Ghost Light, Meet the Dramaturg: Begum Inal
BY Emma Schillage, October 7, 2021
Ghost Light, Meet the Dramaturgs is a Theatre series featuring Columbia Dramaturg students, faculty, and alumni, learning about their work, aspirations, and pandemic passion projects.
In Michael Mark Chemer’s book Ghost Light, he uses the metaphor of a ghost light to represent the work of a Dramaturg. Dramaturgs work behind the scenes, always thinking and searching for creative possibilities, guiding the way, even once the stage goes dark. In this series, we shine a light on Columbia Dramaturgs.
This week we are featuring dramaturgy student Begum “Begsy” Inal (she/they). Born and raised in Turkey, Begsy has experience in many different sides of theatre: from being "Mary The Creation” in The Frankenstein Project, writing and directing her own play called Coup-ed Up at University of California, Santa Cruz, to co-producing at ISTA Theater Festival in Denmark and Malta, Begsy continues to bring Turkish delight into all aspects of performing arts.
What was your first experience with Theatre?
Begum “Begsy” Inal (BI): I guess my first time at a theatre was when I was four. I vaguely remember an ancient theatre in Izmir called Ephesus. When I was four, my parents brought me to an Elton John concert there, and I sometimes get flashes from that concert. I remember all of the colors and his boa. It was such a specific memory I have in a theatre. I also remember in middle school watching the eighth graders put on a show that was half musical and they were dancing in the middle of the aisles. It was very melodramatic and very Turkish. The Turkish love melodrama.
Do you still listen to Elton John?
BI: I do! I like his music. It’s a core memory of an experience. I just enjoy the energy he brings into his music.
What is a play or musical that you would recommend?
BI: It honestly changes a lot. I recently read this play in Turkish which translates to Foot and Leg Factory. It's humorous and it’s making fun of the bourgeois in Turkey. The language is in poetic form, and I really enjoyed it. My favorite musical, a while ago, was Kinky Boots, but now I really like Hadestown. I recommend them both.
What do you love about Turkish theatre?
BI: Turkish theatre artists have this thing that is called Anadolu Ateşi, which translates to Anatolian Fire. Anatolian Fire is something where the artists bring movements and a lot of different concepts into one show. It will have shamanism in it, and the costumes are very turkish and anatolian. I have always really been enamored with it. My mom and I are very into folklore and traditional Turkish dance. She was in the national team for it and went to different countries to perform and even won a competition in France. So movement is something I take a lot from Turkish theatre. I also love how Turkish artists will take something like spoken word and make it even more poetic. It’s rarely casual dialogue in Turkish theatre. Everything will have at least a double entendre. We love romanticising everything! If we’re in pain, we are going to romanticize it.
What made you decide to go into Dramaturgy?
BI: I have been doing theatre since I was very small. In sixth grade, I wrote a script that was basically an adaptation of a reality show in Turkey that people were enthralled with. People were talking about the reality show instead of everything else, so I wrote a skit about how messed up that show is. I wrote about it in a humorous way and we performed it. Before that, I was just on stage doing little dances, but writing this skit was my first time creating something in theatre. But in high school, I kept writing humorous things that made fun of society in general.
Then, I was in an English drama club and I went to two festivals where we wrote skits in English and performed them in English. There was one in Malta and one in Denmark. But I kept doing science as my main practice, and then once I came to UCSC [University of California, Santa Cruz), I did two years of computer engineering and then realized that I was incredibly depressed because I’d rather be doing something artistic than writing codes. I still really liked writing codes, but I wanted a way to express my artistic side, drawing, designing, acting, and performing. I was just trying to do theatre more, and without telling my parents, I changed my major to theatre.
