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Gathering Momentum: Türkiye’s Independent Theatre in President Erdoğan’s Near-Autocracy

TheatreIST, Türkiyes (the newly changed name of Turkey) independent theatre festival, has just had its first year in Istanbul (May 22). It was sponsored by the Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA) and İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality. Ragıp Ertuğrul, a much-loved playwright, director, and critic was the inspiration behind its birth but had to take time away due to a sudden illness. Thus the rest of the organizing committee—Handan Salta, Zerrin Yanıkkaya, Nihal Kuyumcu, Hasibe Kalkan and Gökay Genç (who was also the co-founder of Rest Tiyatro with Ertuğrul)—took up the leadership mantel to develop a successful event that included: thirteen performances; talks; panels; invited academics; journalists; and a wide range of festival directors and curators, from Canada to Israel. Sadly, I learned that in July, Ertuğrul unexpectedly passed away, to the deep distress of the theatre community in Türkiye and across the globe. However, its not wrong to say that the festivals inaugural success is and remains a testament to and a celebration of Ertuğruls innovative spirit and dedication to the progression of Türkiyes independent theatre scene.

Theatre is strong in that country—Istanbul alone has several hundred theatres and a snowballing independent sector. Politically and socially, the country feels like it is growing and flapping the wings of awareness. The rise of feminism to counter Türkiye’s appalling femicide record (three hundred women were killed in 2020) and the new wave of activists following Gezi Park—an environmental protest in 2013, which quickly became a protest against President Erdoğan’s rule—is driving the country forward, even if on-the-cusp autocrat Erdoğan and his AKP (the Justice and Development Party) seek to rein in such mobilizing forces.

It is worth noting that even as horrific examples of male-on-female domestic abuse were being caught on film, Erdoğan incomprehensibly withdrew Türkiye from the Istanbul Convention in 2021, a treaty meant to fight violence and domestic violence against women. It drew landmark protests from Turkish citizens, many of which were repressed. Even now, the president is seeking to quash groups highlighting the rights of women by trying to shut down the country’s We Will Stop Femicide platform, on the grounds that it is “damaging the family structure.” And since taking Erdoğan’s name in vain might land a person in jail, theatre has become not a retreat but a space to tackle Türkiye’s issues head-on and in a way that won’t gain artists a criminal record. Certainly, whilst the mainstream theatre sector is self-censoring or suffers censorship from the authorities, the independent sector is more daring. Salta, one of the organizing spirits and lights behind the festival, also impressed upon me the need for Türkiye to connect independent artists with platforms abroad and build a feasible sustainability program since the scene has suffered post-COVID as well as because of Gezi Park.

It is perhaps of no surprise that the festival felt female-led. The rise of female voices in theatre has also led to rising female critical voices. The project Feminist Endeavour, driven by Salta and Ejder in its search for plays about, for, and by women fed into this festival and provided a critical backbone. The focus was on hidden historical female activists, artivists, and writers, which formal Türkiye (Salta describes it as “seeming depressive and dark from the outside”) has been good at forgetting about. There was also much discussion about the audience bearing witness to atrocities that Türkiye officially still refuses to recognize, such as the Armenian Genocide in 1915. (This is a Mountain Story, the festival’s closing show, bore testament to this, as did the show Zabel and a part-dialogue, part-choral piece, Gomidas.)

The exterior of an arts center in Istanbul.

An arts center in the Anatolian part of Istanbul, Türkiye, that was utilized as a performance venue for TheatreIST 2022.

The shows were shown at disparate venues, including: Müze Gazhane, an old power plant converted into a massive arts center in the Anatolian part of Istanbul; Surp Vortvots Vorodman Church, a Byzantine Armenian Orthodox Church; and a pop-up arts venue in a closed-down corner shop in a residential area. It is curious that in my seven days in Istanbul, I did not step into a formal theatrical institution once—despite the city having hundreds of them. All the events were at independent venues, universities, or pop-up spaces (of which there are three hundred)—even though Istanbul Municipal Theatre (IMT), with twelve theatres and stages in the city, produced the show’s opener Labelled Coffin (or Yaftali Tabut). Vice artistic director of IMT Emrah Ozertem (who also happens to be the Turkish voice-over artist for Frodo in Lord of the Rings) told me that IMT wants to support the independent scene because “their future is our future.”

Labelled Coffin—IMT’s show about Fatma Nudiye Yalcı, Türkiye’s first female playwright—set the lost historical figures and feminist theme for the festival (featuring an all-female cast playing both male and female characters). Despite being central to the growth of feminism in Türkiye, little is known about Yalcı, who renounced her bourgeoise life during the Turkish social movement in the 1920s and 1930s and translated Marx into Turkish.

The play came about at the invitation of Mehmet Ergen, ex-director of the municipal theatre (and current artistic director of the Arcola in London, England and Talimhane Tiyatrosu, Istanbul). Despite being set in the past, the play has a clear contemporary parallel with the struggles of women activists today still trying to achieve gender parity within Turkish society. Director Yelda Baskin said in an interview that Türkiye should become more self-critical and reassess the traditional thinking around women’s rights.

