In Conversation with Martha Bouziouri

Martha is a theatermaker, social anthropologist, artistic director of the International Network of Documentary Theatre
Born, living and locked down in Athens, Greece.
 

‘The only real thing is that we are together in a room and don’t know who are we going to be the moment we exit it. I live and work for this uncontrollable possibility.’

 
Martha is my digital penfriend. I haven’t met her physically. Krystel, another friend of mine whom I corresponded with, told me about her documentary theater website one day and when she saw that I was very interested, she introduced me to her in a common email.
What you will read below consists of what we wrote to each other in a common word document.
With an academic background in Communication, Media, Cultural Studies and Social Anthropology, Martha is an artist, director, playwright, dramaturg, educator and social anthropologist working with different media besides documentary theater and organizing creative groups. She is the artistic director of the International Network of Documentary Theatre, and also the co-founder of Plays2Place, which specializes in the production of film, TV series, theater performances and cross-media projects. I have never seen her work yet, but I don’t think I will trade the inspiration and joy of our ongoing conversation with ‘an artwork’ right now.
 
This correspondence took place between Fatih Gençkal and Martha Bouziouri from May 27 to September 28, 2020.
 
From: Fatih Genckal
To: Martha Bouziouri

Sent: Wednesday, 27 May 2020 15:46

Dear Martha,
I want to start an interview experiment. I will ask you one question everyday and you will have 24 hours to respond to it. Then I will ask the next question based on your answers or my curiosities. You can also ask me questions in your answers and interview me in a way. It will be like a conversation.
If you answer quickly, I can ask the next question right away, so we don’t have to wait 24 hours. It can turn into texting each other too. Or not.
Please feel free to write as you are speaking.  Follow the spark the question starts in you.
So here is the first question:
What do you see happening with you and around you since the beginning of home confinement?

May 31, 2020
M: And so, I am “Interview Experiment #25”!
A link to the chain of distant colleagues, fellow artists I might have met or not – who and where are these people? Are you safe? Are you sane? I wave “Hi! how are you coping?” from the 4th floor of my apartment in the neighborhood of Exarhia.

The lockdown days felt like an experiment on some many levels. Life has been on trial; for two months, life has been hibernating or gestating; it depends. The only thing beyond doubt is that life is shadowed by the threatening proximity of death. A global, digital calendar of very tangible human losses – this is the image that ignites, out of fear or out of moral responsibility, a rather rational choice. Stay the fuck home.

I exercise my privilege of having one.
I have a roof over my head, a pretty spacious and shiny place.
I have access to food, internet, books on the dusting shelves of my library.
I have new or reinvented habits, hobbies and hopes.
I have dear people to kiss goodnight and salute the next morning together.
“Reflection and gratefulness for all the things we used to take for granted”. A cliché I admit I came to fancy.

Life reduced to the basics. A couple of weeks stuck in a safe, cosy haven. Time seized to fly. The overconsumption of things and the self are slowing down. Nature is slowly healing itself. Is it all that bad?

Plus, I have plans for the future. But I also have questions and worries and doubts. As everyone else.
In the meantime, in the world’s stage, people are cautious, hasty and half-faced. Bodies occupy less and less space; the more they shrink, the bigger their eyes become.

I am scanning the air for a pair of eyes. I focus. I stare. I wait. For eyes to cross paths. My mild – yet annoying – degree of myopia, together with my natural inclination to touch and gesture, push me to move closer to people; the more I approach, the more they step back. And distance remains the same.

Apparently, these times are not favorable to the spontaneities of the body. I terribly miss the heat and the smell of life on and off stage. I wonder when we’ll return to our ‘old selves’. I avoid to pronounce “if we’ll return” – people wisely claim we have always returned from plagues, wars and all kinds of disasters. Oops! – another cliché I came to fancy.

Resilience is a fact. But so is adaptability. If the transition is prolonged, is it possible that the memory of the body will slowly transform us into something new? Life and art reinvented. Towards infinite possible scenarios. Scary and liberating. What’s your guess? This is only the first page, and, thankfully, we are not writing it alone…


yellow

June 1, 2020
F: You are the only person in this series that I haven’t met personally. A digital penfriend. This is going to be an experiment indeed.

It’s very hard to distill the influx of information, emotions, images, ideas. Today is the first day of ‘the new normal’ here. It’s pouring rain outside and I feel blue. What do I do now? A dear author, poet, philosopher Oruç Aruoba died yesterday. Maybe I will go to the bookstore -now open- and buy a few of his books -if the rain subsides. I feel like reading today. Then I have a huge list of reading materials saved on my phone, mostly articles. I have started over 10 books during this time and was only able to finish one: Watchmen, the graphic novel. My attention span is diminished. I can hardly watch movies, go for TV series mostly, they are shorter and designed for short attention spans, I guess. I don’t feel I miss the stage or anything. I actually feel more interested in the life outside of the stage, artistic and non-artistic. Hmm. What does non-artistic mean?

