Author and player Ayhan Hulagu is an artist who is trying to introduce shadow play abroad with his traditional Karagoz puppet show. Last year, he put a new play on the stage for İstanbul’s Balat district within his project named ‘Karagoz in the street’. Nowadays, he is taking the stage in the USA as part of his ‘Karagoz on the way’ project. We talked with Ayhan Hulagu about his experience in the USA and Karagoz Theatre Company established by him.
By John Williams
You have put the signature to lots of shows. Now, you have been taking the stage abroad for a long time. What is the difference between reactions to Karagoz in Turkey and the USA?
Karagoz is a well-known character in Turkey. Although audiences don’t have any idea of Karagoz art’s history, they know Karagoz as it is popular especially in Ramadan days. I think that Karagoz attracts more attention abroad rather than in Turkey because Karagoz is seen as a cultural world heritage abroad.
How can you explain this? What is the reason for big interest in Karagoz abroad?
After Karagoz has been inscribed on the UNESCO representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2009, its popularity begins to exceed the limits. Foreign art-lovers regard puppet show as a cultural heritage of humanity. According to them, the puppet show is an art which is fantastic and mysterious. However, there is no any department of the puppet show in Turkey’s universities. This is the fact that how Turkey places importance to its cultural heritage.
You have been taking the stage in different places of the world with your project named ‘Karagoz on the way’. Which plays do you show? Where do you show? And which languages do you prefer?
I have two plays being staged under the umbrella of Karagoz Theatre Company which I established in the USA. I adapted these plays from veteran Karagoz performer Muhittin Sevilen’s plays. One of them is The Swing (Salıncak). Another play is The Magic Tree (Buyulu Agac). Plays’ native language is Turkish. However, when I take the stage in the USA, I also use English. I took the stage in Washington DC in the previous days. Later I performed a show at Fairfax Regional Library, one of the big libraries of Virginia. I am also trying to arrange shows in USA’s different states and in Europe. In September, I am going to perform Karagoz puppet show at the Great Plains Regional Puppet Festival. Karagoz is going to be the festival’s opening show. This is a big honor for me and Karagoz.
How is the percentage of Turkish audiences in your shows?
I have the different nation of people in my shows up to today. American, Indian, Iranian, Japon and of course Turkish… There is no too much Karagoz performer in Turkey. For this reason, there are many people who don’t have any chance to watch live Karagoz puppet show. Turkish people abroad are getting involved in a cultural activity which belongs to their culture. People who are fond of their cultural value make a great effort that their children can watch live Karagoz puppet show. There were too many people who came to me after my shows and said their gratitude. To display a show from people’s culture is like that you come upon your friend in the other corner of the world. This makes me excited. Besides, it makes me motivated to perform show abroad.
What do American people feel about your traditional puppet shows?
I have remarkable contact with festival directors, puppeteers, and art-lovers in the USA. We see each other occasionally for show, workshop and festival activities. In the previous days, I came together with Jeff Bragg, who is the director of a festival in Washington, in a lunch. I mentioned him about Karagoz’s historical process and its’ background. I can’t express how he felt exciting after I talked about Karagoz. As Karagoz is a cultural world heritage, he is aspiring to extend this heritage. We talked thoroughly about how we can introduce this art to children and adults. In the upcoming days, I believe that our traditional art will be remaining in the forefront.
You said that a different nation of people watches your shows. What are people thinking about your shows?
Karagoz is made from the hide of a camel or a water buffalo and performed by only one person traditionally. All of these arouse curiosity for people. To exemplify, I see lots of people who are asking characters’ history in the puppet shows as they wonder about it. In my shows, there are the Jewish, Arabian and other nation of characters. They are both national and also universal. Every character represents the specific community. I think that the diversity in my shows is important for audiences to connect with the shows.
What is the most interesting reaction up today?
I performed a puppet show named ‘Swing/Salıncak’ in Virginia. I used a different nation of characters in the show. One of them was an Arabian character who had black skin. It was a classic character for the puppet shows. My show was Turkish and for this reason, some people didn’t understand my show. An African-American citizen came to me after the show and said that you can’t use this Arabian character. I was shocked and asked ‘Why?’. He said kindly and firmly that ‘If you want to live in the USA for a long time, you shouldn’t give place to a black person in your shows. You have to choose your characters correctly.’ As blackish people had hard times in the USA, he thought that I was using the black character as a humor or racial tool. He expressed his thoughts about my show and I explained my aim. I told him the character’s story and background. After that, we found a middle ground. We shook hands and said goodbye. A story which belongs to Anatolia can be understood differently in another country. For this reason, it is important to think long and hard before performing a show.