The following is the edited transcript of a conversation I had with actor and theatre-maker Memet Ali Alabora, recorded back in June 2019. Memet was already an established artist in Turkey when he came to Wales several years ago. Since then he’s been learning the language, learning Welsh history, just fully immersing himself in this new culture when he easily could have rested on his reputation. However, it’s his experience of the arts scene here in Wales, and how it compares to his experiences elsewhere, that really fascinated me. It’s why I wanted him on the podcast, and it’s why it’s the first one you’re going to read.
If you’d like to listen to the episode, click here.
Welcome to Episode One of Critically Speaking.
Memet Ali Alabora: Coming from Turkey with this story like ours was, of course, different. Wherever I would have gone in the world would have been different. But at the same time, not being known is a big relief as well, because you don’t carry the baggage. Because whoever you meet in Turkey, people have a perception about you, whether it’s good or bad. Here, you just meet people and then they start to know you. We always say to ourselves, don’t we? ‘If I came to this life again, I would do this and this, I wouldn’t have done this, if I had a second chance’. Here, you’ve got a second chance. Be whatever you want. You could be a restauranteur or a theatre-maker or an actor, whatever you want. To me, I always looked at it like this. It’s almost like Wales gave me this chance to become a new me. Although I was a theatre-maker back in Turkey, this is now a new me.
Jafar Iqbal: What do you think of Wales?
MA: I’m quite obsessed with Wales. I have toured Wales probably five times already over the last six years. Not only doing plays but with an R&D and with the first show, just trying to do the R&D, knocking on doors, literally showing a video and saying that we want to book your place. It started like that. I’m learning Welsh, I’m a Welsh learner and…yes, I’m kind of obsessed with-
MA: Why learn Welsh?
JI: No, why the obsession?
MA: Ah, very good question. Now, you know, we’ve recently done a project about belonging and identity…
MA: …so it was all about Meltem [Arikan]’s story. But of course, doing one story means doing all of our stories. Because when you make a very personal story, it becomes really very universal as well, if it is really personal. So in that sense, obviously, it also made me ask questions to myself about belonging, identity, what is my belonging, what is my identity. I only lived in Istanbul for thirty-seven years before I came here, and after I moved here I realised something about myself, that my sense of identity is quite loose. So had I lived in London for this many years, probably I would have become a ‘Londoner’, and I would have known a lot about London. So now I live here, and I’m kind of a very nerdy, curious guy. So, yeah, I go deep in something. That’s how I became quite obsessed with the history of Wales, the history of the Valleys and the history of Cardiff, because it is the way that I connect with a place, maybe. Maybe a very nerdy thing or a man thing, because Meltem is completely different. She’s completely different, she connects in a different way. Whereas to me, connection is maybe more through knowledge and information, which may not be the best choice.
JI: Because for her, it’s very emotional, isn’t it?
MA: It is an emotional connection, and it is really a visceral connection as well, like she literally feels it! She goes to the woods and she really feels it. I feel the same way as well. We were in North Wales a week ago and it was my fourth, fifth time in North Wales, but this was the first time I really got it. What the obsession with North Wales is. It was like, wow! Where are the gods? (Memet laughs) It was almost like the gods would just appear from somewhere.
JI: So you love Wales…
JI: …what do you think of Wales art scene?
MA: Good question. Alright, we have been bantering about it – with friends, obviously – over the last couple of years. I’ve got quite strong opinions actually, to be honest with you. First of all, I think the Welsh arts scene is still very safe. Too safe. I can’t find our radicals.
JI: Do you think you’re the radicals?
MA: I don’t know. I can’t call myself a radical, but I don’t know. I want, like, controversial stuff. So we recently had a discussion – this is [Welsh National Opera]’s Freedom season, and I was invited for a panel. And we were there discussing about freedom of expression and I was like, ‘we need more fury, we need more anger, and we need even fights, let’s not be polite!’. Because it didn’t used to be like this in 1831 during the Merthyr Rising and I think that’s what the Welsh arts scene needs as well. And the second thing I believe that we need, different from the UK, we need a direct connection with Europe, bypassing the England, London thing and directly connecting ourselves with Europe. I want to see European art directors and festivals here, and our work – when I say our work, I mean all our work, the Welsh arts scene’s work – in Europe. And we can have that direct connection, and that is when the Welsh language will become a very precious thing. Because when you perform in Netherlands, Welsh all of a sudden relieves itself of all the baggage of history, and it becomes another foreign language for the Dutch. They don’t care about why is it in Welsh…you know, this is always the question, not always but most of the time. ‘Why is it in Welsh? You speak English’. For the Dutch, it wouldn’t matter, it’s just another foreign language. It will be a relief for our work. So I believe we need to connect directly, and we need infrastructures for the Welsh productions to be taken by an organisation more easily to Europe directly. I think there are loads of very good productions, at least five or six productions a year, that could really have potential to reach a European audience.