I think what we feel today that we cannot fully comprehend will be the basis of our lives and decisions in the future.

I am excited about doing things in public spaces during this time. I am tired of the digital space, the need to communicate through interfaces and designs projected towards profit first and foremost. My wife and I did a walking performance out in the empty streets at night and shared it on Instagram Live on Saturday during official curfew. It was full of life. Only 25 people saw it. I forgot to save the stream. It’s gone. Only in memories of the 25 people. In an age of visibility, I am restless that there is no trace. Yet, another part of me loves it! Can/should we escape the urge to be seen? Maybe that’s in the definition of the artist to be seen. I just get tired sometimes. I can’t really see in the middle of everything being so ‘visible’! The digital dilemma.

Are you working on anything these days?

June 1, 2020
M: The moment I started reading you, the first thunder stroke. I raise my eyes. Half of the sky is innocently blue, the other half is occupied by a huge grey cloud. What a brilliant transition of colors. I am gonna take some pictures from my balcony, see u in a while…


transitions

June 7, 2020
M: The death of Oruç Aruoba – I hear his name for the first time, courtesy of my digital penfriend. Death as an opportunity to ‘meet’ people. I google him. I bump into one of his rare translated interviews in the Agonist – he says: “I think the “violent technological transformations” are far less “terrifyingly swift” than you feel them to be…I don’t think handwriting will – or can – go totally out of fashion and disappear. Writing with the hand is something very fundamental to culture itself; as well as being the hallmark of the person – it is personality in concreto (Think of the importance of an ‘auto-graph’). I don’t think handwriting can become obsolete”.

Post-modern penfriendship is the living proof of his argument, I guess. Although occurring in a digital space, it feels somewhat tangible and proximate. A constant attentiveness to how things are at the other’s end. Did you buy any of his books?

Likewise, my attention span is at its poorest, not quite sure what was the last book I managed to finish; Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, most probably. That was last year, during summer holidays on a secluded island inhabited by 11 people (I am skipping the name to avoid seeing it turning into another popular summer destination). Resorting there stems from the opposite urge to go unseen. Too much visibility and the existential angst not to miss and not to be missed. I think you are lucky to be living, undocumented, in the memory of 25 people. Each one will have a different memory of you and what took place in those empty streets. Now that everything circulates online – food, art, news, services, memories, human connection – I am reminded of why I fell for theatre in the first place. There is something deeply human in its ephemeral nature and vulnerability that keeps me hooked on its infinite possibilities before, during and after it takes place. Speaking of ‘places’ beyond demarcated stages, there’s an abandoned swimming pool somewhere in Northern Greece – a discovery of my friend and colleague Eva – that will hopefully host a future documentary theatre project.

June 9, 2020
M: On more recent plans, I am currently working on the stage adaptation of the memoirs of a man who lost his wife and friends during Paris 2015 terror attacks. This man, who trusted me with his unimaginable story of loss and his journey to get back on his feet, is now a dear friend, and a lesson that life prevails over fear, hatred or devastation. We met in Paris, after sending him an out of the blue message explaining I was interested in making a documentary theatre piece based on his book. The talks that followed over coffees, cigarettes and shared food, his trust and generosity, is what makes this kind of theatre a fluid, vital space where life and art intertwine.

Corona and other evils permitting, we are premiering in November…


June 11, 2020
F: Let me begin by saying that I am in love with Greece. That’s why I’m not going to ask the name of the island (u can send it to me secretly if you like, I won’t publish it:) My wife and I have been thinking about finding a piece of land in the countryside and slowly moving our lives there. What are we looking for? This need to be seen is like the air we breath or the water as in the story David Foster Wallace quotes in This is Water. Maybe an urge indeed to notice the breath or feel the water. Also somehow an urge to diminish our participation in a system of consumption. I have a friend in İran who has been organizing a totally clandestine contempoarary dance festival. He chooses not to participate in the official censorship system this way. There is no publicity whatsoever or actual presence of the festival: digital, visual or written. They organize audiences by word of mouth. When I was there, it was disorienting to not know anything about the program, the shows, the artists etc. It was disoriented because I was actually used to having many layers between the show and my perception. With all that gone, I was completely alone with the show. It’s a very direct experience. The 11 inhabitant island reminded me of this. To choose invisiblity in a world which glorifies visibility is a political act. I don’t know how far this can go, though. Now I mentioned you this festival and you mentioned me the island.

