“Now is the time for untold, suppressed stories to be heard”: Interview with Handan Salta

by Savas Patsalidis*

I visited Istanbul on May 24 to attend the first showcase ever of contemporary Turkish theatre, organized by a group of active theatre scholars from Istanbul’s theatre community; namely, Handan Salta, Hasibe Kalkan, Nihal Kuyumcu, Semen Cehver, Zerrin Yanikkaya and Ragip Ertuğrul, among others. During my week-long stay in this megapolis, the largest city in Europe today, with close to 18 million people,I had the opportunity to attend a number of performances with different styles, aesthetics, thematics, concerns and desires.I also took part in long discussions with the organizers about their thoughts, difficulties and dreams of the Day After. What follows is the text of my conversation with Dr. Handan Salta, a scholar of English literature and dramaturgy, with a particular interest in the history of theatre, Turkish theatre, dramaturgy, text analysis, creative drama and mythology.

Handan formerly served as Vice President of Turkish Theatre Critics Association; she is currently working as a theatre critic and translator. Since 2015, Handan has also served on the editorial board of Teb Oyun (Play), a quarterly theatre magazine of IATC-Turkey. In 2019, along with Eylem Ejder, she co-founded Kritik Kolektif, an artistic initiative to create collective and experimental productions on theatre criticism. Her book, Hevesle Beraberlik Arasında Bir Şey: Bir Kritik Kolektif Kitabı,edited and designed in collaboration with Eylem Ejder, was published in 2022 as the first book of the collective. 

Handan Salta, member of the organizing committee of the first showcase of contemporary turkish theatre. Photo: Esra Özdoğan

I have to confess that your decision to launch this showcase in the midst of a serious economic crisis was quite unexpected. May I ask why? What was so urgent that made you take this risk?

When Ragıp Ertuğrul, President of IATC Turkey, came up with the idea of organizing a showcase, all members of the organizing team, including Nihal Kuyumcu, Senem Cevher, Zerrin Yanıkkaya, Hasibe Kalkan, Ragıp Ertuğrul, Gökay Genç and myself embraced the idea. He had told us previously that TGA (Tourism Promotion and Development Agency) agreed to sponsor travel expenses and accommodation on condition that our event would be organized during the same period when Beyoğlu Kültür Yolu Festival was in progress.

So, despite the limited time we had at our disposal to organize it, we took the risk; at the same time, it seemed like good timing since theatre was coming back to life again after the pandemic. We wanted to take advantage of this opportunity and take our production to an international arena, especially since we had the necessary financial support.

I know from personal experience that selecting plays for a showcase is a very complicated and somewhat dangerous procedure. Many people will ask why them and not us, why this and not the other? A showcase is, by its very nature, a noninclusive procedure: it cannot satisfy all and has to be exclusive. Which were your criteria of selection? Did you have any complaints from artists who were left out? 

Waiting at the lobby of the Blackbox Stage (Müze Gazhane) for the performance We to start. Photo: Courtesy of the organizers

We wanted to choose independent theatre companies, most of which operate on a smaller scale but still stage important performances at different levels. All of the performances and groups had to represent either a particular genre or a certain understanding of theatre; in other words, to adopt an alternative approach. We wanted our choices to be as diverse as possible. As you stated, any showcase has to exclude a lot. We had a limited budget, time and very few stages. Naturally, we were criticized and questioned about our criteria by some artists who were not included. In fact, we wanted to include the shows and companies with no or limited international connections, including festivals or personal connections with Turkish communities abroad.  A group of productions clearly had to be included in the showcase because of their perspective, genre, enthusiasm or other strong qualities.

Correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that the shows we have seen represent exclusively the theatre of Istanbul. I am curious to know, and I guess many of our readers as well, what is going on beyond the city limits, in other smaller cities, say Ankara or Izmir. So, would you say that the theatre of Istanbul reflects the entire national theatre landscape or the best in the nation?