JI: The argument is that, shouldn’t we be making theatre that people in Wales come to see, and shouldn’t we worry about the Dutch later?
MA: Both! When we discuss about Europe, we always discuss about this bloody European Union. But we should be discussing about Europe as a cultural identity, as an entity. So Shakespeare is our forefather, an artistic forefather, as much as Beethoven is. Or as much as Mabinogion is part of our culture, Bach or Homeros or Homer or Sophocles. This is the whole idea of being a European, and we need to be part of that. That opening up could also attract the Welsh audience as well, but I think this needs to go in two ways. And when I say this, I don’t only mean let’s do radical and avant-garde work, we will do popular work as well. People will produce commercial work, popular work, you know, we will have our pantos, we’re not going to stop doing pantos all of a sudden. And we shouldn’t, that’s a great cultural thing.
JI: I really want to know what you think of pantos.
MA: It is…it is cultural! It’s like fish and chips, it’s like a pint, you can’t just take the pantos out of your cultural life, can you? It’s like shutting down TV stations or not having fish and chips anymore. I’m not saying that…actually, yes, I am saying it. To me, all of these are cultural things, and culture is not just your high art. Culture is a part of everything.
JI: Where’s the anger gone? You mentioned there’s no anger and fury in Wales. You talked about the Merthyr Riots, and there’s a big thing about the race riots that happened in Cardiff this time in 1919. Where’s the anger gone? Why do you think Wales isn’t angry?
MA: Not just Wales, I mean, you can apply the same thing to the UK as well. Britain is going through one of the toughest times, probably, in the last couple of decades, and you don’t see that revealing itself as something. Where is the anger gone in Wales? I am not the one to say that, but I’m trying to understand where it may have gone. I’m still in the process of exploring and discussing this, so I wouldn’t want to make a statement about this. Rather, I would want to discuss this with a Welsh friend or with someone who has lived here for thirty years or whatever, who considers themselves as Welsh. It’s not about a statement. We are having these discussions. When we tour, I try to have these discussions, and I try to listen. But that may be a question that we can start asking ourselves. Maybe at the end we’ll say, why do we need fury? Maybe someone would come up and say, we’re okay as we are.
JI: Do you think an angrier Welsh theatre scene would be a better Welsh theatre scene?
MA: I like any arts scene that is edgy, controversial, radical, but I’m also a classical music nerd. So it goes by side by side. I don’t want any avant-garde in my Beethoven, I like my Beethoven as it is, as a good performance, you know? But then I want things that will blow my mind up…
JI: What’s the last thing that blew your mind in Wales?
MA: In Wales?
JI: Or by a Welsh artist. Something of Wales that you thought, ‘wow, that’s what I want!’
MA: Uhh…wow, the ‘wow’ effect is quite hard. The ‘wow’ effect doesn’t happen all the time. I haven’t seen that much of the thing in Wales yet, in the last six years.
JI: What’s the last thing you saw in Wales and you were like, that’s good, I really enjoyed that?
MA: I’ve seen loads of good stuff, obviously. I mean, Mathilde [Lopez]’s work is always kind of…I like Mathilde’s work. Yuri in Welsh could have toured everywhere in Europe. I talked to Mathilde and Mathilde said, ‘how can I do it?’, and she’s right! Where will you start? Taking a work to Europe is a lot of effort, and you will probably need to do a lot of investment on your own, without being paid, just to get the show to Europe. If we had the infrastructure, somebody could have taken Yuri to Europe, because that was the first thing in Welsh that was absurd, that was silly, that was, y’know…different!
JI: Isn’t it funny that you’ve mentioned another non-UK person?
MA: Yeah, maybe…
JI: Funny? Sad?
MA: Yeah, I don’t know, but…yeah, I think about Mathilde’s work, the last work as well, in a lot of sense. But also, I like 9Bach, because 9Bach is also an internationalist approach.
JI: So am I right in thinking that there’s no arts funding in Turkey?
