Nora Armani at the 38th Alexandria Film Festival of Mediterranean Countries (photo courtesy of Nora Armani)

By Maydaa Nadar

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Armenian-Egyptian actress Nora Armani in October received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 38th Alexandria Mediterranean Film Festival.

Armani relates what is the wellspring of her artistic career: “Being decisive is very important. Don’t expect that someone will fall from the sky to make your dreams come true. Do it regardless of where you are, at school, or at university. You can even start in the hall where we are sitting now, but first, you have to take the decision. The universe will not give you what you want unless you reveal it to it. Later, your choice must be backed up by persistence and continuity.”

At a very young age, she directed scenes from books they had at school. And serendipitously, she got her start right here in Alexandria. She says: “My aunt was living in Alexandria, so we used to spend the summers there. My brother, cousins, and I enjoyed acting in children’s plays. That’s where and how my artistic journey actually began.”

When she turned 15, she decided to be an actress and had the chance to perform at the Armenian Cultural Club in Cairo. After finishing school, she acted at the Theatre Group of the American University in Cairo (AUC), appearing in plays by Shakespeare and Camus among others. She continues: “I wanted to go to England because it is a good place for studying acting; however I was informed by the Royal Academy for Dramatic Art (RADA) that it was too late for that year to join but that they could give me an audition in January for the following September. At the age of 22, you think that a year is a long period of time. At the same time, I got an invitation from the London School of Economics, which is a top university in its field, to do a Master’s Degree in sociology, which was my subject of study at the AUC. I didn’t hesitate and took the offer. Acting was put to the side, but not completely forgotten, as, throughout the year that I was doing the Master’s Degree, I was also acting.”

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

It is interesting how she utilizes sociology to support her art. In her opinion, artists are also teachers, and in fact it is also the artist’s duty to teach the public, delivering information and experiences and bringing them what can improve their lives. In this regard, she comments: “Entertainment just as a pastime has its place too, but for me art should not only be limited to entertaining people. My type of entertainment is the one that enriches people’s lives. I hope to leave a legacy and present a work that stays in their minds and encourages them to think. This is the purpose and function of the theatre and cinema, I believe.”

She goes on to say: “Sociology, which is the study of society and what is happening in it, gives you a depth of knowledge and a way to approach things, but let’s not forget the entertainment part. If I just come lecturing and teaching, I will be a lecturer/professor at a university, not an artist, so art is the combination of both. It is balancing between entertainment and enlightenment.”

Connecting sociology with art, Armani runs the annual Socially Relevant Film Festival New York, which has screened 600 films, including shorts, feature-length ones and documentaries. The event’s tenth anniversary is going to be celebrated in March.

Social dimensions and its themes are always present in her films and plays, and this festival is no exception. “It is fantastic because the event brings together all that I am — an actress, a director and a producer. I love theatre, cinema and sociology,” she continues. “I have dedicated the festival and one of the awards to the memory of my cousin, Vanya Exerjian, who was a victim of a crime of violence along with her father, Jack Exerjian (my paternal uncle).”

Nora Armani in Gyumri (photo courtesy of Nora Armani)

Acting on Stage

One can clearly sense her love of theatre. “Cinema is more the field of the director, whereas, based on the actor´s direct communication with the audience on stage, theatre is where the actor shines more and has immediate communication with the audience,” Armani says.

She starred with the famous Egyptian actor Mohamed Sobhi in the Egyptian version of “The King and I,” and starred with Gamil Rateb in the Egyptian TV series “Al Asdiquaa” [The Friends], directed by Ismail Abdel Hafez.

Born in Egypt, it is inevitable that Egyptian culture has had a strong influence on her. However, she explains, “We Armenians kept quite an insular existence in Egypt and were much more Western-influenced than Arab or Egyptian-influenced culturally. The choice of plays, characters, and performances at the Armenian Cultural Club, and later at the American University in Cairo where I performed as a student, were not of Arab or Egyptian works, but of the Western canon. It is years later when I came back to Egypt to do the TV series ‘Al Asdiquaa’ and stage work for ‘The King and I’ that I was more exposed to and involved with Egyptian and Arab actors, directors, and the culture. This said, as a child, growing up in Egypt, and having seen Egyptian films, I was definitely influenced by actresses such as Faten Hamama [who was married to Omar Sharif], Soad Hosni, and Mervat Amin, as well as their male counterparts Hussein Fahmy, Nour El Sherif, and Gamil Rateb, who I had the honor to co-star with, in ‘Al Asdiquaa.’”

Armani recently appeared in “Mercedes and Zaruhi,” a one-woman play by Anush Aslibeyan, as part of the United Solo Theatre Festival. The play revolves around an important period of Armenia’s recent history, the repatriations to Soviet Armenia in the late 1940s during Stalin’s reign. The performance took place before a packed audience in November, on New York’s Theatre Row where Armani had performed her self-penned solo show “Back on the Couch with Nora Armani” in November 2021.

She likes doing monologues because she sees that it is a very personal way of telling your story, even when you are doing a character, like she was in “Mercedes and Zaruhi,” contrary to “Back on the Couch with Nora Armani,” where she essentially played herself. Nora says that that this form creates an immediate communication with the audience, and her imagination as a performer has to be much more alive in order to create an entire world on stage all by herself. “I love that challenge,” she exclaims. “I enjoy doing solo shows, even though keeping the audience’s attention focused is a huge responsibility. It is challenging to not let them disconnect or get bored. The only way I can do this is by being 100-percent present, focused and in the moment. Otherwise, it does not work and I can easily lose them.”

When asked whether this type of performance in front of a large audience scares her, the answer came: “Of course, it is like tightrope walking only there is no safety net to fall into. So you need to be very sure of your lines and not have to think about them. It has to become second nature. It is a challenge also because there is no other partner on stage to help you out if you get stuck or if something goes wrong. I wouldn’t say it scares me because if it did, I would not do it. I think I like the adrenaline rush which gets me going. Also, the urgency of wanting to tell a story and share intimate moments with the audience is a strong incentive.”

From sharing intimate moments with theatergoers to rehearsing alone, Nora’s practical point of view is that it is easier to rehearse and work on her own, as she is not bound by anyone else’s schedule and can take the shows on the road too. “I rehearse alone, at first, learning my lines by dividing the script into parts because it is not possible to memorize the entire play at once. Then I rely on the help of family members who check the lines as I recite them. I also have worked with directors, on my own solo pieces, and I like the help of an external eye looking in because it is difficult to see yourself perform or be objective.”

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: