Edwin Gérard at Garni, Armenia

Edwin Gérard: The Armenian Polymath from Everywhere

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By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN – My research interests, focused mainly on Armenians in various countries and cultures, are quite varied. At one point during my many years of investigation, I met a person intersecting a number of aspects of my research interests. Actor, director, dancer and playwright, Edwin Gérard is an exemplar of multi-talented people with colorful backgrounds and biographies incorporating several spheres of activities, countries, cultures and languages. After more than ten years of correspondence, we met during Edwin’s first visit to Armenia.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: Edwin Gerard… is this a stage name?

Edwin Gérard: I was born Vartan Hamamdjian, but my father changed our name to Gérard when I was 6 years old. Nevertheless, I do speak Western Armenian. I was born in 1948 and am currently living in France.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: I always admire polyglots. When I introduced you to an acquaintance of mine – an Armenian lady from Russia with poor knowledge of Armenian, you found a common language with her, which was paradoxically… Chinese. For me it was an amazing moment – two Armenians, one from Russia and one from France, meet in the country of their ancestors and communicate in Chinese. How many languages do you speak?

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Edwin Gérard: Ha ha! Now you are going to have people believing I speak fluent Chinese! I only know a few words and phrases — whatever I remember from the two semesters of Chinese I took at UCLA back in the late 70’s, meaning very little! That is also the case with several other languages. “How many languages do you speak?” is a difficult question to answer for a polyglot, because we realize, perhaps more than others, what it really means to speak a language. I suppose if I counted all the languages, I can exchange a few key phrases in, I would say, 11 or 12. But if I wanted to be 100 percent scrupulous and only counted those languages I speak fluently, I would say seven: English, French, Spanish, Armenian, Portuguese, German and Italian. I can hold a basic conversation in Greek and Turkish, and an even more basic one in Russian, Farsi, Egyptian and Tunisian Arabic.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: So you were born in a multilingual family. Please tell us about your ancestors.

Edwin Gérard: My parents were born in Cairo, Egypt. Their parents were all Armenians born in Turkey who then migrated to Egypt. My father’s name was Yervant Hamamdjian. He changed his name to “Edward Gerard” after moving to the US! Yervant was born in Cairo in 1912 and was the youngest of three brothers. The other two brothers were named Zareh and Vahe. Yervant’s father, Armenak Hamamdjian, left Istanbul to flee persecution and wandered about for a while in Greece, Bulgaria and the Ukraine (Odessa), before settling in Cairo, where he married my grandmother, Kalenik Karakashian (or Karaseferian?). Her real maiden name has always been a source of confusion, since her name is different on each of my father’s two marriage certificates. (He married my mother after his first wife died at a young age). One of the marriage certificates says his mother’s name was “Karaseferian” and the other says “Karakashian.”

We do know for a fact, however, that Kalenik was also from Istanbul and had accompanied an Ottoman princess, Shivekar, to Cairo as a lady-in-waiting, when the princess married some Egyptian king or prince. (I’ve got photos of Kalenik picknicking with the court at the foot of the Giza pyramids!). After she married my grandfather Armenak, her family in Istanbul disowned her for marrying a “commoner,” who also happened to be an active member of the Armenian Hunchak party.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: While studying the history of Armenians in China and Armenians in world cinema I encountered the name of your grandmother – Valentina Amirayan. By the way, I have published an article about her in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator (November 24, 2017).

Edwin Gérard: My maternal grandmother, née Maria Valentina Hortensia Nedda Arnaud, was the daughter of an Italian Levantine from Istanbul named Nikolai Michele Arnaud and an Armenian mother, née Acabi Hamamdjian, who also happened to be none other than the first cousin of Armenak Hamamdjian (my paternal grandfather). My mother, née Alida Amirayan, was born in Cairo around 1922. I don’t know exactly when my mother’s grandparents moved to Cairo, but Alida’s parents met there and married around 1920. We don’t know where the Hamamdjians originated and that’s what I’d most like to find out. Judging from the way Acabi spoke Armenian and Turkish, it was obvious they were not real Bolsetsis (Stambouliotes), meaning they were not long settled in Istanbul, but came from somewhere in Eastern Anatolia. I am trying to find out where they came from and can provide linguistic clues to their land of origin. Unfortunately, no one in Istanbul to this day has been able to help me find records of where the Hamamdjians came from.

