In the scope of my initiative of spotlighting the great Armenians of today for the Weekly, I recently had a heartfelt conversation with the young Armenian actress Narine Grigoryan. Grigoryan is known for her role in Yeva (2017), the Armenian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards. She has also impressed audiences across Armenia and the world through her powerful performances in Amerikatsi (2022), Half Moon Bay (2014), Bravo Virtuoso (2016), The Line 2: 25 Years Later (2017) and Long Return (2017). In 2018, Grigoryan was appointed the Art Director of the Hamazkayin Theater named after Sos Sargsyan. Since then, the young director and actress has won major awards in international theater festivals and presented Armenian culture to foreign audiences with special delicacy, beauty and depth. In our conversation, we covered a wide range of subjects, including Grigoryan’s personal journey, the current state of Armenian theater and the broader significance of art.
Milena Baghdasaryan (M.B.): What brought you to the world of theater?
Narine Grigoryan (N.G.): The interesting thing is that I spent my childhood in places where I didn’t even see a theater, but since childhood I have been telling myself and everyone else that I would become an actress. Later, I changed my path, went to the PhysMath school, took part in math olympiads, but eventually I returned to where I knew I belonged. At 17 years old, I arrived where seven-year-old Narine knew she should be. But the things I learned and picked up while being away from the world of theater then helped me in my career as an actress. Learning math impacted my way of thinking, and my family’s move to Artsakh enabled me to better understand my roots as well as to learn a dialect, which is a great way to enrich one’s vocabulary and perception of language. Back then, it seemed I was moving away from theater, but everything that happened throughout that journey has shaped me into the artist I am today, and I am grateful for that.
M.B.: Perhaps every person encounters some sort of a turning point throughout their life. What has been the decisive event, role or person, after which things took a completely different turn?
N.G.: I would say the different meetings with the people who have shaped me in my profession are what I consider turning points. One example of such meetings is that with Ruben Babayan (renowned director and Honored Art Worker of Armenia) during my studies at the Yerevan State Institute of Theatre and Cinematography. He taught me a lot about my profession and even helped me learn things like how to give interviews or how to accurately formulate my thoughts. Despite all my success as an actress, he never allowed me to forget that I was first of all a director. In general, he made a very significant impact on my career, and I will always remember and appreciate his role in my life. Another key person is Sos Sargsyan – someone whose ‘breath’ is always present in our theater. I would also like to mention the name of Serj Melik-Hovsepyan, who came to Armenia from France and introduced me to a completely different theater style. Before him, our theater still often followed the Russian approach, whereas his appearance brought something revolutionary for us. Even though I am not a risk-taker in my personal life, I like taking very big risks in theater. I am not afraid of unlearning everything I know and starting everything from scratch. In theater, I like taking the scary road and exploring things I have never seen or experienced before.
M.B.: How do you get inspired? Does the transformation from Narine Grigoryan to any other character or persona need a special time, location or circumstance to take place, or can it happen at any moment?
N.G.: When acting, I put aside my profession as a director and immerse myself into the world of acting. For me, the first impulse of inspiration is the director on whom I choose to rely fully and who I let inspire me. I like understanding and imagining what kind of a fairy tale they have in mind, what they expect from me in creating that tale, and I embody that. The other impulses are the author, my partner on stage and the audience. There are many impulses, but the first one for me is always the director. The ‘grain of wheat’ is in the director’s hands. But it is important to continue creating in that fairy tale, not merely comply with the requirements of it, and to be able to create in someone else’s creation, you first need to understand it.
When directing, it is interesting for me to notice, now, as an adult, that all my impulses come from my childhood. This year was very difficult for me; many losses, and the loss of Artsakh in particular, disarmed me to the point that I could no longer create new performances. I had no inspiration or willingness to do anything. Then, recently, Paruyr Sevak’s grandchild came to me and introduced me to the project dedicated to the 100th birth anniversary of the great Armenian poet on which he wanted us to collaborate. I remembered that, when I was a child, my father, who knew Sevak’s poems very well, used to come up with games revolving around that poetry. For example, he would say out loud a line from a poem by Sevak, and expect me to quickly remember the next line and continue the game. It was our favorite pastime, my favorite memory from childhood, and now that my father is no longer, I had a strong urge to revive those moments. So when Sevak’s grandchild came to me with the project idea, it was that childhood memory that inspired and encouraged me to get involved, despite all the losses and traumas of 2023.
