Looking at the Current Landscape
When I was writing a draft for this report, I realized that, in Istanbul, the most populated city in Turkey, more than 150 theatre productions are being staged every evening. It is quite surprising and gratifying to witness this, despite the socio-political crisis and the censorship in art. Actually, for a while it has been discussed that Turkish people are divided into two sharp poles, both in terms of political and cultural life; namely, the Republicans and the Conservatives. However, the landscape of theatre studies presents a contrasting thesis.
On the one hand, especially over the last ten years, theatre in Turkey has prospered. One can find various trends, theatrical forms, new dramaturgical and narrative techniques ranging from: musicals; to “in-yer-face” drama; feminist theatre; queer theatre;, performance art; storytelling; monodrama; monologues; solo performance; new adaptations of classical texts; and traditional forms.
More recently, the country has witnessed the emergence of a number of new groups, new venues, theatre and performance research centers (such as GalataPerform, Tiyatro Medresesi, Kadıköy Theatron) which are seeking new theatrical forms, acting styles and narrative techniques. Consequently, the number of theatre critics and new theatre magazines, websites and blogs, focusing on current performances, have gradually increased. Additionally, there are now more than thirty-five academic departments in Theatre, Acting, Performance Arts, Dramaturgy Studies, all around Turkey.
On the other hand, Turkish theatre has been exposed to political pressures more than ever. For instance, in 2017, almost all academics at the Theatre Department of Ankara University were dismissed from their jobs for signing the declaration of “Academics for Peace.” Similarly, a number of official directors of the state-sponsored theatres were dismissed or forced to resign from their positions. In the most recent theatre season, after years of Barış Atay performing his solo show Only A Dictator, the production has been banned in almost every city in the country for its alleged criticism of the President.
The current landscape presents us with a conflicted situation in which some resist theatre while others resist through theatre. In this report, I will focus on the performances of those “others.”
My purpose is to present an image of the last two theatre seasons focusing on some examples of the current tendencies. Turkey has a National Theatre which presents its repertoire in more than twelve cities. Istanbul Municipal Theatre, also subsidized, is staging plays all around the city. These subsidized theatres enable audiences to see the well-known examples of Western theatre, from Greek tragedies and Shakespeare, to Chekhov, Ibsen and Heiner Müller, as well as examples from Turkish theatre, in almost every theatre season. This despite the recent news that government wants the National Theatre to stage only the (national) texts written by Turkish playwrights.
New Searches, New Experiences in Turkish Theatre: Towards A New Landscape
Romeo and Juliet staged by National Theatre in Istanbul during the current season, is a good example of the kind of work staged in Turkey which interprets a classical text. In this staging, actors perform the whole the play in a water pool, 25 centimetres in depth. It was an unexpected and attractive staging, since we, in Turkey, are used to seeing highly classical interpretations of Shakespeare in National Theatre which aim to present the good examples of Western classical texts in their “original” forms.
Besides, there are a number of international theatre festivals held each year. The leading one is the Istanbul International Theatre festival organized by IKSV (Istanbul Foundation for Arts and Culture) each November. The other one is the Izmir International Puppet Days, held between March and May annually. We may also add the State Theatres Adana International Theatre Festival, International Bursa Theatre Festival for Children and Young People and, more recently, Mono’Fest (The International Monodrama Festival) organized by Tiyatro Medresesi, which is designed to provide an international centre for research, creation and performance by the theatre group Seyyar Sahne.
Apart from the mainstream theatres, other work in contemporary Turkish theatre appears under the umbrella term “alternative theatre.” Such theatre gathers the independent theatre communities, founded around the turn of the millennium and in the early years of the new century, without any financial backing by the state or any other institution. In fact, contrary to the remarks of the critics, most of the so-called “alternative” theatre groups are displeased with the term “alternative.” They clearly articulate that they are not intending to be an alternative to the state-sponsored theatres, or, more generally, to the mainstream theatres, but rather they aim to change the relationships between stage and auditorium, actor and audience, actor and character, story and its representation on stage. In fact, they intend to create works which pay particular attention to the idea of theatre as an encounter with the audience, works which apply methods that reflect theatre’s unique temporality, its “here and now.” These companies prefer their work to be called “independent” theatre, rather than “alternative.”
There has been, in the last few years, a notable change in methods of storytelling. The most well-known and best examples of this are the productions of Tiyatrotem, founded by Şehsuvar Aktaş and Ayşe Selen (the latter of whom passed away in December 2017). They are/were combining the Turkish traditional forms, such as shadow play, storytelling and puppetry, with elements of dramatic theatre.