IMT’s play set the scene for the next offering: Zabel by Boğaziçi Gösteri Sanatları Topluluğu (BGST), a creative company which came out of Bosphorous University in the early 2000s. A startlingly simple piece (a memory play, if you like), according to the writer and academic Ejder, it is an example of a metatheatrical and metahistorical text for which the group is known. The play explores the life of Zabel Yesayan, an Armenian writer and activist who was forced to run from Istanbul in 1915 during the Armenian Genocide and found herself, at the end of her life, imprisoned in a Soviet jail. This is where the play begins in its exploration of her past: In order to comfort herself, Zabel travels back in time to her memories of the several Armenian and Turkish women who, during the Ottoman period, helped shape her. Duygu Dalyanoğlu—one of the co-writers, actors, and ensemble members—tells me that memory is used as a mode of survival in feminist theatre and echoes the style of Zabel’s own writing.

This play is important for its show of female solidarity onstage and in real life and can be read as an exploration of the use of art and how it was, and is, manipulated by those in power. In one scene, an Armenian prison officer who also suffered during the persecution, tears Zabel apart for her writings of this period, inferring that Zabel profits from the misery of others. Zabel takes a different view, seeing herself as a witness and chronicler of all that has happened. In effect, we see that the prison officer is effectively brainwashed by the Soviet regime which tries to utilize art as a propaganda machine.

Zabel, meanwhile, represents the power of art to witness and remember—not as something that is merely agitprop. BGST, the company behind the show, is also suing the Ministry of Culture for not funding their work. Dalyanoğlu maintains that after the Gezi Park protests, which they as a company attended, they were put on a blacklist by the government. According to academic and critic Deniz Başar, “The problem with independent theatres is that their economic feasibility and survival is very difficult because of no funding and heavy taxing.”

Several audience members gathered on the street discussing the show with one another.

Audience members attending a performance of The Twelfth House by Melek Ceylan.

Staying with the female theme, a few days later was The Twelfth House by Melek Ceylan, with dramaturgy by Yaşam Özlem Gülseven. It is inspired by the Guided Autobiography (GAB) writing technique which Dr Muruvet Esra Yildirim introduced to Türkiye. Dr Yildirim is also content consultant on The Twelfth House. It is directed by Salih Usta and pushes the boundaries of women’s storytelling and how a female in contemporary Turkish society may struggle to find her voice, especially with the prevalence of violence towards women. The struggle which is caused by being voiceless is built into the very fabric of how the story is told and performed by Ceylan: She acts in a former corner shop in a conservative area of Istanbul performing in the window wearing nothing but a bra and pants shouting out her story through thick glass.

According to Gülseven, the production stands at the “junction of contemporary documentary theatre and physical theatre.” This is seen as the show goes on. Ceylan can’t make herself heard by the audience seated opposite her outside on the noisy street and is forced to write and trace the map of her life using drawings and sentences scribed in a blue marker on the window. In time, water courses down the glass and washes the memories away as fast as Ceylan tries to rewrite them.

At some point in the play Ceylan shouts, “I will tell you about the burden of being a woman in this country.” Ordinarily, such words shouted out on a formal stage would not be quite so shocking as they were here. Many times, men passing by on scooters or by foot stopped almost in shock at the apparition of a half-naked woman performing to an audience on the street and at one point the police arrived and sat for a good while before moving on.

In the end, such unassuming, accidental audience members blurred the boundaries between performance and real-life. They seemed to enjoy it and had humorous reactions, as the show itself was also physically comical. Dr Yilidirim told me that this is a direct result of the Gezi Park movement where—for the first time – activists used humor, cheerfulness, and comedy as weapons of protest. “We can’t forget Gezi Park, and neither can the government,” says Dr Yilidirim. Ceylan wants to form “a narrative in which a woman tells her life story behind the glass without hiding her body, which is experimental in terms of content and form.”

In the spirit of remembrance, the performance of Unsung Blues (Nihayet Makamı) by Kumbaracı50 company, written by Burçak Çöllü, highlighted the feminist secret history of Türkiye and the Ottoman Empire. This show explores the relationship between two characters: Sehvar, a famous white, straight, Turkish poet who is a “Chpteyzesi” or “Aunty of the Republican People’s Party” (in other words, educated, narrow-minded, arrogant, and monied); and her fictional relationship with her servant Sabriye, a composer in love with Sehvar who goes off to become a resistance fighter during the Ottoman Empire’s collapse.

After the speed of the previous shows, this was a slow-down; a meditative poetic performance inviting the audience to reflect on the profound meanings of the play (it was performed in old Turkish, which has deeper and more oblique meanings than the modern-day language) and the collapse of the Empire. Its structure seemed, at first, overly classical, and it was the first play with a fully designed set (in independent theatre in Türkiye, it is not always possible to afford this). It cleverly took in its audience because its composition consisted of elliptical scenes going backwards and forwards in time told from the perspective of the fictional Sabriye. This is complicated by the fact that Sabriye may or may not have been fantasizing to herself about her relationship with Sehvar.

