In April 2020 Wine&Halva, a play by Turkish playwright and theater researcher Deniz Başar, had a staged reading at the University of Regina. Art Babayants from Toronto Laboratory Theatre directed it with a diverse student cast of non-native English speakers, immigrants, and people of color. According to the play’s marketing materials, people from these demographics are “often marginalized by the mainstream Canadian theatre; a reality that [is] particularly visible in the theatre microcosm of Regina, Saskatchewan.” The reading received financial support from the National Theatre School of Canada via the Art Apart program, an emergency fund for emerging artists affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this conversation, Marjan Moosavi asks Başar about the creative process and her visions as a playwright living in the diaspora and writing for a North American audience. Also read Part II and Part III.

Marjan Moosavi: Tell us about yourself, your background, and your status in Canada.

Deniz Başar: I’m a Turkish woman playwright, puppet maker, and theater researcher. I immigrated to Canada in August 2014. Since then, I have worked on numerous productions, presented many conference papers about contemporary theater in Turkey, and contributed to three academic books (one published, two in the editing process). I have two national playwriting awards from Turkey, and a few grants from Canada to develop some of my plays. The award I got from Mitos-Boyut Publishing House in Turkey, for their 2014 national playwriting contest, with my play The Itch, was a big deal.

I have a BA in Urban and Regional Planning from Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, which you can immediately notice in my plays through my engagement with urban landscapes. I then did my MA at Atatürk Institute for Modern Turkish History from Boğaziçi University, where I wrote my thesis on the alternative theater scene in Turkey since the 2000s. Since September 2014, I’ve been continuing my graduate studies in Canada, and I’m expecting to graduate with my Ph.D. from Concordia University’s Humanities Department soon. My thesis is on the contemporary aesthetics of theater in Turkey.

MM: How would you describe Wine&Halva’s plot?

DB: The press explanation we give is this:

Wine&Halva is a play about the unconventional friendship between Farias, a white (or white-passing) gay man from a fictional Anglophone Canadian city called ”New Stockholm,” and Derya, a Turkish woman who immigrated to that fictional city and needs to deal with many invisible cases of institutional discrimination alone. Wine&Halva is an open and playful text, with three narrators getting in and out of these two characters throughout the play to underline the fluid nature of identity in different contexts. The story focuses on how these two people from very different histories and struggles learn (and perhaps invent) ways to support and love each other. Wine&Halva challenges multiple, widely-accepted Canadian assumptions about immigration and represents the nature of institutional discrimination along with its possible impact on the human psyche, especially under conditions of extreme precarity.

What I can perhaps add is that it is a semi-autobiographical play about institutional racism I faced in Canada, and also about a dear friend who witnessed the abuse I was forced to go through and stood by me the best he could. I was interested in questions like “how fixed are our identities?,” “what does it mean to be friends when the system you are in is benefitting one of you and holding the other down?,” and “what is the value of witnessing? Is witnessing an embodied act?”.

MM: Where did the original idea come from?

DB: There are actually two answers to that. There is the emotional one: Just as in the play Farias asks Derya to write a play about them, my dear friend asked me to write a play about us. To quote him verbatim, in real life he said, “I’m upset that you haven’t written a play about me yet.” The second answer is the intellectual one: I was interested in the idea of having more performers on stage than the number of characters.

MM: In what context did you develop it?

DB: I wrote the first draft of the play in Playwrights Workshop Montreal’s 2018-2019 Young Creator’s Unit, with the dramaturgical support of Jesse Stong, who was also the conductor of the entire workshop. Later, head dramaturge of PWM, Emma Tibaldo, got interested in my play through the presentations we did at the end of the Young Creator’s Unit. I worked with her through 2019 and 2020 to develop the text. With Emma, we were going to do a workshop/presentation at the GENesis 2020 conference that was supposed to happen in Toronto in late May. We were going to discuss the development process of Wine&Halva and, more precisely, what it means to have a white dramaturge with institutional power working on a play about institutional racism. Sadly, we couldn’t do it because of the pandemic.

As all this was happening, I met a magical, young Montreal theater company called Sort-of-Productions. We saw each other’s work in the 2019 Revolution They Wrote, a Montreal-based feminist theatre festival. I saw their play Ineffable, and they saw the staged reading of my play In The Destructible Flow of A Vast, Monolithic Moment during the festival. We both liked what we saw; there was a mutual artistic crush. We developed a close friendship with the two co-founders, who go by Sue E and ollie v. They became interested in producing Wine&Halva with me. Our first step was a staged reading on the MiniMain stage of Mainline Theatre in Montreal, in April 2019. It was useful to get audience feedback to improve the text.

