Turkey: Theater and the State

Dust settles on the stage of the Kumaraci50 theater in Istanbul during the company's summer hiatus. (Photo: Kirsten O'Regan)

In any country hungry to establish a unified national identity, images and symbols have consistently proven indispensable cultural adhesives. Since the Turkish Republic's founding in 1923, artists have therefore been seen as influential public figures, their actions capable of reinforcing or undermining support for the state. So when Memet Ali Alabora—a prominent screen and stage personality—tweeted his support for the Gezi Park protests last month, something had to be done.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promptly accused Alabora of inciting unrest, while conservative daily Yeni Safak declared him a central figure in a plot to overthrow the government—alleging that a play that Alabora staged in Istanbul last December was really a "rehearsal" for Turkish revolution. In the aftermath, Alabora received anonymous death threats and hurriedly left Istanbul.

"For the Turkish state, the relationship with the symbolic function of art has always been an embattled one," says Banu Karaca, a cultural anthropologist at Sabanci University and co-founder of Siyah Bant, an organization dedicated to investigating censorship in the arts. Given theater's power as a collective experience and a non-literate form of communication, this artform has consistently been used as an ideological platform—the current state-subsidized system emerging as a tool to promulgate Ataturk's vision of a modern, Westernized state.

From the Republic's inception, the industry has been split between the private sector—now around 170 independent theaters, which receive nominal amounts from the government—and the entirely government-subsidized public sector. The latter comprises 13 state theater ensembles, which are under centralized control from Ankara and play on 58 stages across Turkey, and two dozen municipal theaters. These receive $63 million in state funds a year, and the consequently negligible ticket prices ensure they receive strong public support. In 2010, 6,000 or so performances reached an audience of 4.7 million and employed a staff of nearly 2,000.

But the Alabora affair is just one in a string of recent incidents in which the theater industry has faced political pressure from the AKP administration, and its future is now in doubt. In April 2011, an actor was summoned before the culture minister after supposedly insulting Erdogan's headscarf-wearing youngest daughter during a state theater performance. Then in April 2012, an allegedly obscene performance in Istanbul prompted the city's AKP-backed mayor to reform the municipal theaters, placing a civil servant rather than an artist in charge of repertory.

The following month, Erdogan threatened to withdraw state support entirely from the subsidised theaters. While this plan has ostensibly been dropped, a new proposal to overhaul the state theater system is currently in development. Details regarding the reforms are scarce, although a leaked draft suggests that the law will establish an arts-council model, placing an 11-person committee in charge of funding allocation.

Serdar Bilis, a Turkish-born theater director who has lived and worked in both London and Istanbul, is matter-of-fact about the current situation. "This is a witch hunt," he says. "For a lot of people I know, the climate is of suffocation." Bilis has been heavily involved in the current political protests. "What has given birth to all this Gezi spirit has been simmering in the background in terms of theater as well," he says, referring to the increasing sense that Erdogan's regime, committed as it apparently is to a neoliberal capitalist agenda informed by relatively conservative Muslim values, is increasingly restricting freedom of expression.

The sizeable theater industry has not suffered the AKP's attacks in silence. In December 2012, the International Theatre Critic's Association published a letter from their Turkish section condemning perceived oppression by the government. The critics listed among their grievances the new municipal theater administration and the closure of historic theaters in Istanbul. In April 2013, protests over the latter were dispersed with tear gas and water cannons, prompting the Turkish Actor's Union to condemn this crackdown and call for the theaters to be preserved. Despite the union's evident discontent and the recent discrediting of Alabora, their leader, no member was available for comment. This may be due to practical reasons—many are currently out of the city for summer—but also, according to one source, for fear of reprisals.

"This self-censorship is the most insidious and the most dangerous thing," says Bilis. "We always justify this, saying, 'We should be a bit careful, so they don't close us down.'" Erdogan's threats to do just that have only exacerbated these fears. Bilis himself, working for state and municipal theaters, has experienced varying degrees of governmental constraint. In one case, a production in Izmit involved drinking on stage and was promptly stopped. "The play might be talking about the most revolutionary ideas, but they won't be alarmed," he explains. Rather, it is "immoral" themes and symbols that receive most attention.

