Lara Arabian

Lara Arabian: Finding Her Place in the Great Canadian Mosaic

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YEREVAN/TORONTO — Lara Arabian is a trilingual artist by way of Beirut, upstate New York and Paris. She completed her acting training at the Banff/Citadel Professional Theatre Program and has worked with companies across Canada including Canadian Stage, Cahoots, Nightswimming, Pandemic Theatre, Neptune Theatre and Studio 180. Her favorite theatre credits include: “Rubble,” “The House of Bernarda Alba,” “The Solitudes,” “The Silver Arrow,” “Blood Wedding” (Dora nomination Best Ensemble), “Upon the Fragile Shore” and “The Container.”

She participated in 18 film and TV projects; the recent credits include “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Kim’s Convenience,” “Ghostwriter,” “Rabbit Hole,” “Murdoch Mysteries,” “Taken” and “Dark Matter.”

As a writer, she has been a member of the Banff Playwrights Unit and Nightwood Theatre’s Write from the Hip program. Her latest play, “Convictions” received its world premiere at the Festival Les Zébrures in France last fall before kicking of the season for Théâtre français de Toronto. She’s been twice nominated for a Dora Award for Outstanding New Play (Youth Division) as part of the writing team for Les Zinspiré.e.s 8 and 10 (Théâtre français de Toronto) AND was recently named the inaugural recipient of the Joël Beddows Playwrighting Prize.

Highlights of her directorial work include “Welcome to Naxos” (Alumnae Theatre), “In Search of Our Humanity” (Holocaust Education week, co-director), “Huit Femmes” (Les Indisciplinés de Toronto) and “Sparta” (Theatre Passe Muraille, Assistant Director).

Lara is also a passionate arts educator and is on the faculty at both George Brown and Sheridan Colleges.

Dear Lara, what difficulties has an Armenian girl from Lebanon overcome in order to find her place in Canada’s cultural mosaic?

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It is definitely been a bit of a road to get here! When I first started out (or even as a child) there were no examples of Armenian women in the movies that I could point to, except, of course Cher, but she just seemed like she was from a completely different world. In the Armenian communities I grew up in, mainly Toronto and Ottawa, the idea of being an actor or an artist was a completely foreign one. The Armenian arts we were exposed to were always of the past: traditional dances or musical concerts. As well, there also seemed to be a stigma attached to being an actor – particularly a female one, as if it was a dishonorable, disreputable way to live.

I am so happy to say things have really changed. Speaking for the community in Toronto, there is now an active engagement and even encouragement of delving into the arts, and using them as a tool to explore and affirm our identity. It is thrilling to see and I am so proud and humbled to be a part of that. I am starting to be a point of contact for young Armenian artists starting out and I love that. I am happy to say I feel a lot of love and support from the community now.

Your filmography shows you acted mainly Arabic and Armenian characters – do you feel comfortable with it?

To find my place in the greater Canadian mosaic, that too has been an evolution. For a very long time, I was only seen as the ‘exotic ethnic’ (those words were literally said to me by people in the industry) and so I would be considered for a narrow range of parts, particularly in the film and TV world. Over the years I had to learn to be a very stubborn actor in order to create a space where my voice could be heard and counted. And of course, my experience as a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) actor was by no means unique. Things have improved changed in the last few years, but we still have a way to go.

Lara Arabian

I am always happy to “represent” my people and my wider community and culture but for a long time it was the only thing I was “allowed” to represent, and in a country like Canada, that just does not make any sense. It was very frustrating to always have to do the character with an accent or a headscarf just to be able to work. I speak about this in my one-woman show, “Siranoush” about the eminent Armenian stage actress from the end of the 19th-first quarter of the 20th centuries. The running joke in my household is: “Is this an audition with or without the headscarf?” I am proud to represent where I come from, but when you are limited to showing only one part of yourself, it gets frustrating. Not to mention that often those types of roles are as the “terrorist” or the traumatized refugee. Of course, these people exist in real life, but if these are the only representations we see, then we miss out on the humanity of so many. It is so reductionist. This often happens with BIPOC roles.

I have been fortunate in my last few roles as an Arab to be playing funny, complicated, loving people who are just like everyone else; by that I mean that it is not their “otherness” that defines them. That truly is a joy and a privilege.

Topics: actors, film, Theater
People: Lara Arabian

I am also happy to report that more and more I am playing people without accents or who are specifically Armenian/Arab. Finally!

I also want to say though how important it is for people to see themselves represented in a three-dimensional way. When I did “Siranoush” I had people from our community, particularly women, who came up to me after the show to tell me how they felt. Strangers would be crying and asking to hug me or speak to me about their own struggles because they saw an Armenian woman on stage they could identify with. It was an intensely moving and cathartic experience for both them and me.

You are trilingual – aside from writing in English and French can you also write plays in Armenian? It would be great as there are so few authors producing plays in Western Armenian.

That is a wonderful challenge and I do have some ideas simmering on the back burner at the moment.

“Siranoush” has large sections in Armenian but those are mainly drawn from famous plays. I would like to write a play in the Armenian that’s often spoken in Toronto, which is a mix of the Armenian I grew up with (which is already a mix of Armenian, Arabic, Turkish and French) but with English thrown in, too. The concept of where language lives in our bodies and how we are different with each language we speak is something that has fascinated me for years. I know that I am a different person when I speak in Armenian then when I speak another language. Armenian sits in the deepest part of myself; it was the first language I learned.

At Sheridan College you are the chairperson of their “Expanding the Lens” series, dedicated to centering historically marginalized voices. Have you included Armenian voices too? Our voices have been marginalized as well, isn’t it?

“Expanding the Lens” is about centering historically marginalized voices from all angles: ethnic, racial, LGBTQ+, feminist, neurodivergent… I have worked hard to make sure that all communities are represented. I really believe that when we lift each other up, we get lifted up as well, so while this is not a specific Armenian initiative, it has absolutely benefited our community. There is a bonus though: because I am the chair and I speak of my own experiences; the students learn about our history as well!

Lara, we met in 2008 when you came to participate in Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival. Was it a way to embrace your roots?

It was definitely a trip that was about discovering my roots, even if the branches of my own family are not from what is now territorial Armenia. It was an incredibly transformative trip, and one whose ripples keep affecting me.

I went from being in a place where Armenian is basically unknown to a place where it was everywhere. It was surreal. I speak about this in “Siranoush,” about how the first couple of days felt like a strange Disneyland version of a country set up just for me. It was so strange to be in a place where I did not have to work so hard to ‘be’ my ethnicity, I just was. And I was like everyone else!

And of course, Armenia was where I discovered Siranoush and her story. It may sound corny, but her tenacity and artistry continue to inspire me every single day.

In what stage is “Siranoush” now?

I am thrilled to announce that after an initial sold-out run, “Siranoush” will be back on stage at the Next Stage Festival here in Toronto in October of next year. I am also actively looking at touring the show as there was a lot of interest expressed in that. Although the show is not only for Armenian audiences, many members of our community have been asking when I am taking the show to Los Angeles (aka mini-Armenia!).

I also really want to bring it to Armenia. That would be a truly full circle moment.

Do you have other Armenia-related projects?

Although I am not writing anything with Armenia in mind specifically at the moment, I feel my identity as a diasporan artist always shows up in my work; it is the lens I see everything through. I recently wrote and performed in a play in French about a family from the Middle East, which is another layer to my make-up as a multi-lingual Armenian artist. There are so many doors Armenian artists can enter through to explore the various facets of our ever-evolving identity/ies!

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