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A CurtainUp Interview
Simon Abkarian

Simon Abkarian
Director Simon Abkarian during rehearsal for Love's Loabour's Lost at Actor's Gang Theater (Photo: Jean-Louis Darville)
"When you read a play, it tells you a story," says Simon Abkarian, leaning forward intently in an upstairs office at the Actors Gang theatre. "Then you have to see space as a director. When I see space, I start to see actors and people. Actors need space to play. Me, in general, in my plays, I have two spaces -- one temporal, one imaginary."

Feeding his imagination is vital to this French actor/director of Armenian descent. Paradoxically, it was in Los Angeles at the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984 that his great imaginative journey was launched and where he met actor Tim Robbins at whose theatre, The Actors Gang, he is directing Shakespeare's first play, Love's Labour's Lost. Both men were influenced by French director Ariane Mnouchkine's Theatre du Soleil which presented two Shakespearean plays at the Festival. Robbins based his theatre on her principles and methods.

Abkarian took a workshop from Mnouchkine's mask-maker, then returned to Paris in 1985 and spent eight years working and touring the world with Theatre du Soleil. His imagination got an intensive workout in the workshops wherein Mnouchkine crafted her productions. Disdaining the imitation of life school of psychological realism, she asks her students to choose masks or costumes.

Abkarian's workshops are influenced by Mnouchkine's but infiltrated with his own prodigious imagination. His versatility was abundantly demonstrated in Les Atrides which Theatre du Soleil brought to The Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1993. He played a different role in each of these four plays: the overpowering general Agamemnon, his tormented son Orestes, the legendary hero Achilles and, in a dazzling about-face, Orestes' Nurse. The workshop he held at The Actors Gang last year used Love's Labour's Lost and a number of those actors have returned for the current production.

A slim intense man with a gentle concentrated voice and a dashing moustache, he looks like a figure from classical literature who has slipped under the skin of a contemporary hero. Although he does both contemporary and classical plays at TERA, his theatre in Paris, it is the writing, not the period, that must appeal to him. As he puts it, "There must be a link between the writing and the stage that feeds my imagination. There has to be a connection between me and the text.".

He was drawn to Love's Labour's Lost because he wanted to explore relationships between men and women. The first of Shakespeare's plays to be performed it is obviously the writing of a very young man. The spirited word games between the Prince of Navarre's men and the Princess of France's women foreshadow the duel of the sexes between Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing. Performed before two queens, Elizabeth I and her successor Anne of Denmark, Queen of James I, it's full of jokes, puns, and double-entendres on current events that delighted Shakespearean audiences. When asked whether they travel well Abkarian, his face a mischievous mask, declares "When the actors excavate -- uou have to come and see!"

Mr.Abkarian is happy to be working with The Actors Gang again because" it is a company that asks questions of itself, its individual actors and society. The questions are answered through the art of acting and become a life style." He regrets that theatres get so little money in this country unlike in France where the arts are strongly supported by the French Ministry of Culture. According to him, "if there is no care for the artist, there is no ethic. Theatre is a place of telling stories, of poetical and political conversations. If people are starving, there is no ethic."

What's next for Abkarian? After this production, he returns to France where he will return to acting long enough to make two French films. Though US moviegoers saw him as Gorky in Atom Egoyan's devastating Ararat and Joan Allen's leading man and Muslim lover in Sally Potter's Yes!, it's not certain if the upcoming films will be shown here. However, one we can count on seeing is the new James Bond film, Casino Royale in which he will play the villain Dimitrios, a type of role he considers " fun. "

Our interview concluded with my asking him if he had a wish list. He indeed has a long one but typically from a man who loves writing, he summed it all up in just nine words: "I wish to have interesting encounters in my life."

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