Documentary theater. I’ve always been intrigued by it. I use a lot of biographic material in my works and right now I am working on a duet with a performer from Diyarbakır and our main source material is ourselves and how we make work. I don’t know if it’s documentary theater, probably not. What’s interesting to me is to use biographic materials not in their own reality but as materials to be played with, as metadata if you will. Also there are choreographic elements. How would you describe your relationship with documentary theater? How do you tackle the majestic issue of dealing with real events on stage and reality at large?

Oh, I didn’t get any Aruoba books. I promised myself to finish what I’m reading first before buying another book.

June 20, 2020
M: A Greek island for an Iranian festival, fair enough. Of course, craving for privacy and thus deciding to go hidden is one thing – going clandestine to survive censorship, as the only way to express oneself, is a totally different story.

What if…your festival on my island? Speaking of the latter, while there with my boyfriend last summer, we spontaneously organized “movie nights” for our little friends at the front yard of a church. All it took was a projector, a laptop, a loudspeaker and telling one single child that “tomorrow we are having a secret screening at the church at 20.30”…Fatih, you can hardly imagine the rest! Word of mouth and the excitement of a secret movie gathered 25(!) impatient adorable enthusiastic little devils, armored with blankets, towels, snacks and ice-creams (you bet, during August, the tiny island hosts the extended families and friends of Aegean’s 11). The children came at 19.30 and demanded the screening to start NOW!!

Out of nothing, this turned out to be our version of a clandestine festival on the island (I’m curious to know if the church’s priest ever found out). In the meantime, I’m learning kids are waiting its second edition this summer, but the chapter “secret vacation” is still blurry in the 2020 unprecedented version of our world…

June 22, 2020
M: “used to having many layers between the show and my perception” – your phrase stayed with me. I think we are used to watching art with our ears (meaning, we ‘enter the stage’ with our preoccupations, assumptions, based on what we’ve heard, what we know, what other people say about it). When this sociable knowledge is taken away, it gets awkward, disorienting, at first, but maybe this is the closest we will ever get to a non-mediated, transformative experience.

June 24, 2020
M: It’s 02.53. If I start with documentary theatre, I will see the sun rise. I guess it’s one of these rare things that find you along the way, and, all of a sudden, everything falls into place. Blame social anthropology, for it entered my life in the most unexpected way, and paved the way to my ‘encounter’ with documentary theatre. And it did so in a subtle, organic way. Its methodological tools, narrative and ethical principles (what we call ethnography) contaminated the theatre I was dreaming of watching and making. I always thought the vulnerability of self through its exposure to be one of the most powerful ingredients of art. My understanding of documentary theatre is that we don’t expose reality – we expose people, and their version of it. Its raw material is the self, not the events. And, thus, ethically, psycho-emotionally and politically speaking, we walk a tightrope. In order to balance myself throughout this journey – in order to be ok with asking real people out there to enter intimate, difficult and often traumatic territories – I felt I had to make my art vulnerable. I felt it was only right that I and the people who carry the stories of others – my performers – exposed ourselves by exposing on stage fragments of the process of making each work happen. Our experience of making a show – our challenges, emotions, memories – often penetrates the main narrative. The stories we tell about others intertwine with those we tell about ourselves. I maintain this hope that such an approach makes our art a bit more humane, made of people for people. I believe that a human-centered art can be deeply political, without manifesting colors and ideologies.

I decide not to see the sun rise and go to bed instead. Cause tomorrow I need to make some progress with the event preparations of our newly established International Network of Documentary Theatre. I am excited to tell you more. But I am exhausted. Tbc..

*Btw, what you do with your colleague from Diyarbakır is very documentarish in my eye. Would you share with me a tiny fragment of it? Anything at all.


telendos1

June 27, 2020
Fatih: It’s funding season! Many funds abruptly appeared lately for Covid-19 in Turkey. Usually short deadlines and timelines. Rush rush rush! As most culture-arts practitioners have not much to do now, they are all applying to these funds. It’s gonna be a project-boom soon! And mostly I look around and see not much new. This kind of hectic action disorients me a bit. What do I have to say really? I feel I am looking for the words the funders are expecting to hear. Well, isn’t this usually the case anyway?