In addition to the change in narrative/theatrical forms, the voices of the repressed/oppressed have become more audible within Turkish theatre. This new theatre scene has presented a meeting point for “others”—those who have been dismissed, pushed off the stage of both cultural and theatrical life, ranging from those engaged in: the Kurdish question (such as plays written by Mirza Metin and staged by Şermola Performans); to the Armenian diaspora (most recently BGST’s women’s play Zabel, which tells the biographical story of the Armenian woman novelist Zabel Yaseyan); homosexuality; transgender issues; subculture (plays by Mek’an Sahne, and Mekan Artı); and women’s issues (plays by feminist theatre group Tiyatro Boyalı Kuş founded by Jale Karabekir).
Moreover, there has been a critical turn towards trying to define the “essence” of theatre. Well-known “independent theatres,” such as Seyyar Sahne, Şermola Performans, Altıdan Sonra Tiyatro, GalataPerform, Mek’an Sahne, Tiyatrotem and BGST, are engaged in this artistic process.
Mek’an Sahne, for example, sees this “essence” as a moment in narrative shared by the spectator and the actor, and seeks to treat this moment as both a theatrical and a real encounter between the two. This moment, they believe, helps theatre-makers and audiences to understand and explain “other voices,” those excluded from history. The company’s most recent production, titled Apaçi Gızlar (Apache Girls), which is still being staged, is written by one of the leading new Turkish playwrights, Şamil Yılmaz. The play presents the story of a score of young girls called “apache.” Set in a discotheque, it introduces street performance to the stage by mixing theatre with arabesque rap, tectonic dance, poetry and songs. The audience are not used to watching these forms on stage, especially when they are performed by women.
Şermola Performans theatre company is involved in Kurdish issues and stages plays mostly in Kurdish. The company is a community interested in developing new acting and storytelling forms in order to present a theatrical experience that pushes the boundaries of staging. Mirza Metin, one of the co-founders of Şermola, performs his famous solo show Disco Number 5. It tells the story of a revolutionary captive in Diyarbakır Prison, infamous as a torture house after the coup in 1980.
Seyyar Sahne, which investigates the dramatic and theatrical possibilities of non-theatrical texts such as novels, tries to break away from the false choice between theatre as a “museum piece” or as “entertainment,” thus positioning the theatrical scene as a dynamic field of activity. To do this, they blend storytelling and physical theatre as an embodiment of the lone actor on an empty stage. Their most popular and famous production is Dangerous Games, a stage adaptation of Turkish novelist Oğuz Atay’s novel under the same title, performed by Erdem Şenocak since 2009.
The most recent production by Seyyar Sahne is an adaptation of a novel, Dear Shameless Death: Dirmit, written by Latife Tekin and performed by Nezaket Erden. Erden is deemed worthy of an award for her performance of the character of a girl called Dirmit, who was born and lived in a small town. The girl is as strange as she is pranksterish. She speaks to inanimate objects, for example. She performs various characters surrounding her provincial life, from her family members to her teachers, friends and the mythical creatures she plays with.
Of all theatre groups, GalataPerform, founded in 2003 by Yeşim Özsoy, has played a particularly important role in changing the theatrical landscape in Turkey. Known for its project titled New Text, New Theatre, it has organized different kinds of projects, festivals and workshops to support new playwrights and directors.
This year, GalataPerform stages a very striking performance, When in Rome, which premiered at the International Istanbul Theatre Festival (November 2017), written by a young woman playwright, Öznur Yalgın. It has a very simple subject, questioning conservatism both in life and theatre. It addresses neighborhood pressure, which has been discussed in Turkey for a long time. A young woman living in an apartment with her boyfriend is disturbed by her neighbor. What lies at the heart of the production, both in content and form, is the violation of privacy. The play is performed on a theatre stage, but, in fact, there is no “stage,” since the actors are sitting, performing among/ between/in front of/behind the audience. Surrounded by the actors, the audience becomes an active participant in the production. Thus, it is not only the violation of the private life of the character, but also that of the audience.
A women’s rights issue, femicide and violence against women are at the very heart of a number of recent theatre performances. Several productions telling women’s stories could be seen in the most recent season. One of them is an award-winning play, You Are More Beautiful Than Istanbul, written and directed by Murat Mahmutyazıcıoğlu. It tells the stories of three women from different generations: a grandmother, a mother and her daughter. They are sitting on chairs during the play. They never stand while they tell a story of women in Turkey from yesterday, today and tomorrow. In the background, there is the story of the changing landscape of Istanbul, demonstrating both the changing and unchanging life of women in our cultural life.
One essay would not suffice to explain what Turkish theatre has been and what it is becoming. But looking at some examples from the recent season, one can easily realize that not only Turkey but also its theatre is at a turning point that seeks its own storytelling and representation. New theatre communities, though presenting different stories in various artistic forms, share a common experience: a real encounter with the audience/the other in theatre and in life, despite the political, social pressure and the apparent polarized cultural life.
*Eylem Ejder is a PhD candidate in the Department of Theatre at Ankara University, Turkey. She is a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics—Turkey Section and assistant editor of the theatre journal Oyun (Play). Her PhD studies are being supported by The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK) within the National PhD Fellowship Programme. firstname.lastname@example.org