“I share female and queer diverse experience on stage through both artistic and political means.” Interview with Duygu Dalyanoğlu

by Eylem Ejder*

Duygu Dalyanoğlu is one of Turkey’s most critical young voices in theatre and performance. She has a BA. degree in Political Science, Boğaziçi University, and a MA. degree in Cultural Studies with her M.A. thesis is entitled “Melancholia and Survival: Playwriting in Armenian Diaspora.” She was awarded Best Playwright of the Year by the Turkish Theatre Critics Awards and Üstün Akmen Theatre Awards, 2017-18, for her play Zabel, co-written with Aysel Yıldırım. In 2020, Duygu Dalyanoğlu founded the K’nın Sesi (Voice of K) audio-drama podcast channel; at the present time, she is pursuing a Ph.D. degree, Kadir Has University, in Gender Studies, specializing in the relationship between playwriting and gender.

When I met Duygu in Istanbul in December 2022, we had an in-depth discussion on art, theatre and literature, focusing on her experience as both a performer and a playwright who creates political and particularly feminist theatre in Turkey. We continued our conversations during the following months through e-mail exchanges and phone conversations, in both Turkish and English. Below is an excerpt from our many exchanges, prepared especially for circulation in Critical Stages.

Duygu Dalyanoğlu. Photo: Hüseyin Özdemir

Duygu, I would like to begin our conversation by asking you about your relationship with theatre. How would you describe your experience in the theatre?

My interest in theatre started in my early youth. I lived in Kocaeli until I started my studies at the university, and during that period the city was distinguished by a strong tradition of Municipality Theatre. I used to watch with excitement both the plays of the Municipality Theatre and of the various private theatres on tour from Istanbul. I was lucky in this sense. However, my high school had no theatrical activity, and my home was far from the city center. The first time I watched theatre, I thought to myself, “I should do this too,” but I gradually moved away from this dream since I didn’t have such an opportunity. Then, in 2004, I enrolled in Boğaziçi University, Department of Political Science and International Relations in Istanbul, where I discovered the Boğaziçi University Theatre Club (BÜO).

I performed on stage for the first time as a member of the BÜO, and this started my adventure as a creator of theatre. For five years, I participated in several educational productions at BÜO as an actor, director, and member of the technical crew. I learned theatre at BÜO, in a place where productions are organized with an ensemble spirit and collective dramaturgy. I have been working as a professional performer, playwright, director, and researcher since 2009.

Official trailer of Zabel. Published by Tiyatrolar.tv channel on youtube

I have followed your work and plays performed by BGST since 2010, but I have thought of you more as a playwright ever since the staging of Zabel, which you co-wrote with Aysel Yıldırım from BGST. Looking back at this period of your career, I can see that you have engaged in creating theatrical texts at the intersection of writing, acting, and directing. How would you define your practice?

I define myself as a theatre creator and a storyteller because creating meaning and telling a story have always been the essence of my craft. In that sense, I have specialized in creating stories as a playwright or an actor, sometimes combining both. Creating dramatic works for the stage and radio/podcasts defines my artistic writing practice. In that sense, my writing style combines literary elements, such as words, sentences, and narratives, with non-verbal components, such as action, body movement, and voice. In other words, I create texts through the agency of a writer and the creativity of the performer and expand traditional categories of playwriting and staging. I have written five theatre plays, twelve audio-drama plays, and an audio-drama serial show.

All these production processes share the features you have mentioned, and they also address similar themes. In your writing, you often tell stories about gender, memory, resistance, and survival. Would you like to describe your subjects, themes, and motivations for writing a theatrical play or performing a role in a play?

I create plays around women and/or queer characters with a feminist dramaturgy that centers on untold or underestimated stories of women and queers who transform the live or digital stage so their voices can be heard. In my plays, I organize a feminist production process and collaborative research in which female-identified/queer artists take charge of on and off-stage production processes. My experience-based approach to feminist theatre aims to share female and queer diverse experience on stage through both artistic and political means. 

Duygu Dalyanoğlu (right) in Zabel. Photo: Kenan Özcan

For instance, your play Zabel?

Zabel is an excellent example of my interest in theatre, working style, method, and subjects. It represents the life story of Armenian socialist-feminist author Zabel Yesayan (1878-1943), who spent most of her life in the Soviet Union as an exile from the Ottoman Empire. While writing a play on the real-life story of an author like Zabel Yesayan, the playwright can explore the rich world of her biographical works, novellas, articles and letters.

Zabel Yesayan was an activist who lived in a very turbulent period; she witnessed massacres, wars, and social transformations and never gave up pursuing truth and justice. The turbulent life story of such a woman artist led us to create this play. However, even though it was based on her real-life story, we were not aiming to write a documentary scenario but rather a fictional play. Therefore, it was vital to imagine and construct the scenes and sometimes reveal what was hidden or obscured, but without breaking the connection to reality and truth. This was both the most challenging and the most exciting part of the writing process.

We chose to tell Zabel Yesayan’s life story by focusing on the last years of her life, which were the darkest ones. On April 24, 1915, Zabel Yesayan was on the list of intellectuals to be arrested, but she managed to escape from Istanbul. After living in exile for years, at the age of 55, she settled in Soviet Armenia, which she called “my new homeland,” but was arrested in 1937 during Stalin’s Great Purge. This is the point at which we started the story, in a cold, dark prison cell.

