Queer Folks' Tales - An Interview with Turan Ali

Queer Folks’ Tales is a bi-monthly event at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. I attended the evening in April and, afterwards, was lucky enough to interview producer and host Turan Ali. We spoke about the origins of the event, what makes a good story and what the future holds for QFT.

It’ll be an embarrassment of queer riches

Turan Ali, lovely to speak with you! How are you doing?

I’m doing great thanks – I’m always juggling loads of different projects and now is no exception. I have 2 storytelling shows a month in Vienna, Queer Folks’ Tales every 8 weeks in Edinburgh and I am currently producing a new version of Brecht’s anti-war play Mother Courage for BBC Radio 4 and have stand up gigs lined up until June and beyond. I feel so lucky to have such exciting creative projects to work on.

A bit about you to start: you produce radio dramas for the BBC and you’re also a stand-up comedian. Can you tell me a little about how you got started in the industry and what drew you to it?

I was head of performing arts at the Commonwealth Institute in London, producing and directing theatre and performances from all over the Commonwealth and the BBC was looking for diverse producers for radio drama, which at the time was VERY white and middle class. I answered the add in the Guardian along with hundreds of others and got one of the four jobs. I’d always loved radio drama and couldn’t believe I would now be trained by the BBC to produce it. Since then I’ve produced, directed, abridged, written and even performed radio drama, comedy, essays and stories for all the BBC networks and run media training all over the world.

I recently attended your Queer Folks’ Tales evening at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh and absolutely loved it. Tell me about the initial idea for the evening and why you thought it was worth exploring.

The world of storytelling can be very folksy and incredibly hetero-normative. In Scotland’s national theatre for storytelling I thought there should be a regular queer storytelling event, so I proposed it. It took a while to get it on, but eventually we started with one show in the Scottish International Storytelling Festival in October 2021 and it went so well, it become a regular bi-monthly show early in 2022 and we got City of Edinburgh Council funding for it from the Diversity and Inclusion Fund. Daniel Abercrombie the Programme manager at SSC has been a great supporter of it.

The stories that you told, both the full length and the micro stories, were incredibly thought out and well worded. Can you tell me about your thought process when creating a story? How much practice goes into getting the most out of a story?

The thought process of choosing the idea is usually one of being mischievous. My first question for every story idea is will it surprise, shock, amuse, open the minds of or entertain the audience? Preferably all of those. I mostly write provocative stories of hidden queer experience. After so many years of creating dramas, comedies and stories, one instinctively knows when an idea has all the essential story elements. First one learns story and comedy theory, and with practice it becomes second nature. Now I can write an original short story that I’m happy with, drafting and re-drafting it, which is ready to perform, in an afternoon. It takes longer to learn it for performance, after all a ten minute story is up to 1500 words one has to memorise.

Storytelling and stand-up comedy generally go hand in hand: there are certain beats in a story or a comedian’s material that will usually illicit a certain reaction. Have you ever had an unexpected reaction to a story?

All the time. When I’m writing I think OK, there’s a definite laugh, and there’s another laugh. For a storytelling performance there is no need for a particular laugh rate, but for stand up comedy, for sure one needs very regular guaranteed laughs. One regular surprise for me is in a routine I do about the large number of friends with benefits I have. When I go through a list of them, by first name and country order (I travel a lot!) I still don’t understand why, when I get to Ahmed, everyone laughs. Is it because it is a Muslim name in the middle of a list of Christian names? Is it because they don’t expect Muslims to be gay tarts ? I am not sure, but it always surprises me. Comedy is not an exact science and while we can be sure of some certain laughs, there are always surprises of moments I thought would work and get silence, and others that get laughs I wasn’t expecting. It keeps you on your toes.

There was a very touching moment in the show I attended where an audience member noted that they attend queer events to support their queer child. Is there a part of you that feels a certain sense of responsibility to champion the next generation of the queer community?

Absolutely. Queer stories have been censored from history for thousands of years. When we were included in stories it was usually as the victims, the freaks, the outcasts or the villains. So telling stories of our lives without apology, and telling the wider world that they have lots to learn from queer lives and experience is a crusade that puts queer experience on equal footing with hetero-normative stories which still dominate the world. We must tell queer stories where we can because in most of the word it would be dangerous to be so out and proud, not least in my father’s Turkish homeland. This builds pride and self respect in and for our community for now and the future.

Looking round the audience, it was a wonderful mix of young and old, straight and LGBT+. What do you think it is about the evening that attracts such a wide range of people?

Great stories have universal appeal. A quality story, whoever it is about, will make connections on a deep level with any human being – that is the power of story. Our stories are authentic and honest. People hate fake and insincere storytelling. At Queer Folks’ Tales we tell stories of truthful, sometimes painful, often self-mocking, regularly fruity queer lives. Being honest with people is an incredibly engaging and bonding experience. Making ourselves vulnerable on stage, taking responsibility for what we did, or sharing what happened to us, whether hilarious or tragic, is a captivating experience and is the heart of quality storytelling. Our stories are also full of surprises. We take people on amazing and unexpected story journeys. Whatever their age, sexuality, diversity or class, they feel a resonance.

The event is now in its second year – congratulations! Are there any exciting plans for QFT going forward?

Yes indeed ! We have been invited by Scottish Storytelling Centre to be their prime time Saturday night show throughout the Fringe 2023, and Friday and Saturday night on the final weekend. I will collect queer performers from around the festival to join me, so we’ll get eight queer storytellers per night giving one story each – it’ll be an embarrassment of queer riches. 9-11pm on 5, 12, 19, 25 & 26 August. Plus, I am working on producing a regular London version of Queer Folks’ Tales starting this autumn.

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