World Tour: Turkey

  •  Published on: 17/04/2016


The aim of this text is to develop a general point of view over the theater, dance and movement scene in Turkey. The selection of content has been made in consideration of such factors as the qualities of the ensembles, differences or innovations observed in aesthetical tendencies, production themes, theater stages and the remarkable changes that have taken place in recent years. Although as many ensembles and productions as possible have tried to be covered, due to space constraints, the scope of this essay has been inevitably restricted to the alternative theater stages and pieces which are different with regards to the aforementioned topics. Since most of the performing arts in Turkey are produced in Istanbul, the examples and observations have been geographically limited.

Turkey is becoming politically and, therefore, socially more conservative day by day. People try to stay alive and produce/consume arts with patience and faith in a discriminative surrounding, which is marked by a culture of hate instigating hostility, where doing democratic politics is becoming impossible, where the right to self-advocacy, being visible in community, voicing and debating unwanted issues without obscuring them is considered either a crime or immoral, where public opposition is repressed in an atmosphere of censorship, physical/psychological violence, murder and terror. Despite this background as well as the political and social problems that are felt more widely all over the country each passing day, the 2015-2016 season started with surprising speed and intensity. Still going on with the same pace as well…

Everyday two sides of Istanbul come together. From Asia to Europe and from Europe to Asia...Each side has its own formation and history. With respect to performing arts, it would be proper to state that the European side has been the favorite from the very past. However, the Asian side, particularly with its Kadıköy district, has recently transformed into an area where social life and cultural life meet. It can be noticed that one of the reasons for this change –although not the only one- is the complete transformation around the Taksim/Beyoğlu area, which constitutes one of the centers of the European side of the city.  Because the place has a trace; it structures and positions, addressing the senses and memory. Places are being constructed, being pulled down and being re-constructed again. 

Speaking of the alternative theater spaces in Istanbul, the images to pop up in one’s mind immediately are those of a cozy place with an authentic atmosphere, a small cafe in the foyer, a stage with an audience capacity of 60-70 seats, a small or low-ceilinged space for plays which looks like a laboratory stage or a studio… There is no state support, and some of the projects are occasionally produced with the contributions of individual sponsors and voluntary donators. Some theater stages attempt to generate funds by launching membership cards or hosting guest plays for the favor of the space. A work discipline based on collective and horizontal hierarchy, a young and dynamic crew, research and development, international and local collaborations, interdisciplinary work… Performance halls such as Galata Perform, Kumbaracı 50, Çıplak Ayaklar Stüdyosu, Kadıköy Terminal Sahne, 2. Kat, Tiyatro D 22, Tatavla Sahne, Şermola Performans and Kadıköy Theatron can be given as examples, which have passed through a similar course although they were founded at different times in a span of 10 years.

It is obvious that the theater space is a very important factor for the sustainability of the company running/operating that space. First of all, it provides a common space for rehearsal and supports the capacity of the ensemble to create a repertory. However, it also becomes apparent in time that “this place” does not constitute an important environment only for the host company but also for the other companies performing there and the audience that embraces the space somehow.  Using a common space enables visiting productions to have visibility on the one hand and provides a budget for the company, which runs the place on the other hand. These spaces also host different workshops and classes on performing arts. They are used for residencies or made available for free use at times. The plays tailored for specific stages or designed in a certain way because of the specific properties of the stages point to a reality in Turkey: The inspiration and creativity which emerges in an attempt to find solutions vis–à–vis challenging conditions…

The issue of urban transformation has almost become indispensable in Istanbul because the city, which is continually rebuilt, has become “a center of pulled-down and reconstructed buildings” according to the trend of urban transformation, and the wishes of the political and commercial powers.  As a consequence, the number of closed-down theater spaces and companies forced to abandon their buildings is increasing. However this situation does not seem to have intimidated the artists; they have come up with answers to the question “how can we move on?” and they have even started to found their own theaters utilizing the very urban transformation process.  There are three examples, which are quite visible. For instance, since the building Tiyatro Kast had been residing in was sold, they have been using Kadıköy Terminal Theater, which they were already in collaboration with. Another example is Mekan Artı, which transformed one of the halls of the historical Şafak cinema in Çemberlitaş into a theater stage when their own space in Elmadağ had to be closed down. Lastly, Moda Sahnesi has come back to life after the renovation of the Moda cinema, which had been in use in Kadıköy for 40 years although in dire need of care and reconstruction. The space has been rebuilt from scratch and, besides two small studios, a modular hall has been constructed, which can be re-arranged according to stage requirements for theater and dance performances or concerts with an audience capacity of over 250. 

