Her teddy explains Kant

Portrait of lecturer Hayat Erdogan

A chance encounter: Ever since Hayat Erdogan “adopted” the teddy bear she happened to find on campus one day, he has been her “explainer.” He played Siegfried in a seminar on the “Nibelungenlied” and effortlessly explains texts like Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” to her students. Photograph: Betty Fleck © ZHdK

Two words are used remarkably often when people hear the name Hayat Erdogan at ZHdK: “Theory” and “practice.” The young lecturer, who teaches on the Master’s in Theatre and on cross-university courses, seems to navigate the force field spanned by these two words more assuredly than others.


Her courses have titles like “Dramaturgies of the Uncanny” or “Performing Truth: Art and Activism in Times of Fantastic Politics.” Which leads to a trained actor now studying dramaturgy sitting next to a political science graduate. Her students’ very different theoretical backgrounds constantly challenge Hayat Erdogan: “I keep asking myself: ‘How abstract can I get?’ ‘How narrative do I need to be?’”

Timon Jansen, a student in directing, says that Hayat’s courses always involve a very fat reader, which only a small minority ever reads. There is a gap between those interested in theory and other students. Hayat is aware of this and knows how to handle this proposition. Which means? She is very good at breaking theoretical positions down to artistic practice, and at establishing manifold references to examples, not only from theatre, but also from film, design, or visual arts.

From theatre to literary studies

Raised in Mühlacker near Stuttgart, Hayat Erdogan originally wanted to study fine arts after high school. But her application to art school was rejected, and she was advised to first do an arts internship. Five theatre internships later, she decided to do German and English at Stuttgart University. “As nothing means anything without dramaturgy,” she went straight on to study dramaturgy at Ludwigsburg Academy of Performing Arts.

When asked about her intellectual influences, she mentions the works of James Joyce. “Reading Joyce opened up theories like intertextuality or deconstruction in new ways for me.” She studied Joyce intensively as a research scholar at the James Joyce Foundation in Zurich and Triest. Her dissertation, which is work-in-progress, is devoted to the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Kassner and his concept of the imagination. The author of this portrait is unable to provide further details of Hayat Erdogan’s PhD project because despite holding a degree in philosophy she struggled to follow her counterpart’s verbose and swiftly delivered explanations. “Fast thinker, fast talker” is quite rightly a frequently heard characterisation of Hayat Erdogan.

She finds writing her dissertation highly satisfying. Nevertheless, she is annoyed that her various other commitments frequently interrupt the writing process, which otherwise completely absorbs her: “I’m a trance writer.” Thus, the formula “writing and reading and discussing with others” sums up the best of all possible existences for her.

Approachable, yet with clear positions

Yes, indeed, other people: She seems to get along easily not only with texts, but also with people. “She’s genuinely interested in students’ projects,” says Nikolai Prawdzic, a dramaturgy student, who enthuses over his lecturer: “She often knows more than others and also provides more support than others.”

Several students mention that Hayat is very approachable. Fiona Schreier highlights her striking presence: “She’s ‘present’ in the various different meanings of the word.” Despite her openness and commitment, the young lecturer, born in 1981, who is often only barely older than her students, is very direct and assertive in her feedback and criticism: “She has a very clear aesthetic position and doesn’t hide her taste,” says Timon Jansen. Characteristic of her positions is a passion for contradiction, a productive cynicism, and an anti-pathetic approach to theatre.

To enable students to put their finger on the pulse, Hayat Erdogan relates her teaching to her work for the City of Zurich’s Theatre Commission, where she and her fellow commissioners are responsible for deciding on funding requests and awards: “The entries, and because I see most of the productions, give me a genuine sense of what’s in the air.

My impressions and observations go straight into my teaching because our programme [the Master’s in Theatre] endeavours to bring classes as close as possible to practical developments, or even to anticipate these.”

Integrating people and disciplines

Simone Karpf, a teaching assistant at the Master’s in Theatre, confirms that in Hayat’s case innovation doesn’t stop with wanting to be innovative. No, she really is innovative. Hayat, says Simone, is able to and profoundly enjoys combining what eludes others. Her classes therefore attract students from all disciplines and her network includes artists from different backgrounds along with psychoanalysts, philosophers, or political scientists. Jacqueline Holzer, head of the Bachelor’s in Theatre at ZHdK, considers Hayat an “interface surfer” and hence someone who “really does things differently,” indeed whose activities are almost “adventurous.” The future holds much in store for Hayat, adds Holzer: “She could become a professor of course. But because she is so gifted at bringing exciting people together, and at thinking differently, she might establish a new kind of institution.”

Although Hayat finds this idea captivating, she still feels very much at home at an arts university because it allows her to connect her artistic and her scientific interests. And also because teaching and learning from others matter so much to her.

Isabelle Vloemans was a project manager at ZHdK University Communications.
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