Topics: acting, Dance

My mother’s father was Stepan Zarmair Amirayan. He too had two brothers, Aram and Garabed, and they were all born in Izmir, Turkey, before moving to Egypt. Stepan moved from Cairo to Los Angeles to join his daughter and grandchildren in 1955 and died there in 1963. Aram left Egypt in the 1940s to settle in Yerevan, Soviet Armenia. Garabed stayed in Cairo after marrying Araxi, an Armenian woman who had been orphaned at age 4 during the genocide. Garabed and Araxi had two sons, Kaloust and Artin (“Arto”) who now both live in Los Angeles.

Kaloust has two sons and Arto has a daughter also named Alida (after my mother), and, I believe, another son. My mother Alida is still alive and lives in La Crescenta, California. She’s 98. Her daughter Michèle Ratkovich (née Gerard) lives nearby with her husband Dan and two sons. My grandmother did indeed live in Shanghai and the Philippines for many years and throughout World War II. During her voyages between Egypt and China she met Cecil B. Demille, who invited her to Hollywood to test for the starring role in his “Cleopatra”. She did not ultimately perform in that film but she did co-star in other films, notably a film in the 20’s called “I Love a Woman” with Edward G Robinson. She also did a few other co-starring roles in Hollywood films and on TV.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: Do you consider yourself as a cosmopolitan?

Edwin Gérard: Yes, I suppose if ever there has been a true cosmopolitan, I would fit that category. I know for some that is considered a compliment, but for fanatic nationalists, reactionaries, and fascists, cosmopolitans can be seen as a threat.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: Can we say you inherited your love for arts from your grandparents?

Edwin Gérard: Not only my grandparents; my mother has always loved the arts, and was for a brief time a dancer as well.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: How did your acting career start? As a dancer?

Edwin Gérard: They kind of both started at the same time. In the US, children learn music and dance on weekends at private, performing arts “academies.” I started tap dancing lessons when I was six, along with piano. Of course, I loved watching the classical ballet classes, but my family thought that wasn’t for “little boys” (especially not Armenian boys!). I realize the taboo was not only for Armenians when I saw there were only girls in the class. But I was fascinated by the beauty of the movements and always wished to be able to perform them. At the same academy, I started taking acting classes when I was twelve.

Later, when I was in high school, I started secretly taking ballet classes at the David Lichine/Tatiana Riabouchinska Ballet School in Beverly Hills. I told them my family didn’t want my father to know I was studying ballet, so I would not be able to pay for the classes. The school directors said not to worry and they let me study there free of charge! They also realized how difficult it was for boys in the US to openly take up ballet. Lichine and his wife Riabouchinska were both former stars at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. They emigrated to America just after the war. She was known as one of the “Baby Ballerinas” of Diaghilev. They served art above commerce and supported young people who shared their love for beauty. And Monsieur Lichine also made his ballet students study acting.

My first serious acting parts were offered to me while I was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. Even though I was getting my master’s degree in French literature, I would try out for the plays produced by the Drama Department and was often cast in leading roles. I remember my first production there was to play Smirnov in Chekhov’s “The Boor.” Later I was cast in plays by Musset, Moliere, and Ionesco, and co-directed a play by William Butler Yeats called “The Death of Cuchulain.” At the same time, I was continuing my dancing with a folk dance troupe and singing with the choir at St. Vartan’s Armenian Church in Oakland, Calif.

When I moved to Paris in 1972, I was fully ready to start my career in musical comedy, where dancing, singing, and acting are intertwined. I worked there for six years, mainly performing in musicals. One of my most memorable shows was called “La Révolution Française,” and it was the first collaboration of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg, who later wrote the book and music to the international hit, “Les Misérables.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: Your creative biography is quite impressive. It seems you are constantly on the stage – dancing, acting, directing and writing for the stage.

