of a hotel pool in Athens. It's the hottest day in the hottest city on Earth -- so hot it hurts to look at the ocean -- and her young son watches and calls out encouragement from the pool: "Jump!"
But Ayvazian cannot move. She is terrified of heights and has been since a motorcycle accident left her with a perpetual sense of imbalance.
From this perspective, however, Ayvazian ruminates on the other long dives she's taken in her life: Going on "$25,000 Pyramid" with a drunken Peter Lawford as her partner; organizing a drama program for inner-city teenagers; backpacking across America with her future husband; becoming the first female cable television installer in Columbus, Ohio; serving as prop mistress to Dorothy Lamour (her job included unhooking Lamour's brassiere); and managing almost always to witness some kind of natural disaster on any trip she's taken. On a trip to Mexico an earthquake hit and the Pacific Ocean rolled out of view. It rolled back again later, as a tidal wave.
It didn't help that her husband is the kind of person who is rarely scared. "In Mexico, in the midst of a tidal wave, my husband was ready to snorkel," she says. "In Hawaii, a hurricane blew in as my husband kayaked along the reef."
Through it all, Ayvazian manages to move forward with a perpetual sense of optimism and resilience. She's a charming presence, with such a natural, unaffected style that "High Dive" feels more like a visit with a friend than an evening at the theater. But "High Dive" is, in fact, very calculated in its theatricality. In a play about taking risks, inviting the participation of the audience is one of the gutsiest leaps any performer could take. Only minutes before showtime Ayvazian is in the lobby handing out scripts and cheerfully explaining the parts to her volunteers. There are more than 30 parts to read, but amazingly, no one flubs a line. Or if they do, we don't notice it. Ayvazian takes whatever comes her way and runs with it.
High Dive, written and performed by Leslie Ayvazian. Original production directed by David Warren. Lights by Adam Magazine. At MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria, through Feb. 9. Call 703-218-6500.