Deniz Demirkurt Headshot

#WomenWhoWrite Guest Blog Series: Deniz Demirkurt

By Gabriella Balsam


Introducing Deniz Demirkurt!

You have a BM in both songwriting  from Berklee, as well as a MFA in Musical Theatre Writing from NYU Tisch. How does your work as a performer inform your work as a writer?

Because I’m both a performer and a writer, I’m able to see from both perspectives more easily. So when I write, I try to ask myself questions like:

  • What would be interesting and fun for an actor to explore in this character or this scene that I’ve written?
  • What are the kind of questions I would ask if I were an actor performing this scene?
  • Am I leaving enough space for an actor to make unique character choices, or have I suffocated them with a million stage directions?

In short, I try to make my work fun for actors to perform, and encourage them to make bold choices and feel safe and supported in doing so.

Being a performer has also made me a more malleable writer, in the sense that I am always open to receiving feedback from my performers, and incorporating their input into the rewrites I make. This is because I know how deeply a performer invests themselves in their character and care about the work, so much that sometimes they can see things about my work that I’ve never seen or considered before, even though I’m the one who has written it.

You’ve also done sound editing and engineering for a series of music videos covering modern popular hits. How has that helped your writing?

I think it has helped me more as a composer, especially when writing big ensemble numbers – I can visualize everyone’s parts as a separate layer in the DAW I use, and try to hear in my head how everything will blend together. 

Creating music videos has also gotten me wondering what it would be like if musicals had “singles” similar to popular music, and how a music video for those songs could look like. Thinking this way can sometimes help me imagine how the staging of a song I’ve written would look like, what the characters would be feeling during this song, etc…

We often complain that theater is not popular enough, but in its current form, I think it’s fair to say that theater is not very accessible for everyone (financially, logistically, etc…) Making MVs could be a small but fun way to make musicals more accessible and engaging for everyone – and I think a platform like 10glo would be a perfect place to do that.

You say your dream musical to write would be about your grandmother’s life in 1940s Turkey. Why is this story so important to you, and why does it need to be told?

This story is important to me for many reasons, but the biggest reason why is because my grandmother is so important to me. Both my parents were working when I was growing up, so she is the one who raised me. I am who I am today because of her care, patience, and kindness. 

She is such a giving person, but I’ve rarely seen her take – she often underestimates herself, and is always willing to sacrifice her dreams for others. That is why I want to honor and preserve her life, her memories, and all the sacrifices that she’s made by writing a musical about her.

It’s also important to me to share stories of my country with others; because many countries, including Turkey, are very underrepresented in musical theatre. I think there are very compelling stories to be told in Turkey’s rich and complex history, and telling them from the point of view of my grandmother, a young, “ordinary” housewife is important for me to show how women at that time coped and lived with everything going on. At my age, my grandmother was already married and had two children. In the following decades, she raised them through two military coups and all the turbulent events they brought on. The strength and resilience that all women had during that time is incredible to me.

There are also moments I want to write about that are very sweet; like my grandparents’ love story, how they met, how together they opened the first pharmacy in a small village, etc… 

This musical was a dream of mine to write before I properly studied writing for musical theater, and after my education, I’ve learned that writing about family members and real people can get quite tricky – personally and legally. So currently I’m wondering whether it’s better to write an original story inspired by my grandmother rather than an exact replica of her life.

 In 2019, you co-founded a new organization, Multi-Cultural Womxn in Theatre, spotlighting multicultural women who are also emerging musical theatre writers and performers. What drove you to create this organization?

MCWiT is an organization that I co-founded with my dear friend Miyako Tsubota. It was originally Miyako’s idea to form this organization. She had just finished performing in a production where her character was an Asian woman, and although she liked being a part of the show, there were moments that left her upset when her character just felt like a stereotype, or the butt of jokes because of her Asian heritage. She expressed to me how she wished there were more three dimensional roles for people of colour to play, and how she would love to create an organization which creates such opportunities and diversity. Her vision was to create a space to uplift the works of writers and performers from different backgrounds, and encourage them to connect and collaborate with each other. I immediately fell in love with the idea, and responded “Let’s do it!”

It was late January 2019 when she first expressed this idea to me, and in May 2019 we had our first sold-out cabaret at “Don’t Tell Mama” where we featured 12 songs from different writing teams, and 6 performers.

We have currently put a pause on MCWiT because of the pandemic, but we hope to get back to work once it’s safe for theatres to do so.

 Your last two musicals, Miroir and La Voisin, each focused on the empowerment of queer French women (albeit in different ways and centuries). What is it that kept you interested in these kinds of characters?

As a queer woman myself, I’m always yearning to bring more queer stories on stage; but there is something about historical queer women that I’m especially drawn to. 

I think it’s because when we think of lgbtq+, we tend to think of it as a “new” or “millennial” thing – as if queer people didn’t exist before, or that if we did exist, it was always a secret, always behind closed doors. But looking at historical woman like Colette (whose novel “The Vagabond” is the source material of “Miroir”) who was openly bisexual, and wrote a whole book series (Claudine) centered around a young queer woman, which became a sensation at the time, I see that we’ve always existed, and that we can’t and won’t be silenced. That is what I want to convey with my work too.

With both Renee in Miroir, and Catherine in La Voisin, I’m also drawn to how both these women empowered themselves after having been through an abusive relationship. I admire their resolve and their “do what you have to do to survive” mentality. Recovery looks different for everyone, and it can get messy at times – it’s not always a linear, perfect progress, and I like that Renee and Catherine are both flawed, but keep going nevertheless.

The fact that they’re both French women is kind of a coincidence, but it is a convenient coincidence since I speak the language and had some knowledge of French history and music prior to writing the shows – that slight familiarity has definitely made researching for writing these shows easier, and it’s made me less intimidated to tackle the source material.

Deniz Demirkurt is a Turkish-American composer/lyricist, singer, actor, and vocal arranger. She has graduated from Berklee College of Music with a BM in Songwriting, and NYU Tisch with a MFA in Musical Theater Writing. Her previous works of musical theater include Miroir, It Takes a Village, La Voisin, and DogHeaven, which have been workshopped in various colleges, and songs from the shows have been featured in events such as Curtain Up! and The EVVY Awards. Deniz has also performed in concerts and cabarets in venues such as Boston Symphony Hall, Dixon Place, The Duplex, Don’t Tell Mama, and Birdland Jazz Club. www.denizdemirkurtmusic.com 

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