Azat Gasparyan: Veteran Armenian Actor and Reciter

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By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — Veteran actor Azat Gasparyan has appeared in more than 20 films in Armenia, and recently has presented some of the best of Armenian poetry in recitation. Affiliated as an actor with the Gabriel Sundukian National Academic Theater and frequently appearing on Armenian television, in 2010 Gasparyan received the title of People’s Honored Artist from the government of Armenia. He also has received the title of Honorable Citizen of Yerevan and the William Saroyan Medal from the Ministry of Diaspora of the Republic of Armenia in 2010. His visit to the United States to participate in the centennial commemoration of writer Khachik Dashtents in February and March was an opportune occasion to interview him on his work and ideas.

Gasparyan was born in Yerevan in 1943. He related how he came to be an actor: “Some people have to do nothing to find their profession, as if it was written above. It was thus for me. Perhaps at Raffi’s age [the interviewer’s 3-year-old younger son] I already knew I would become an actor or in the theater. I did not decide this. I would talk and talk and relate things. My games, my days passed in this way. I always felt that people saw that I had some sort of artistic nature. My mother’s father told interesting stories, but others in my family did not have such a talent. My father was a simple worker, and my mother did not work. I was one of seven children.” Gasparyan also sang from a young age. He pointed out, “My first honorarium was from singing, but this is my second love — acting has always been the first.”

Gasparyan’s family moved from Yerevan to Artik, some 80 miles distant, and this is where Gasparyan had his first formal role, in a school play: “I was 14-yearsold when in this play. It was a very long piece, and I played a fire captain. It was very successful — it was performed first in the school, and then for the city.” Gasparyan moved back to Yerevan after graduating, and studied directing. He then applied to the Fine Arts and Theater Institute’s acting division. He had to be tested to be accepted for a five-year course of study but he was not initially accepted. Instead, from 1963 to 1965 he worked in the Yerevan State Puppet Theater. Gasparyan said, “Since I could make the sounds of various animals, they suggested I work in the puppet theater for a year or two. I worked with children, and it was great fun. I did puppet voices behind the curtain, like those of dogs or elephants.”

He then succeeded in being accepted to the acting division, and from 1965 to 1969 studied there, performing in many plays. Vardan Achemian (1905-77), a vital force for modern theater in Soviet Armenia from the 1930s, and a great master of comedy, was Gasparyan’s teacher, his master. Achemian, a native of Van, worked in the Vakhtangov Theater in Moscow before returning to Armenia. Since it was not possible to do realism in Armenia in the Soviet period, Achemian presented Shakespeare and various Armenian plays. He first directed plays in Gumri, and then in the Sundukian Theater in Yerevan. He gave a workshop or course in the Institute.

Ten actors graduated in Gasparyan’s class and the Cultural Ministry placed them in different jobs. First Gasparyan worked for two years in the Adolescent Show Theater and then was asked to go to the Dramatic Theater, where he stayed from 1971 to 1979. He then began work in the Television Theater, acting in TV movies. In 1982 he started at the Sundukian Theater.

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Gasparyan is primarily considered a film actor in Armenia. He said, “I started in school with small film roles, and immediately after graduating I often had two to four roles simultaneously. I also did TV cinema, but not as much in theater. I am more successful in TV and cinema. It was as if I was not able to enter the tight circle of the theater family or world.”

Gasparyan feels, “There is no difference for me between acting in TV and film or theater. The important thing is to master the methodology. The acting is the same for me. You must convince the viewer that you are somebody else. The theater enjoys an immediate relationship with the audience. It is the closest, while the others are more distant, so the actor must be able to reproduce that relationship.” He has the same goal in all media: “I make people happy, and laugh. I make them think about the beautiful, the people, and the nation.”

He is a follower of the realist school of film. He learned about Expressionism and many other approaches: “We learned there were these other possibilities, happening or living theater, Ionesco, Becket, Camus…we read all these but it was already too late for us to change. We had become realists.”

As for favorite roles, “It seems that in cinema and TV, the role of Charents is the one I truly loved.” This was in the film ‘Yerkunk’ (Birth Throes).”

Many of the films Gasparyan has appeared in are considered classics today, like the moving “Yearning” (Karot).

Gasparyan said, “I did not have the good fortunate to act with people like Vahram Papazian, but I did perform with Babken Nersesian, Mher Mkrtichian, Sos Sargisian, Khoren Abrahamian, and Vartuhi Varteresian, as well as Vladimir Abajian and Vladimir Msirian. But I never had the snobbism that I can only act with the greats. In basketball, if you are on a great team, you play great. If your team is weak you become weak. I was fortunate that I was able to perform with great Armenian actors.” One of the secrets of the masters of acting, he continued, is that “the greats know how to use pauses and breaks in talking or action in order to get the attention of the audience or emphasize something.”

Gasparyan performed on Georgian television occasionally as well as Armenian, and participated in festivals in different parts of the Soviet Union. He almost always acted in Armenian, though he did speak in Russian in one or two films He feels very comfortable using Western Armenian. This is partly because his family on his father’s side migrated from Moush to the Caucasus after the Hamidian massacres, while his mother’s side immigrated from Van. He also went to school with some repatriates who spoke Western Armenian in Artik, and read a limited number of Western Armenian writers in class.