The concepts such as urban transformation and gentrification can be directly seen in the performances. The examples from this season are as follows: Yalınayak Müzikhol (Barefoot Musichall), performed by Altıdan Sonra, focuses on displaced music hall workers and their process of becoming a partner to the Kumbaracı 50 stage. Cambazın Cenazesi (Acrobat’s Funeral), performed by 2.Kat, discusses the transformation of an old, inherited house with fruit trees in its garden to a housing estate. İz (Stain), directed by Yeşim Özsoy Gülan from GalataPerform, gathers various characters from the multi-layered culture and geography of Istanbul in the same theatrical space. Tiyatro TEM’s play Beraber ve Solo Şarkılar from 2010 associates memory and space. The performance called Dans Etmek Ya da… (To dance or…), created by the choreographer Ayrin Ersöz in 2010,  carries the Romani culture from the Ottoman Era to the present,  identifying a demolished urban area and  a form of dance.

When speaking of outer space use, the examples which strike as remarkable are as follows: Likit Politika (Liquid Politics), which is a street performance by Gonca Gümüşayak, based on the images of the Gezi Park actions in 2013, and explores the issues of public space and civil initiatives.  Tiyatro Artı’s play Hayaletler, Seni Kim Gözetliyor? (Ghosts) performed by one of the audience members walking with a smartphone in the streets of Karaköy, and the series of plays named O’ndan Sonra (After her, after that) produced with a similar idea again in the streets of Karaköy. Lastly, the dance performance Gövde Gösterisi (Show of Strength) choreographed by Tuğçe Tuna –an artist generally working on site-specific performances. In this last example, the yard of İstanbul St.Pulcherie Lycee and almost all of the school’s area is used for the performance, and the audience follows the performers during the entire show.

When the concept of alternative theater began to be used in Turkey in the 90’s, it was used with the aim to point to companies researching new possibilities in terms of form and content. It would be appropriate to recall the major companies from that era such as Kumpanya, 5. Sokak Tiyatrosu, Bilsak Tiyatro Atölyesi and Tiyatro Oyunevi although they have not been producing under the same name or have been disassembled for a long time. Today the definition of “alternative theater” is easy to use and its examples are familiar to watch for the audience; however, this was not the case then. This ground provided a positive starting point for the companies founded after the 2000’s.  Another important factor is that the mechanism of research, development and criticism is more effective today. In the 90’s there were directors and actors researching within the scope of their own defined theater style more informally, or directors and actors working at different institutions professionally but eager to engage in alternative practices at the same time. In the 2000’s, also as a result of the increasing number of acting departments at universities, the number of young companies made up of graduate students who come together and start to create pieces immediately after their graduation has significantly increased.

The companies and artists which are quite active and visible today can be grouped as follows: Stüdyo Oyuncuları, Aydın Teker (choreographer) and Emre Koyuncuoğlu (director) started to create pieces before 2000. Hareket Atölyesi, Ve Diğer Şeyler Topluluğu (Galata Perform), TALdans, Semaver Kumpanya (Çevre Tiyatrosu), Tiyatro TEM, Tiyatro Boyalı Kuş, Talimhane Tiyatrosu, Oyunbaz and Seyyar Sahne were established in the first half of the 2000’s. Altıdan Sonra Tiyatro (Kumbaracı 50), Çıplak Ayaklar Kumpanyası, Mezopotamya Dans, noland/Esra Yurttut (dancer/choreographer), Dot, biriken, Tiyatro Kast, Tiyatro Adam, Tiyatro BeReZe, Tiyatro Neki/Merve Engin and Esmeray started to make pieces circa 2005. Tiyatro D22, 2. Kat, Tiyatro Hal, Kadro Pa, Gnlev, Moda Sahnesi, İstanbulimpro (Kadıköy Terminal Sahne), Tiyatro Tatavla (Tatavla Sahne), Destar Tiyatro (Şermola Performans), Tiyatro Artı (Mekan Artı), Ekip Tiyatrosu, Tiyatro Hal, Craft, Karma Drama and Bulutiyatro were founded between 2010 and 2013. Cazu Tiyatro (Kadıköy Theatron), Berika/Can Bora, Tatbikat Sahnesi, Gizem Aksu (dancer/choreographer) and Bedirhan Dehmen (dancer/choreographer) became more visible by 2015.

A general overview of the plays staged by the companies in Istanbul seems to relate to the main theme of “violence in micro and macro scales”. The sub-themes under this main theme are sexual identity, gender, sexual taboos, fascism, conflicts between different ethnic origins, belonging, alienation, identity formation, realizing self identity, human rights/violations and struggles, social consciousness and exploitation, individual and the effects of capitalism, individual and the domineering effect of power, rules and anomaly, changes in ethical values, confrontation and/or revenge or challenge, terror, local panic, justice, law, crime, daily life, trying to keep up in the modern city. There are also plays focusing on the recent history of Turkey with a critical approach among all these themes.   

It is an already known fact that alternative theaters prefer to stage the plays they write themselves in their own spaces. However, it would also be proper to emphasize the increase in the number of new Turkish writers and companies writing and staging their own plays since 2010. These contemporary playwrights from Turkey such as Yiğit Sertdemir, Mirza Metin, Ahmet Sami Özbudak, Sami Berat Marçalı, Berkay Ateş, Ayşe Bayramoğlu, Ebru Nihan Celkan, Ufuk Tan Altunkaya, Didem Kaplan, Cem Uslu and Turgay Doğan seem to be quite adept at conveying the current state of affairs in Turkey. Moreover, different contemporary theatre script projects conducted by ensembles such as Dot, Destar, Altıdan Sonra Tiyatro and Galataperfom in collaboration with diverse writers and directors open a creative space for emerging playwrights. One example of these initiatives is the “New Text/New Theater” project, which has been gradually developing and flourishing since 2006. Writing a new script seems to be dependent on the process of staging. Contemporary stage scripts are formed also in consideration of the dimension of acting, and the use of body and movement. It also seems that an increasing number of productions are based on the physicality of performance.

