The Irreverent Genius of Vahe Berberian

776
0

By Taleen Babayan

Special to the Mirror Spectator

 

NEW YORK — It is a challenge to describe Vahe Berberian in one word: playwright, comedian, writer, painter, actor and director have all been used to depict this creative spirit, who has carved a niche in contemporary Armenian theater and art. His scope, however, stretches much further.

Berberian embraced his passion for the written word and the blank canvas from a young age in 1950s Beirut and further sharpened his ingenuity in Los Angeles over the last three decades, where he continues to create art on his own terms. Whether it is his plays, monologues, films, or paintings, his astute observances take center stage, as does his love for the Armenian language.

Entertaining with ease and smarts, Berberian is currently on tour with his sixth monologue, “Ooremn,” which he recently performed to great fanfare for the Greater New York Armenian community.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

During a conversation over breakfast at Café Angelique in Tenafly, NJ, Taleen Babayan spoke with Vahe Berberian in an exclusive interview about his latest show, his artistic process and why the arts are more important than ever. His eyes are ever observing – of the bright hue of red hair, of the artwork in the railroad station turned café — but above all, of the mind, heart and soul of the Armenian.

 

Taleen Babayan: Your monologues are humorous, culturally relevant and always receive joyous laughs. Aside from the entertainment aspect, what do you want audiences to take away from performances?

Vahe Berberian: First and foremost the entertainment is very important. Second I want to make them think. I believe that it is possible to be intelligent and entertaining at the same time.

TB: How does it feel to share your work with audiences? Is it more fulfilling to write or to perform and see the audience reaction?

VB: Of course it all depends on the medium. For example, if I’m writing a novel, I really love being on my own and writing at a café. But when you write plays and monologues, it all comes to life only while performing because you can never really assess the work until it is performed. Sometimes while I’m writing I think maybe this isn’t funny at all and then I do it in front of an audience and they roar and then I realize it’s good. When you have an audience, it takes on another dimension.

TB: Do you first practice your material in front of people you trust?

VB: Very informally. I never tell them because it’s difficult when people sit in front of you in a judgmental state because their acceptance is completely different. No matter how good something is, when you’re asking someone to judge, the mental state is a completely different one than someone who is there to enjoy. But when I do informally practice the material, I don’t tell them. If I have something new and I’m surrounded by friends, I try it out on them and I can tell from the reaction how good or bad it is. Funnily enough, some of my very close friends can tell if I’m trying my material out on them or not. They’ll tell me if it’s funny or inappropriate.

TB: Do you sometimes feel like you want to push the envelope further but have to keep an eye on the material because of the more conservative Armenian audience?

VB: You know I do. As much as I want to say I don’t. But when I’m performing in front of my own audience in Los Angeles, that’s my hardcore audience. They are there only for me and I can really push the envelope much further than any other community.

TB: Do you enjoy meeting Armenians from all around the world? What is a commonality or difference you find within the various communities?

VB: The commonalities are always there. This is the funny thing about us. We constantly harp on the differences, [whether we are Barskahye or Beirutzi or Hayasdantzi] but in the end you realize that what is funny is the fact that we are seriously the same. The differences are so superficial. And the ironic thing is that we think we are different. Probably psychologically we do that to create some kind of distinction. Humans are like that. Person comes from the Latin word Persona, which means mask in theater. So we all wear masks and communities and groups are like that too. We want to wear a mask that differentiates us from others in order to make us feel special.

TB: Your parents’ home in Beirut encouraged the arts, theatre and literature. What are your earliest memories of artistic influences in your home?

VB: I have to say that our house was always packed with books, paintings and drawings. Both my parents were avid readers and books were everywhere. I used to play hooky from school in order to read. My father was a draftsman and my mother loved painting so I was always surrounded by art.

TB: Was it encouraged by your family to pursue the arts?

VB: Definitely. We weren’t well off but my mom bought me my first guitar. As I said the books were always there. I had a godfather who was a fascinating man and he used to get me paints and brushes, so from a very young age the arts were in my life. The only thing that my father kept saying was you keep doing many things at the same time, you have to choose one or the other, but I could never do it. I think what it comes down to is that every art is a form of entertainment. Every art. You’re telling a story. There has to be some kind of narrative in whatever you do. I remember when I was maybe 6 years old I would write a story and then on the other page I would draw and sketch in case you didn’t understand my story.

