Ayhan Hulagu, creator and director of Dream of Hamlet and puppet designer. Photo Credit: Kristopher Johnson
Who is Ayhan Hulagu in his own words? Can you introduce yourself to us?
I am a professional actor and writer. After finishing Sahika Tekand Studio Players, I started my professional acting career. I have acted in various theaters and written for magazines and dailies. In 2017, I established the US Karagoz Theater Company in the U.S. with the status of an extraordinary ability artist. This followed with plays and festivals. I have performed in more than twenty-five states in the U.S. and organized tours to various countries across Africa, Europe, and Asia. Furthermore, I took the stage at international festivals such as Hollywood Fringe Festival, National Puppet Festival, and New York Fringe Festival. Later, this story extended over universities. I gave talks and carried out workshops at multiple universities such as Harvard, Cornell, Hawaii, and Minnesota. Recently, I have been acting in and directing plays in American theaters and Broadway.
How did the Shadow Theater adventure begin? What got you started?
I founded a theater group called ‘Hayal Perdesi’ and started to work on traditional theater while I was studying at Pamukkale University in Turkey. We initiated theater festivals amongst universities and it turned into a national pursuit. In 2011, I received professional training from masters at the Karagoz shadow play workshop organized by UNIMA’s Istanbul branch, which is recognized as a cultural heritage by UNESCO. I began to produce content in my own style by combining my acting education with my traditional Turkish theater experiences. The plays in which I reinterpreted world classics in the form of Turkish shadow theater (Karagoz) and storytelling brought me to the international showcase. I have been taking the stage with plays in which I try to build a new narrative by kneading contemporary texts with an art form that has a 700-year-old story.
Could you give some information about the foundation and development of US Karagoz Theater Company?
I have always been doing research on art forms, narrative ways, etc, of the Anatolian geography since the day I became interested in acting. I took an acting education centered on Western education and deepened my research in traditional theater. While establishing Karagoz Theater Company in the U.S. in 2017, my first aim was to make contemporary stagings of Anatolian traditional theater storytelling, Turkish shadow theater, middle plays (also known as folk plays and spectacle plays in which the spectators are surrounding the stage when it is being performed), and village theatrical plays. From this point of view, I brought classical texts such as Hamlet (William Shakespeare), One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), Don Quixote (Cervantes) to the stage in the form of shadow and narrative theater. I continue to perform with contemporary plays nourished by the traditional.
Are there any other people/artists working in your theater other than you? How do you distribute the task? Can you introduce them to us?
We collaborate with artists from different geographies and art disciplines on a project basis in our theater. I have worked with actors and performance artists from different countries such as Turkey, Brazil, China, America, Taiwan, India etc. Award-winning artist Ahmet Aglamaz has been designing our posters and videos. I usually take part in solo plays. We arrange auditions for the plays which I manage. We also organize a workshop, and after this workshop we make our final decision. As we are a touring theater, we collaborate with different disciplines during the creation process, travel with a minimal crew and decor during the show.
As we all know, you draw Karagoz and other characters and I suppose it must be a complex process from drawing to painting. Can you describe this process with specific reference to designing both the traditional characters and new characters?
After determining the play, the rewriting process begins. In this process, the characters are clarified as if one person will play in the whole play. First, I draw the initial sketches of the characters or have the illustrator draw them when I have a very busy schedule. After the text of play is finished, the design of the illustrations begins. I draw the characters on calf or camel skin with traditional methods involved in the UNESCO list. I cut it, paint it with organic dyes, then press and dry it. After the design of all the characters is finished, I determine the cast and start the rehearsal process. It’s a difficult process. Therefore, I usually do a project once every two years.
Do you have a different working order for the description of spatial settings? How are spatial descriptions created?
We decide on the scene locations during the writing process. Constantly changing places in shadow play can be very tiring and difficult to follow for the viewer. For this reason, we combine different scenes to make the play easier to follow. To illustrate, we carried the event flow in the garden or inside the palace. We also created an atmosphere with light colors. Besides the characters of play, we designed the palace, interior decorations, rooms, etc, from leather.