MA: It is again a complicated thing because, in Turkey, there is still the old civil servant system. So if you are a member of the state theatre, if you are in the cadre of the state theatre, or the city theatre (which is also called the municipality theatre), or the state opera, or the state symphony orchestra, you are a civil servant and you will be paid your wage all your life, until your death. So that’s one system which still exists, I don’t know if it still exists anywhere in the world, maybe in Finland? I’m not sure. That’s one. And there’s also funding for private theatres, which are owned by mostly actors, and that was only for productions. So there were no Portfolio funding as we have in the arts here. And also, the production funding was nothing like what Arts Council [of Wales] gives a year, so there would always be like twenty to thirty prominent, established private theatres who would get funding for their productions. If you have built a theatre from scratch, and there were people who built theatres from scratch, actors who made loads of money from television and built their own theatres, there were no schemes, when I left, to support these people. But there is more sponsorship than there is in the UK, so it’s more like an American system.
JI: So how do you feel, then, about Welsh organisations when they moan and grumble about the lack of funding and the way it’s spent, coming from a country where it’s not as readily available?
MA: Yes, now, it teaches you two things, when it is not readily available. You start to explore different ideas. But when I came here, I was like, ‘alright, there are other things we can do!’. We can go to the councils, we can go to restaurants and ask for money, you can go to big corporations…
JI: Did you do that?
MA: Yes. Some of it, yes. But of course, we also used our Turkish connections, so I have to say that. But we always try to find other means, do you know what I mean? I don’t want to rely on Arts Council’s money. It is an incredible thing to have Arts Council’s money, for a person like me who always tried to find money to make theatre. There are funds available. I know we’ve got our problems, I know we always moan about it, all together. But at the same time, there is a mechanism where you can get your funds and do a bloody play in Turkish and Welsh! Do you know what I mean? And that’s a massive thing, that’s incredible, and the arts scene was so welcoming to us. It is great. But at the same time, I see that when you don’t have the funding from Arts Council Wales when you make your application, then you tend to not make the play at all, which shouldn’t be the case. The economy of art is a very complicated thing. So I have thought about this for four years, five years, where does this belief that we should be funded come from? I know where it’s coming from, bu-
JI: Where is it coming from?
MA: It has almost always been like this. From the times of the Tragedies in the Ancient Greeks, to Shakespeare’s time, from Beethoven to Bach to Tchaikovsky. But in the twentieth century, we see other examples as well. Co-operatives, other kinds of stuff. We should ask these questions to ourselves and at the end, we may think that, yes, we have to be funded. And we may come up with our answers, but I think we should be looking at other economical ways to achieve our productions.
JI: I do thin-
MA: I don’t have any answers to this, by the way.
JI: No, no, I know. But I do feel like, in Wales, that idea of what you’ve just said, ‘hey, we’ll just go to a restaurant and we’ll ask them for money. They might say no, but we’ll ask and we’ll do that and we’ll go here and we’ll go here’…
JI: People don’t do that!
MA: I think, in that sense, The Other Room was a good endeavour. They’ve done these different kinds of arrangements, and I think they’ve got other kinds of support as well. That is a good example, but I would have hoped that there would be another The Other Room, but it is a process. You’re right, yes, but it’s a cultural thing as well. You’re not used to doing it, because there are always funds that are available. So in Turkey, when you make a show, there is no run. So when you make a show, you play it until there is no audience, two years, three years. Because there is no equity, because you don’t have to pay your actors weekly so you can exploit people. Not just that, but also, people gather together, they make a production, they can arrange their own times, and then the production lasts forever. Not forever, but you mostly play for two, three years. And the word of mouth, you know, continues.That’s why we always try and keep our productions in hand. So, for example, we produced Enough is Enough and took it to London a year after the Cardiff run, and we still could generate some income from that play. So we can explore new ways, we can look at new ways. The good thing about Wales is that we can try stuff, and w-
JI: But you’re saying it’s safe.
JI: So it’s safe and we’re trying stuff…? It can’t…
MA: No, I mean, still safe. But the good thing, why I’m so excited about Wales, is because we can try stuff here and we can literally move Wales, the arts scene in Wales, we can do stuff, all together. I don’t think you can discuss this in London or England, to change England’s artistic scene. It’s so stale, so heavy, so full of baggage and everything. But here, we can really move things. Cardiff was once almost the creative hub of experimental theatre…
JI: It was.
MA: Yeah. When you look at a book, a seminal book, Postdramatic Theatre, which kind of defines the field of postdramatic theatre, Cardiff and Chapter [Arts Centre] are in the book as historical places that this new type of theatre emerged. So we have got the tradition, we have got the means, we’ve got everything.
