Home ARTS & THEATER Queer Dramaturgies in Turkish Theatre

Queer Dramaturgies in Turkish Theatre

by NORTH CAROLINA DIGITAL NEWS

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Nabra Nelson: Salam Alaikum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical, middle Eastern and North Africa, or MENA Theatre from across the region.

Marina Johnson: I’m Marina.

Nabra: And I’m Nabra.

Marina: And we are your hosts.

Nabra: Our name, “Kunafa and Shay,” invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how, with complex and delicious sweets, like Kunafa and perfectly warm tea or in Arabic, Shay.

Marina: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes, to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab world, you’ll find Kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

Nabra: In our third season, we highlight queer MENA and SWANA or Southwest Asian North African theatremakers and dive into the breadth of queerness present in their art.

Marina: Yalla. Grab your tea. The shay is just right.

Nabra: How can we think of queerness as a form of political intervention? In this episode, we talk with Erdem Avşar about Turkish theatre, queer utopias, and ghosts. We examine elements of Turkish theatre, including why there are so many queer ghosts in Turkish independent theatre. We examine queer dramaturgies in Turkish and international theatre, discuss translation into and from Turkish, rethink temporality in playwriting, and question what queer utopias look like on stage.

Marina: Erdem Avşar is an LKAS PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow. His research focuses on queer dramaturgies, sociology of grief and hope, and utopian thinking. He’s an affiliate artist at UNESCO RILA. He was the 2019 recipient of the Kevin Elyot Award. His plays have been shown in Scotland and Italy. His creative work has recently appeared in Clavmag, in the Anthology, TheBook of Bad Betties, and in the edited volume, Collaborative Playwriting, published by Routledge. His most recent academic work on queer ghosts on the Turkish stages has been published as part of the Queer Performance special issue of Contemporary Theatre Review. He translated works of Zinnie Harris, Kieran Hurley, Gary McNair, David Harrower, and DC Jackson into Turkish. His translation of Harris’s Midwinter premiered at the DOT Theatre and was listed in the 2017 honors list of Eurodram.

It’s really great to have you with us. Thank you for joining us today from the UK.

Erdem Avşar: Well, thank you for inviting me. I’m really, really happy to be here. Yeah, such a delight. And yeah, before we begin, actually, I have to say, that your podcast, I mean, it’s such a delightful thing and thanks to Ayçan, I discovered the podcast and it’s such an honor to be here. And I listened to the special live edition, I think it was on the affinity spaces, just the other day, and it’s given me so much hope, and maybe we’ll talk about this later anyway, but I’m immediately drawn to things that could give people some sort of queer hope. So it was such an honor to be here. So thank you very much.

Marina: No, thank you. And thank you to Aycan. Shout out because we posted one of our podcast episodes on Instagram and she reached out and was like, “Actually, there’s this person you have to talk to.” And we were like, “Okay, we’re on it.” So, thanks Aycan.

Erdem: She’s great. She’s great.

Nabra: So for listeners who aren’t familiar with the theatrical landscape right now in Turkey, can you just give a brief overview of what’s happening right now?

Erdem: Yeah, of course. So just to contextualize things, a little bit in my perspective on this, so both as a researcher, PhD researcher and theatremakers, I’m most familiar with the independent theatremaking scene in Istanbul and in Turkey, in general. So I’ve worked as a playwright, a dramaturg, and a translator for over ten years now, but all of that work has been with independent theatre companies. So this is going to sound a bit maybe simplistic, but I think it’s fair to say that there’s always been two main camps in theatremaking and in performance ecologies in Turkey.

So the first one would be, I think we can trace it back to the late Ottoman Empire times and the early foundation years of the Republic. And that is pretty much the state funded state theatres, including municipality theatres. And they’ve always been, and still, I think, that’s the case, they’re pretty much interested in new renditions and reworkings of Henrik Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shakespeare and all kinds of Western canonical classics. Whereas the independent theatre scene, I think, has been quite particularly active in the past, sort of three, four decades now. And they’re basically working towards producing new texts and new dramaturgies, and they’re really sort of politically and socially engaged. So we are now looking at the really exciting, thrilling, theatrical landscape in Turkey. I think so, I think in a nutshell, two main camps, not necessarily competing with each other, but yeah.

