Photo montage from performances in Germany. Photo from AGBU Germany

Artsakh Showing its Endurance Through Theater: First Theater Tours in Europe

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STEPANAKERT — “If it be true that good wine needs no bush, ’tis true that a good play needs no epilogue,” William Shakespeare said.

The State Theatre of Artsakh didn’t need an epilogue either while touring in Europe, as the message was straightforward – Artsakh is living.

Arts have no boundaries; it is eternal — even during the worst calamities for a society. Challenges serve as a spurring force to create even when life is hanging by a thread, and theatre didn’t cease to exist and advance after the war. The Armenian communities of Europe welcomed Artsakhtsis with riotous applause and tears: for the first time in history, Artsakh Theatre toured in Europe.

June 2022 was symbolic for Artsakh theatre, as they visited five European countries to perform “Three Apples Fell from the Sky,” based on Narine Abgaryan’s novel of the same name. In a stroke of luck, the play’s director, Karine Kocharyan, arrived in Artsakh from New York. Currently, the producer of “The Voice of Armenians TVNY,” the Yerevan-born Kocharyan is an experienced actress and theatre director in Armenia and the US. She also wrote the adaptation of the novel.

“I couldn’t find inner peace after the war. I could watch from afar what was happening in post-war Artsakh, but I instead decided to come and live there, and it was the best decision I made,” said Kocharyan.

The troupe was not in its best condition in the war aftermath; some actors left, some preferred other occupations and the rest had no one to gather and guide them. They returned to the stage in the summer of 2021 to perform “The Scarlet Flower,” directed by Qajik Harutyunyan, who had long-standing experience in acting but not directing. Soon, the news arrived in the theatre and gave it a second life — a new director was coming to Artsakh!

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Kocharyan had no acquaintances and connections in Artsakh and starting from scratch was a challenge to herself and one presenting a heavy responsible on the theatre. She became a new friend and family to everyone surrounding her — her neighbors, sellers in big and small shops, and the theatre.

“When we had water shortages in summer, the kids from my neighborhood brought water tubes to the fifth floor for me,” recalled Kocharyan. “And in my leisure time, I sat on the bench near our building to talk to the people, and the new acquaintances grew into real friendships,” she added. But more important was building ties with the theatre and its people.

Shogher Sargsyan, 22, is the youngest actress in Artsakh State Drama Theatre, who was among the few to find the strength to get to the stage immediately after the war and give it a new start. “The Scarlet Flower” was her first performance as a theatre actress, and afterward, she followed the path with “Three Apples Fell from the Sky.”

“When I kicked off my experience in theatre, I realized that nothing could replace the stage for me,” said Sargsyan. “After the first rehearsal, we acknowledged that we’re doing everything right,  and the theatre should live,” she added.

Kocharyan built a strong relationship with actors both in the work environment and outside. She perceived everyone “as the best people in the world,” and the troupe tried its best to help their special guest feel safe and sound in Artsakh.

“We found out that her favorite flowers were lilacs and brought her lilacs during rehearsals,” recalled Shogher.

“Three Apples Fell from the Sky” poster in Germany

Cautious Way Forward

Choosing a genre and composition for the play in a post-war society required prudence and cautiousness. The wounds were still sore, and people sought something positive to elevate their spirits.

“When I came to Stepanakert, I realized that the wounds were too fresh; I couldn’t spot the smiles on people’s faces. I didn’t even dress up in bright colors because I was afraid it would hurt people,” said Kocharyan.

Abgaryan’s novel, Three Apples Fell from the Sky, was a suitable composition that combined rural life, ordinary people’s destinies, and struggles. The novel is about an isolated mountainous village that was about to go extinct due to the epidemic, war, and famine, leaving only a handful of old people expecting their demise. A spark of a romance suddenly occurs between an elderly couple, and the birth of a child alters the whole course of events.

Abgaryan’s depiction of a remote village could refer to any Armenian community, where people are interconnected and share the same emotions and pain. Kocharyan saw Artsakh as a perfect prototype for the story’s village, where people overcome many years of hardships until they find a glimmer of hope and get back on their feet.

Artsakh theatre group in Brussels, Belgium

The play served as motivation and encouragement for some actors to return to Stepanakert and to the theatre stage. Marut Davtyan, the main male character was about to leave theatre to get another job until Kocharyan talked to him and asked him to return. Ofelia Martirosyan, 40, who played the main female character, lost her husband during the 44-day war and moved to Yerevan with her two kids. Post-war despair deprived her of the desire to get on the stage, but a few calls from the director changed her mind as well.

“Mrs. Karine called and explained that grief shouldn’t last forever, and that life goes on. She convinced me to return to Stepanakert, to the house my husband built, and rear my kids in their hometown,” recalled Martirosyan.

As soon as the roles were distributed, the troupe started rehearsals for a premiere in Stepanakert. From the outset, it became clear: the performance was not merely for the local viewers; it was meant for wider Armenian audiences inside and outside the country. After premiering in Stepanakert, the troupe, in a group of 13, went on its first tours throughout Armenia, and Artsakh’s voice became heard in Yerevan, Gyumri, Vanadzor, Artashat, Hrazdan and Stepanavan.

“I was carrying the idea of touring as a backup plan. When I saw that everything was going well, I decided to show the world that Artsakh is standing,” said Kocharyan. “Artsakh is not just mountains and nature; Artsakh is its people.”

Touring in Europe initially seemed an unattainable dream for the actors because they rarely had opportunities to even visit Armenia, especially during a crisis. However, aspiration and ambition made it a reality.

“I always thought that Europe is unreachable for our theatre and barely believed we would make it happen. After all, I saw that nothing is impossible when there is desire and willingness,” said Martirosyan.

In June 2022, this troupe of Artsakh artists took to the stage in Lyon, Brussels, Vienna, Berlin, and Cologne. The tour was to be funded by individuals who backed out in the end. Kocharyan ended up covering the costs personally with backing from local organizations in those cities.

The performance highlighted the peculiarities of rural life by using various dialects — the language was a mixture of Syunik and Artsakh dialects. They included subtitles in English and French to make the text more understandable.

Besides value as powerful work of theatrical art, the performance had a more prominent message: to show Armenia and Europe the people of Artsakh, their willingness to create, and their dedication to their land. Especially for the Armenian communities of Europe, the arrival of Artsakh theatre was a chance to reconnect with their roots and history and to satisfy their longing for the homeland.

“The European-Armenians’ reaction was different from what we had experienced in Armenian cities. They laughed and cried, they were honest, and we realized that they accepted us from the moment we got on the stage. We became one with them,” recalled Shogher.

Arts and culture stimulated Armenians worldwide to stand together and with Artsakh because it’s the mutual support that gives strength to live and create inside the chaos. The European theatres were full – seeing Artsakh on the stage while undergoing uncertainties in their homeland gave courage to Armenians and strengthened their faith in a better future.

“I don’t know how much strength I gave to Artsakhtsis, but believe me, I found a lot of power within myself due to them,” said Kocharyan.

Kocharyan plans to take the play to new tour in the US and Canada next spring and also to return to Artsakh to work with Artsakh theater again.

“Artsakhtsis are strong and steadfast on their ancestral land. The most important thing is that all Armenians around the world stand with them and never accept the idea of ever losing Artsakh. If we ever accept it, we will lose it,” she added.

To see more, visit the group’s page on Facebook.

 

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