Not a household name, Stepan Kapanakian was a pioneering theatrical director and the founder of Armenian professional reciting.
He was born in Tiflis (nowadays Tbilisi) on February 8, 1877. He went to study first at the Lazarian Lyceum of Moscow and then the University of Moscow. He graduated from the Faculty of Philology in 1900. In the meantime, he also attended the dramatic courses of I. S. Burdin.
He returned to Tiflis in 1901 and started his career reciting Armenian and Russian poetry. He taught Russian language and literature at the Nersisian School. In 1904 he took the direction of the Armenian Drama Society theatrical group, which he held until 1908.
Afterwards, he abandoned theater for almost a decade, until actor Ovi Sevumian organized an actor’s studio in 1917. Kapanakian lectured on the history of literature and directed a course on stage speech. However, the studio was soon closed and Kapanakian tried to reopen it, but to no avail. He became the director of the Nersessian Lyceum in 1919-1920.
In 1921 he directed the theatrical section of the newly found House of Armenian Art, and at the same time, along with Levon Kalantar, he organized the theater-studio “Theater of Searches,” named after Stepan Shahumian, which had a significant role in the creation of the First State Theater of Yerevan (the predecessor to the current Sundukian Academic Theater).
In late 1921, he accepted the offer of Suren Khachaturian (composer Aram Khachaturian’s elder brother) and worked at the Armenian Drama Studio of Moscow as lecturer of theatrical speech and artistic recitation for a year.
Kapanakian’s talent as reciter attracted many gifted students, such as the famous reciter Suren Kocharian as well as Armenian-American film and theater director Rouben Mamoulian, who was born and raised in Tiflis. Among his preferred works were Hovhannes Tumanian’ “A Drop of Honey” and Avetik Isahakian’s “Abu-Lala Mahari.”
After a stint as artistic director of the Armenian Drama of Baku (1926-1927), Kapanakian returned to Tiflis, where he directed the Drama Studio of the House of Armenian Art until 1930. Afterwards, he directed the Armenian Drama of Tiflis from 1930 to 1937, and the Armenian Theater of the Young Spectator from 1937 to 1944.
Besides being a talented director, Kapanakian was also a gifted translator of Greek, French, and contemporary plays into Armenian. He also translated Raffi’s “Sparks” into Russian along with his wife Anna Mililian and poet Vahan Terian, as well as Tumanian’s poem “Parvana.” He also wrote a history of the Armenian theater in the years 1890-1909.
He passed away on May 5, 1944, in Tiflis, where he was buried at the old Armenian cemetery of Vera.