Nabra: Can you talk to us a little bit about what some of those new dramaturgies and new works that are of interest, especially in the independent theatre scene in Turkey? Is it a lot of Turkish works? Is it a lot of local works? What are you seeing in that world?

Erdem: Yeah, I think most of them are new texts produced by new writers working in Turkey. We see translations of works as well on those independent stages too. So that’s really nice. I think most of them are quite political in their subject matter, but also, from a queer dramaturgies perspective, if you like, and from a queer performance perspective, what I find really fascinating is that there’s almost like, it feels to me, that there’s an unrehearsed, collective decision that’s being made and given by these wonderful theatremakers. To me, it feels like they have decided to slightly destabilize temporalities. There’s always nonchronological, it’s almost like nonlinear. So there’s this really lovely intervention in that sense of, we should really change the time and how it works and our perception of it, which I find absolutely thrilling. So yeah, regardless of I think the subject matter or the characters or how they label themselves, I think this is one of the linchpins, if you like, that queer performers and theatremakers share in their dramaturgies. So yeah, I think structure plays a really significant part in that as well. Yeah.

Marina: Oh, that’s very cool. Well, and so you write about dramaturgy as a form of political intervention, and I think maybe just for some listeners who are listening in, maybe defining what you think of as a dramaturgy, I think would be useful. But then also, what do those dramaturgies look like in different ways? You just talked some about them, but yeah, queer dramaturgies as political intervention is a great phrase that you have used to describe the work that you are doing and looking at.

Erdem: Well, thank you so much for that. Yeah, so I think, well, when you say, a political intervention, often, I don’t mean theatremaking or queer dramaturgies or queer performance or any really, work of art or any trend of making art, could replace the actual queer politics. So that’s not actually what I mean. But when I say performance and theatremaking can have a capacity of some sort of political intervention, I mean, the way that we see those dramaturgies and plays on stages, how we approach them as audience members, how we approach them as theatremakers, and how we approach them as researchers, as well.

So yeah, this is actually really, I think this is a good example. So I’ve been thinking about this a lot in terms of how we queer things, sometimes I feel like it just feels a bit too contemporary, and I always try to go back as far back as possible. So again, going back to how theatremaking had this really sort of nation building character in the early years of the Turkish Republic. So it was always like it came with this forward motion. It was a sort of a nation building character. It was something that could “modernize,” in quotation marks, the Turkish audiences. So it was almost like a facade or a sort of a direction that kept looking forwards, in a way.

It was called Darülbedayi, this was the Ottoman or Turkish name for municipality theaters, and it was state funded and they basically worked on translations and again, Western canonical works. So in terms of how we queer things, I think, going back to that sort of lineage is really interesting as well. Sometimes we don’t necessarily consciously try to dismantle those things, but it hones us and the entire current theatrical landscape as well. It’s been a couple of months, but I found this really slightly hilarious and annoying and patronizing letter that was sent to this Darülbedayi journal and this was back in… Let me tell you, I’m checking my notes because I’m well prepared. It should be 1935, and it’s just… Would you mind if I just give you a little bit of that?

Marina: Please.

Nabra: Go ahead. Yes.

Erdem: Thank you. Apologies, listeners. So this is a young student. Again, I mean, imagine the very early years of the Republic, and he has just seen Hamlet in the municipality theatre. So he says to the editor, and he wants this letter to be published in the journal. He says, “I’m a student who follows Municipality Theatre’s drama repertoire on a regular basis. I also try to observe operettas whenever I can afford to do so. I’ve had the apportion to take pleasure in seeing those plays and my intention with this letter is as follows. In the past years, you used the pen columns on how to see a play in the Municipality Theatre Journal. This year, you have stopped doing this. Please rest assured that this year is the very year that those columns are most required.” Because he’s seen this Hamlet production.

And then he says, “We are kindly appealing to you, please explain to the public in your amiable style that they cannot eat pumpkin seeds while seeing a play, especially if it’s a drama, that they shouldn’t laugh when they’re supposed to cry, let alone cough loudly, and that they cannot come to theatre after having one over the eight in the evening. The odor of a butcher shop very much disturbed the people on the opening night of Hamlet and spoiled the pleasure for us.”