The Blackbox Stage (Müze Gazhane) where  we have seen the dance performance We (Biz)  and  the Song of the Lusitanian Bogey of Peter Weiss, directed by Muhammet Uzumer. Photo: Courtesy of the organizers

To start with, we tried to reach out to companies in İstanbul, mainly because there are nearly 200 performances per night in İstanbul. Thus, we would need a special occasion and a strong resolve to see performances from other cities.  For example, this winter I had the opportunity to see some children’s plays from different cities of Turkey in Bursa in a festival. Sometimes, theatre groups come to İstanbul when they believe their time has come; for example, Mek’an Sahne with the performance Belly Dancer is a company originally from Ankara.

Does İstanbul represent Turkish theatre? Well, graduates from acting schools scattered around Turkey come to İstanbul after their graduation to create theatre because İstanbul seems the best place to make art. The actress and creator of the piece Twelfth House is a graduate of a conservatory in Adana, but her debut took place in Istanbul.

İstanbul is a center where people can identify as modern individuals, free to express themselves outside of traditional or so-called folkloric values. People come to İstanbul to feel more liberated, to live as they wish without peer pressure. So, the answer to your question is yes, Istanbul reflects the mood of the country. As a huge city, partly due to immigration, it represents every color in the culture and can be seen as the summary of the country. An audience in Anatolia is curious to see what is happening in İstanbul, and the festivals organized in different parts of Turkey invite performances from İstanbul, so it combines and reflects the interests of people and theatre.

Gülden Arsal and Pınar Akkuzu in Under the Castle (Şatonun Altında), a mime parody of Macbeth directed by Güray Dinçol (Blackbox Stage, Müze Gazhane). Photo: Courtesy of the organizers

I noticed that in many productions the presence of women on stage was quite impressive. Would you say that the presence of women is equally impressive off stage as well, say as directors, producers, designers, critics, music composers and other positions of authority?

It is true that the patriarchal model of theatre is being replaced but not exclusively with women. Playwrights, directors, actors and choreographers have also come from the queer community, beginning most predominantly after the 2000s. The theatre community raised the issue of under-represented people on stage, initially through translated plays, and the movement also opened possibilities for several other unheard or underrepresented voices. It seems that now is the time for untold, suppressed stories to be heard. Also, the organizing committee of the showcase who chose the performances are predominantly women, five out of six members!  

Can you name a few?

I think of playwrights like Ebru Nihan Celkan, Ceren Ercan, Firuze Engin, Sevilay Saral, Ayşe Bayramoğlu, Beliz Güçbilmez and Yeşim Özsoy. Among directors and/or performers I can mention Şahika Tekand, Zeynep Günsür, Berfin Zenderlioğlu, Müge Gürman, Yelda Baskın, Emre Koyuncuoğlu, Aysel Yıldırım. I can also think of a few designers like Başak Özdoğan, Şirin Dağtekin Yenen or Medine Yavuz. Two composers also come to my mind; namely, Burçak Çöllü and Türkü Deyiş Çınar.

Academics working on theatre are mostly women; for example, some heads of theatre departments are Zerrin Yanıkkaya, Maltepe University, Senem Cevher, Bahçeşehir University and Zeynep Günsür, Kadir Has University. The editorial board of an eminent theatre magazine titled TEB Oyun consists only of women. Researchers working internationally on theatre in Turkey are also mostly women; Burcu Yasemin Şeyben, Emine Fişek, Eylem Ejder, Deniz Başar, Özgül Akıncı, Esra Dicle Başbuğ are the first names that come to my mind. 

Zabel, the latest feminist play by Boğaziçi Performing Arts Ensemble (BPAE), focuses on Armenian author Zabel Yesayan’s life story. The play is written, directed, designed and performed by women artists from BPAE. Photo: Courtesy of the organizers

That being said, I have the following question as a follow up to your answer: has the presence of women in Turkish theatre changed anything; for example, its aesthetics, its thematics, its concerns, its hierarchies, its gender ideologies or, perhaps. people’s tolerance? In brief, has the presence of women shifted the boundaries of the theatre experience?