Right before the start of the quarantine, Dr. Art Babayants organized a playwriting residency for me at the University of Regina. Thanks to his lovely students from the 2020 spring semester, particularly those in the “THAC360 Scene Study” and “THST465 Advanced Studies in Dramaturgy: Postmodern, Intercultural, and Multilingual Theatre” classes. We had a productive time together. The result was a radically polished version of the text that was then presented on March 12th as a staged reading, directed by Babayants.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the National Theatre School of Canada began a fund for emerging artists called the #ArtApart project. Wine&Halva was lucky to receive an #ArtApart grant. This allowed for wider feedback from virtual audiences. I will integrate the thoughts this feedback has inspired in the next draft.

I have also sent the video of the reading to some artists from İstanbul, asking for their opinion. Sinem Öcalır, an experienced performer and theater practitioner who works in Kumbaracı50, asked me to share my work with her adult students at the Tomi Education Center [1]. This discussion was particularly interesting considering that the play is written for Canadian audiences. The most mind-opening thing that resulted from sharing Wine&Halva to a group in Turkey, whose second or third language was English, was to see how much they understood the play despite the language barrier. I was surprised that none of the aesthetics, symbols or allusions needed explanation in Turkey.

MM: I consider your play to be a travelogue about the pursuit of meaning in friendships and relationships. The play has various settings including Berlin, New York, İstanbul, and Canada. The choice of the characters’ names, Derya and Farias, is telling given the theme of traveling. Derya means “sea,” and Farias is a derivative of pharos, “beacon and lighthouse.” Why did you choose this topic and such a range of places and names? You also employ puppetry. Could you elaborate on the effectiveness of these elements in your work?

DB: I’m not sure if I would use the term “travelogue.” It reminds me a bit of passing through, in a sterile, untouched way, where someone observes but doesn’t engage. Also, travel inadvertently suggests that there is a home somewhere you travel away from, but that is questioned in the play, too. Yes, characters travel but they also leave parts of themselves behind and absorb parts of their environment as they move.

The names are derived from our real-life names [Deniz means “sea” in Turkish]. Derya is a pseudonym I commonly use as my alter ego in fiction. I invented her after coming to Canada. She was born in my play Plastic (2016), which I wrote during one of the darkest times of my life. Her surname, which is mentioned only in one instance in Wine&Halva, is Göktuna, a play on my mother’s maiden name. Farias is a name that refers to my real-life friend’s mother’s side. In a world where the global, patriarchal bureaucracy cherishes the father’s side, fiction should side with mothers to imagine another world.

At the point I started writing the play, I had already been thinking about the limits of friendship and had been discussing it with real-life Farias for a while. If you think about it, it is an interesting concept: unlike blood-relations or romantic relationships, friendship is the only kind of human relation that is beyond bureaucratic labels. Therefore it also has the most revolutionary potential. Of course, friendship has its limits too, as much as it offers unique potential. Friendship also offers a child-like, playful, mental space that is both ambiguous and creative. I have a tendency to think that theater is made in that child-like zone, too. Ensembles are made up of life-long friends who become chosen families.

I wanted to create a playing space for performers. Wine&Halva is an extremely performer-dependent play because of its structure, and if the performers drop it, the play unapologetically slips and breaks – just like a real-life friendship would if people stop committing to it. Through the character set-up, I wanted to make it impossible for the performers to use a psychological realism-based acting style, which they are taught in Anglophone schools. I am not particularly fond of this style. To be able to perform this play, the three actors have to engage with the socio-political framework of Wine&Halva, and through this framework, they should focus on the relationship between the two characters. Otherwise, they won’t be able to access the psychological interiority of the characters. The narrative style allows the performers and audiences to be aware they are engaging in theater; it doesn’t pretend to be a “slice of life” with the audience invited to be voyeurs. This is also why the premise of puppetry is a great influence in my playwriting, even though Wine&Halva doesn’t use puppetry directly. As a medium, puppetry is very clear on what it is, and you can only engage with it if you shift your perception – it doesn’t try to deceive or manipulate you, you have to chose to accept the offer of fiction in order to engage with it. Puppetry is inherently Brechtian and has space for audience agency, which I adore and also politically align with.

[1] Tomi Education Center is a branch of Kumbaracı50 theatre, and the name comes from the nickname of the beloved actress Tomris İncer who passed away too early in 2017. İncer had a deep influence on the then rebel youngsters as their chosen elder in the establishment phases of Kumbaracı50. Because the ensemble of Kumbaracı50 came from amateur theater backgrounds and struggled to learn and do theater professionally for many years as white-collar workers, they have opened Tomi Education Center to give theater classes to adults and professionals who want to do semi-professional or professional theater work.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.