So this, I think, sorry, I just quoted at length, but I had so much fun translating this. I was like, “I just need share this with Marina and Nabra and everyone else. I mean, I know it’s been more than seventy years now, but I find this really interesting in terms of political intervention today in Turkey. So we are not only intervening into this present day, we are still struggling with these forms of theatremaking that pretty much told people how to live their lives. So it had a sort of regulatory character as well. But yeah, so I find that really interesting.

Marina: Oh, that’s fascinating. Thank you for sharing that with us. Wow. Yeah, I’m always interested in archival material like that, that’s really painting a picture of this, I don’t know, conflict or tension that was arising in different ways, but that also, are pointing towards these colonial forces in theatre that have dictated what expectations are. And then I do think that queering those is such an important part of what happens. And also it’s something I struggle with here in the States in theatre because so many of those colonial things are also now liability things. People can’t sit in a seat and then reenter after they go to the bathroom because it’s a liability thing. They might trip on the stairs when they come back in. And so yeah, these holdovers I think are really fascinating and something I like to think through and with.

Erdem: Yeah, yeah. No, absolutely. Absolutely. And it’s just, yeah, and I think it becomes even more meaningful to think about those things, like, flash forward to 2020, 2023, and the last decade. What we see is tiny black boxes and chairs obviously, aren’t proper, but the shows are always sold out, so that’s good. And the dramaturgies, I mean, like I said earlier, in terms of how they configure and reconfigure their temporalities, they’re quite messy. They’re messy in terms of how their sort of dramaturgies and dramatic tactics are organized. We see quite a lot of solo performances that is basically based on storytelling and queer storytelling. Most of them are semi-autobiographical works. Auto fiction plays a really big part in that. We see community initiatives as well. So it’s gloriously messy, and I don’t think this student wouldn’t be happy to see that. So yeah, it’s just their queer joy.

Marina: Yes, embracing the mess. Oh, I love that. Well, so I mean, as far as queer joy goes, you also have written about queer Utopias, which reminds me of course of Muñoz for those listening, José Esteban Muñoz and Cruising Utopia. But can you tell us more about what you think the sociopolitical implications of queer utopias on stage are? And I don’t know if that’s an interesting starting place for us. We could also take that in different directions of maybe, queer joy on stage too, in different places.

When you’re hungry, when you’re infuriated, when you’re tired, dispossessed, and terrorized constantly, or when you have lost your loved ones,…utopia maybe can serve to salvage some of that, your selfhood and your compromised sense of agency. 

Erdem: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, no, thank you so much for that. Yeah, it’s a strange thing, don’t you think? Thinking about utopias, and utopias on stage, especially given how things are in the world. So I think, there’s one part of me, like I said, that is completely drawn and thrilled by queer hope in any way. But you just mentioned Muñoz. I absolutely adore, adore, adore, Cruising Utopia, such a wonderful work. But what I also really like about that work is that because it has really informed the way that I think about queer utopias and utopias and utopia thinking in general, as well. It’s obviously, Muñoz drew on Ernst Bloch’s idea that we need the desire, but that desire had to be an educated desire. So I always want to keep reminding people, especially in academic context, that when we say utopia, we don’t necessarily mean naivety or I mean, we might and we can, and maybe we should be allowed to talk about naivety in that sense as well.

But if we’re really going back to Bloch or Muñoz or other Utopian theorists and thinkers, it doesn’t necessarily mean that turning your back on how awful things are and just creating this really, this illusory safe space for yourself. That doesn’t mean that you’ll be completely detached from the political and social realities and the awful injustices. And I think, because as soon as you say that you can still imagine utopias on stage, not only in Turkey, elsewhere as well, it immediately brings not very nice questions to mind. It’s just that you don’t necessarily want to think about those things because it is a challenging, and it is really not very nice to think about utopia in a sort of restricted way.

But yeah, it is really strange. Because I remember, I think this was in 2021, and I attended this fairly large sociology conference in Europe. I had presented the work on queer temporalities on the Turkish stage. I didn’t necessarily talk about utopias throughout the presentation, but in the end, I did mention utopian thinking and said, so when you’re hungry, when you’re infuriated, when you’re tired, dispossessed, and terrorized constantly, or when you have lost your loved ones, or if you’re constantly in this awful anticipation of loss in any way, utopia maybe can serve to salvage some of that, your selfhood and your compromised sense of agency, if it’s an educated desire, like Muñoz and Ernst Bloch says, you can maybe get that desire and find something meaningful, despite every single thing that’s happening.

