Sinan Ünel, a dual Turkish and American citizen, was part of the first class of Huntington Playwriting Fellows and, along with Fellows Ronan Noone and Rebekah Maggor is receiving a production of his work at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA this season. Ünel, whose award wining play Pera Palas recently received a critically acclaimed production in London, took a few moments from his rehearsal preparations to speak with Literary Manager Ilana Brownstein.
Sinan, your plays tend to be epic in scope, taking in wide swaths of history and letting that history influence your modern-day characters. How do you begin the writing process for this kind of work?
I guess each play is different, but at the beginning I start by basically just reading stuff. Inevitably, I come across something interesting that I think about for a while, and that’s how it usually starts — a germ of an idea that comes from what I’ve been immersing myself in. With The Cry of the Reed, at first I was thinking about the Persian poet Rumi, and dervishes, but the play really only began to take shape when I read about this journalist who’d been abducted in Iraq. This is common for me — I’ll have a vague idea of something I’m interested in, then I see an article in a newspaper (in this case, a very small article), and all of a sudden it becomes a full play in my head.
How do you proceed from that point?
For me, the fun of being a playwright starting a new play is to have this thing you live with every day. It’s growing and taking shape, and becoming something. Your relationship to that thing becomes very private, like a romance. You don’t want to let anybody in there for the time being, but at the same time, you’re sort of nurturing it and you’re looking forward to the time when it’s going to be ready and you can show it off. I know it may be eccentric of me, but I really love living with that nascent idea, by myself.
The Cry of the Reed deals intimately with issues of religion — in this case, various sects of Islam. Is part of your interest in this topic derived from growing up in a country that has a large Muslim population but is decidedly secular in its governance and society?
I guess my fascination is not with religion, it’s really with faith. Of course in today’s climate, we talk about religion more than we do about faith, and obviously those two things are connected. But my questions have always been: what is faith, why do people have faith, and how does it serve them? I started reading about Sufism — Sufism is about the meaning of God in a very personal way, not in a social or political way. It is probably closer to Eastern religions than it is to what we think of as Islam today. It brought me to my main character, Ayla, whose faith is about survival from grief. I write because I don’t know the answers. And I think that faith is really about not having answers, or more specifically, it’s not about having the answer. Because the moment it’s about having the answers, then it’s distorted, and it’s the problem that we have in the world today.
Finally, I know you wrote this play with Cigdem Onat in mind to play Ayla, as she will in our production. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Cigdem was a big part of the process of writing for me. First of all, she understands the culture I’m writing about. She understands Sufism, and it’s her wisdom – she has the wisdom Ayla has. In many ways, she is this character; I wrote Ayla to contain aspects of Cigdem within her. While I was writing the play, we talked about spirituality and her vision of the world, and her understanding of faith. She didn’t really know what I was working on at the time, but she was a true mentor to me through this process. I’m thrilled to be working with her on this production.