How did the idea of Dream of Hamlet, which entered the repertoire of Hamlet Isn’t Dead Theater, come about? Why did you even choose Hamlet?
I performed the traditional Karagoz play The Forest of The Witch on Broadway in the winter of 2020. It was an enjoyable solo play that I adapted from a text from the 19th century for today’s America. Valerie Peter Chong, one of the artistic directors of Hamlet Isn’t Dead, watched the play and liked it very much. He contacted me and asked me to direct the same play in their own theater. I had brought Hamlet to the stage before the pandemic, but I couldn’t perform as much as I wanted. I offered this play to Valerie. It was a present project with the text written, the characters designed. They were very excited about it and the process started to work.
How did you meet with David Andrew Laws, Amy Liou, Jordan Waters? How did the pre-production process go? Have these artists had any shadow theater experience before? Can you tell us?
We held an audition to determine the players. I had designed Hamlet as a solo play while I was staging it in my own theater. In my Shakespearean era, these preferences coincided with the knowledge that female characters were staged by men, or that an actor played more than one role. I wanted to work with two actors, one of which is a woman, in the new staging. I had the knowledge that using different sound, colors and energies could also open up different areas in role-sharing. In the new interpretation, I aimed at a similar alienation by mostly playing the female roles to the male actor and the male to the female. Players would play shadow play for the first time. Therefore, we firstly organized a one-month workshop on traditional Turkish shadow theater. Then we focused on performances with play rehearsals.
Are all the characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet used in Dream of Hamlet? How are the ethnic identities in the traditional Karagoz theater represented in Hamlet? How did you use Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Osric, and the actors performing The Murder of Gonzago?
We adapted and rewrote the text of the play to the shadow theater. In Dream of Hamlet, Karagoz and Hacivat come to America to establish the US Karagoz Theater Company. Nobody knows the two friends with 700 years of history. They decide to stage 400-year-old young writer William Shakesepare’s Hamlet. A play within a play… The Jewish, the female impersonator, the drunkard Mad Bekir etc. characters in the traditional Turkish theater turn into Shakespeare’s characters and an ironic comedy emerges. The most iconic writer of Western literature is reinterpreted through the eyes of the oldest characters of the East. In this process, we built a new dramaturgy by establishing parallels between the characters in Karagoz and the features of Hamlet‘s characters. Using the limitlessness of shadow play, we tried to strengthen the narrative with occasional nonverbal scenes.
As the designer of the Karagoz puppets, do you have a special color choice for the characters you use in your show? In other words, do the colors symbolize something significant?
I have a special color preference from the poster to the characters while designing my plays according to the narrative. I seek unity in all of them. First of all, I search for the illustrators who will inspire the world I will build and analyze their color of world. The color I chose for the world of Hamlet was red. A story built on the death of the king reflects blood, a more passionate, energetic color. I was inspired by Pieter Brueghel, the most significant artist of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting, in the world of the play. I preferred vintage colors to reflect the spirit of the traditional. My preferences vary with each play. For example, while designing Cervantes’ Don Quixote, I took advantage of Salvador Dali’s sketches.
While Dream of Hamlet was previously a one-man show in which you were tasked with carrying the whole show using a mixture of skills such as animating and vocalizing, it later turned to be a production featuring different artists. How was your experience directing the vocalization of the other actors?
We shaped the flow of the scene, the tempo of the play, the traffic in and out of the play for a single person while designing the play. The degree of difficulty was much higher than we expected. I rehearsed for about four months continuously, and then the play came out. When we started working with two artists, we didn’t watch the footage of the first play. I asked them to come up with different suggestions and comments in order to use the advantages of being two persons. We enriched the story with improvisations and new discoveries. Since the artists had no idea about the Karagoz art form, naturally it took a lot of time to explain, practice, etc.