But the Q and A was really challenging. It wasn’t cynical at all, and I think it came from a passionate place towards how social theorists often feel towards utopias. I think it was quite, maybe overprotective, I’d say. So as soon as you start talking about everyday utopias and what you actually can do with the life that you’re trying to navigate, it just feels like, I think, especially like I said, some social thinkers try to protect and safeguard the idea of utopia as something that happens elsewhen and elsewhere, so that it’s just this pure idea. But what we see on stage, I think in Turkey, and again elsewhere, especially in the Middle East, I’d say, it’s not necessarily rivers of the drink of your own choice, like rivers of wine, and birds with eight legs, like it’s offering you some sort of divine intervention. Here’s your peaceful social contract. We’re not looking at that, we are genuinely looking at dramaturgies, who, like Jill Dolan says, that slightly lift you up a little bit above this current reality so that you can maybe reassured that things can indeed be different, if that makes sense.

Marina: It does. Well, and I appreciate what you’re talking about here of also preserving the self, because we can’t go on if we’re not able to move ourselves above a little bit. But also, that we’re not imagining a binaristic world. We’re resisting binaries in all forms. It’s not just this world that is pure in certain ways. It’s always thinking about what the in-betweens of things are, and especially, refusing an apolitical sort of utopia, because that’s just not the way that we, I think hopefully, as a group here, definitely, and then outside to think about what an ideal space would look like.

Nabra: Do you have any specific examples of utopias on stage that you feel have done it right or have really analyzed the idea of utopia and presented that in a way that is, I guess, constructive?

Erdem: Yeah, it’s really weird, because we’ve been talking about queer messiness as well, and the way that I work is not very messy. I really like thinking in classifications and categorizations, so I often start from a really neat place. So yeah, taxonomical thinking, I am a huge fan. So yeah, going back to, I mean, both my PhD research and what I’ve been writing about, so I think there are maybe three strands of query topics that we see on stage in contemporary theatrical landscape in Turkey. And I think the first one is, quite sort of political in subject matter as well. I’m thinking of maybe plays like, wonderful playwright, Şâmil Yılmaz’s Avzer, Wipe Your Tears, Nothing is ever Going to be the Same Anymore. And it’s such a beautiful title as well. It’s quite utopian. The utopian performative is embedded in the title. So, Şâmil always has this amazing way of coming up with beautiful titles.

Anyway, so yeah, Şâmil Yılmaz’s Avzer, for instance, I think, one of the first ones that come to mind and what he does in terms of dramaturgy, I think, again, it’s quite sort of an everyday utopia, but it’s almost self-corrective and really dignified. And he talked about this quite a lot as well, when I interviewed him for my PhD research as well. So I was really, really thrilled to hear this. But I say self-corrective because Avzer, this play, looks back on the Gezi Park uprising in 2013 that happened in Turkey, and it was one of the biggest civil uprisings that happened against the ruling regime and the AKP, the political party that’s been leading the country for a really long time now. And Shamil chooses to write about this protagonist, Avzer, who says that, “I have…” Not in these exact words, and I hope I’m doing justice to his beautiful words, but who says, “I have an evil. I have an awful creature within me residing within me, and I have been doing my best to sort of quieten him down.”

So this is slightly strange as an image to think about and to talk about in a Utopian context. But then we find out that the only reason why this was a solo performance, the only reason why the performer playing the character, Avzer, the only reason why he appears on the stage every single night is because this homeless, bisexual man met a amazing couple during the protests, and he made friends with them, and he discovered some sort of alliance that he didn’t really have in his life before. And when the crackdown, I think, the response to the crackdown had to be a withdrawal of some sort. So the protests quieten down a little bit and Avzer finds himself again in the streets, but without his new friends. So he’s on the stage every single night trying to find them again, and he basically tries to see if they can be among the audience members.