Edwin Gérard: I never liked doing only one thing. To me specializing is like a routine. As much as I loved acting, my literary background inspired me to want to create a kind of “total theater,” which incorporated dance and music along with pure theater. I suppose you could say I was what the French call an “artiste polyvalent.” I was intellectually a product of the sixties. I had the immense privilege of watching Martha Graham perform with her troupe on stage at UCLA when she was in her seventies. She was a living legend, an avatar of total theatre, as was Jean-Louis Barrault, whose multi-faceted production of “Rabelais” came to Berkeley and convinced me I needed to be in Paris to do the kind of physical theater work I was passionate about. These were the kind of polyvalent theatre artists I admired and wanted to be like: Graham was an actress, writer, choreographer, director and dancer. Barrault was the same, but he worked first and foremost from literary text, then added all the components of dance, music, poetry, circus acts, and pure spectacle.

In 1980, I was back in Los Angeles. My project was to create a theater company which was politically relevant, entertaining, and which incorporated all the experimental theater techniques I had learned in Europe. My wife at the time, Bettina Fischer, and I created the “LA Experimental Theater.” Our first production was “The Baden Play” by Bertholt Brecht, which we performed in a deserted jail in Venice, California. (Just recently, a retired FBI agent that I met by chance told me he remembered being assigned to see that show and report on it!).

We later went on to write our own plays collectively. Our first creation was a play called Twanglehouse, a crazy, surrealistic spoof about American consumerism, the frantic acquisition of objects and technological gadgets in particular, and the demise of communication within the family. This was 1981 and what we see today is “Twanglehouse” pushed to an extreme we had never even dreamt of! One critic, Viola Hegy Swisher, writing in Drama-Logue, began her review of the play like this: “The twangling, jangling accoutrements of this stereo era outgrow their usefulness as objects serving civilized human beings…” She summed up the whole point of the play. I remember one time after a performance of “Twanglehouse,” an audience member from Nicaragua came backstage with tears in his eyes, thanking us for this play, which he claimed made him understand why his family fell apart.

Other productions by the LA Experimental Theatre included “Medea: Requiem for a Boy with a White White Toy” written and directed by Reza Abdoh. It was one of his first major works while he was still in his early twenties. This was the production that brought Reza into the limelight. Later, he was referred to as “the Picasso of contemporary theatre” and has just had a two-month retrospective of his work at MOMA, in New York.

So to answer your question, yes, in most of my experimental theatre days, I participated as a writer, actor, choreographer, director, as well as dealing with the administrative side of running a theatre company.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: So you worked with famous innovative directors, like Reza Abdo. This year MOMA celebrates him. How was your cooperation with that amazing director?

Edwin Gérard: When I first met Reza he was barely 21 or 22 and new to LA. He was introduced to me by actors I had worked with and who knew about my interest in experimental work. My first feeling toward Reza was one of great affection. He often came to our house for dinner and became close friends with my wife and my son Sevan as well. He also would invite us for dinner at his place, often with various actors he was working with.

At first, I thought of Reza as a younger brother who was struggling in Hollywood/TV Reality like myself, trying to survive as a creative theatre artist. In LA, acting was then (and still is, largely) almost exclusively realistic/naturalistic. Actors were all looking for high-paying roles on TV and didn’t want to waste their time performing in “experimental” productions which agents and casting directors would never attend. Therefore, Reza and I shared a common challenge. We were co-conspirators fighting the complacency of LA theatre audiences, who could not relate to non-realistic acting. How to find actors willing to commit to experimental work given the fact that they had to eat and pay their rent? Moreover, Reza once told me that his two greatest idols – the artists that influenced him more than anyone, were Paradjanov and an Armenian-Iranian director named Arby Ovanessian (whom I later met in Paris and who directed a celebrated film entitled “The Source”). The fact that Reza was an Armenophile also strengthened our bond. I, too, had visited Iran back in 1977 and was enchanted by the beauties of Persian culture.

