The Quest of Turkey’s Independent Theatres

Savas Patsalidis*

TheatreIST Showcase, 11–17 March 2024, Istanbul, Turkey.

A theatrical showcase of independent groups, producers and artists is always of special interest because one has an opportunity to see, in compressed form, what is happening in the wider theatrical landscape. Never completely inclusive, with complaints always from those left out, such events are especially important for countries whose theatre is not widely known. All this was certainly true for the Second Showcase of Independent Groups held in Istanbul, Turkey, this past March.

Showcase 2024

For this special showcase event, twelve shows were selected, playing in different venues scattered over the city. Interestingly, only one took place in a purely theatre venue (Anti-Prometheus). Most of the performances could be described as “handmade” with settings either non-existent or so simple that they could be easily put up, taken down and moved around. This is “poor” (Grotowski-like) theatre in the literal sense of the term, poor from an economic point of view. Needless to say, independent theatres in Turkey are not subsidized. This reality, combined with the structures used, could also be an explanation for the absence from most shows of any complex, demanding and time-consuming high-tech inclusions.

Nihal Yalçın, and Onur Berk Arslanoğlu in The Freak. Photo: Courtesy of TheatreIST 2024 (visual artists Amir Ahmadoghlu and Burak Dirgen). Photo: Salih Üstündağ

One of the few shows that made extensive use of technology was The Freak, an immersive, surrealist performance with text by Firuze Engin, combining narration with a digital installation and animated 3D projections. Presented in a former cinema (the renovated Alkazar Theatre), the show’s central figure is an ugly creature called Shiva who wanders between past and present accompanied by a chicken cursed with immortality. Constantly bickering, the two characters (played with brio by Nihal Yalçın and Omur Berk Arslanoğlu) blend various acting styles pairing fairy tale and high-tech. Directed by Güray Dinçol, the production cleverly exploited the potential of multiculturalism (Arab, Armenian, Persian, among others), fairy tale and surreal aesthetics in order to comment on issues of inclusion and exclusion as well as on issues of physical presence and digital absence.

Most of the Showcase’s events were solo or small-cast performances, almost all with texts by Turkish writers. The exceptions here were adaptations of Western classics ranging from Goldoni (Servant of Two Masters), to Aeschylus (Prometheus) and Lorca (The House of Bernarda Alba). Three of the shows featured female directors (Şahika Tekand, Naz Erayda—collaborating with her husband Kerem Kurdoğlu—and Gülhan Kadim) and five were themselves based on the work of female writers.

Elif Ongan Tekçe in her solo performance How Did You Know the Deceased?. Photo: Courtesy of TheatreIST 2024

In general, almost all the productions showed a tendency towards narrative theatre (post-dramatic), with frequent addresses to the audience, a strong element in modern Turkish theatre. How Did You Know the Deceased—written and tellingly performed by Elif Ongan Tekçe and directed by Güray Dinçol—was a good example, a story of the Dead sleeping silently underground waiting to be heard again by the living.

The poster of Bernarda. Photo/poster: Mert Şendoğdu, courtesy of TheatreIST

Bernarda (adapted from Lorca by Pelin Temur) was a solo performance with Ozge Arslan playing five different roles, which won for her a Best Performance award from the Turkish Theatre Critics Association. In my own view, while this dispersion of roles may have provided enough acting space for Arslan to show her transformative skills, it somehow weakened her powerful portrayal of the original Bernarda, an oppressive and abusive mother figure. However, the applause of the crowd at the end was so warm that it made me wonder whether my ignorance of the language had deprived me of many of the virtues of this gifted performer.

Several of the shows featured playful meta-theatrical elements while others utilized both music and dance. The Last Day, for example, directed by Naz Erayda and Kerem Kurdoğlu, and presented at a former shoe factory—now a cultural hub “Beykz Kundura”—dramatized the odyssey of two lonely denizens (played by Esme Madra and Ozan Çelik Ozan), who walk the streets of a big, “Kafkaesque” city together but never speak to one another. They simply pursue their lonely urban adventures like well-tuned robots. The city itself—with its sounds and its urban music—was inventively rendered by a small band (Tophane Noise Band) which periodically invaded the stage to become part of the city culture, its painful recycling of life, its monotonous and immutable soundscapes. A spectacle utilizing dance and music, this was a clear example of hybrid (interdisciplinary) theatre. Another example was In Vain by Onur Hamilton Karaoğlu, which takes its name from Mahzuni Serif’s song Bosu Bosuna. Indeed, during the performance, the audience itself is led to create its own collective anthology in the ashik (poetic) tradition.

Esme Madra and Ozan Çelik Ozan, the protagonist-walkers in the dystopian world of The Last Day. Photo: Beykoz Kundura Sahne, courtesy of TheatreIST

A few of the performances certainly had an aura of political protest and social discontent about them, but not in an overt or aggressive way. Most criticism entered the stories in an oblique way. It is perhaps worth noting in this regard that the Turkish theatre as a whole—after the 2013 Gezi Park uprising—has tended to follow a bold and ideologically restless line, touching upon burning political and social issues, but one always sensitive to the need not to endanger its own very existence.