As mentioned at the beginning of the text, some of the different tendencies in the theater scene can be summarized as follows. Working with a crowded crew, Tiyatro Adam develops a detailed approach to movement/choreography, and emphasizes the use of an epic language and musical qualities as in the plays 5. Frank and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.  Semaver Kumpanya shows two tendencies in terms of its staging style: The first style is used in plays such as Method and Facts, which are more compact with 3 or 4 actors; the second style can be illustrated with plays such as Birds and Titus Andronicus, which have a dense group energy, use movement and body language to a great extent, and are almost like a musical performance. Dot has become an important theater in terms of bringing the concept of in-yer-face theater to the agenda, helping to popularize the playwrights producing in this genre, and developing an experimental approach to stage and movement design. Performing Zinnie Harris’s Midwinter lately, Dot has staged the plays of writers such as David Greig, Lucy Kirkwood, Dennis Kelly, Bryony Lavery and Mark Ravenhill since it was established. Tiyatro TEM has regained a characteristic place in the theatre scene by merging traditional genres, cabaret and contemporary theater for more than 10 years in plays such as Gündüz Niyetine (Mutual Dreams) and The Tragedy of Richard III. Mezopotamya Dans explores the past and current stories of the Alevite and Kurdish cultures as in their last performance Leyla, based on the life of the first Kurdish dancer Leyla Bedirxan. Founded in 2008, DestAR Tiyatro experiments with theater researches, stages productions based on Kurdish stories which are performed in the Kurdish language in order to contribute to the Kurdish theater experience. Hareket Atölyesi is an ensemble which does theoretical and practical research in every project. It is composed of members from different age groups and backgrounds, and derives its stage language from ensemble members’ personal cognitive and body memories, using all kinds of media if required although the body forms the center of the aesthetics. Their latest project Kül-kadın (Cind-Woman) proves that this approach has matured. The performance company biriken, constituted by Melis Tezkan and Okan Urun, creates a different stage set-up in each project using various tools of video, installation and performance. Using original or adapted scripts, biriken shows the tides in the world of character/role/identity. Berika/Can Bora produces interdisciplinary pieces such as Dantel and Kam, composed with techniques such as dance/theater, video, animation and Blue Screen. In Moda Sahnesi, director Kemal Aydoğan creates a distinctive atmosphere, using the scripts of writers such as Maritz Rinke, Sibylle Berg, Koffi Kwahule, Stefan Tsanev and Koltes together with a group of actors who have proven themselves in cinema and television productions. Semih Fırıncıoğlu has shown an effective example of a site specific work with his Uçuruma Doğru Lezzet Lokantası (A Delicatessen on the Brink) -a dance theater performance designed for Salt Karaköy at the beginning of this season. He presented an eclectic performance with young and powerful dancers, of which the musical dramaturgy was also an important part.

It also seems that workshops and education programs have been considered to be at least as important as the space, company and performance in recent years. A new field is emerging which diverges from the classical structure, focuses on different forms of acting and movement, and tries to satisfy the need to deepen in specific styles. There is also an increase in the number of practices carried out in the summer period. In this respect, Tiyatro Medresesi is a significant example founded on the basis of the idea of a performance research center. Organizing workshops, theater camps, panels and conferences, Tiyatro Medresesi aims to   underscore the importance of theatre research in Turkey, to provide a means for artists from different disciplines and the audience to meet, and to establish a creative space where artists can play with their boundaries. Some of the camps held in Tiyatro Medresesi this summer were as follows: “Suzuki–Viewpoints–Composition: Physical Theater and Creative Process” (Fatih Gençkal); “International Michael Chekhov Workshop” (Ulrich Meyer-Horsch); “Towards Solo Performance” (Aleksandra Kazazou); “Movement, Action and Dialog” (Celal Mordeniz and Erdem Şenocak).

From the author’s point of view, many questions emerged throughout the writing of this text, which relate to the issues of theater, dance, artist, audience, the meaning of making arts, the spaces in which art is produced, criticism, cultural policies, the relation between arts and power, the relation between arts and the state, and the relation between arts and individual/social policies. These questions –perhaps once more- have proven the author that making and engaging in arts in Turkey means a field of total and vital challenge, labor and expression. Although the working conditions, working methods and aesthetics resulting from the necessity to create your own cultural politics consistently seem riveting… Although the decisiveness to build sustainability and find out solutions surprises… This goes on… Always with hope…


Evren Erbatur, dramaturg – researcher

She was born in Istanbul in 1978. After graduating from Department of Theater Criticism and Dramaturgy (Istanbul University, 2000), she graduated from Yıldız Technical University Arts and Design Faculty, Department of Arts Master program (2005, “The Role of The Dramaturgy of The Body in Performing Arts"). She works on her PHD dissertation that is about new dramaturgies & dance dramaturgy.   She gives a lecture about dance dramaturgy at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University Contemporary Dance Department since 2012. She worked at Maltepe University, Fine Arts Faculty Acting Department between 2005 and 2011. She writes articles and critics for art magazines, makes workshops and gives seminars about the dramaturgy of the body and, the relationship between acting and dramaturgy, and also works with choreographers and directors. She works on the idea of “dramaturgical structure”, and researches the relationship of movement, text, space and etc. in her projects, such as “Slip-up”, “Pandora”, “The Voice of the Flesh”, “Academic Injuries”, “The Hall”, “The Moment That I came back”.