When it came to theatrical work however, Reza and I were not really collaborators. I performed as an actor in several of his early productions, and especially enjoyed playing Kent in his “King Lear.” But once my role changed and I co-produced his “Medea”, it was clear Reza needed to be entirely autonomous in his work. Starting at that point, Reza and I continued to be close friends and did not intervene in each other’s creative process.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: Along with classics like Racine, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Brecht, Tennessee Williams you staged also contemporary authors.

Edwin Gérard: In Paris, I directed plays by contemporary American writers like Jane Martin, Christopher Durang, and Sam Shepard, one of my all-time favorite playwrights. I also worked with a partner on an award-winning comedy in French, called “La Honte.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: What about films? Does your knowledge of many languages allow you to act as people of different ethnicities?

Edwin Gérard: Yes, I’m often called upon to play characters of different nationalities. Once you’re known as a polyglot actor, your agent expects you to be able to play in any language. Just last year in LA I played a German-speaking Swiss restaurateur, and a Turkish-speaking “monk” in a monastery in Anatolia (if such a thing exists). But that’s Hollywood!

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: In 2007, with Vartan Matiossian I published a monograph about Armen Ohanian – an extraordinary dancer and writer of very colorful biography. You are also fascinated by that woman, having written a play about her in French.

Edwin Gérard: I came across the first of several of her autobiographies, which she wrote in French, called La Danseuse de Shemakha. It spoke of her childhood and early adulthood in Azerbaijan, then in Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. I was blown away by the quality of her French. You would think she was a classic French author from the 1800s. I couldn’t believe that French was probably her third, or fourth, or fifth language (after Armenian, Russian, Azeri, and Farsi!) and she could so master the nuances, so perfectly articulate her ideas and feelings in French. I was particularly moved by a scene where she is in the presence of British ladies at the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo. Her observation of how these ladies appeared to act like “white goddesses” alongside the darker “eastern ladies and gentlemen” somehow struck a chord in me, perhaps because I grew up in an Anglo-Saxon culture where color played such an important role, while never really being acknowledged openly.

I envisioned my piece as a dance-drama, where Armen Ohanian is played by an actress/dancer. It would not only include dance styles from the Caucasus, Iran and Egypt, but also her own, invented movements and masks, influenced by German expressionists like Mary Wigman. The production would be costly and I have not yet found the funding to produce the play the way I would like to see it done.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: Teaching is another field of activity you are actively involved in.

Edwin Gérard: I’ve always loved teaching. For a long time, I taught acting and theatre history in various schools and universities in the US and France. I even ran the summer acting program for the New York Film Academy in Florence, Italy for several years.

However, since the age of 60, I have felt there are more important things I need to be teaching, given my particular background in literature, music and the arts. In my view, the terrible cuts in arts education taking place in schools in America and Europe are creating a generation of culturally “deprived” graduates. Fewer and fewer students have the opportunities my generation enjoyed in more prosperous times, when schools included art history, music history, theatre history, philosophy and languages in their curriculum. Today, the humanities are disappearing completely from the public school system. The majority of university students have never heard a Beethoven Symphony, viewed Picasso’s “Guernica,” or seen a Shakespeare play, or even heard of Homer, Dostoevsky, Dickens or Kafka. France, which once took pride in producing the most culturally literate high school graduates, now pays little or no attention to the humanities in their educational system.

I will always consider myself a teacher as well as an artist. But more as a gateway than an instructor. I simply want to open doors to young people to experience the arts, not impose a specific vision or philosophy on them. At this time in my life, I would like to focus my energies on raising cultural awareness, not only for students who want to become artists, but for all future programmers, engineers, technocrats, and business people. Francois Rabelais wrote “Science sans conscience est la ruine de l’àme.” Which translates as “Knowledge, without conscience, is the ruin of the soul.” The arts, philosophy, and the humanities instill conscience and cultural awareness, so schools need to continue teaching them.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: Have you ever been involved in Armenian culture? Do you know Armenian art professionals working for Armenian culture?