So it’s just, in the present time, this is such a heartbreaking thing. But then again, I think it is sort of, quite utopian in the sense that it is dignified. Maybe it is also a way of keeping your dignity intact when the police forces, when an authoritarian government, tries to take that dignity away from you. So in that sense, I think it’s just beautiful and it’s also self-corrective because no uprising and no resistance, no collective processes are unproblematic. I’m not sure if you would agree, but I mean, just even in a community, we keep talking about communities, but it’s never really unproblematic. So I think it’s self-corrective in the sense that Şâmil feels not only ready, but willing to revisit those moments and say, “Well, actually, when we left the streets, we also left some of our friends behind, and those friends were already friends who were living in poverty, who were already in the streets as part of their everyday lives.”

So how can we actually make sure that maybe theatres and playwriting can address some of those? But this is also, partly, the way that I read Şâmil’s play, and if he was here, he would be probably, “Well, yeah, maybe, but is it really a utopia? I’m not really sure.” But yeah, so this is one of the first examples that comes to my mind, and there are other obviously examples as well, trying to locate utopian performatives in everyday in different places, such as astonishment and being astonished by every single thing in life, or again, slightly challenging the linearity of time as well.

Marina: Yeah. Well, that actually leads really well into the next question, which I wanted to talk about queer temporality. So one of your most recent articles, which we’ll link in the text of the podcast that people can read, so they can hopefully, read and find the article, if they’re interested. So one of your recent articles, which is called Haunted Taxonomies, Converging Temporalities Ghosts on the Stages of Istanbul. It talks about temporality, “Where queer ghosts on stage do not simply open a vortex into a long gone past, but serve to create a temporal zone within which queer pasts, presents, and futures converge.”

So I would love to hear you talk more about that. First of all, maybe just giving people an overview of the paper, because it’s a great read, but I know that sometimes, folks, even if you love reading academic articles, aren’t swimming in the time to read them right now. So maybe giving us a little summary there, but then also, talking more about how you theorize queer temporality, even though I do think the sentence that you wrote sums things up quite well. And then also, what are the implications of queer temporality?

Erdem: Well, thank you very much. Yeah, really, really love the verse. I really appreciate it. Thank you. Yeah, it’s really funny though, when you were reading the quote out loud, I just thought, “Erdem, you always talk too much.” So even the title was never-ending, interminably long.

Marina: I love the colon title.

Erdem: Thank you. Thank you. So yeah, this was, again, more or less like a discovery. This wasn’t really what I had in mind when I started doing my PhD on queer theatre and queer performance. I didn’t really anticipate that I would spend ages thinking about queer utopias and queer ghosts and hauntology, and all kinds of zombies and vampires and friendly ghosts on the stage. It wasn’t really apparent to me at all. But there was one moment. So when I first started my PhD, I started collecting all these plays, and in a way, I was developing my own sort of archive, if you like, of plays. So I was keeping my database, I was entering all those titles, theatremakers, playwrights, a quick summary of things, and maybe a couple of keywords. It was, I mean, from the outside, it looks like a hideous Excel spreadsheet, and it is, but I spent so long with that. And it’s just, you know how like, you keep staring at one thing, and then it just keeps giving and giving, that I genuinely, only realized that, through that archive, that almost half of those plays, and I had, I think, nearly fifty plays, queer dramaturgies, I’d say, again, developed in Turkey in the past sort of fifteen years. I just realized almost half of them were brimming with some sort of spectorality.

So either, our storytellers were ghosts, but they didn’t really tell us that, right from the get go. So you only, towards the end of the play, then you go, “Okay, so you’ve been dead the whole time. So this is a ghost story.” I mean, it’s just incredible. So we had those, and in some plays, that you know as soon as one of the characters come up on stage, it’s one of the first things that they acknowledge to the audience members. They go, “I am a ghost and I died.” Either at the hands of a client, if the character is a sex worker, especially if they’re a trans-feminine sex worker, there’s quite a pattern there as well that we see in queer dramaturgies in Turkey. Or sometimes in the hands of a police officer or in a public protest. So sometimes it’s quite obvious.

But yeah, it wasn’t really until I had that entire spreadsheet in front of me, only then, I went, “Well, okay. Actually, this entire database is just completely haunted.” So then, I started asking questions around, so what does that mean really, in terms of, again, like you said, in terms of the sociopolitical implications, but also I think, the question that really inspired that work was, it came from Jack Halberstam’s work where he says, “To tell a ghost’s story means, being willing to be haunted.” And I think it is just a wonderful quote because that’s perhaps one of the reasons why we keep telling these stories. If you weren’t really willing to be haunted, why would you tell a ghost story?