 This first layer of the play is based on the interrogation scenes in which Zabel Yesayan is forced to confess to a crime she never committed. The second layer of the play is composed of scenes from her past, Zabel’s memories in which she seeks refuge to escape the darkness of the cell and the suffocation of the interrogation. This layer is shaped by the act of remembering. Zabel remembers her birth, childhood, youth, how she became a writer, the Adana Massacre, and her escape from Istanbul in 1915; she draws strength from these memories and resists the interrogation commissioner.

While narrating this past, we drew inspiration from the aforementioned Zabel Yesayan corpus and sometimes included Zabel Yesayan’s own words in her monologues in which she recalls her past. However, we made a feminist intervention while constructing these past scenes; we preferred to narrate the past only through female characters. We wanted to rewrite both her personal history and the general historical period from a feminist point of view. We have staged Zabel since 2017 in various cities in Turkey and Europe. The play is published in Turkish and French. People may check your beautiful article on European Stages for more detailed information on the play.

Duygu Dalyanoğlu (middle) with Nihal Albayrak (left) and Beril Sarıaltun (right), the co-creators of K’nın Sesi with Dalyanoğlu. Photo: Zeynep Cansu Oral

During the pandemic, you were a pioneer of the field with your audio drama series K’nın Sesi (The Voice of K.) It was followed by detective-podcast dramas Kıvılcım (meaning spark) with eight episodes. What can you tell us about the experience of writing for audio and also Kıvılcım?

This serialized drama is from the genre of crime stories, whereby a suspicious suicide of a young woman is interrogated and correctly reinterpreted as a crime by a team of female investigators. We all know that femicides have been on the rise for many years in Turkey, but when I learned that suspicious deaths and suicides of women also increased during the summer of 2021 and many files were officially closed as instances of “suicide,” I decided to move forward on this project. I collaborated with lawyers working in the field, forensic scientists, and academics from the field of physics; I examined the cases that were brought to justice as a result of the efforts of feminist organizations.

Kıvılcım, a podcast-drama. Photo: Estanbul Adworks

This entire research process was essential in creating Kıvılcım‘s story, which centers on the suspicious suicide of a young woman called Kıvılcım, who allegedly jumped to her death from the top of a high hill. The agent who uncovers this crime in the play is also worth mentioning here because the three central female characters, Derya, Nehir, and Leman, were shaped according to this choice. Contrary to what we are used to in the classic detective story, in which a single male detective solves the crime, I wanted to develop a new model with three female characters central to the story; these three women are from different generations and professions but all belong to the same family. Only one of the characters, Derya, is a detective, but she is a character who does not feel that she belongs to the police force of which she is a member. Apart from that, I would like to emphasize that the representation of everyday life, as well as elements of the thriller, are crucial to the development of my story. I tried to create a dynamic structure through which different spaces and styles could coexist. While some scenes trigger curiosity in the play, there are also humorous scenes, dramatic moments, and dream sequences in which we witness the characters’ subconscious.

K’nın Sesi (Voice of K.) First episode: “My Hands Have Become my Eyes.” Written and directed by Duygu Dalyanoğlu.  BGST Theatre youtube channel. 22 June 2020

What are your new projects? What are you working on at the present time?

Following Zabel, I am now writing a play on the life story of another author, Sevgi Soysal (1936-1976). She was born in Turkey to a German mother and a Turkish father of Greek origin. She spent much of her life in Ankara, the nation’s capital, where she was raised in a culturally sophisticated environment. Fearless though tumultuous interactions with unfamiliar and miscellaneous people, cultures, and politics helped to construct her life. She was employed by the Turkish Radio and Television Company on March 12, 1971, when the coup d’état occurred. She was imprisoned, as were many other writers and intellectuals of the period. She was later sentenced to spend four months in exile in Adana. She died of cancer at the age of 40, three years later. Her literary legacy is still inspiring today in terms of her feminist and political language.

I am writing a play based on this life story with an approach to obscuring her social, creative, and theatrical histories and making the “invisible” visible. While doing that, in addition to consulting the published sources, I have also discovered her life by reading letters, memoirs, and oral histories. I also researched the spaces where my biographical subject lived, explored photographs of places and houses, and began to understand the social text of those particular locations. The feminist possibilities of Sevgi Soysal’s life story and time of life allow audiences in Turkey to encounter not only a powerful and inspiring woman in recent history but also to learn about other women who touched her life, inspired her and gave her the strength to struggle.

Duygu Dalyanoğlu in Now You Have A Trial by BGST. Photo: Kenan Özcan

This was also your method of working and writing in Zabel. Before ending our talk, could you describe this method a bit more? How do you approach a historical subject from a feminist point of view?

In my feminist writing and staging practice, I use a social rather than an individualistic approach to represent a biographical subject from a particular feminist viewpoint. In such a practice, my focus will be on telling an individual woman’s story and the social and material production of that individual or community of individuals. By writing and staging this play with an interdisciplinary approach combining acting, movement, dance, and visual arts, I plan to create a multi-layered feminist theatre play. 

Thank you for this most enlightening conversation. 


*Eylem Ejder is a writer, editor, and dramaturg based in Istanbul. She holds a PhD in Theatre from Ankara University (2022), with her thesis entitled “Dramaturgies of Recycling: Nostalgia, Metatheatre, and Utopia in 2010s Turkish Theatre.” Her work on contemporary theatre in Turkey regularly appears in national and international journals and books. She is the co-writer of two books on theatre in Turkish. Since 2022, she is taking part in theatre meetings and festivals with her lecture-performance on poetry, ecology, and theatre entitled do,laş,mak (meaning to be entangled).

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