Dear Armen

By: | Posted on: 12.02.2014

My attraction to Armen Ohanian’s story is rooted in mutuality. Her self-proclaimed life as an artist in exile is analogous to my relationship to the Armenian culture as a female artist. Armen’s story is contemporary even for current times. Born as Sophia Pirboudaghian in 1887, Armen was a survivor of the anti-Armenian pogroms in Baku. She later embarked on a career as a dancer and actor, studying in Moscow then living in Iran where she helped found the national theatre. After adopting a new stage name, Armen toured as an Oriental dancer through Egypt, the Caucasus, then into Europe. Armen lived in Paris in the Belle Époque, during which she enjoyed the company of famous artists and politicians. She committed herself to communism and published her memoires and poetry. Eventually she married a Mexican diplomat and moved to Mexico City where she opened a school of dance. The last known record of her life was a visit to Soviet Armenia where she offered a part of her documents to a local museum. She continued to write and translate in Mexico until her death, the year of which is unknown.

There is still much about her life that is undetermined and many of the facts in her biography are constantly being updated. In my frequent conversations with Armen’s biographer, I am often informed of new facts and mysteries about her life, which sent me back to the script for adjustments. One example of a vital detail that Armen intentionally hid from her memoires is that she had a daughter. The reason for this omission can only be speculated, as we have no contact with her offspring. It has been suggested that we film a documentary or biopic; but after struggling to unearth this woman’s life I realized that it would be impossible to capture her spirit on screen using a traditional approach. Armen was extremely clever in her masking and unmasking. Alas, instead of sifting through variances between biographical facts and the fiction she weaved into her writing, I decided to collaborate with my production partner and writer d lee williams on a fictionalized tale about the search itself, in a way that is accessible to all audiences. The goal is to embody Armen as the mystery that she is, to present a narrative that personifies the struggle that is to know her completely. Through this process we invite the viewer on a journey through the layers found in the mind of a true artist, an eternal struggle with identity, and the infinite search for a true home.

The idea to build a theatre piece inspired by Armen Ohanian was suggested to me by Oksana Mirzoyan, a filmmaker who currently lives in Yerevan and used to work for OneArmenia. She  encouraged me to apply to the Shift Initiative, which allowed the public to vote on a project that transforms an element of Armenian culture. The winner would receive the support to fund their project. At around the same time, Lara Aharonian (director of the Women’s Resource Center of Armenia) told me about Armen and suggested that I do some research on her. My creative team and I came up with the idea for Dear Armen and applied to the initiative.   Our failure to win the contest did not discourage us in the least. Lee and I had been talking about working together on a creative endeavor for quite some time and we were determined to bring Armen’s story to life, on our own terms. Our main objective down the line is to make a film, but since we all had experience in theatre, we decided to start off with a play.

Dear Armen debuted in Yerevan in the back room of The Club in September 2013. We wrote it in English then had it translated to Armenian in order to make it accessible to the locals. This was a huge obstacle for our team because neither Lee nor I spoke Armenian as fluently as we used to when we went to Armenian school, and the third member of our team wasn’t even Armenian. Then there was the issue of our respective political backgrounds. I don’t have to elaborate on women’s issues in Armenia. Frankly, I don’t even think I have the patience to argue about it anymore. Don’t even get me started on women’s lives in villages. All I will say is that it is not easy to live in Armenia, let alone to be a woman there. I’m from Canada but I’ve spent enough time in Armenia to know that there are problems, just like any other country has. I definitely don’t want to discuss gay rights either because that conversation has – sadly – barely been cracked open in that region in general. It was a huge struggle for us to put this together in a way that would allow us to feel like we were standing up for the issues we were passionate about without being culturally insensitive. That’s probably why it was received so well in the end – because we weren’t aggressive in the delivery of our story and message.

It is important to recognize that Ohanian’s story, which can be compared to the likes of inspirational figures such as Sarah Bernhardt and Frida Kahlo, is quite contemporary even for current times. It has the potential to appeal to a universal audience as well as Armenians. That being said, the desired impact of this project is to engage the prolific dynamism of the Armenian woman and nurture the progression of a pivotal social issue that is prevalent in the frontlines of contemporary cultural discourse in Armenia. My goal is to co-create a piece of interactive theatre that will transfer these strengths, whether they be considered sensual, artistic, maternal, or mystical, to audiences who will walk away feeling energized and moved by Ohanian’s legacy. If these goals are met, I can only hope that those who are inspired will embody this experience in their own lives and pay it forward – to loved ones and strangers alike – therefore taking one step closer to the transformation and evolution of women’s issues and the future of Armenian culture.

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