So then I started asking all kinds of weird questions to that database. Questions like, “Well, if these theatremakers are really willing to be haunted, so why are they really conjuring these ghosts? So what do they want?” A ghost almost always wants something. So this could have been also, a special Halloween podcast episode thinking of it. So yeah, I think the question then was for me, again, to develop some sort of taxonomy, was that, so what do they want? And I think it’s an important question to ask because if we keep talking about ghosts and other worldly creatures that keep haunting our present tense, it is quite anti-utopian in the sense that it can be sometimes agency destructing, if that makes sense, because it’s too late for everything anyway. Yeah. And as an audience member as well, I think temporality played a really significant part in that. So I’m not only talking about time and temporality in terms of dramaturgies, but in terms of how audience members engage with a certain work.

This was, I think, 2015, and I had just seen 80’lerde Lubunya Olmak, a wonderful play, which roughly translates as, Being a Queer in the Eighties, and this was an adaptation of an oral history collection where trans sex workers and trans-feminine people look back on their lives, back in the eighties, and they talk about the Turkish coup d’etat in the eighties, how they were forced exiled, how they couldn’t really survive in heavily gentrified and quite aggressively gentrified, areas, urban areas in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey. It was, the structure, I think, is quite familiar to us now. We had four monologues, intercutting and we had four women on stage, telling their stories and telling their narratives.

I think it was quite solidarity enhancing in a way, again, for the same reasons, to be able to be in that space with other people and strangers in the present tense. And that feeling of like, “Okay, so the struggles back in 2015 then, the struggles that I am navigating aren’t only unique to me.” So it can make you really sort of melancholic, but it can also make you seek further alliances and further solidarities with other people. I think it can trigger that kind of educated desire again, if you like. But I remember leaving the venue and I was really amazed, and I kept thinking about the play. But then again, I had other friends with me as well that we kept talking about, that was a really lovely post-show walk to Taksim Square in Istanbul, from the venue, and we talked about how familiar it felt. And we didn’t really know what to do with that.

Then looking back on it now, I think that really inspired me. So it’s not only in the dramaturgical sense that these characters and these theatremakers are offering us new reconfigurations of time, but also, it destabilizes your own sense of self and your own sense of time as well. ‘Cause if those ghosts can shuttle across different timelines, including the very time zone of, or the timescape of an audience member as well, in the present time, then that means it is a convergence, rather than just making a queer mess, which I’m also a huge fan of. But yeah, so that was, I think, just random seeds.

Marina: Oh my gosh, so many great seeds and so many directions that we could take this. But I love hearing you. I know that you and I don’t… And Nabra. Nabra is an honorary PhD in many senses, but I think we don’t often talk with scholars on the podcast. Not to further divide the artist/scholar binary that people get placed into. But what I love about hearing you talk about your work is that this is so much of what I think scholarship is, that people don’t understand. I think that there’s so much of this thought of people sitting away in a room and just writing, which is true, for an amount of time. But looking at an archive and seeing what exists there, and then asking these questions about why are people thinking about ghosts right now? What are ghosts doing as a convention or as a character on stage, and what does that say about the politics of our time?

What does that say about the place that we’re making theatre? What does this say about Turkey right now? I mean, I think those are the questions that… And you’re not just a scholar, so we’ll talk more about that soon too. But I love hearing this because I do think that when we have different artists on, it’s great just to hear these balanced things about someone is making this work with ghosts, and then you are asking these brilliant questions from this archive that you’ve created or sort of compiled together. So I’m just so appreciative of those seeds, and I sort of wanted to signpost that more for people who are listening too, of this is also such a huge aspect of world making, is that those worlds have then been created and you’re sort of excavating and parsing through them differently. So yeah, I love that.

