When illness strikes, it’s seldom inspiring but rather a fleeting inconvenience one endures with the knowledge that it shall soon pass. Emerging artist Yasemin Sabuncu is well acquainted with disease and she’s managed to turn adversity into art through her first one-woman, long-form comedy show, The Illest. I had the pleasure of interviewing her as she laid out in honest detail the creative process behind her show where she whimsically explores life as a Muslim, second generation Australian living with chronic illness.
Thank you for taking the time to share your story with me and my readers. The first thing I’d like to know is when did you decide you wanted to write and perform your own comedy, and how did you get your first break?
I was pretty young when I knew but it seemed like a lofty dream as it wasn’t until I was in law school and I did the Law Revue, which is like a sketch comedy troupe and show we put on, that I was willing to quit law to pursue my dreams. Much to my parents’ dismay I quit but I never regret it.
I felt like comedy, writing, directing, and performing was what really made me alive and I couldn’t live a lie anymore. I wasn’t really allowed to study or do drama growing up, I was allowed to do art and sport but [my parents] really went out of their way to put me off something they thought was an unstable path for me. I can understand why it’s not an easy path, but I was always the kooky and playful child and it took me years to give myself full permission to do it. My big break took time.
After I quit law I went onto study screen studies and drama performance at uni as I wanted to create film, TV, and theatre works. From there I went on to do visual arts honours in video and performance art. The kind of works I wanted to create were either experimental or short films at that point. Also, being born in the early 80s, I didn’t have the advantage of social media till late [in life] so it was a non linear path in comedy for me. There weren’t as many opportunities in Adelaide, especially for someone like me. Later in my 20s my illness really got in the way as I couldn’t perform due to how bad my endometriosis, anxiety, and chronic fatigue syndrome got.
In 2011, A friend and I were pitching a TV comedy about life in Byron Bay filled with skits but, unfortunately, due to illness I had to take a break from that. It wasn’t until my endo diagnosis and a near death experience in 2016-2017 that I felt well enough and motivated enough to push through my condition and rebuild my confidence in comedy and performing again.
Getting a diversity scholarship at The Improv Conspiracy in Melbourne was a game changer. I didn’t have the funds for study so, with their course, I found the community and platform to build my skills. It was there I studied sketch and improv. I also went to LA last year to further these skills but I couldn’t fully finish my improv and sketch courses at schools like Groundlings, The Pack and UCB due to the pandemic forcing me to come back for my safety. I’ve used the skills, and inspiration I found in LA last year to create this show.
That’s quite the non linear path you’ve walked. It’s inspiring how you’ve persevered with your art. How does one find humour through the adversity you’ve faced with chronic illness?
It’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy, so I think I have always had a bit of a twisted sense of humour that meant I could see humour in the situation I found myself in. It wasn’t always funny living with chronic illness but I imagined scenarios in my mind where say for example some of the doctors I met were such clichés and characters that I couldn’t help but find humour in the fact that these people were in charge of the safety of people’s lives. I felt like I was in an episode of Fawlty Towers with some of these people. Their arrogance, hubris, and down right incompetence combined was comical, albeit scary, dangerous, and costly to me financially. So finding myself in a capitalistic, ablest, racist, classist et al system that didn’t value or understand the disabled, chronically ill or neurodiverse was something I wanted to make fun of.
I wanted to make light of the people who let people like myself down. Humour can be a powerful and transformative tool and I wanted to use humour to hold a mirror up to society and how it can impede people thriving with their lives. That being said I am so grateful for all the good doctors and specialists who knew what they were doing but it’s scary that those people are often in the minority.
Life is pretty funny when you think about it, it’s an absurd thing when you boil it all down in an existential sense, so I can find humour in those situations. There were times though I lost my funny bone when facing tragedy, depression, and mourning for my old life. It can be hard to find humour in those bleak moments but like the Tao Te Ching says “As in the nature of things, there is a time for being ahead and a time for being behind; a time for ease and a time for strain.” It took time but I knew the storm of my life would pass when I took care of myself and my needs at that point in time.
Given the prevalence of misinformation in our information age, what would you like the public to know about endometriosis and ADHD?
Endo is whole body disease that is as common as diabetes and asthma. Some misinformation I want to let people know [about is] that pregnancy is not a cure for endo, that it’s tissue similar to the endometrium, it is not misplaced endometrium. Over 800,000 Australians suffer from endo and a hysterectomy is not a cure for endo. There is no cure for it or a known cause. Endo can appear as cysts, adhesions, endometriomas, fibrosis (scar tissue), growths, pain, inflammation, organ loss. You can get it anywhere in your body, even in your lungs.
In terms of ADHD there are different types and it presents differently for different people. If you suspect you have it see a psychiatrist with ADHD experience, I saw one in 2011 who misdiagnosed me as having trauma due to illness and its effect on my life. He didn’t even test me. I asked him and he said he didn’t want to, I wish I had been more forthright and said for him to do it anyway. I didn’t get my ADHD diagnosis till the end of 2018 and I was so upset that I could have known about it earlier.
I wish the stigma of having these conditions was not there. Oh and please for the love of God don’t tell someone with ADHD that everyone is a little ADHD. Everyone has a little of these traits but ADHD people have *more of them, more frequently and it has more of an intense/life altering degree for us. It can also have comorbid conditions like anxiety, chronic fatigue syndrome, and autism that go with it.