I want to make work. But what comes to me is usually about the assembly of people. I am inclined to think that this will pass and we will go back to how things ‘should’ be. What fascinates me about performance in general is the very act of coming together of people, that convention. Why are these people there? What are they expecting? What do they want? What do I want? These are all questions that are at the very core of the way I like to think about making work. The answers to these are essential materials for the work. That’s why I am interested to do a piece together with a guy from Diyarbakır. The very fact that we are making a work together about making a work together is weird. Why would anyone come to see it? People usually don’t think much about these things and you can’t push them so much. At the end of the day, it’s a fucking show. I don’t know if this makes any sense, I am not particularly sharp right now. Anyway, I don’t really have fragment of it because we only spent one week together and Covid-19 came! I have a lot of thoughts and ideas. And u know, ideas are quite dead until you do something with them. So I am waiting to resurrect them and see where we are after all that happened between March and now.

You explain your relationship with documentary theater beautifully. The problem for me with documentary is generally the problem of any representation, probably, only made more complex. When you talk about the experience of making the work penetrating into the main narrative, I am curious how/if you make this layer visible? I have always put the people themselves on the stage which still creates a representational issue but you also put performers creating another level of representation. I feel it then brings on a certain self-reflective structure to the whole thing, which somehow can restrict the aesthetics. These are questions I have for my own practice really. I usually am quite repulsed when a claim of reality is made in the theater and people think it was ‘very real.’ The only real (really:) is that we are together in a room and expecting something from each other.

What are you doing with the International Network of Documentary Theatre? Please do tell me more.

P.S. I think the secret movie nights should go on!

July 24, 2020
Martha: 23.45 // Here I am, writing to you from inside the boat that takes us to my secret paradise (well, not so secret anymore – I just bumped into an article of a popular newsmagazine that features it as “the ideal remote destination amidst corona!”)

So, currently on the second deck of Blue Star Ferries, it’s pitch-black and humid and dogs won’t stop barking, but it’s so very worth it. Another five hours to go, I read through your last letter and realize it’s been almost a month!

It seems time has started to fly again. The program of the first MEETING EVENT (2020) of the International Network of Documentary Theatre is now in place – I left Athens happily exhausted after 6 months of preparations and meetings and creative talks and finally, a beautiful assembly of people will get together on September 11-13. There will be interactive presentations, lectures, open air screenings of filmed documentary theater performances, and an all-day symposium to wrap the event, before we go virtual again, with a series of online meetings with artists from across the world, leaving, for a change, the West, to rest for a while. I am so happy and fulfilled about this dynamic shared space for exchange and collaboration and creative conflict, that the postponement of my next project’s premiere – the one planned for November – didn’t come as disappointing as I feared. Some things go as planned, others do better than we hoped for, others need more time or simply a new way to look at them.

July 25, 2020
M: 03.12 // Stage is by default a privileged space to occupy, like any other “stage” that grants us the right to expression and a certain audience to listen to what we have/want to share. I am equally repulsed by the claim of reality/truth in or out of stage, and this might explain why I fell exactly for documentary theatre; I saw in it a temporary – at least – space to deconstruct the hegemony of the grand author / teller / sole owner of truth, and instead attempt to look deeper into the subtle layers of it. As for the “representation” part, I think we can’t escape it, with or without real people on stage, with actors reflecting or not on the process, with shows based on real or imaginative events. It’s futile to claim otherwise. In the same manner, bringing the real people on stage is not always the way to go. The exposure might be too dangerous to handle: emotionally, psychologically, socio-politically. There have been shows we opted for experts or professional actors alone, and others we ended up with a mixed cast. It depends on the case, the people, the historical and emotional distance from the core of each story. Performers might create a new layer of representation, by being mediators, but the same goes for non-professionals: the story they tell on stage is re-positioned, rehearsed, cut and directed; it is represented in the context of theatre. Is it, finally, a story driven by the person’s experience or by the audience who watches it?

The only real thing is that we are together in a room and don’t know who are we going to be the moment we exit it. I live and work for this uncontrollable possibility.

July 25, 2020
M: 04.10 // I am getting closer to paradise.
Will you send me a postal address? I might manage to send a real postcard to my pen-friend 🙂

Fatih
July 31, 2020 22.41
I am in Mount Ida (Kazdağları in Turkish) in a campsite in the woods known for spiritual gatherings and somatic workshops. It’s the first day of Sacrifice Holiday. My wife and I are taking a Skinner releasing workshop here. There is no internet, no phone reception. We swim in the river and sleep in our wooden huts under the trees. And dance.

I was sitting on a wooden platform reading yesterday and felt a leave fall on my finger. I looked at it and realized it was a giant black bug climbing on my finger, as if hugging it. I jumped in slight terror and threw the bug away. Then I felt weird and looked at the bug which kept moving slowly on the earth. I almost apologized to it. Life was going on.