We are all collectively making a world. So it’s not only the theatremakers, it’s not only the artists, but with the audience members, with the researchers, with you, doing this podcast so long now, is bringing people together

Erdem: Thank you. Thank you so much. Yeah, really, really lovely words. But yeah, I think my heart melted a little bit when you said world making, it’s just, yeah. Yeah, in that sense, I think it’s quite, again, utopian to think about those things as well, but it’s just acknowledging the fact that we are all collectively making a world. So it’s not only the theatremakers, it’s not only the artists, but with the audience members, with the researchers, with you, doing this podcast so long now, is bringing people together. So it’s always a world that’s being made right in front of us and made by us, collectively. But yeah, I think, yeah, going back to, if you don’t mind, to the idea of taxonomy again, I think this is, again, it’s sort of a scholarly thing, but not really. And since then, I’ve been trying to come up with ways I haven’t really succeeded in this yet.

It’s a work in progress, but I’ve been trying to come up with ways of applying this to the way that we see the world. I often feel like—especially in queer theory and the way that we speak about queer performance and queer theatre—it can be really dense, it can be really abstract, it can be really theoretical. But then again, there’s another side to that as well, because once you start looking at these plays from a sort of a taxonomical point of view, like, “Okay, now I’m trying to understand what these plays actually do, what these ghosts want on the stage, or what kind of utopias that we see on the stage that are being built, or what’s the purpose, what’s the implication?” All kinds of questions.

Then you start coming up with this classification, and it, I think, demystifies the thing as well. Which we sometimes need, for us for the audience members as well. So rather than keeping things in this and shrouding them and concealing them, I think it just reveals all kinds of really brilliant tensions as well for things that we could maybe take otherwise, really unified, in terms of, again, dramaturgies, as well.

So when you look at one particular, maybe cultural, political moment in a given context, I think it’s really sort of difficult and tricky to resist that tendency to homogenize things. You want to come to conclusions as well, as a scholar. So this is what I want to say. This is my argument. Here’s your sort of neatly packed conclusion. Even if you say, “Well, it’s not neat,” but, again, we know the institutional expectations, it often ends up being way neater than you actually had anticipated in the first place.

So yeah, I think it’s quite demystifying as well, in that sense, which I really like. So yeah, what do those queer ghosts want? I mean, some of them to me, I talk about this in the article as well, it just feels like some of them want to educate us, the audience members. Again, holding your hand really gently and saying, “Well, we’ve been here before. We are your queer ancestors, and we’ve seen worse. We’ve seen better, and so here are the stories that we want to share with you so that maybe you don’t end up feeling really that lonely.” So it’s not only pedagogical in that sense, it’s not like, “Here’s the handbook of how you can actually live and surmise.” It’s not that.

But yeah, and some of them seek, I think, some sort of redress, how can we make things better and some other plays, and one of the greatest examples of that, I think is, I just want to sample, it’s, I think it’s being translated into English as well. It’s a wonderful, wonderful play by Ebru Nihan Celkan, Uzaydan Gelen Prens, The Prince from Space, which also features the iconic pop singer and the icon Zeki Muren as well, in the play. And Zeki Muren finds himself in this rainbow room, which is a purgatory for queers and Zeki Muren and his friends look down on the world and they find Umud, the younger protagonist in the play, and he happens to be the only alive queer in that play. And they go, “Well, okay, so this person clearly needs our help, so how can we help him? Because we have the knowledge, we have the experience, and he’s sometimes making a mountain out of a molehill, so we should help him get his facts straight.”

Well, peculiar word choice. But anyway, so they help him go for an audition, practice. He wants to be a singer, songwriter, so they give him a microphone. And it’s just this really, that idea of communicating with your queer ancestors, and that comes with its own tension as well, even in the play. I mean, Ebru does something really amazing. So Zeki Muren isn’t this heavenly figure. There are times when he feels completely unable to understand Umud, this young queer person, and Umud really challenges Zeki Muren and says, “No, I actually don’t need that. I mean, you were a great, great singer, so it’s fine. If you want to give me a tip or an advice on how to sing properly, that’s great, but don’t teach me on how I can make love, how I can fall in love with somebody. I don’t need that, because you were awful at that and you just remained your entire life in your closet.”

So it’s just discussions around visibility and coming out across generations of queerness. So in just one single play, and this is a piece, this is a youth theatre piece written by Ebru Nihan Celkan, so it’s just amazing. So yeah, they are seeking redress in a way, embodied in other characters. I mean, some ghosts, I think, do what some of us queers do the best. They complain in a glorious way, complain and offend. I think, this is just incredible, to see a complaining character on stage. It’s just, where is the entire global north textbook dramaturgy, which they basically tell you otherwise. If your character is constantly bickering, it’s not real. It’s not genuine conflict. It actually is. You see, bickering and complaining can be really, as Sara Ahmed says, it can be a really good way of protest. So yeah, all kinds of questions, I think, come through that taxonomical thinking. So what do they want? How can we classify those things? It demystifies, even things like queer ghosts, even they don’t want to acknowledge that they’re ghosts most of the time. But yeah.