Ismail Sağır, Meriç Rakalar, and Murat Kapu, in Single-Use Story. Photo: Sedef Turuns, courtesy of TheatreIST

More obvious were issues dealing with identity, ecology and sexuality as seen, for example, in Single-Use Story by Volkan Çıkıntoğlu, directed by Gulhan Kadim, a fast-paced black comedy with socio-political concerns particularly related to climate change. Filled with humour and improvisational brio, the stories of its three very lively and energetic protagonists nevertheless needed more polishing to thicken the central idea: what the hectic life of a mega city like Istanbul does to people. More focus might have more effectively helped round up its desired socio-political and ecological aims.

Poster of Nifas. Photo: Simru Hazal Civan. Poster design, Gizem Köroğlu, courtesy of TheatreIST

Misket, for its part, was a two-character play written by Turgay Korkmaz, directed by Kayhan Berkin and presented in the converted shoe factory on the outskirts of Istanbul. Focusing on the difficulties faced by a same-sex couple in the haze of modern Ankara, the work was more bold and interesting than it was dramatically strong.

Nifas, written by Sirin Oten and directed by Erdal Baran Sahn, also had a viable idea—postnatal depression—but its dramaturgical treatment also remained on the surface. The author did not try to descend into the depths of the story in order to enrich the drama experienced by the family with more layers of meaning. As a result, we never learn enough about the central character to care deeply, while most of the issues around her conflict were simply left suspended.

Orkuncan Izan and Turgay Korkmaz in Misket. Photo/poster: Emre Yyunusoğlu. Photo: Faraza Tiyatro, courtesy of TheatreIST

For me, the highlight of the Showcase was the performance How to Forget in Ten Steps (Anti-Prometheus), created by the well-known director and founder of Studio Oyuncuları (1990), Şahika Tekand, whose work Oedipus was previously seen at the Delphi Festival in 2002 and whose Oedipus in Exile played two years later at the same venue. Ancient Greek drama seems to be her passion: she also staged Cry of Eurydice in 2006 and a first version of How to Forget in Ten Steps in 2010. It was this latter production that was presented in a reworked form for this year’s Showcase.

How to Forget in Ten Steps (Anti-Prometheus). Light design: Şahika Tekand. Photo: Studio Oyuncuları, courtesy of TheatreIST, 2024

Tekand has developed over time a unique stage language for managing light, voice, space and performing bodies. Each of her staging choices underlines the temporality of the event through both the physical presence of the actors and the objects they manage. All acquire a special performative weight, like the many chairs in Anti-Prometheus which appear at times as a weight, at other times as an object related to the status of the carrier and at still other times as an object of desire. Instead of the mythical rock, these actors (like modern Sisyphuses) carry chairs on their backs, hoping one day to free themselves from the “prison,” the system in which they live. But wherever they go, the “lights” of their cells remain flashing, reminding them always of their limits. In the end, they live only on promises.

How to Forget in Ten Steps (Anti-Prometheus). Light design: Şahika Tekand. Photo: Studio Oyuncuları, courtesy of TheatreIST, 2024

With this prison image in mind, the director stays away from the realistic portrayal of the characters and opts for flat, automated bodies that execute and perform everything in perfect coordination, obeying—like a modern version of Peter Handke’s Kaspar—the commands of invisible prompters dictating how they should live and act. Those who have lost the will to resist are simply dragged along, treated as dummies. Unlike the liberating disobedience of the ancient Prometheus, the strategies of modern biopolitics are leveling here for Tekand. All exits are closed. Nowhere is there room for escape or transgression. The tempo never changes, monotonous, exhausting.

How to Forget in Ten Steps (Anti-Prometheus). Light design: Şahika Tekand. Players: Cem Bender, Nedim Zakuto, Özgur Özkurt, Enes Demirkapi, Altay Içimsoy and Bahattin Genç. Photo: Studio Oyuncuları, courtesy of TheatreIST, 2024

My only reservations have to do with the size of the venue: it was too large for the piece. The feelings of imprisonment and entrapment would have been more intense and immediate had the performance been in a smaller space. Nevertheless, this was a truly mesmerizing experience, brilliantly performed by a team of six well-rehearsed actors. A difficult journey well worth taking.

In summary, this second edition of Turkey’s Showcase of Independent Groups showed that despite all their financial, housing and political problems, Turkish theatre people are continuing to explore new developments and are moving ever closer to what has been happening on recent European stages. It is acknowledging changes and anxieties and moving forward on issues that concern individual rights, freedom of expression and censorship. 

*Savas Patsalidis is Professor Emeritus in Theatre Studies at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. 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.  In 2022 his latest book-length study Comedy’s Encomium: The Seriousness of Laughter, was published by University Studio Press.  He is on the Executive Committee of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics  and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics.

Copyright © 2024 Savas Patsalidis
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