Toronto: Very dramatic tale of overcoming

The Toronto Star
March 18, 2004 Thursday Ontario Edition

Very dramatic tale of overcoming

by Robert Crew, Toronto Star

Rogues Of Urfa a personal and ancestral battle Araxi Arslanian
triumphs over vascular ills

Araxi Arslanian and her family know all about survival.

Arslanian, 32, has successfully fended off a life-threatening,
neurological disorder known as AVM; her Armenian grandfather survived
the massacres in Turkey in the early part of the 20th century.

And exploring and learning from both these experiences is the purpose
of Arslanian’s new play, The Rogues Of Urfa, which opens at Artword
Theatre next Wednesday. It was when Arslanian was at Montreal’s
National Theatre School that the symptoms of her condition began to
affect her seriously.

AVM – Arteriovenous Malformations – is caused by the malformation of
blood vessels (arteries and veins) and can lead to seizures and

Arslanian was having difficulty speaking, talking and walking and
attempted to cover up her behaviour with “crazy stories.”

She was asked to leave and, “I have so successfully creeped out
everyone in my class that nobody wanted me there and I don’t blame

She was in the University of Alberta’s drama program when the grand
mal seizures began. Her doctors initially accused her of faking it,
but finally diagnosed AVM.

“The misshapen vein is so deep inside my head that they can’t do
anything about it. They would have to cut through a lot of healthy
brain tissue to get at it and that would mean paralysis at best,
death at worst.”

She was put on medication and was seizure-free for eight years. Then
she and her husband moved to Toronto. The medication suddenly became
ineffective and the seizures returned with a vengeance.

“My life to all intents and purposes was over. I couldn’t get an
agent, I couldn’t go to auditions. I was bedridden for two months and
housebound for another two. I had 11 grand mal seizures a day, on

“I went through seven months of hell before the doctors at Toronto
Western found the right cocktail for me.”

She is 6 feet tall, weighs 200-plus pounds – “I am a big, big girl” –
and is a forceful and outspoken character. But she was deeply hurt
and torn with self-doubt by her experiences during the second show
she did after her return to acting.

The production of Our Country’s Good “was one of the most horrific
experiences of my professional life because, for whatever reason,
four or five people in the show decided that I was an outcast and
treated me horribly.

“They had decided that I was the most incredible loser in the world
and were spreading rumours about me. I was treated as a piece of
garbage every day by people that I respected and adored.”

But she was the one who got a Dora Award nomination for her work in
the show and that affirmation was a turning point. “This is when I
thought there is no way anything is going to stop me,” Arslanian

It was also when she began wondering why she was able to survive when
others fell by the wayside. What was different about her? Was
survival in her genes?

It was then that she began to ask her father (who is Armenian) and
her mother (who is Irish) about family history.

She learned that her grandfather, a determined young soldier named
Hovannes, was one of a handful of Armenians from the city of Urfa to
survive the tumult during and after World War I.

Arslanian recounts details of the dramatic story of his escape in the
course of the play, along with her own story.

“Although I would not in a million years, wish such difficulties on
anyone, I wouldn’t trade my life experience, mostly because I feel
there isn’t anything I cannot do or handle,” she says.

“That’s a gift. I am extremely proud of who I am and what I have
overcome and where I come from. That’s the point of this piece.”

And she is eloquent about the blessings she has received.

“When all guarantees are removed and all the trappings of who you are
supposed to be are gone, that is when you become your truest and
purest self.

“I know who I am, not who I am supposed to be. Every tragedy is an
opportunity to know yourself and to know the majesty and miracle that
is life.”

She hopes The Rogues Of Urfa, an earlier version of which was
presented at SummerWorks last year, will attract a decent audience.

“It is always a challenge for a solo female performer to attract a
large audience unless you take off your top and are really stacked,
which I don’t intend to do, at least not in this show.”

“But it doesn’t matter to me at this point if the show sells out
every night. The people who see it are meant to see it.”

Her job as an artist is to create for the audience, she says, in
typically forthright fashion. “I am there for them, they are not
there for me.

“My greatest rage as an artist is expressed towards people who are
too busy waiting for what the audience can do for them: ‘How are you
going to make me feel good about myself by applauding me, what tricks
do I have that are going to make you applaud?’ I think there is a lot
of that in Toronto.” What: The Rogues Of Urfa by Araxi Aslanian

Where: Artword Theatre, 75 Portland St.

When: Previews March 23, opens March 24, runs until April 4

Tickets: $10 – $20 @ 416-504-7529

GRAPHIC: Araxi Arslanian’s new play opens at the Artword Theatre