Oh, your question requires a long commentary.

Turkey has a long history of feminism, even before the founding of the Turkish Republic itself. A feminist movement during the Ottoman era started in the late nineteenth century and evolved over time. After the 1980 coup, the feminist movement developed a discourse to liberate itself from male dominated leftist discourse, leading to a more liberating, freedom-seeking endeavor which reached a fourth wave of feminism in 2000s. Individualistic, liberating acts and protests in various facades of life naturally influenced the stage. Theatre by its nature, being a fertile ground for the seeds of rebellion, questioning and protest, could open a space for feminism and female voices within the realm of theatre. 

On the other hand, Turkey has unfortunately become infamous for the femicides in the last twenty years; in 2010, a platform called We Will Stop Femicide was established and, later, merged with a group representing the LGBTQ+ community. Members of the platform consist of feminists, activists, workers and family members of the murdered women; activities of the platform attract a variety of people from all walks of life. Along with this, the theatre community felt the urge to respond to  this problem which has disturbed the conscience of the entire society.

And what about stage representation?

Representations and reflections of womanhood have changed; previously ignored perspectives have begun to appear on stage, from among immigrants, minorities, undereducated and working class women, and I have to say that social media has had a supporting role in making those voices audible in both life and art. So, the tremendous oppression of women was met by a strong resistance politically, socially and theatrically. I suppose that might explain the presence of women in the performances you have seen during the showcase. Despite all the endeavors to polarize the society, we have witnessed an increasing solidarity among the oppressed, which is related, in turn, to increasing numbers of people in the audiences who vocalize these issues. 

Traditional Karagöz (Godot Doesn’t Come to Us/Godot Bıze Gelmez), adapted by Murat Karahüseyinoğlu, at BAU (Pera Stage). Photo: Courtesy of the organizers

Related to what I have just asked, what about the #MeToo movement? Does it have any impact on Turkish theatre life? Is it felt in the theatre community?

Here, I want to mention another platform, Women in Performing Arts. It was founded just before the pandemic, with the aim of promoting discussion of the problems and showing solidarity among women who work in performing arts related jobs. There were actresses, directors, playwrights, academics, dramaturgs and critics in that group and after the second live meeting, the pandemic broke out. This group organized events to show solidarity with each other; in those gloomy days, every woman in the group felt thankful for being together, however virtual such a togetherness might have been. When it comes to #MeToo, I must mention a harassment story that took place years ago but was confessed later on.

The Women in Performing Arts group organized online meetings, developed publications on how to handle harassment and tried to find ways to prevent such crimes from happening; academics in the group also initiated projects at their universities to raise awareness. That one single example gave way to others and more revelations of sexual harassment were documented in which the perpetrators tried to hide behind a shield of education, physical exercise and so on. The identity of someone who abused and harassed an actress was revealed, and other victims came forward with their stories of abuse from the domains of the theatre, cinema and television.

In addition to the presence of women, in certain showcase plays we had artists narrating their experience of growing up as other; here, I refer specifically to the performance of the actress Melek Ceylan (The Twelth House). In some other cases, we had plays that touched upon Armenian history and the thorny issue of genocide (Gomidas and Zabel). Would you say that all these examples, albeit few, indicate a growing trend, or desire, if you wish, to revisit history, be it political, ethnic or gender, and to project or dramatize its multiple narratives? 

