By Nora Costello
When Lang professor Zishan Ugurlu first came to New York in 1993, she was a struggling actress and grad student at Ankara University in Ankara, Turkey. Although she spoke almost no English, she was invited by Ellen Stewart, founder and director of La MaMa Performance space in the Bowery, who had met her in Turkey and been impressed by Ugurlu’s talent and her thesis on the importance of the play and its cultural context. Stewart helped Ugurlu acquire her green card and set her up with a small apartment above the tiny theater, where she became immersed in the downtown theater community.
“She was my mommy here,” Ugurlu says of Stewart. “I was a theater cat. It was a very dreamy, theatrical life. I used to watch the plays from the top of the theater.”
After receiving her MA in directing in Turkey, Ugurlu went on to pursue an MFA in acting at Columbia 1996. She was the first non-English speaker admitted to its drama school.
“I learned English from Leonard Cohen songs and reading a lot of books. The New Yorker was my English teacher,” Ugurlu says, sitting in her tiny basement office whose shelves are crammed with everything from Anais Nin to Chekov to yellowing spines printed in Turkish. “It was a constant effort. Memorization would take me ten times as long as the average student.”
For her, Ugurlu says, learning comes from the desire to communicate and the urge to understand, an impetus that compels her to work on her English vocabulary every day. “Two people can speak perfect English, but if they have no desire to understand each other,” she says, “there is no communication.” Speaking to Ugurlu, it is immediately apparent that she is an expressive, passionate person with a zeal to communicate, always, with candor, compassion and truth.
After Ugurlu completed her PhD at Columbia, she began teaching dramaturgy, acting and drama history part-time at Wesleyan University in 2002. Two years later, she came to Lang. She now balances her time between teaching, directing, and maintaining a career as a working actor.
“She has a really serious work ethic and is generally interested in helping her students advance their talents,” says Susannah Pugsley, a student of Ugurlu’s. “She creates a safe space for pushing yourself really hard, and you know that she genuinely cares about you and your success as an individual.”
Among the many original courses Ugurlu has developed at Lang are "Creating the Solo Performance," "Acting: Banned Plays," and "Latin American Playwrights and Acting." Next year, Ugurlu says, she hopes to develop an "Acting Science" class as well as a course that would incorporate community work. “I literally live in this room,” Ugurlu says of her tiny basement office. “I come here at nine or ten in the morning and if I am not rehearsing or performing I am here sometimes until midnight, reading. I’m thinking about new courses I can create.”
Last year Ugurlu directed the highly acclaimed Operetta, performed at La Mama, and next spring she will direct Rainer Fassbinder’s The Blood on the Cat’s Neck. Though not directing this semester, Ugurlu appeared in two downtown productions, playing the title role in La Mama’s A Whore From Ohio, a controversial play from Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin, and the meek Bettina in the dysfunctional family-drama Women Dreamt Horses by Argentinean playwright Daniel Veronese. Women Dreamt Horses played at P.S. 122 as part of the Buenos Aires in Translation Festival, and won high acclaim from The New York Times.
To her students, Ugurlu stresses the importance of their journey in understanding themselves, others, and what it is to be human and communicate with one another.
“Be present is all I ask," she says. "Bring your energy and effort to the room, every day. And read!”