Melis Aker in Conversation with Paige Evans, Artistic Director
Paige Evans (PE): Melis, you are a writer, a playwright, an actor, and a musician. What is it that draws you to writing and performing for the stage?
Artistic Director's Circle Dinner // DECEMBER 2022
Melis Aker (MA): Theatre is one of the only mediums where the text remains a living document — it's malleable. The line between a final product and a process is so slim, which I find very humbling. [Theatre] also allows for “mistakes” to be apparent, so forgiveness comes along with that. Also, the collaborative nature draws me in a lot. [Theatre] is one of the few mediums where audience engagement can actually change and mold a piece over time and that is very exciting. On a more personal note, I come from Turkey, [where we live in] a culture of censorship. So, the written word is dangerous, but the spoken word is even worse – and quite contagious. For me, getting to [make theatre] is inherently political and inherently an act of protest.
PE: Who and what have been some of your biggest influences, as a writer?
MA: I always say Joni Mitchell taught me how to listen to songs; Gabriel Kahane, Rachmaninoff, and Erykah Badu taught me how to listen to music; and the “in-your-face" movement, or “the theatre movement,” taught me how to listen to plays. Once I connected the dots that plays are about listening, I started leaning in more as I was learning English and [hearing] the potential of the English language. In that “movement” I was reading a lot of Sarah Kane, Duncan Macmillan, Simon Stephens, Naomi Wallace, Suzan-Lori Parks, Sam Shepard, and Edward Albee.
PE: How does your multicultural identity influence what you write and what you write about?
MA: I think I realized that being multicultural in a predominantly English-speaking world necessitates a lot of decolonizing that I have to do for myself. I really have to ask myself, “Why am I interested in writing about culture?” Or “Why am I just writing about my culture?” And I think part of it is that there's a familiarity to it. There's a sort of homecoming when I write about plays that are set in Turkey and I get to redefine Turkey for myself. Who I write for is still definitely something I'm discovering. I think being in places like New York and London is very helpful because of the global perspective and the diversity of feedback. I’ve learned a lot with that kind of engagement.
PE: What are some ideas or processes that you are excited to explore with the holistic support provided by the LaunchPad Residency?
MA: So many! A theme that I’m returning to is what I call “cultural dysmorphia” – or the experience of being disembodied by a culture or being in between cultures/selves/languages. I really want to lean into a culture story that is steeped in a bit of “the uncanny” and a bit of a haunting. I'm looking at a lot of stories based on displacement, missing persons, missing locations, etc.
PE: What have been some of your challenges and successes as a writer so far?
MA: I would say translation – cultural translation and linguistic translation. I've confused myself about what my creative mother tongue is. I think it’s English, but I write about another place, so I have to constantly check myself and that’s been a challenge. Some of my successes have been finding amazing groups of collaborators. I feel very lucky because I have worked with wonderful co-creators, co-composers, and dramaturgs.
PE: What was your relationship to Signature and the Center before your residency? And what are you particularly excited about for your LaunchPad Residency?
MA: I have my MFA program to thank for my relationship with the Signature, which was with Columbia University, because we got to workshop our thesis plays in the Ford Studio! It really is a bit of a homecoming. I got to see so many of my professors’ plays here – like Lynn Nottage and David Henry Hwang and Chuck Mee. I’ve been seeing things here for over ten years, so I honestly have Signature to thank for wanting to apply to Columbia.
Melis Aker is a playwright, actor, and musician and has been named Signature Theatre's first LaunchPad Resident Playwright. Aker, who is from Turkey, and lives between New York and London, inaugurates LaunchPad, which supports early-career playwrights and expands Signature's mission of producing a body of work by each resident writer.
To keep up with Melis and the LaunchPad Residency, follow our socials: @signatureinnyc