It is true that theatre in Turkey is really in a processof transformation, but once again, it has a long history. Turkey has lost the diversity of ethnicities, religions and languages since its foundation in 1923, and the so-called mosaic had already turned into marble twenty years ago, when the will to create a New Turkey was cheerfully elected. What happened afterwards was an ongoing overturn; all the founding values of the nation state were being questioned and replaced with religious—that is, Islamic, traditional, so-called folkloric ones; once again, a total change was at the door. This reconstruction also brought a wave of looking back. Communities, ethnic or religious groups and minorities started to revisit the past, indeed, and everyone faced their otherness, both past and present. In short, I believe there is not a single person in the country who has not felt or been approached as other at least once in their lives.

And of course all this found its way to the stage, right?

Yes, that’s correct. Inevitably, these revisits and interrogations are reflected on the stage as well. Speaking of a revisit, I’d like to quote from the PhD dissertation of Eylem Ejder, who coined a term for this revisit phenomenon as dramaturgies of recycling. She mentions a series of recycling/returning patterns, which she describes as “characters returning to another time and place, the return of the past, the return of the missed/lost/restrained opportunities in ‘then and there’ to regain ‘now and here,’ a dramatic construction which goes back to the place or moment where it started with a twist, the return of the lost and shattered with the possibilities of theatre and the return of the ones that are not here yet.” All these return, recycle and revisit motifs create a model of theatre in which we can discover alternative visions of the future by opening possibilities of alterity for us in history, she claims. 

This growing trend, as you stated, can be considered an invitation for us all to construct a new social reality and contract. 

Would you say that Turkish theatre is doing enough in this regard? In other words, is enough space and voice given to the others of local life and history, or is a more radical course required, one that is more disruptive, deconstructive and provocative?

A parody of Macbeth: A Nightmare for Two by Tiyatro BeReZe (Gösteri Evi), with Elif Temuçin and Erkan Uyanıksoy. Photo: Courtesy of the organizers

In response to your question, I think that the Turkish theatre community has displayed a deep awareness of pressing social issues, and I can provide several examples of relevant productions staged in recent years. The following list is representative, although it may not be exhaustive: Disko Number 5, 2011, by Şermola Performans, a Kurdish prisoner is subjected to systematic torture in Diyarbakır; Lick but Don’t Swallow, Biriken 2010,  a reluctant angel is sent to earth in the body of a pornography star;  The Sack of the Witch, 2007, by Esmeray, the first person experience of a trans woman; Being a Queer in 80’s, 2014, by Ufuk Tan Altunkaya, a personal history of gay experience in Turkey in the 1980s; Only a Dictator, by Kadıköy Emek Theatre 2010, a sketch of the characteristics of a dictator; Avzer, 2013, by Şamil Yılmaz, a boy living in the streets who encounters the Gezi protests in Ankara; Forgotten, 2017, by Yersiz Kumpanya, two Armenian female actresses endure continuous rape and abuse, left in a hotel as deposit in return for the troup’s debt; E Minor, 2012, written by Meltem Arıkan, directed by Mehmet Ali Alabora, a president in a fictitious country becomes a dictator after changing laws; Who Is There, The Last Hamlet of Muhsin Bey, 2015, written and directed by Cüneyt Yalaz, a settlement play between two theatre directors, Vahram Papazyan, the Armenian actor who staged western theatre in the Ottoman State, and Muhsin Ertuğrul, his Turkish successor who was charged with educating the nation through theatre. 

All of the above mentioned examples were staged in İstanbul and other cities in Turkey; I hope that in the future, we can stage these kinds of plays in the open air as a way to reach a larger audience.

And what about mainstream Turkish theatre? Has it been affected by these new developments embraced by artists from the independent theatre?

As you have seen at the opening play of the showcase, Municipality Theatre staged a play about the first Turkish female playwright, Fatma Nudiye, born in 1904, written by another female playwright, Bilgesu Erenus. Municipality Theatres are also trying to stage plays with a feminist perspective together with some revisits to the past. To cite another example from 2011, I mention Şark Dişçisi, written by Armenian playwright Hagop Baronyan, born in 1843. However, subsidized theatres build their repertoire depending on the political atmosphere, and many theatre professionals have been collaborating with Municipality Theatres. In fact, they have changed their repertoire since the local elections in 2019. I hear about hopeful developments in the Municipality Theatres, particularly those which allow for young and experimental voices.

