May 28, 2019 — Born in Istanbul, Neslihan Arol completed Film and Drama Master’s Programme at Kadir Has University in Istanbul with practice-based research on clowning from a feminist perspective. For this research, she created “The Perfect Woman”, a solo clown performance that she developed further during her PhD years. She went on to perform “The Perfect Woman” in the “Clownin” an international women’s clown festival in Vienna and in “Red Pearl Women’s Clown Festival” in Helsinki, among other venues and festivals.
It was after one of “The Perfect Woman” performances in Berlin that I asked Arol for an interview on her feminist art.
Arol is currently a Ph.D. student in the Faculty of Performing Arts at the Berlin University of the Arts, where she continues her research on the relationship between laughter, feminism, and solo performance forms. These performance forms are Meddahlık (a traditional storytelling form, which was an important part of the Ottoman culture), Stand-up Comedy and Clowning. Apart from her solo works, Arol also performs in Berlin with Bühne für Menschenrechte.
- You are a theater actor, a stand-up comedian, a clown, a meddah, a story-teller, beside others. Why are you trying these different artistic forms? What are you looking for in them?
My search was caused by my actor training. I don`t mean that I had bad experiences during that time, I love acting and I had wonderful teachers, who taught me a lot. But like many acting students, I was confronted first with the canonical theatre texts. Most of these texts frustrated me as I was not happy with the stereotypical roles available to me as a female actor. My frustration grew as I wanted to be funny on stage. Where were all these funny female characters?
Just around that time, I met clowning via a workshop of a friend. I still remember my excitement that day. I immediately had the feeling that the clown nose, “the smallest mask in the world” as Jacques Lecoq called it, helped me to act more freely on stage. It also motivated me to create my own comedic material. So I decided to write my master’s thesis on clowning as a practice-based research. For this purpose, I created a solo clown performance called “Ideal Kadın” in Istanbul in 2013. The name of the performance can be translated as “the ideal woman”.
As I came to Germany, the name of the performance changed to “The Perfect Woman” because I also had to translate the name to German. So you watched this performance. The good thing with clowning is that you don´t necessarily have to use language so you can travel anywhere with the work more easily. Benefiting also from this aspect, I had the chance to perform in different places including the female clown festivals in Helsinki and Vienna. I am sorry that the festival in Vienna doesn’t happen anymore.
Although the art of clowning has mostly been a male form in history, there were female clowns and there are currently many women in clowning. The numbers are growing every day and I am sure there will be more platforms that especially support female clowns. With my thesis, I looked for the possibilities that the clowning provides for the intersection of feminism and comedy. My findings, my experiences and the positive feedbacks inspired me to expand my research on comedy and that is how I also started to work on stand-up comedy and the art of meddah through my Ph.D. in Berlin.
- Your art practices have mostly involved empowered female subjects, and in your different art practices, one can see a clear intention for questioning the gender dynamics and patriarchal power relations. But as far as I understood, you are inclined to comedy and irony as you approach the problem of gender norms, rather than addressing the pain and sorrow that the patriarchal violence inflicts on women. Is it an artistic strategy for you? And if yes, why is it so?
I have always been interested in comedy. I am fascinated by laughter and what it does to the body. I also have always liked to make people laugh since my childhood. Of course, as an actor, I don`t limit myself to playing in comedies and I think it is very important and powerful to address pain and sorrow on stage the way they are. But I believe many issues can also be addressed through comedy.
For instance, stand-up comedy has long been a platform for marginalized people to address their issues through jokes. Especially starting from the second-wave feminism, it has been a weapon for many feminists, who followed the motto “personal is the political” and shared their stories and frustration with patriarchy through this performance form.
Of course, this does not change the fact that comedy has also, maybe mostly, served the dark side. Personally, one of the things that I love the most about comedy is the fleeting sense of community that you share with the audiences during and after some performances. Laughter has something to do with connection and empowerment. The opposite can of course also simultaneously happen. It is ambivalent like many things!
- You have moved from the clown solo performances to meddah. You write about meddahi: “the traditional storyteller meddah was an important figure in the entertainment culture of the Ottoman Empire. Currently, the art of meddah is seen as a dying traditional heritage of Turkish theatre and was inscribed in 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. In this lecture performance.” In Iran as in Turkey, meddah is usually a performance mostly done by men for general audiences. You have approached this traditionally male art form from a feminist perspective. What made you use this form of story?
Like the case of Iran, meddahs have mostly been men in Turkey. It is a tradition, which was transferred from the master to the apprentice and these were generally men. This lineage was broken due to several reasons, which would need an interview of its own.
The performance form, which lived its golden age during the Ottoman Empire, later lost its popularity. During its golden age, meddahs also mostly performed in coffeehouses, which were mainly only visited by men. I started working on the art of meddah with the idea that there are many undiscovered possibilities of this form for feminist performance. I found out that it speaks very well to the contemporary audiences when contemporary stories are told with and for the current audiences.
Unlike stand-up comedy, in which the performer`s persona is very central to the performance and the performer seems to speak for the most part from her own perspective, meddah herself is not under the spotlight and plays all the parts and characters in the story, that helps her present multiple perspectives. For further possibilities, I am afraid we will have to go in much more details that would not be possible here.
I have been talking about this issue on several occasions including conferences. The last occasion was in Kunstraum Kreuzberg. I was very happy to be a part of the caricature exhibition „Wir verrecken vor Lachen! Die Karikaturkunst in der Türkei im Zeichen des politischen Widerstandes“. I made a lecture performance about my re-evaluation of the art of meddah. As we talked earlier in our personal meetings, meddah of Turkey`s tradition is quite different than Iran`s tradition based on the humorous aspect that it adopted in the later years of the tradition. I work with this humorous aspect and foreground it as I am focusing on comedy in my work.
- I watched two performance from you: in one, you were a meddah and in the other, you were a clown. Meddah performance was a story about women, and the clown performance was a story that addresses patriarchy and gender norms. I didn’t see the sharp blades of critique in meddah as much as you had them in your clown performance. Why is that?
Thanks for the question. This is exactly what I wrote about in my article “Gender in Comedy: Reflections from a Practitioner-Researcher”, which will be published in the book “Staging Gender — Reflexionen aus Theorie und Praxis der performativen Künste.
In this article, I reflected on my solo performances and the different approaches of these performances to the intersection of feminism and comedy. But let me very shortly tell you that, with my clown performance I was fighting against the norms. The clown “Süper” (the Turkish word for super) in “The Perfect Woman”, as evident from the title of the performance and the name of the clown, comes on the stage and claims that she is a somewhat of a superhero, she is the perfect woman and shows her way of being that and tries to make the audiences confront their ideal womanhood and the burden of this idealization.
Like the feminist scholar, Angela McRobbie writes in her article “Notes on the Perfect”: “idea of ‘the perfect’ emerges as a highly hetero-normative vector of competition for young women today.” You have to be the perfect combination of everything. With my meddah performance, I am not going after the gender norms to critique them. You can say I am not letting the gender norms haunt the stage as I tell you the story of a hopefully empowering journey. Both are important and valuable approaches for the feminist struggle in my opinion.
- Do you think these different art practices have helped you personally as a migrant woman in the fight against the racial patriarchy in Germany (If you agree that there is such a thing in the western world?
My clown performance was created in Istanbul so it was solely focusing on gender issues. I created my stand-up comedy performance and my meddah performance later in Germany. So race issues became a part of these performances.
I can give you an example, which personally empowered me on stage. In the short stand-up routine that I created, the main structure is built on the continuous question that is asked of me regarding where I am from. I staged the reactions that I receive after I answer the question with my true answer: “I am from Turkey.” It gets a lot of laughter as I parody these reactions and I even added an ironic answer, which I, unfortunately, could not give in real life.
After a performance, a half-Turkish woman came up to me and said that she could understand me totally and thanked me for talking about this on stage. I am happy that it felt good for both of us and maybe some other people in the audience.
- Someone might tell you that feminism has achieved enough here and people like you should focus on raising awareness about the patriarchy in your home country; what would be your answer?
I have actually been told already similar statements. There is a trend of questioning the necessity of feminism in certain geographies and saying that equality is achieved so we don’t need feminism anymore. Unfortunately, the picture is not rosy anywhere. Besides, feminism is not a medicine that you take a dose of and stop using after the symptoms are gone. It is an awareness that you live by. It is of course nobody’s business to lecture me on where I should perform and what I should do.
But I also perform in Turkey, you were also there in the Bergama International Theatre Festival in May 2018. I had a wonderful experience with the audience. Thanks to the organizers, I had the opportunity to perform my meddahperformance at the historical marketplace Arasta in Bergama, Izmir. That was very suitable to the spirit of the meddah tradition as meddahs also used to perform in marketplaces. After finishing my Ph.D., I want to tour in Turkey with my work if I can find the chance. That is very important to me. I also want to apply to a theatre festival in Iran. Let’s see if it will all work out.