TB: You mentioned working on a novel, what is it about?

VB: This is a very new experience for me because although I’ve worked on novels before, this is a period piece and more than half of it happens in 1877 so I had to do a lot of research both about the period and Romania, where it takes place.

TB: I read about your family’s tragic experiences during the Armenian Genocide. Do you feel that somehow your comedy is rooted in this inherent despair?

VB: Look, I’m not a very happy person. I’m a pessimist in general and I think the reason I do comedy is that I feel the need to do comedy. It’s funny because people ask me in interviews how I find these topics [in my monologues and writing] or when I was a kid I would tell stories that happened to me and people would ask how does this only happen to you? Because you have chosen to do this, your eyes see situations and sometimes it’s not really comical but you see the possibilities for comedy. For example, my wife early on started as a costume designer for theater and we would walk into a used clothing store and I would say there’s nothing. But she would point things out I didn’t see because that’s her métier; she knows the possibilities if she alters or dyes something. The way she perceives things are different than what I perceive, just like how she won’t see the comical situations that I do.

TB: What is your process like not only to write monologues but also for your paintings and playwriting? Do you tackle each medium depending on your inspiration of each project?

VB: Most of the time, I work on a few different things at the same time. When I’m in Los Angeles, if you look at my schedule you’ll see studio, writing, performance, but there comes a point where it is almost time for the baby to come out then I don’t do anything else but that certain thing. That’s the moment I know the water has broken and the baby is coming out so I have to leave everything else aside. It’s impossible for me to do anything but this.

TB: Do you have a certain level of discipline you adhere to?

 

VB: Absolutely. This whole idea of the bohemian artist is bullshit. Because nothing will get done if you don’t have discipline. Especially with someone like me, who is surrounded by people all the time. When I paint, my studio is full of people, my friends, my theater company. We drink, we smoke, we have fun.

TB: It’s interesting you have chosen to write and perform in Armenian, even though you could easily do so in English. Is there a specific reason?

VB: Oh yeah. I find performing in Armenian orgasmic. The language turns me on. I love it because when speaks to me in Armenian, I feel like they know my secrets. As Armenians, we have a sense of family no matter where we are because being of the same ethnicity and speaking the same language removes barriers.

TB: Did you ever see yourself here? Did you have set goals as an artist or did you remain open to the opportunities you created or that came your way?

VB: That’s a very good question. Where I am now, I honestly cannot remember where I thought I would be. I always knew I would write or paint but because I grew up in a fatalistic culture in my mind, success was never an easy thing. So when I thought of a successful painter I always thought of someone who struggles all his life and then he dies and his paintings are sold for astronomical figures. I really couldn’t perceive the idea that it’s possible to be a successful living artist until I started selling and I thought something’s wrong here because it doesn’t work with my concept of the tortured artist. Sometimes you ask yourself, am I a fake? Because that’s not how we were brought up. Hagop Baronian died a poor man. Van Gogh committed suicide. Every single artist I loved and revered, all of them died poor.

TB: But you didn’t waver. You knew what it was you wanted to do and you forged your own path.

VB: One of the most profound quotes I have read is by Oscar Wilde when he said “I put all my genius into my life. I put only my talent into my work,” meaning that the most important creation is myself. The rest is nothing compared to yourself, that self you have created.

TB: I read you said once, “fall in love with the project…fall in love with the person. Don’t be afraid of pain…it makes you feel alive.” Have emotions always been the driving force behind your creativity and artistry?

VB: Absolutely. I have always used this following analogy. Life is a cocktail party. You eat, you drink, you consume to the point where you become sick. The moment of throwing up is the moment of your creation where it’s impossible to keep anything inside you anymore. You know you’re going to get very sick if you don’t throw up. So the artist throws up on the canvas. The writer on the paper. The actor on the stage. It’s emptying everything inside you to the point where you’re cleansed, you’re cathartic then you have to drink again in order to create again.

TB: What advice do you have for the next generations of Armenians who want to embrace and pursue the arts but are reluctant to do so since it’s not the most practical vocation?

VB: Right now what we need is culture. There are enough people out there who are feeding our stomachs and our pockets. I think we really need people who will nourish us and our brains and feed us culturally. Otherwise no matter how affluent you are, when you have no identity, who cares? Who cares?

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: