Artist, Immigrant: Handan Ozbilgin

by Marcy Arlin

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,Global Citizenship,Interviews

Post image for Artist, Immigrant: Handan Ozbilgin
(To learn more about Marcy Arlin’s Artist, Immigrant blog series, click here.)
Handan’s graciousness, talent as a director, and spirit of inclusiveness are rare! I first met her when I was teaching theatre at CUNY LaGuardia. Handan was our liaison when we presented a readings series of Plays about Religion in the welcoming Little Theatre. She  oversaw everything from keys, to technical issues, to bringing in the student audience. Since then, I and many others have returned to LPAC, because of Handan’s and Executive Director Steven Hitt’s generosity and faith in theatre.

1. What do you love about theatre in the U.S. for yourself and in general?
I love having a lot of options. You can see or be involved in many types of
theater at any time.

2. What do you miss about working in your homeland?
When you make theatre here, you have a whole list of rules; permits, AEA regulations, etc. Even smoking on stage you need a permit. In Turkey, there are not that many rules. Or even if there are, you always find your way around them. And I guess that is what I miss, less restrictions.

3. How have your combined, in your work, both country’s theatre training and culture?
In my country theatre training is very similar to the training people receive in America. Unfortunately, in the college, I had very few courses based on Traditional Turkish theater. For instance I have never had a course based on Turkish Shadow Theatre. However; the cultural references always found a way into my projects whether intentionally or not. For instance: I did an experimental version of “Three Sisters” in which I used popular Turkish songs. Or my project “Rumi’s Math” was based on Rumi’s poetry in which the female cast dressed as whirling dervishes.

4. How do you see yourself/identify yourself as an artist in terms of being an immigrant? Does it matter to you?
As an artist I have never believed you have to do work only when it is relevant to your identity and I didn’t want to promote myself only as a Turkish director. But in so many cases I was asked or approached to do something because I am an “immigrant artist”
from Turkey. All of a sudden in NY, I had to define my cultural background. As I was doing my PHD at CUNY graduate center, they asked me to write a brief article about the state of Modern Turkish theater for the Oxford Encyclopedia. For that article, I conducted extensive research with people in Turkey that I never talked to or thought about when I actually lived there. So this has always been an interesting conflict for me. Over time it became something I embraced and now after 15 years in this country, I accept and enjoy my Turkishness. If you want to call me a Turkish director, I am fine with it

5. How does it affect your getting work? (accent, ethnicity,etc.)
It affects it positively. I was asked a few times to direct a play because I am Turkish. For instance: in 1998, Lark Theatre Company asked me to be an assistant director for their production of Pera Palas, the play based on a Turkish family. It was a very valuable experience/connection for my future career in New York. I guess, it helps to be European/Middle Eastern/Mediterranean…

6. What are you doing now? Here and/or abroad?
I am in charge of the Space Grant program (LPAC Lab) at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center where I also direct shows and teach an acting class. My last show was Cherry Orchard Project inspired by Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. I have been working with individual artists from Turkey. We are bringing the Turkish playwright Ozen Yula to NY for the production of his play For Rent which I am directing at LPAC in April. I’m also
developing a new piece with the Turkish actress playwright Ayca Damgaci to be performed Spring 2013.

7. Can you tell me a theatre short story/anecdote about when you first came here? A more recent story?
When I was 20 years old and reading/discussing in the classroom in Turkey the work of Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, the Wooster group and all the other contemporary American artists, I would never have imagined that one day I would able go see their shows and meet with some of them in person. They were the heroes or like mythylogical charecters to me, but now I am one click away to buy tickets to their shows, and to me this “fascination” never gets old.

Handan Ozbilgin: Experimental theater productions include: The Wall-House-Yard Trilogy (Wall participated at 2006 Istanbul Theater Festival and was invited to the 2006 Egypt International Experimental Theater Festival; Rumi’s Math (2003 New York Fringe Festival). In NYC, Handan has directed the work of prominent Turkish playwrights: That’s How It Works by Ozen Yula at the Around the World in 24 Hours Festival 2009 (World Premiere); I Anatolia by Gungor Dilmen 2003 (World Premiere). Off-Broadway way credits include: Immigrant Theater project co-director for Suzie Lorie Parks’ 365 Days and the 2007 Difficult Dialogues Reading Series; Lark Theater Company, Assistant Director for Pera Palas. In addition to directing, Handan teaches acting at LAGCC where she develops original work for her students. Using the themes of technology and home, the Acting 1 class created a array of distinctive characters on the Facebook project, Creating a Character, Creating a Scene (2009). Handan Ozbilgin is the Assistant Artistic director at LPAC. She is Lincoln Center Director’s Lab alumni.

Marcy Arlin is Artistic Director of the OBIE-winning Immigrants’ Theatre Project. Member: Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, Theatre without Borders, League of Professional Theatre Women, No Passport, and Fulbright Scholar to Romania and the Czech Republic. She curates Eastern European Playwrights: Women Write the New. Her project East/West/East: Vietnam Immigrants Out of War, is a binational, Vietnamese/Czech/English theatre project based on interviews with American and Czech Vietnamese. She created Journey Theatre with survivors of war and torture. Directing venues: 59E59, QTIP, LaMama, MESTC, Vineyard, Oddfellows Playhouse,  Artheater/Köln, Nat’l Theatre of Romania. Co-Editor Czech Plays: 7 New Works. Teaches theatre at CUNY, community-based theatre at Yale, Immigrant Theatre at University of Chicago (her alma mater) and Prague Quadrennial, Brown, and NYU.