For actors, Gasparyan thought that even in the Soviet period, there was little punishment for crossing the line. It was the writer who was held responsible, so there was a little more freedom for actors, musicians and artists. By the 1980s, the situation became much milder. Gasparyan related, “For example, there would be a concert at which government officials would sit in the front row. The contents of the program would be examined when the script was to be practiced, and things would be allowed or removed.” At one event in the mid-1980s, when officials took out a poem dedicated to Aksel Bakunts and also a Charents poem, Gasparyan just withdrew his participation. He pointed out that he was able to do this because by that point he had already won various state honors and had a certain status in society.

At the present time, Gasparyan primarily acts in theater and gives recitations. He has released several CDs in which he presents the works of great Armenian writers like Yeghishe Charents, Paroyr Sevak, Siamanto and Dashtents. He served for five years as the president of a recitation contest for Armenian schools and there are contests dedicated to the works of specific writers, like Siamanto or Charents. In the latter case, the Charents Museum and the Armenian Writers Union cosponsored the competition, which has several stages. Gasparyan feels recitation is extremely important: “It teaches students how to speak, how to master emotions, and how to give direction to their thoughts.” In the Soviet period there were various types of groups or clubs teaching recitation, but now only the schools are left, and teachers themselves do not have the necessary preparation. Consequently, their students memorize, but their delivery is not good. Since the “great countries” of the world no longer require recitation, Armenia’s leadership has followed their lead and also deemphasizes it.

For two years Gasparyan served as a member of a four-man jury on Shant TV choosing for each program from 14 youth singers of folk and minstrel songs. He happily declared, “For me, Komitas is indispensable, more than bread and water today.”

Culturally, Gasparyan finds that post-independence Armenia has regressed. He says, “If you compare Soviet and present-day cinema and TV, it is tragic. Opportunities are much less. Everything was much more advanced then. The quality and number of Armenian programs and educational and cultural ones in particular were of greater quality and number, though there are so many more TV channels now. There is also advertising, while in the Soviet period the state would only put slogans on TV, and similar such things. Films and TV are much more reduced in number in the present period.” Furthermore, the classical arts have largely stopped. Armenians, Gasparyan felt, were now pushing untalented people forward, and also had an excessive admiration for all things non-Armenian, which had become a sickness that must be treated.

For the last three years, no Armenian playwright’s work has been produced in the Sundukian Theater, though periodically there are performances of Armenian classics in Yerevan and the provinces. During the last two years, productions depended on invitations from outside, and they all were for translations of works into Armenian. Only one, Franz Werfel’s work on Musa Dagh, even had any Armenian content. Furthermore, Gasparyan said, “the relationship between the theater and the audience has been broken. It is the fault of the theater. There is a fear that the theatergoer won’t approve or like something. No — he will want whatever you give him. Without tasting, he won’t want anything. If he resists afterwards, no problem. Nobody wants to give poisonous mushrooms to his child. We know they are more beautiful than regular mushrooms, but would you give it to your child? Right now, what we are giving to the audience is poisonous mushrooms, with color and noise.”

Yet, the future of the Armenian state and nation is inextricably connected with art, and intellectuals are the true leaders of a nation. That is why, said Gasparyan, the intellectuals were the first ones rounded up during the Armenian Genocide. He continued, “The best way to achieve anything is through the language of art. Art is a great form of information and propaganda. If our government leaders would only understand this, it would be great. The idea of the nation would easily spread through the population.”

Gasparyan saw the great sacrifices made by actors living in Queens going after the end of their official workday to New Jersey for practices, for the sake of Armenian culture, and appreciated their efforts. However, Gasparyan was concerned about the general level of Armenian culture in the diaspora: “I think those who come from Armenia have done something very bad for Armenian culture. Most who travel give jokes or songs, not cultural or spiritual values. They spread light or frivolous types of culture, and this has become the standard. But this is not what is necessary for us. We need to give direction to the youth on how to understand the beautiful [he means this in the deeper classical sense, as with the ancient Greeks].” Indifference too is a great danger.

In these difficult times for Armenian culture, Gasparyan wished that Armenian Americans with money might provide some redress. He wondered, “Why don’t Armenians in the US donate money for culture, for Armenian plays? When will the rich here understand that their money is not just theirs, but also their nation’s. If they want their names to remain on this earth and be remembered, they will remain only through great acts. They will be remembered not in American history but in Armenian history. Only Armenians remember, for example, that it was Seropian who invented the green color of paper money for the United States.” He added that “the great are those who don’t want their names written down,” whether they are donors or creators.

Gasparyan thanked those Armenians who continued to support Armenia through various ways like the Armenia Fund Telethon despite their difficult lives abroad. He also hoped that factories would be built by diasporans to provide jobs in Armenia, and libraries and schools to maintain the educational level of the populace. What is built in Armenia stays there, whereas the fate of Armenian institutions abroad is always uncertain.

What will happen in Beirut or Tbilisi in the future? Many of Gasparyan’s ideas and stories about the Armenian film industry can be found in his 1999 book Im lezvis tak push chka [There Is No Thorn under My Tongue].

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