I am sitting in the same spot right now, writing this. It’s night and I cannot really see much around. I hear the river flowing and people chatting in distance. Corona is a distant reality here, vaguely visible only in the newly adopted regulations about bathroom use and the reception of much less people than usual.

Mount Ida is said to be the/a house of the Greek Gods. Looking at the natural flora here with a lot of pine and olive trees and the freshness of the air, I am thinking: this is the kind of place I would like to inhabit amidst the possible destruction of living areas due to climate change. Life will hopefully continue to thrive here. Another thought follows: if indeed living areas are destructed, people will actually flood into these ‘fresh’ areas and corrupt them in no time! I think we can’t escape it. Paradises will and are quickly being discovered! Anyway, there are a lof of mining projects around here already and a lot of people opposing them. I quit thinking and try to enjoy the moment. I write to my Greek pen-friend as Turkey-Greece relations are pretty tight due to some oil drilling in the Mediterranean. I’m sorry, my dear. Maybe things were better in the ancient times:)

August 04, 2020 16.46
The holiday is over and I am back home. There is a saying in Turkish: ‘For the fool, everyday is holiday.’

I am home. Apparently there is hightened tension about the coronavirus limitations and the situation in general. I heard people marched in Berlin against wearing masks and other limitations. During the holidays, most people didn’t wear masks here and some other people are angry with them for being inconsiderate. On Facebook, copy-pasted status updates are abundant about why wearing masks is important. They say a second wave is coming. I am in front of my computer translating and transcribing my interviews, realizing the flickering triviality of my ideas and thoughts. I feel I don’t have an opinion, not on this issue or another. I don’t have an urge to make anything new. I don’t have anything to say. Maybe it’s time to not do. I read my and your comments on documentary theater a few times and I feel we are talking about something of the past. I don’t know when this kind of assembly will make sense again.

I’m going to send this before I mumble more and keep delaying.

Martha
September 21, 2020 20.52
The longest vacation of the decade is now in my memory suitcase. Yeap, I had a great time – when friends are around, the heart is in a good place.

So…it took me almost two months and some fb messages to get back to our shared document.

For a change, I will not feed our conversation about theatre or work. I need to stop and look at the world around and within me.

Back in the city. Athens is fearing a second local lockdown. Before they lock us in, people take the streets. The stakes are countless, don’t even know where to focus.

The magic number for today is 453. Almost 200 of them are people living in a refugee camp in Lesbos. Have you heard about the fire? I wonder if the flames that burnt down another camp, the shameful Moria, were visible from Turkey.

4000 people are left without a home. As if we ever granted them one, anyways. Moria has never been a shelter in human terms. If you strip a home off dignity, it becomes a prison.

I feel ashamed and angry, an explosive, futile mix.

I look for something positive to share, this is not the proper mood to catch up with a pen-friend after the summer break.

And I realize there’s something bright and tender and beautiful, that fell from the sky straight onto my lap.

Do you remember Ludmila? My childhood best friend – my first and only pen friend before our digital version – who was forced to move to Thessaloniki with her parents and we were abruptly separated in primary school? SHE FOUND ME! We are meeting again after 20 years! I can’t wait to hug the wonderful woman she has become…can’t wait to cry and laugh my head off.

p.s: I owe you a postcard. A special one.

pp.s: If our countries declare a war against each other, we will be remembered as the pair of pen friends that prevented it. Yes, today, friendship has restored my faith in humanity 🙂

September 28, 2020 12.02
F: Quite tense couple of weeks. Sluggish, unmotivated, defensive and hot-tempered. For no apparent reason. It could be the accumulation of work and coming of autumn. Mars retrograde, perhaps. We are all into astrology nowadays.

Back in the lockdown days, I admit I enjoyed the sudden stop to everything. Now it feels like everything is coming back at us with rage.

I did hear about the fires in Moria with great despair. I don’t think they became much of a news though. People are quite introverted these days. No one cares about things that don’t directly affect them or they think they don’t. The clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a popular topic, though. Some juicy nationalistic potential there. 82 people including pro-Kurdish party HDP members were arrested the other day over the protests in 2014 for the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane.

Another hot topic (on my Facebook timeline and only with theater people, as always:) is the careless attitude of the Ministry of Culture towards theaters.

Here’s my hard topic: When does a conversation end? Does it? When do we know our conversation is ready to be published? Do you want to just keep going and pick a spot at one point and say let’s publish until here?

P.S. My wife has a postcard collection, she somehow receives one from some friend around the world every few weeks. She received 2 last month and both times I thought it was from you. I was a bit jealous. I want a postcard.
 

onversations is produced by A Corner in the World, 2020
It is realized with the support of The Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

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