M.B.: When creating something new, do you have the audience’s potential reaction in mind, or do you give to the paper or the stage whatever your heart dictates?
N.G.: Milena, I am my own audience. Jerzy Grotowski once said that director is the professional audience․ When you are creating something as a director, the professional audience inside you watches. At different points this audience might say, “It’s no longer interesting,” “It’s becoming boring,” “Change the tone,” and, as Sevak used to say, the more you mix your “I” with the great “We,” you start feeling what the “We” feels, and you start seeing things from the perspective of the “We.” Of course, you need to create from your own sincerity, from what has hurt you, from what has given you joy. I create from what has emotionally moved me and that I know would move others too. You just need to be clean, pure, genuine and authentic to feel what your audience feels. You need to be like a clean white page. In general, it’s difficult to be a director; while the actor is responsible for exploring and revealing his or her color palette only, the director is responsible for a whole big creation process.
M.B.: Narine, your characters always differ from other characters, and, in addition to being different, they are also loved by the audiences. What is your secret formula?
N.G.: Perhaps my secret formula is my sincerity and genuineness itself. I never recite a poem if I do not find it relevant, if I do not feel connected to it. Even though, based on my contract, I am responsible for playing any given role, I do not play it if it is not ‘mine.’ When I was younger, people would say they would complain to Sos Sargsyan when I would not take this or that role. Then, Sos Sargsyan would say: “Who is that? Narincho? Oh yeah, leave her alone. She will not play if she does not want to.”
M.B.: To what extent is it important for the artist to be accepted and loved by the audience? Or is the artist’s personal satisfaction enough?
N.G.: You know, my field is such that there is a very strong connection between the artist and the audience, and that connection is here and now. It is not like music or painting, which can be understood years after the artist’s death; acting is live art, it takes place here and now, and it needs to be understood here and now. They will not see me acting on stage after I die. Moreover, styles change. Today, I would not act or speak like Vahram Papazyan would in the times of the Romanticism movement. As an actress, you need to be interesting in your own time, and, more than that, you need to prove that you were interesting yesterday and are still interesting today and will be tomorrow. It is difficult, as sometimes even after one unsuccessful performance you or the audience might think that you are no longer a good artist today; you were one yesterday, but no longer. When you are an actress, being interesting is a continuous process. In fact, I take everyone’s comments very close to my heart. When I am asked, who is the theater expert on whom I rely and whose word I take seriously, I respond “Everyone.” I listen to everyone’s opinion as I would listen to the most professional expert’s opinion.
M.B.: In your opinion, is talent born with the person or as a result of hard work? Or maybe both?
N.G.: I would say both. I teach at the Yerevan State Institute of Theatre and Cinematography, and all my students are talented, but not all of them go to the end of the road. Each and every one of them is a flower bud, but not everyone blooms. There are students who are so incredibly talented, I look at them and think they would ‘move mountains’ in theater, but time passes and they take another road; I find out they are now police officers, IT specialists…they have left theater and not come back. At such moments, I realize that being an actor is not just about talent; it’s about character, patience, willpower, love and authenticity. In theater, it’s easy to give up, to be discouraged by a word…“Your voice isn’t that strong for an actor,” “You don’t look nice on the stage,” and so many other negative comments can make someone quit. But those who stay choose to stay not because they want to be liked but because they have something to say, and theater is for them the way and the place to express themselves. They stay and they act because they cannot not act. I come across many actors who want to be liked to the extent that they are no longer authentic. They act in a way to fit in, to please, to be liked. They act not for something greater, not for the divine, but for simply stroking their own egos by being liked by the audience. They don’t succeed, they are not liked, because they are not themselves. They are not authentic.
M.B.: What does the theater field in Armenia currently lack? If you were given a magic wand that could make any necessary changes in the field, what would your first steps be?
