To celebrate or not to celebrate World Theater Day

To celebrate or not to celebrate World Theater Day

Emrah Güler
To celebrate or not to celebrate World Theater Day “Theater, one which is grounded in truth and which finds its end in the inexplicable, that I wish for all its workers, those on the stage and those in the audience, and I wish that with all my heart.” Each year, the International Theatre Institute releases an official message for World Theater Day celebrated on March 27. This year’s message, featuring the well-wishing sentence above, was from Polish theater director Krzysztof Warlikowski.

What is generally, across the globe, a day of celebration might just turn out to be a day of protests, embittered press statements and simple dismay in the face of increasing oppression, censorship and a draft law that has been hanging over the heads of theater professionals (among others pursuing employment in arts and culture) like the sword of Damocles for a year now.

The talk on the draft law passing might be in a stupor now until the general election in June, but the swift appointments and resignations, censorship and closing down of theaters has now become the norm, especially in subsidized Turkish State Theaters. The draft law offers to bring the controversial 11-member Turkish Art Institution (TÜSAK) committee under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Subsidizing the theater has been a tradition in Turkey for nearly a century, with the Istanbul Municipal Theater opening in 1931, and a tradition which has been criticized time and again for the quality of the productions, repetitiveness, favoritism and overstaffing. The resignation of the General Director of the State Theaters, as well as other theater directors, mostly on grounds of censorship, has become a tradition for the last couple of years as well.

“Abusive and erotic expression” is at the top of the list for grounds of censorship, including plays like “Güneş Batarken Bile Büyük” (The Sun is Even Large During Sunset), written and directed by veteran stage actor and playwright Kazım Akşar, and “One Flew Over the Kosovon Theater” (translated into Turkish as “Geçtim Ama Tiyatrodan”), written by Kosovon playwright Yeton Neziray.

History repeating itself

Not only state theaters, but also private theaters have been standing on slippery ground for over a year, with the financial aid they had been accustomed to receiving from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism cut indiscriminately. Participating in and showing support for the Gezi Park protests of May 2013 was a major reason for financial punishment.

Many prominent and long-standing theaters, such as the Ankara Sanat Tiyatrosu (Ankara Art Theater), the Dostlar Theater, Ortaoyuncular and Theater Kare are among the supporters of the Gezi protests who have had to say farewell to financial aid from the government. The list of recipients of financial support from the ministry are mostly unknown names, with some of the companies having no relation to any form of art and occasional news breaking about the recipients being supporters or beneficiaries of the government.

Aficionados of theater (and performing arts) in Istanbul have had another reason to refrain from celebrating World Theater Day for the last seven years: the heart-breaking condition of the Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM), what was once the symbol of art and celebration of art. Situated next to Taksim Square (right beside Gezi Park), the center was the fourth-largest performing arts center in the world in the 1960s. It was closed for renovation in 2008, only to be left for deterioration, most likely as a pawn in another mega building project.

If history is a mirror of today, the Turkish theater’s uncertain relationship with the state is here to stay. Censorship defined that relationship in the 1800s, the “Period of Autocracy” in the Ottoman Empire up until the Second Constitution in 1908. The staging, in 1873, of playwright, journalist and activist Namık Kemal’s “Vatan Yahut Silistre” (Fatherland), with unprecedented nationalist sentiments, was the kickstarter of the state’s overt control over the theater. “Vatan Yahut Silistre” was banned, Kemal’s newspaper was shut down and he was exiled. From then on, all plays had to be approved by the Security Directorship until the early 20th century. Not so much a happy World Theater Day to Turkey, then or now.