And since we are discussing the politics of contemporary Turkish theatre, I’m wondering if you feel or have ever felt while organizing your showcase that you had to be careful in your selection. In other words, were you cautious with regard to the official view of right versus wrong, acceptable versus unacceptable? To avoid potential governmental censorship, have you ever at any point practiced self-censorship? 

Since each of the performances in the selection are staged without constraints, we did not have to contend with censorship. 

On another topic, apart from politics, what do you think are the most urgent issues for Turkish theatre in the postpandemic era?

The most urgent and difficult issues are related to economics. Theatres are not adequately supported by state funds, if they are supported at all. Almost all independent theatre professionals earn a living from a range of different resources, and what they manage to stage often lacks the requirements of contemporary needs: they cannot afford to use innovative technology in the design of their performances; many lack a stable stage and are thus required to rent the venues where they perform. So, independent theatres need a stable, insightful and visionary plan to develop more fruitfully.

The dancers of We (Biz) at the Blackbox Stage (Müze Gazhane). Photo: Courtesy of the organizers

Contemporary Turkish plays and performances are not well known outside of Turkey, at least within Europe. Could you possibly explain why this is the case?

There are various interrelated factors that have led to this situation. First of all, the marketing of theatrical productions is not regarded as a proper business, and this might be also related to the introverted nature of the theatre here. The stories are narrated and performed basically for the audience in Turkey. Language barriers also prevent some of the companies from striving to stage their performances abroad. Whether or not a company manages to tour depends on their own connections, if they have any at all. Then again, there are not enough resources to develop theatre as an industry, let alone as a cultural product. Since the possibility of earning a living through the theatre is very low, many writers, directors and actors also work in other professions or rely on television, which is a flourishing sector in Turkey.

Do you believe that this showcase will help to address some of these problems?

I truly believe that we have already begun. Performances have been well received and honored with invitations to go on tour. An important function of this year’s showcase is to generate excitement for next year’s showcase, and I believe that this alone will strongly encourage theatre professionals. On the other hand, with the lectures, masterclasses and conferences that we currently offer, theatre here will be newly energized and motivated academically as well. Getting honest and straightforward feedback on one’s work is extremely useful and constructive, and many talk sessions serve that aim. 

As a viewer and critic myself I have to admit that I have learned a lot as I have attended these dozen or so performances. I found them enlightening, diverse and inviting. What about you? Are you satisfied with the end result? Is there anything you have done that you regret? And is there anything you did not do that you should have done?

We tried to give every genre a place in the selection. There were other performances in our minds but for different reasons they could not take part; namely:

  • they were not willing to prepare the subtitles
  • some companies had ended their season and the actors had other engagements
  • one of the plays was heavily text based, which would make the viewing process extremely difficult.

When you look back, there are always things you think you could have done better. We could have designed a website with information about all the events within the showcase, we could have designed the leaflets much more professionally and organized everything more timely, by being more meticulous, etc. However, Ragıp was more engaged in the organizational part of the showcase, and he became seriously ill just before the showcase. All of a sudden, we were left with hot eggs in our hands, and I hope we did not burn our hands too much!

Mihail Bulgakov’s novel Heart of a Dog (Köpek Kalbi), Sevda Şener Stage (Müze Gazhane), adapted for the stage and directed  by Emre Tandoğan. Photo: Courtesy of the organizers

What are your plans for the future? Are you brave enough for a follow up? I say brave because I know what it takes to put together a national showcase. As we discussed earlier, it is far more complicated and demanding than organizing an international theatre festival.