The soliloquies in Hamlet are the most authentic means to analyze the inner psyche of the titular character and they are said to constitute the essence of the play. How did you approach these soliloquies? What are the differences between Hüseyin Sorgun’s rewriting and the original text?
There is a traditional structure in Karagoz texts. The play begins with the display of a showpiece summarizing the story to the audience. Then Hacivat enters the stage singing, calls Karagoz, and has him brought to the stage as a result of long efforts. Later, a conversation begins between the two from daily life. At the end of this conversation, we move on to the main play, which we call ‘Fasıl/Chapter’. We preserved this structure in Dream of Hamlet. Hacivat, who came to the U.S., sets up a theater with Karagoz and then plays Hamlet in the chapter section. We have brought the classical Shakespeare text into the traditional structure. Unlike the others, we put a second pre-play and closing play. We reconstructed the text by keeping the main characters, especially Ophelia, Gertrude, and Claudius, constant and simplifying it. After Hüseyin Sorgun wrote it, I rearranged the text for the American audience and added new scenes for the humor of the American audience.
Does Dream of Hamlet have any moral message? What is the message you give to your audience in Dream of Hamlet and what lessons we can learn from the show?
In the final scene of most Karagoz plays, the lesson to be taken out of the play is expressed in two sentences and the curtain is closed. However, this didactic expression doesn’t seem very aesthetic to me. It is more valuable to cover up what you want to express and for the audience to see or feel it. Hamlet’s desire for revenge, his problematic relationship with power, his moral and existential questions, etc. have always been interesting for me.
Blending Shakespeare’s tragic story with Karagoz humor is a creative, innovative and intriguing approach. Can you tell us about the function of humor for you?
Bertolt Brecht says “It is bad to live in a country without humor. However, what is much worse is living in a country where you cannot live without humor.” Humor is always the nightmare of the rulers… it may say “The king is naked.” at any moment. It would be absurd not to take advantage of humor in such a text that centers the power-individual relationship. Especially if we interpret the play from the world of Karagoz, the greatest humorous hero of Anatolian geography, humor both keeps the audience’s attention alive and makes the story stay in memories for a longer period of time. I also take pleasure, leaning towards it in all my plays.
Both in Dream of Hamlet and in your other performances, do you keep the traditional introduction/pre-play/prologue (Mukaddime) or the dialogue (muhavere) that includes the fight between Karagoz and Hacivat. Are there any innovations you have made in these sections?
I don’t use it in all my plays. As Dream of Hamlet was recorded as the first representation of Shakespeare in the art of Karagoz, I took care to use this form in this play especially. I wanted the audience to experience a Western text within the structure of a traditional play. In my own theater, I always have plays that have been brought to the stage in a traditional style. There are also contemporary shows that I have taken apart and reconstructed. The audience has a chance to watch and compare both of them.
Did you find it difficult to create verbal humor such as puns and double meanings which are abundant in the traditional Karagoz? How did you put the emphasis on humor rather verbal humor?
As you know, humor in Karagoz texts proceeds through word games, misunderstandings, etc. The structure of the Turkish language is very suitable for this, the humor of the Turkish audience is prone to it. As someone who makes English theaters abroad, I don’t find it right to convey this structure exactly when I make adaptations. I’m searching for a more universal humor. I prioritize sitcoms rather than wordplays. I take the word back and bring the situations to the fore. I’m trying to bring the characters that the American audience will find close to them and the comedy. We have followers from different languages and cultures and it shows that we are on the right road towards our goal.
What about the use of music in your plays? Have you used music in Dream of Hamlet? Do you make the choices?
In general, tambour and kazu are used for normal plays. I absolutely include them in my own plays. However, we are designing a new music that will reflect the world of the play in contemporary staging. Otherwise, it is very difficult to keep the attention of the audience alive with just words. In Hamlet, Yunus Sarıca and Ozan Etuzsoy made a musical design in which Western and Eastern instruments are intertwined.
How did it feel to tell the American audience about Hamlet through (the lens of) Karagoz? Can you tell about your experiences? How was the audience reaction?
