“The Forest of the Witch” is a new puppet play coming to Symphony Space Theater. Suitable for children and adults, the gorgeous shadow puppetry performance features the character of Karagoz who is a hero in traditional Anatolian shadow plays.
The story of “The Forest of the Witch” is based on an abiding Turkish story about Karagoz and his friend who cut the branches from a magical neighborhood tree and become transformed into something unexpected. Karagoz subsequently learns the importance of nature and protecting the environment.
“The Forest of the Witch” was adapted from a play originally created by Muhittin Sevilen, an early 20th-century Turkish puppeteer known for his humor and imagination. The show features traditional live music and puppets hand-crafted in the Ottoman Empire style. UNESCO has recognized Karagoz shadow puppetry as part of the world’s “intangible heritage.”
Creator Ayhan Hulagu developed an interest in shadow puppetry in high school and started performing professionally soon after, completing a course in shadow plays offered jointly by the Turkish Ministry of arts and culture and International Puppetry Association (UNIMA) in Istanbul, in 2011. Crafting his shadow puppets by hand and performing on the kazoo and tambourine, Hulagu has presented Karagoz Theatre Company plays all over the world. A few years ago, he started touring Karagoz performances across the United States, earning critical and audience acclaim.
Ayhan recently spoke about this play and more via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in theater, and how come you focus on kids’ theater and puppetry in particular?
Ayhan Hulagu (AH): When I was in high school, I became interested in theatre. I played in the theatre club many times. I founded the theater group called Hayal Perdesi in 2005 while continuing my education at Pamukkale University in Turkey. During that time, I decide to be an actor. I started my professional career in 2011 after finishing Sahika Tekand Studio Performers. I also wrote about art in national newspapers and magazines and took part in several theatre and cinema projects. I wrote some books for children. After that, I brought my acting and writing background together and started to do projects for kids and adults.
MM: How did you first break into the theater scene and how have your performances evolved over the years?
AH: I had my first experiment in high school. I was a shy, silent student who could not express himself in public. After I started to do theatre, I discovered myself. I can never forget my first experience doing theatre. I was walking on the clouds. It was so exciting. Then I started walking on the floor as I started to receive professional training. Then I did hundreds of shows, discover something new at every show. I think this process will continue until the end of my career. This is very exciting. That’s why I continue doing art!
MM: How many forms of puppetry have you worked with?
AH: The traditional art is the best for myself. Actually, I’m interesting different styles of the form. My company’s first purpose that modernizes the Anatolian traditional art, adapted it to this century and culture of the United States. So, I’m doing traditional Karagoz shadow theatre, Anatolian body puppets. My background is acting, that’s one of the plans to do some project about the Ottoman Empire storyteller which is called Meddah. I was the declared as an intangible heritage by UNESCO in 2008. That will be the first time the United States.
MM: How did you first hear about the hero Karagoz?
AH: After Karagöz was accepted and included in the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2009, it has become so popular worldwide. Academic theses have been written, and panels, conferences were held about it. Karagoz dates back nearly 700 years in Anatolia. It is a cultural icon and one of the most popular figures in Turkey. A year after the UNESCO cultural heritage designation, a special workshop was organized in İstanbul. It was a workshop supported by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and hosted by UNIMA (International Puppet and Shadow Play Union) at the Turkish National Center at Istanbul about making and performing Karagoz. I learned about the process of the Karagoz art there, after that, I started to do the project.
MM: How did you find Symphony Space and what will it be like to produce “The Forest of the Witch” there?
AA.H: Actually, Symphony Space invited me. I had done projects in New York at La Mama, the Children Museum, Chinese Theatre Work, etc. I was also at the 2019 National Puppetery Festival at Minnesota. I did many shows, plus an exhibition, workshop, and a panel at the University of Minnesota. That was the great experience. Many artists and directors watched my show. I got a really great reaction and feedback from them. During this time Symphony Space invited me to bring Karagoz to their Just Kidding family performance series this season. I said that will be great. Now, I can say that I’m bringing Karagoz to Broadway for the first time!
MM: What other shows have you made and what are they about?
AH: At the end January 2020, I will present the premiere of my new project, “Dream of Hamlet,” which adapts Shakespeare’s play to the Karagoz art using shadow theatre. It is such an interesting project. We are bringing together the 400-year-old Shakespeare play with the 700-year Karagoz genre. The script is all performed by a single artist. All of the puppetry figures are made from water buffalo leather (like “The Forest of the Witch’s” puppets). It is a unique project. I will be on January 24th to 26th at Theatre Project in Baltimore.
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
AH: I like to bring my works to more international festivals. I have performed in more than 15 countries over the last 10 years. It will be great to continue to do that and do more shows in America at universities, theatres, festivals, etc. I plan to do international Karagoz exhibitions to introduce this traditional form to more audiences. After solving the finance problem, that will be a chance to show one of the oldest shadow theatre forms of the world to more American audiences.
Symphony Space is located at 2537 Broadway (at 95th), near the 96th Street subway station (1,2,3 lines). Tickets to this season’s performances are available for sale now at Symphonyspace.org. For the latest Just Kidding news, follow along on Facebook and Instagram. The Karagoz Theatre Company can be visited via their official website: https://karagoztheatre.com/about/