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

There are two more plays that deserve special mention for a more universal appeal illustrative of Turkey’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 Theater, 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 Storyproduced 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 Castleproduced 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 Turkey; 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 Turkey 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 theater 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 theater festivals in Poland, Israel, Bulgaria, and Romania. It will also encourage its audiences to think about Türkiye’s complicated and checked past and reconnect them with forgotten historical heroes and heroines who remain startlingly modern.

In an email, Başar writes to me that despite a concern 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 theater medium.” Certainly, this suggests that the future of independent theater in Türkiye is being held by the young, despite that TheaterIST itself is a venture overseen by the elders in Türkiye’s independent theater 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 theater is getting a grip on Türkiye’s near-authoritarian society. And TheaterIST 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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