JI: Do you think that Wales is looking to the wrong tradition then? Because, obviously, there’s also the tradition of…
Shane Nickels: Mining.
JI: Yeah! And, hey, let’s talk about how great Wales was when we were miners, and this folk hero or that person. Are we forgetting that experimental…
MA: No, all of them – I believe – all of them should be made into films first. We don’t tell Wales’ story to people. There are ways of doing loads of stuff. I mean, you can’t make a homogenous art, can you? ‘We’re going to be radicals, you will only see radical stuff in Wales’. It’s a country, it’s a massive country. So I think Wales has a lot to tell about its history to the world, in the form of a theatre, opera, a film.
JI: Should you tell the story of the Merthyr Risings?
MA: Pfft, I don’t know, is there a license or…
JI: There isn’t a license but, you know, there is that argument…
MA: I know, I know, the cultural appropriation…
MA: One of today’s, uh…
JI: Why should you be obsessed with Wales? Why should you care about the Merthyr Risings and make a play about it?
MA: Let me tell you. I was the founder of the actors’ union in Turkey, and I’m not a Marxist myself but I’m coming from a Marxist tradition. Because my father was a Marxist and he was in jail for two and a half years. There has been a big Marxist tradition in Turkey, so I always had a lot to do with Marx and always resisted to being a Marxist. But from my reading I can tell that when Marx was eighteen…no, sorry, when Marx was thirteen, Dic Penderyn, one of the first Labour martyrs of the world, one of the first, not the first, was hanged in front of Cardiff market. And Marx was thirteen. And during the Merthyr Risings and the Newport Risings, even the red flags were raised. So it was almost like a pre-Marxist or proto-Marxist rising, when Marx was still a little boy. Marx learnt most of the stuff about capitalism in Manchester together with Engels, because he was a grown-up man only then, but that zeitgeist must have been created here. So in that sense, what the world doesn’t know is that Wales contributed to Marxism much more than people know or think. That excites me, so I should be allowed to tell the story if I want.
JI: That’s a really good answer! (Memet laughs) Could a play like Mi Minor create the revolution that it created in Turkey?
MA: In Wales?
JI: Is Wales capable of change in that way? And obviously, that’s a really complex issue, because I know you’ve said in interviews before that, ‘hey, look, my play wasn’t set up to cause this’…
MA: Of course.
JI: But, it happened. Could something like that happen in Wales or do you think, again, that safety…
MA: It wasn’t a revolution as such, it was just an incredible series of protests which the world has never seen before because, really, there was no organising. It was so spontaneous. That’s why it’s still blowing people’s, and the authorities, minds. Because you look at it and you say, it’s impossible that there was no organisation behind that, there must have been an organisation, but there wasn’t. So in that sense, I mean it was just part of the zeitgeist. It didn’t cause anything, you can’t make anything with a theatre play. When it comes to Wales and the UK, or elsewhere in the world, anything could happen, really. I mean, sometimes, you never know. When I first came to this country, I heard of a party called UKIP and I didn’t know anything about it, I’d never heard the name Nigel Farage before
JI: You were so innocent.
MA: I was back then, I was so innocent. And when I first came to Cardiff and I was looking at the news like, what’s this UKIP, what’s this Nigel Farage, and I was like, ‘ah, come on, this will never happen’. And in two years, I would never have expected to see these things in Britain. And we are still in it, so really, anything is possible.
JI: What about stuff like the National Theatre Wales argument? That kind of felt like, ‘oh, hold on, something’s about to happen’. And then, it didn’t…?
MA: When we think of Wales, or Turkey, or Uganda, or wherever we want to think about, we can’t think of it apart from the world, as if there’s something going on in the world and we’re not becoming part of it. But no, there is something stale in the world. It could be, somehow, the calm weather before the storm. I don’t know.
JI: Do you think there needs to be a storm in Wales, in the arts?
MA: Yes! I would want it to be more exciting, why wouldn’t I? Wouldn’t you?
JI: I would.
MA: I would want it to be more exciting, because we’ve got an incredible country. I mean, we’ve got a small incredible country, which is incredibly welcoming, by the way, I have to say. At least to me. I have never felt like a foreigner, and maybe I’ll even be sounding a little smug now. You know, talking about Wales, like, not behaving well as an exile. But that’s what Wales made, that’s what you made, because I never felt like a stranger or a foreigner here. And in the last years of my life in Turkey, I was feeling more like a foreigner in my own country, where I came from, and I never felt this here. In that sense, it’s been amazing, so this has been an incredible environment then.
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