Selen Korad Birkiye, a deputy manager of the Istanbul State Theater responsible for repertoire, cautiously corroborates Bilis' claims. She stresses that such cases of intervention are unusual and generally due to erotic content or expletive language, whereas radical political criticisms are tolerated. But she acknowledges a shift under the AKP. "Now some subjects seem very delicate, such as homosexuality, polygamy, sexual workers, nakedness, sexual intercourse and heavy language," she says. "As a state theater we have always been careful about how to stage these subjects, but I think this is not enough anymore. And tolerance to the political criticism in the plays is very related to whom we criticize."

Censorship has always been present, but whereas previously criticism of the military, secularism and Ataturk were impossible, now it is conservative values that are protected. "The difference is [the Republican regime] liked building theaters in this country," explains Bilis. "Even if they couldn't fill them with creativity the entire time, they weren't against the idea." By contrast, Erdogan frequently invokes the archetype of the "elitist artist" as a means to polarize the country, and seems to consider theater both a financial burden and a political threat. Budgeting has become minutely itemized, and governmental influence—in the form of state bureaucrats increasingly involved in artistic management—has become pervasive.

Such centralized control is less of an issue for theaters outside the state system. Semavar Kumpanya is one such theater. Volkan M. Sarioz, a company actor and director, does not have much respect for the state's artistic sensibilities. "I think, personally, that the AKP has no cultural background," he says. "Their cultural appreciation is limited by their ideological perspective." But he insists that his company does not feel constrained by governmental control.

But as Karaca points out, direct bans are not the only available tool of censorship. Whereas previously subversion was supressed by the state, often by invoking Article 301, under the AKP "censorship is more diffuse. There are many more actors." Instead of bans, "we find that artistic expressions are being delegitimized, that the producers are being made into targets. ... People are being discouraged."

In 2010, private theater Kumbaraci50 was targeted. The resident company had lent the stage to a touring group, whose script involved an angel falling to earth and into a porn set. While the play was still in rehearsal, a conservative newspaper obtained its synopsis and proceeded to attack the theater on grounds of immorality. Kumbaraci50 soon received threats from neighborhood residents, and was swiftly closed down by local government on the pretext that they had no fire escape. The municipality soon reversed their decision, but the company, fearful of reprisals, cancelled the performance. The following season they wrote and staged a play that dramatized their censorship experience.

This kind of defiant, creative spirit stands in stark contrast to the swiftly ossifying state-subsidized scene. Theater industry insiders generally believe that private companies, because of their relative autonomy and urgent financial incentives, produce considerably better work than the public sector. "These state theaters, municipal theaters, are just a money job really for most of their actors," says Bilis, "So therefore it has become a very obedient and stale scene." Birkiye, too, suggests that the sheer quantity of state productions leads to a substantial drop in quality and creativity.

But Metin Bozcada, a retired stage manager at the state theater who still contracts work there, emphasises that the subsidized system has consistently supplied an important cultural service to the public. "The state theater is working the same as it has been for 60 years," he says. "But 60 years ago it was just in Ankara; now it works throughout Turkey." To Karaca, this broad dissemination of art is important, as is the fact that a steady income in the public sector allows artists to pursue unprofitable but creatively rewarding projects on the side. "The state theaters were very important because they gave the artists a home," she says.

The fact that AKP hostility has put this "home" at risk places those who would usually be outspoken in their criticism of the system's limitations in something of a bind. Both Bilis and Birkiye are wary of the law being drafted, expressing concern over the objectivity of the 11-person committee and its mode of selection."In a normal democratic society, I would be willing to discuss how we can replace or reform these institutions," says Bilis. "Because they need to be reformed, I agree. But in this climate of huge autocracy, we must defend the right of the municipal and the state theaters to exist as they are. We cannot even say that they should be reformed."

Although the Gezi resistance represents a movement in the right direction—a shaking free of the fear that paralyzed the artistic community after brutal crackdowns in the 1980s—those in the industry are aware that the consequences for dissent, as in the case of Alabora, can still be severe. "When you speak out, you become isolated and alone," Karaca says. "It is the isolation that comes from censorship that people fear."

Kirsten O'Regan is a freelance writer and NYU graduate student. Born in England and raised in South Africa and New Zealand, she is now reporting from Turkey.