Nabra: That play sounds amazing. Did you say it’s a youth play?

Erdem: Yeah.

Marina: Incredible.

Nabra: That’s even more fun. Yeah.

Marina: Cannot wait to read it. I also like the idea that a bickering character goes against a global north dramaturgy. I’m all about trying to subvert whatever the global north dramaturgies are that are trying to be institutionalized in other places. Very cool.

Nabra: And we, of course, want to talk about you as an artist. So we want to end with talking about your playwriting. You’re a poet as well, and a translator. So how do you think of your work in contribution to the greater theatre landscape? What kinds of things do you write, and also, what types of plays are you interested in translating?

Erdem: Thank you so much. God, yeah. I hope it makes some sort of contribution. I hope I have managed to make some sort of contribution to that theatrical landscape. So yeah, I think, again, this was a discovery. I don’t think this was quite apparent to me, when I first started writing plays. I always wrote short stories and poems as a kid, but I come from a working class family, and literature was a part of our family life, I think. My dad was a Marxist, so that played a role for sure. I remember seeing tomes of old Russian literature, so we talked about that a lot. But it was always something that we appreciated from a distance. So even though literature was there in the family, I don’t think it was something that we, myself and my sister, we could aspire to. And I think that applies to plays as well and dramaturgies.

We couldn’t often afford to go and see a show. We couldn’t really afford tickets. So for me, seeing a play wasn’t really a thing, but reading a play was a thing. So for me, always existed in that sort of working class sense of literature. And you could borrow a book from a library and then just read again, Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare, all kinds of Western classics and Turkish plays as well. But yeah, so I didn’t really write a play for years. And looking back on it now, I just realized, that I think, the only reason why I started writing a play was because I felt like I needed to respond to the world in a different way. And that sort of coincided with, again, the Gezi Park uprising. So this was 2013. So I think it felt really overwhelming and also beautiful and celebratory in so many ways.

But I think that was my moment where I went, “Okay, I need a different way of tackling this world.” So I started writing political plays, political in the sense that they were, in their subject matter, they were quite political, almost verging on agitprop. It was a way of shouting out, in a way. And my thinking then has, and my works I think, have evolved quite a lot. Then especially, when I started my PhD, I started problematizing those things as well. So I think, my trajectory changed from reenacting and responding to the external world from, again, making worlds and building worlds and working on everyday utopias. But yeah, I think the contribution, though, I’ve been writing in English and Turkish at the same time, so most of my plays are in English.

They were performed in Scotland, Italy, elsewhere as well. So I think if there’s a contribution, I think one of those contributions is perhaps the way that those plays translate queerness from a Turkish context to other contexts, and not necessarily via somebody else’s translation, but by dramaturgical translation by myself. So that I find really interesting. And I think, when it comes to translating plays, I translate plays from English into Turkish. Again, what I’m really drawn to, is plays that are queer, not only in terms of representation and categories of legible identities, but also in the dramaturgies. And there’s sometimes messiness or in the ways in which they offer us questions, rather than making statements about the world itself.

So I’m really drawn to that kind of work. But I’m particularly drawn to works of Zinnie Harris, a British playwright theatremaker… God, I’m a huge, huge fan, and we worked together as well. So this is just absolutely delightful. You don’t really get a chance to do that quite often, especially her play, Meet Me at Dawn. I’m still really chuffed that I got to translate that play. I feel really, really lucky and privileged. Şafakta Buluş Benimle was the Turkish title translation, it was premiered at DOT Theatre in Istanbul and had such a lovely run. And yeah, I think the listeners might be interested in that as well. It’s a gorgeous play. It’s a lesbian love story, but it’s all about grief. It’s heartbreaking, but I think it encapsulates every single thing that we talked about today. It also gives you hope, but it’s also about remembering things, how we remember a loved one and how we cherish those memories. And if you were given one last chance, what would we do with that one final chance?

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