Edwin Gérard: Unfortunately I never attended Armenian school. My parents were very worried that I would not learn English fast enough, so they avoided speaking to me in Armenian. They themselves arrived in California a few months before my birth and were struggling to improve their English themselves. I learned Armenian from my great-grandmother who spoke a mixture of Turkish and Armenian and who had no interest in mastering English. Whatever I learned about Armenian grammar and vocabulary I taught myself when I was in college.

As a result, I was never able to participate in Armenian cultural events, aside from music and dance and the Divine Liturgy. However, I’ve worked and collaborated with many Armenians in the Diaspora like Levon Parian, Knarig Boyajian, Gerald Papasian, Nora Armani, Kaaren Yeghiazarian, and Vardan Petrosyan. I once worked with a promising graphic designer / photographer named Levon Parian in Los Angeles, who did some amazing photos of “Twanglehouse.” In the early 1980s I had also won the Armenian Allied Arts Association first prize for poetry in English and was invited to read my work at their awards dinner. Perhaps it was there that I first met Knarig Boyajian, an Armenian mystic poetess from Bagdad, and felt she was truly a kindred spirit. Later she asked me to recite her poetry in English at a banquet organized to honor her work. We had an Armenian mime in the LA Experimental Theatre named Kaaren Yeghiazarian, who was an amazingly passionate and dedicated asset to the company. I’ve also known and worked with Gerald Papasian and Nora Armani over the last forty years. Gerald and I performed together at the LA Theatre Center, and I participated in organizing their locations for their Armenian film, “Last Station,” in Paris. I’ve also worked with Vartan Petrosyan on some of his comedy routines in English, while we were both living in Paris.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: Edwin, you are finally in Armenia. Better late than… later! What are your feelings?

Edwin Gérard in Armenia

Edwin Gérard: Yerevan was not at all what I had imagined it to be. It surpassed all my expectations, and in a positive way. I was expecting to see faces marked of years of hardship and suffering, but what I found was quite the opposite. Yerevan looked to me like one of the most dynamic, convivial and forward-looking cities I’ve seen in a long time. The energy, animation, and night-life was on a par with the most acclaimed capitals of Europe. Yerevan was also far more cosmopolitan than I had imagined. You hear so many different languages spoken on the street. The food was delicious almost everywhere and was prepared with a refinement you rarely see in most countries. People were friendly and courteous, regardless of whether you understood them or vice-versa.

I tried to see as much as I could during my stay, took a three-day tour to Artsakh, and visited Dilijan, Sevan, and most of the famous churches. Seen from the outside, Armenia always seemed to me like a tiny country. But when you’re inside it, traveling through the provinces, Armenia feels huge, vast and empty. There seems to be so much room, so much space still left to fill.

The contrast between the provinces and Yerevan is great. I don’t know if I could live outside of the capital, yet there is so much to be done throughout the country. Artsakh was beautiful and also felt huge and empty of people. The recent history of that land and the struggle of the Kharabaghtsis touched me deeply. It was a life changer.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: And the traditional question about your upcoming projects and activities.

Edwin Gérard: From October to the end of December, I will be playing Theseus and Oberon in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” with the Auroville Theatre Group in Pondicherry, South India. I had worked with this company several years ago, as a director, and now they have invited me back, this time as an actor.

Now that I am 70, I often ask myself, “If I were told I had only a few months to live, what would be my biggest regret?” And the answer is that I didn’t do my own one-man comedy show in Paris. My experiences there in my 20s, now well digested, and then again in my 40s and 50s, are so full of anecdotes and observations of the changes that have taken place there, that I’m sure I could write at least a 60-minute show and it would be very funny. What I appreciate so much about the French is that they love watching foreigners make jokes about them. I think I would really enjoy getting back on stage in Paris!

Right now I’m taking some time to rest, write and paint in Alexandria before leaving for India. I’m studying my lines for Oberon.

I can’t wait to return to Armenia very soon and spend a longer period of time there. Perhaps directing an Armenian version of The Dancer of Shemakha would be a good first project.

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