Hamlet has been performed thousands of times in America. We gave the American audiences our own glasses, and we wanted them to see the story through our eyes. On the one hand, an art form with a history of 700 years, on the other the iconic text of one of the founding writers of Western literature. The idea of what this text would look like in a traditional form is exciting for us. It got the audience more excited. Puppetry International featured the play on the cover of it, New York Shakespeare nominated it as the most original adaptation of the year. A master’s thesis was written about it at Shanghai Theater Academy. The audience experiences one of the oldest forms of theater in the world while watching a classical text. Moreover, this experience is in their own language: feedback from the audience and academy excites us for new productions.
Have you progressed in your acting career as you have expected?
My acting career progressed mostly through theater. I had the opportunity to carry the plays bearing my signature to many valuable showcases from international festivals to Broadway. In this sense, I am very satisfied and happy. It’s been a unique career. However, I would also like to act in more movies.
Who do you consider to be your acting role model whose career you would like to emulate, and why?
There is no name that I take as a model in traditional theater. I like Marlon Brando, Daniel Day Lewis, Heath Ledger as actors. Haluk Bilginer and Nadir Saribacak are also my role models from Turkey.
Outside of acting, what are your other major interests or passions?
Writing is a great passion of mine. I write ageless stories like The Little Prince. I have three published short story books: Shakespeare’s Cats, Flying Fish, and a biography called Inside the Stage. I’ve written movies and theater plays, and continue to write. Cinema, painting, and travel are my essentials.
You wrote a book called Shakespeare’s Cats. Wow, how nice! It is a very pleasant idea to look at Shakespeare through the eyes of the cats living in the theater. Can you talk about this book? Can you also tell us about your bond with the Bard and how you were touched by him?
When I decided to leave Turkey and complete my acting education abroad, I had two options: go to England or the U.S. My actor elder and brother Kevork Malikyan was guiding me towards England. He has lived in England for many years and has appeared in the Shakespeare Globe. Since he knew England very well, he wanted me to follow the same path. I chose America, but never gave up on Shakespeare in my productions. I wrote the story of a cat family who watched all the plays in Shakespeare’s theater and whose dream is to act in that theater one day. It was also called Shakespeare’s Cats and was published in the U.S. Bro Kevork wrote the back cover of the book and honored the work. Shakespeare is the author of timeless texts that put people at the center and blend psychology and literature wonderfully. I love doing archeological digs in his world.
What are your next projects for the immediate future? Do you think of adapting another Shakespeare play?
I adapted Cervantes’ Don Quixote for the Turkish Shadow Theater. I will introduce it to the audience in the new season. I will have workshops and training at the University of Maryland, University of California, and University of Iowa. I’m working on adapting Shakespeare’s III. Richard in meddah form for the stage. Meddah was included in the list of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2008. It is one of the oldest forms of storytelling in the world. It is a creative theatrical form in which an actor plays all the characters alone on the empty stage with the stick in his hand and the handkerchief around his neck. I am also excited that the new Richard interpretation is the first study in this field. After our search for a partner for this project is finished, we will gradually bring it into action.
Finally, do you find any changes in today’s Karagoz and Hacivat relationship compared to the one in the traditional plays? For example, is Karagoz still unemployed? Is Hacivat still guiding with his knowledge and wisdom? In other words, what do Karagoz and Hacivat mean to you and how they are relevant today?
Turkish Shadow Theater mirrors the society like Shakespeare’s texts. One of the main characters is unemployed and the other is an employer; one is educated, the other is ignorant; one is rude, the other is polite, etc. Universal themes that do not change according to the era and society. I take care to preserve this structure in my own plays because comedy will continue to be built on these foundations a hundred years from now.
Dear Karagoz Player Hayali Ayhan Hulagu,
It is beyond doubt that your work deserves a standing ovation. And we can’t wait to see your new projects. In the words of Luka Lesson, “May your pen grace the page and may writing your lines be the way that you pray”.
With love and respect!
Müşerref and İlker