N.G.: In my role as an art director, I realized that theater does not like sudden, abrupt changes. That is because in theater you deal with people, and you cannot simply say, “You are not a good actor. From now on you should not act in theater.” If you work in theater, one of the most important things for you is the other person’s inner world, the other person’s feelings, and therefore you cannot make an abrupt and careless change. To be honest, recently there have been very positive changes in our theater. The creators of soap operas did not understand that they needed to provide the audience with a quality product, and people started going to theaters in search of something of higher quality. Over time, soap operas have undergone a regression in Armenia, while theater has made huge progress, and a proof of that progress is the many awards that we have received in international festivals and competitions. Another positive dynamic is that the individual theaters in Armenia no longer perceive each other as competitors that need to pull each other down but rather as collaborators that can help each other succeed, and the outcome is clearly visible.
Theater helps us love each other a little bit more. You come and watch another person’s story, and you start to empathize with the other. You start to see beyond yourself, you start to become a part of a “we.”
M.B.: What is the role of art and of theater in particular? How can theater as an artform be used today to change the socio-political situation of the country and the emotional state of the individuals?
N.G.: In general, theater helps us love each other a little bit more. You come and watch another person’s story, and you start to empathize with the other. You start to see beyond yourself, you start to become a part of a “we,” and after that, you start to ache for the people under blockade in Artsakh despite being in Yerevan; you start to ache for the villager whose crops were damaged from the frost, even though you are not from that village and are sitting comfortably in your cozy apartment in the city. Theater helps you understand the other, look at things from someone else’s perspective. Theater helps humans stay human. By being able to do so, theater can have a very important role in people’s lives.
One of the main issues of our society today is the divide that exists between us. The interesting thing is that we are all fighting for the same goal, for our homeland, but we refuse to see that we can do so in different ways. When one looks and sees “nine,” he or she gets disturbed when someone else points out that it’s not a “nine” but “six.” Both of the sides are right, but they are wrong in refusing to look at the issue from a different angle. Our problem is that we fail to see the other’s perspective, and the role of art is to show that perspective.
M.B.: There exists an interesting paradox. In wartime, people die, but very powerful works of art are born. It seems that there needs to be some sort of pain that can push people to create, as if there needs to be a gap for art to step in and fill in. Do we need pain to create, or happiness too can inspire us?
N.G.: It was the opposite for me. The losses dulled my willingness to create. I started to think that all I am doing is just drawing butterflies against the backdrop of large-scale happenings. But then you also realize that you might drown in reality without art, and you start looking for an escape, for a source of light, for a place where you can still fly freely. To be honest, after the pandemic and the war, I thought that people would no longer come to the theater, but then I saw more and more people come to our plays. As they were coming, we also felt the responsibility to get ourselves together and continue creating, but it was difficult. For a whole year I couldn’t get myself together, since my entire life was about victories. It was about knowing that Artsakh was mine. It’s my homeland. I knew that to the level of my cells…and suddenly it all collapsed. But on the other hand, when you start looking at it from the lighthearted point of view of an artist, you realize that the loss was just a page. You can turn it and start from a clean, blank page. You just need to not repeat the same mistakes; our history is like a wheel, turning and coming to the same point, as if we are doing something the wrong way, as if we are not learning from our mistakes.
M.B.: What are some pieces of art that you would recommend to watch today to rediscover the light?
N.G.: I would not give specific names, but in my own artistic work I try to conclude everything with a sense of hope. In one of the plays, at the end the buffalo gives birth to a calf; in another, a suitcase saves the family. In another instance, the loss of the war is followed by the birth of Harutyun (an Armenian name that also means resurrection). There will always be Harutyun. No matter what, our Sasuntsi Davit will be born, and he will help his people stand up again. It’s the epic poem of our nation. It’s in us. It’s us, the Mets Mher in the epic who goes and builds the other’s town. It’s us who have gone and built Baku and Tbilisi while not giving proper attention to our own Yerevan. The continuous mourning is also in our epic poem; when Davit is born and his parents are dead, the grandmother enters her rooms and starts mourning instead of taking care of the newborn child. It’s all us, a bit ‘crooked,’ a bit naive, but also very kind, loving, humorous…These are important characteristics that we need to hold onto and, like in that cartoon, pull from our own hair to get ourselves out of the bog.
M.B.: What has been the best advice that you have received, and what would be your own best advice to young Armenian artists?
N.G.: Do not lose your humor, because humor is that lighthearted gaze that helps you look at the problem from a different perspective, find a solution and get on your feet. Another piece of advice is to never lose your love and keep loving the other. Keep trying to understand and empathize with the people around you. With love, you also manage to keep your patience, your strength, your power. With love, you win.