Once I changed my major, I was working in the scene shop as a carpenter and helping to design things. I was acting on the side and writing plays as well. There came a time when I realized that I loved all of these things, but I didn’t know what I wanted my concentration to be. So I went to Michael Chemers (Ghost Light), who was my professor, to ask for advice. He asked us to call him Doc. So I said, “Hey Doc. I like all of these things, what do I do?” He asked me what I liked about all of these aspects of theatre specifically. I said, “When it’s costume design, I like that you choose things according to the play. When it’s acting, I like putting context analysis into the script and character. When it’s writing, I like to make sense of things that don’t make sense in my head.” He said he thought he had the right thing for me and that was Dramaturgy. Initially, I thought it was a made up word. But he went on to say that Dramaturgy was what I was describing. So we worked on it. He gave me assignments and he critiqued them and essentially helped me apply to grad school.
Why did you choose Columbia for Dramaturgy?
BI: In Turkey, even though theatre and performing is such a big part of our culture, and has been forever, it isn’t seen as a serious profession. Being a female assigned at birth in a patriarchal country, I had to find a way to be taken seriously. Before that, I also wanted to be meeting people from all over the world, which is one of the reasons I came to America in the first place. The reality of having to go back to Turkey settled in along with the fact that I was a theatre major at a University that Turkish people are not going to know. I wouldn’t be able to be taken seriously. So, during my last year at UCSC, I applied to places that had dramaturgy MFA programs. I knew I wanted to be in New York, because there is so much theatre and culture here, and Columbia was the one I was hoping for the most. When I got in, it was a glimmer of hope for my future. Once I mention that I am studying at Columbia University, people in Turkey take me a little more seriously. Unfortunately, that’s how society works in general. But I love Turkey and I am excited to bring the skills I’ve learned at Columbia to that theatre community.
How would you describe your specific style as a Dramaturg?
BI: I feel like I am still developing it. I really got into dramaturgy only a year before coming to Columbia, so I’m finding that out still. I am incredibly interested in bringing information I have about the world to my dramaturgy. Coming from Turkey, I have different perspectives that people from America might not have. Also, at the same time, I enjoy learning from American theatre perspectives. I’ve noticed that there is this notion that the dramaturg has to make sure that everything makes sense, and I agree, but I also think there is an artistic way of making sense. For instance, if someone is speaking gibberish in a production, but it makes sense artistically to the vision of the playwright or whomever, then I think that it’s fun and adds to the production. I find it more compelling. Not everything has to be explained.
What have you learned while here at Columbia that has influenced the way you think?
BI: I’ve learned how to collaborate with people. I am learning how to communicate between the costume designer and director, or the designers and the playwrights. Columbia has helped me with problem solving a lot. I remember Leigh Silverman’s Directing class specifically. She mentioned that, as theatre makers, we are going to stumble upon different problems a lot. I learned how to find ways to deal with problems. Also, I have gained a lot of connections with incredible artists that I look up to, including my classmates in different concentrations. Working on a playwright’s new work and being able to talk to the person who wrote it, is such a gift. It’s an incredible opportunity to have. It makes me very joyful.
What were your pandemic passion projects? How did you keep creative during the pandemic?
BI: Well, the first thing I did was get a lot of plants and look after them. Other than that, I have been getting more into designing tattoos. I learned morse code and started putting that into my tattoos. I also began researching different meanings of flowers and putting those into my tattoos. I really got into painting with acrylics as well. All of this really reflected into my playwriting class with Leslie Ayvazian. Some of the scenes are just descriptions of moving paintings, which made more sense to me. A lot of the artists I like bring in a lot of different visual art into their writing, so that inspired me in my own writing. The tattoo designs seem to hold more of the dramaturgical influence just by producing meaning behind the designs.
What do you wish people knew about Dramaturgy?
BI: I would like Dramaturgy to be known in Turkey, because it’s a new profession, so people don’t know what it is there. There is no specific definition for dramaturgy, but I would like more people everywhere to know what it means.
What’s next for you?
BI: Well, right now, I am costuming for Halal Brothers which is an upcoming third year playwriting production. A more long term goal would be to work with a company where we collaborate with people from all over the world, so that we can learn from each other and about art in other cultures. If that kind of company doesn’t exist, I hope to start it. Mainly, I just really want to help people tell their stories.