Despite all odds, I think we did a great job, and considering the outcomes, we are willing to go for it. So, we feel encouraged to persevere when we see the potential collaborations with other festivals in the world, translation projects to and from Turkish, invitations from some festivals which have already taken place, and academic gatherings, possible masterclasses, criticism workshops and so on. I hope this showcase will also alter the introverted perspective of some companies and remind them of the possibilities of staging their performances anywhere in the world. All these results are enough for us to be hopeful and enthusiastic for the next session.

Did you have the support you expected from the general public, from sponsors, from news outlets and from leading figures in the artistic community?

First of all, the showcase was not open to the general public. Critics and journalists were invited to the opening play; theatre students from three collaborating universities—Maltepe, İstanbul and Bahçeşehir Universities—and twenty participants for each criticism workshop, designed and run by Kritik Kolektif, were able to watch the plays. As the founders of Kritik Kolektif, Eylem Ejder and I conducted the second session of the criticism workshop, entitled heveskar, which means a person who wants to do something with genuine will and inspiration but without any professional training; we had hoped to meet non-professional theatre goers with whom we could share our feelings, reactions and feedback on the performances, and then write about this experience in various forms, including poetry, short stories, diaries, letters and so on.

In such a short time and under the given circumstances, we managed to conduct the showcase by arranging a few collaborations with friends. However, our showcase would have been impossible without TGA, who covered all travel and accommodation expenses, Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, who covered the fees for the companies, and Municipality Theatres and Bahçeşehir University, who generously offered their venues to us. During the course of the showcase, we found that we needed more sponsors, but since time was short, we had to cover the rest of the expenses with our own resources. 

Unsang Blues (Nihayet Makamı), written and directed by Burçak Çöllü. Altıdan Sonra  Tiyatro. Photo: Courtesy of the organizers

And what about the critics? Were they supportive and positively disposed toward your projects? Do you feel that they provided adequate support? And in general, are critics supportive of new trends that significantly impact Turkish theatre life? 

The main criticism we heard was the opposition to our being critics, but we have precedents for our position from different parts of the world. Since ours is the first showcase that has been organized in Turkey, none of us had a clear idea of how to design it or who should organize it. As of now, for our future projects, we will develop new methods, add more sections, search for more sponsors and make our showcase an even bigger event. The independent theatre is so immediate, vivid and influential that it is no longer possible for any critic to be indifferent.

Organizers and guests in front of the main gate of BAU, Bahçeşehir University, in the heart of Istanbul (Galata) that hosted a number of showcase activities. Photo: Courtesy of the organizers

Is it possible to identify some of your most active colleagues now working in Turkey? I dare not ask whether they make a living from writing reviews, but if they do, perhaps you could tell us how they manage it, so that the rest of us can try their same approach.

From the majority of women in the realm of theatre, I would like to mention Ayşegül Yüksel, an academic; Dikmen Gürün, the former director of Istanbul Theatre Festival and academic; Zeynep Oral, a researcher and journalist; Tijen Savaşkan, a researcher; Eylem Ejder, an academic and writer; Mehmet Kerem Özel, an architect and academic; Erdoğan Mitrani, a journalist; Handan Salta, an academic; Gülin Dede Tekin, an architect; and Bahar Çuhadar, a journalist. All of these people (with a majority of women again) work at other jobs as they continue to write theatre criticism. Finally, Yaşam Özlem Gülseven, a newcomer to the field, also works in other positions apart from writing theatre reviews. 


*Savas Patsalidis is Professor of Theatre Studies at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the Drama School of the National Theatre of Northern Greece. He is the author of fourteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year. His latest book-length study Theatre & Theory II: About Topoi, Utopias and Heterotopias was published in 2019 by University Studio Press. He has just finished a book on comedy (Comedy’s Encomium) which will be published in 2022 by University Studio Press. In addition to his academic activities, he writes theatre reviews for various ejournals. He is currently the president of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics, member of the curators’ team of Forest International Festival (organized by the National Theatre of Northern Greece) and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics.

Copyright © 2022 Handan Salta
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