Çöllü, who also directed the show, tells me that the play’s structure borrows from Türkiye’s Islamic-Mediterranean civilization and is similar to maqam music in that there are no strong cadences, beginnings, or endings. She adds that the play is a metaphor—not made by the theatremakers themselves but by the circumstances of the period that it represents. She believes that though Türkiye is nearly an autocracy, people still feel they have the power to change things if they can be well-organized.

Three bearded men dance around each other in a circle under a spotlight onstage.

Performance of We (Turkish: Biz), a dance piece produced by Cafetürc.

There are two more plays that deserve special mention for a more universal appeal illustrative of Türkiye’s esoteric culture whilst being anchored in the spaces between critical theory and contemporary performing arts: the dance pieces We (Biz) and This is a Mountain Story (Sar). Experiencing We, produced by Cafetürc, after watching text-heavy works, was something of a revelation—though it may have been more of a revelation for someone like me who is unused to semah dance and the philosophies of Alawi-Bektashi (an Islamic Sufi mystic movement). The piece featured three men and one live musician, Cem Yildiz, who was reinterpreting the Anatolian aşık music tradition using more psychedelic and acid elements. Its narrative was constructed around the themes of loss and the belief that “we undo one another,” inspired by text from Judith Butler’s Precarious Life.

As with the practice of Belarus Free Theatre, which uses physical performance to draw audiences closer to the performers, this show explored “kinesthetic empathy.” The male dancers were physically entwined with one another in a manner that could not be defined as homoerotic or heterosocial and begged us to have sympathy. It was also possible to focus on the tactility of the bodies presented onstage in a mode of, according to Bedirhan Dehmen from Cafetürc, physical listening or “combining the mundane-interpersonal with the spiritual-transcendental.”

Such was the experience of watching This is a Mountain Story, produced by dance company Çak, about two friends growing up in the same culture on a mountain” where there is a story” that Turkish audiences are not so unfamiliar with. All of these are euphemisms for the Armenian Genocide, which still cannot be named on Turkish stages. The mountain refers to Mount Ararat, the scene of the Turkish-Armenian war in 1920, which was also a haven for Kurds in the late 1920s from the Turkish state.

At this moment in the piece, one man enters in the darkness and hauls himself under a massive sheet of paper, covering the entire playing space at Bahçeşehir University’s theatre. In time, with his body, he molds the paper into a huge mountain and lifts it onto his shoulders before trying, successfully, to scrunch it up into a black bin sack. The effect is esoteric, catastrophic, and metaphorical for the haphazard, careless way in which humankind treats itself and all life.

There were many more shows in the festival which deserve a mention but which there is not space to delve deeper into: Under the Castle, produced by Fiziksel Tiyatro Araştırmaları, a buffoon clown piece about two laundry womens take on Macbeth; Song of the Lusitanian Bogey, produced by CAS company, which instigated a heated debate about race in Türkiye; Bulgakovs Heart of a Dog (Kopek Kalbi) by Küçük Salon, a surreal expressionistic experimental piece; Godot Doesn’t Come to Us (Godot Bize Gelmez) by company Karagöz Sanat Atölyesi, a humorous adult-orientated puppet show; Macbeth by Tiyatro BeReZe company, another experimental Macbeth translation; Gomidas, which focuses on a composer struggling during the Armenian Genocide; and The Belly-dancer (Dansöz) by Mek’an company, a show about the male gaze.

Salta told me that the festival has ambitions to expand to other cities in Türkiye and to include more voices from marginalized groups such as the Kurds, Syrians, and other refugees who dont have a voice in the country. She maintains that theatre must carry on asking questions about the past, make peace with it, and help create a new Türkiye—in spite of the fact that the Gezi Park event was a catalyst for the government of the day to choose a different, darker path.

The independent sector is part of a rising trend that has been gathering on the shores of change for twenty years. It can, and will, grow in momentum. Many of its shows have already been invited to theatre festivals in Poland, Israel, Bulgaria, and Romania. It will also encourage its audiences to think about Türkiye’s complicated and checkered past and reconnect them with forgotten historical heroes and heroines who remain startlingly modern.

In an email, Başar writes to me that despite a worry that the artists coming out of the 2010s have become famous and are mainstream, “there are also people in their early twenties who are emerging as a generation with their own troubles that they express in the theatre medium.” Certainly, this suggests that the future of independent theatre in Türkiye is being held by the young, despite that TheatreIST itself is a venture overseen by the elders in Türkiye’s independent theatre scene.

Many of the productions in this showcase were produced by young people vehemently expressing their political and artistic will through the theatrical medium. From the boldness of BGST company, who regularly take the government to court, to the quiet determination of Altıdan Sonra Tiyatro company, to the experimentalism of the team behind The Twelfth House, independent theatre is getting a grip on Türkiye’s near-authoritarian society. And TheatreIST itself—which proposes to return next year with all its provocations, deep questioning, and celebration of Turkish society—certainly deserves greater coverage from international critics in the future.

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