“As in the nature of things, there is a time for being ahead and a time for being behind; a time for ease and a time for strain.”– tao te ching
As a queer Muslim woman who is a second generation Australian, how much do these aspects of your identity influence the work you create?
I never fully felt [that] I fit in with family or outside of the home growing up. The world reflected back to me that I was different from all angles and it wasn’t always easy. Experiencing racism, sexism and ableism was challenging. It influenced me to focus my Honours exegesis and final performance work on the theme of “the representation of Muslim Middle Eastern women post September 11”.
I wanted to be an actress but no one was ready to cast me in meaty roles and when I asked ‘why?’, people were honest and said I wasn’t anglo or ‘white’ enough. It was heartbreaking to face the reality that no matter how much passion and drive I had, the odds of me getting cast as a lead in something were low. It’s something I want to see change. In my works on stage and screen I want to create cast, crew, and roles for people who often get ignored due to gatekeepers in the industry.
As a result of my experiences I choose to make works that reflect the beautiful diversity in the world that the media doesn’t often show. I want to create TV, film, theatre, and art works that reflect the beauty of the world in its many ways, not just homogenised and watered down realities that are so often the norm.
I am a spiritual person and this comes across in my works. I am probably not the most devout Muslim but I used to be very religious growing up. Now my spiritual path is a culmination of influences of other spiritual teachings as well. I think all religions and beliefs have aspects of wisdom and beauty to them that I also like to honour. Having nearly died before I want to create works that celebrate the wonder that is life in all of its facets and to create works that allow people to question their realities.
Your show, The Illest, sounds like an educational and entertaining experience, what would you like audiences to know about it when they’re considering which Fringe shows to attend this year?
The show I have created is here to entertain, delight, make you laugh, help you fall more in love with yourself and inspire you to reflect on the beauty of life. It’s fun and silly with references to pop culture, songs and TV shows we all grew up with. The educational part is quite minimal, so even though the subject matter seems heavy my show is at its core celebration of life, even in its absurdities.
I wanted the poster to reflect that, I am triumphant, I am not ashamed about anything I experienced like I used to be. My illness made me lead a more happy and authentic life and face parts of my life and self people don’t often make time to do. As a result I got to move to Byron bay in 2011 for a bit and totally upgraded my life, it was a big risk moving there but I found the answers and community I was seeking for so long. The show has a happy ending and at the core it’s an off-the-wall comedy about a tender part of my life that actually worked out for the best. So I want people to walk away knowing that they can build upon their lives to create even greater joy and contentment.
I felt like comedy, writing, directing, and performing was what really made me alive and I couldn’t live a lie anymore.– yasemin sabuncu
Also with the last year being so challenging for folks I feel like people can get some tips on how to adapt to these changes or can relate to my journey, which is something universal for a lot of people at the moment – dealing with the uncertainty of life.
This show will utilise my skills in improv, sketch, dance, theatre, and stand up to make a one woman show that reflects how you can make the best of any situation. It’s a show not just for sick, or neurodiverse people it’s something about trying to find your own place and meaning in the world when the world doesn’t necessarily make sense. It’s about identity and finding yourself and place in the world. To reflect this personal transformation I chose the title of The Illest because it is a play on words and in the 90s it went from being something bad to becoming something cool, like the saying ‘fully sick’. The essence of the show explores what it’s like when life doesn’t live up to your expectations. Something I am sure we can all relate to. I want people to learn through my mistakes and epiphanies and have a laugh.
How and what do you want audiences to feel and think after watching your show?
I want people to walk away feeling inspired, smiling, and feeling good about themselves, that with enough time they can adapt to the challenges life throws at them, and that everyone’s life is not meant to look the same. We all matter and are enough.
I want people to connect to their inner warrior and stop being so hard on themselves, and to know that it’s not too late to ever turn your life around to what you really want. If you have any unlived dreams to start moving towards [them], you don’t know how long you’re here for and with my near death experience it really hit home that nothing in life is guaranteed. There’s a beauty in the limited time we have, it makes life more precious. Even if life is seemingly unfair you can do so much more than you can imagine with the hand that you have been dealt. I want people to also leave informed and more aware of the plight and reality chronically ill, disabled, and neurodiverse people face. There’s not much representation out there so I want them to leave knowing that they’ve learned amidst all my adventures and stories.
Where can someone learn more about you and your work?
I am on instagram as @i.am.yasemin, my FB page is www.facebook.com/i.am.yasemin, my website which is going to get updated after the fringe is www.yaseminsabuncu.com. Also I will be creating videos and TikToks(@i.am.yasemin) as I find time I don’t have anything up at the moment but it could change. Most likely after the Fringe I will also be performing at Midsumma festival in Melbourne, and maybe MICF depending on how COVID stuff goes. I have lots of skits I want to release online so watch this space.
Is there anything else you’d would like to add?
That this show is a long time coming with [me] being well enough to put it on. As a result I feel it is super potent and is very meaningful to me, and showcases how I overcame adversity and found meaning in the challenges of life. Some things take the time they are meant to and I hope I can inspire people to get in touch with their own vast resilience, power, heart, beauty and talents. It’s my aim to uplift, entertain, and be a catalyst for people’s transformation. I am a cheerleader for people who own and express their own awesomeness. You got this!
The Illest will run at The Howling Owl from 9 to 13 March at 6.00 pm and the Rhino Room – Drama Llama from 16 to 20 Mar at 9.30 pm.