It has to start from the art.

by Evren Odcikin

in Diversity & Inclusion,National Conference

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(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)

TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc–Middle Eastern American Theatre series

JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.

EVREN ODCIKIN: I am a Turkish-American director based out of San Francisco. I am also the literary artistic associate at Golden Thread Productions, the first theater company in the U.S. to focus solely on the Middle East. My duties at Golden Thread include assisting in the play selection process for both production and development, running the New Threads staged reading series and helping produce the mainstage season.

Outside of my work at Golden Thread, I’ve worked with Magic Theatre, Aurora Theatre, Crowded Fire Theater Company, Impact Theatre, Shotgun Players, and Bay Area Playwrights Festival. My work tends to be eclectic, but the through line for me has always been the story of the outsider in Western society. I’ve looked at this question frequently, but not exclusively, through the lens of the Middle Eastern immigrant experience in the U.S.

JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?

EO: I identify as Turkish-American. I was born and raised in Turkey, so I call myself Middle Eastern. It wasn’t until I got involved with Golden Thread that I was able to articulate how much my immigrant identity affected my work. I was able to find an artistic home that allowed me to explore the stories, the challenges and the politics of my homeland in a thoughtful and non-polemic manner.

I consider my ethnic identity to be a very important part of my art. My journey to this has been an interesting one, as I don’t look stereotypically Middle Eastern. Most people who meet me assume I am Caucasian (which I guess I am, as my ancestors were from the Caucasus). So I’ve had the luxury, in a way, to deal with my ethnic identity on my own terms and in my own time. However, now that I have found an organic way to bring this part of my life into my work, my artistic output feels richer and deeper even when I am not working on Middle Eastern stories.

JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?

EO: Through my involvement with Golden Thread, I’ve been able to get visibility both locally and nationally. I’ve had the good fortune of making artistic connections with incredible artists and playwrights like Mona Mansour and Yussef El Guindi. I’ve met artistic leaders around the country that I wouldn’t have had access to. It’s been a true gift for my career.

I live in the Bay Area, so I don’t really feel like my ethnic identity has worked against me much. However, like many other minority artists, I have found that it has also limited the type of work I get called in for. Since “coming out” as a Middle Eastern artist by joining the Golden Thread staff, my resume, for a long time, only included Arab, Turkish, and Iranian playwrights. Now it has expanded into plays and playwrights dealing with other immigrant communities. As I get more known for one kind of work, I know it’ll be a process to branch out from my corner. Having said that, I feel like a bit of a brat for complaining, as I am working consistently on beautiful plays with amazing artists.

JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?

EO: Yes. Theaters like Golden Thread (or Silk Road Rising in Chicago or Noor Theatre in NYC) are essential in developing the voices of Middle Eastern artists working today. We need playwrights to be better at telling our stories. We need actors and directors to tell those stories with truth and cultural specificity. These artists will not develop and grow unless they are given opportunities and ethnically specific theaters are usually one of the first places an artist of color can get such opportunities.

All artists need a place where they can tell their stories from their point of view. Shared cultural heritage or a shared sense of identity can be a huge boost to an emerging artist’s growth. The key is not creating a situation of “us” against “them.” What I love about the theaters I’ve mentioned is that they do not subscribe to a narrow definition of what it means to be Middle Eastern and are active participants in the larger theatrical scene.

JL: What is the current state of Middle Eastern Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)

EO: I am an optimist by nature, so I am happy and hopeful. We’re really “hot” right now. Every major theater company in the Bay Area has had at least one Middle Eastern playwright in its last two seasons. The Middle East is so pertinent to the U.S. politically and militarily that these stories and voices feel pertinent to the mainstream theatergoing audiences.

But what excites me is more than that… I feel like finally our storytellers are up to the standard to make it out there and make Middle Eastern American theater part of the general American cannon. Yussef El Guindi just won the Steinberg Award. Mona Mansour just won the Whiting Award. Our directors and actors are following suit. The kind of shows we are casting now at Golden Thread, we wouldn’t be able to cast 10 years ago. We just didn’t have the talent. But with commitment, experience and training, it feels like we are ready for the prime time. And for every balloon pants and belly dancing Arabian Nights adaptation or “Death to the Infidels” terrorist play that is out there, we are able to answer back with a complex, deep, historical, and flawed version of our people and our stories.

JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?

EO: Do the plays. Hire the actors. Bring in the directors. It has to start from the art.

EVREN ODCIKIN is a Turkish-American director based in San Francisco. For Golden Thread Productions, he directed the West Coast premiere of Yussef El Guindi’s Language Rooms, which moved to the Los Angeles Theater Center after a San Francisco run (critic’s pick for Los Angeles Times). As the literary artistic associate for Golden Thread, he runs the annual new play reading series New Threads, and has led the selection process for and helped produce the ReOrient 2012 Festival and Forum. His other credits include the world premiere of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s 410[GONE] and the West Coast premiere of Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Invasion! for Crowded Fire Theater; The Oldest Profession (two Bay Area Theatre Critics’ Circle nominations) and Machinal (three BATCC Award nominations including best director and best production) for Brava Theater Center; and RHINO for Boxcar Theatre (“Most Inventive Staging of 2010″ from SF Weekly, “Best Play of 2010″ from SF Bay Times). He has directed readings and workshops at American Conservatory Theater, Magic Theatre, Aurora Theatre Company, and Bay Area Playwrights Festival. A graduate of Princeton University, Evren was awarded the 2013 TITAN Award for Directors by Theatre Bay Area and selected as an Emerging Theatre Leader by TCG for their American Express Leadership Bootcamp.

Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena.