Critical stages

Istanbul's independent theatre venues

From the 17.31 play by Sıfırnoktaiki

Now is the time to fight, shout, curse, play, run and jump on stage: independent venues are taking the theatre scene in Istanbul. Like in every city in the world, independent theatres play an important role in social and cultural life. They do not hesitate to criticise society, to curse on stage or to question government decisions. And not only are these venues home to actors and playwrights, they are also places for contemplating existential issues and dealing with contemporary urban topics like identity, migration, politics and religion.

In Istanbul, most art venues are run by actors. This is the case with places such as Kumbaracı50, Mekan Artı and İkinci Kat, the owners of which gathered on March 27 to discuss how to increase the interest in contemporary theatre in Istanbul. The meeting became the start of a movement to push this issue, called Alternatif Tiyatro Mekanları Ortak Girişimi (Alternative Theater Venues Joint Endeavour). Together, independent theatres will now work to continue performing and keeping their venues alive.

Independent venues are taking the theatre scene in Istanbul.

“For long, people had been complaining about the lack of alternative theatre venues in Istanbul,” says Nilgün Kurt, spokesperson for Altıdansonra Tiyatro, which in 2009 opened Kumbaracı50, one of the most active alternative theatre venues in the city. Their opening represented an important step for those interested in new and independent stage production. “It’s fair to say that Kumbaracı50 not only creates new shows, but also new content. We prefer to choose novel and original scripts for our performances,” says Kurt. Kumbaracı50 brings to the stage the problems of people in large cities and how they become part of the consumption society. An example is Tilt, one of their most popular plays, which tells five different stories of chaotic and fast city life, where people give up many things for their dreams.

Another independent actor is Sıfırnoktaiki, opened in 2007 and run by a small group of actors under the art directorship of Sami Berat Marçalı and Eyüp Emre Uçaray. The venue recently opened an additional section called İkinci Kat (Second Floor). Berat Marçalı, who besides his position as art director also is an actor, is happy about how the place is evolving: “Since our beginning in 2009, the main aim has been to perform plays which are dynamic and contemporary.” On their repertoire, Sıfırnoktaiki has had plays by names like Philip Ridley and Joe Penhall. Ridley’s play, which was staged under the title The Fastest Clock In The Universe, focuses on the the process of getting old, new beginnings and how human body is resisting time. Penhall’s work, as staged by Sıfırnoktaiki, is a social drama. Ray, a young schizophrenic, is being sent out into the world with only a jar of pills which he loath to take. He manages to leave the asylum and is taken in by his brother Pete, a diligent and well-meaning restaurant owner.

“In Turkey, the government happily supports the platforms are under its control, so all money and support goes to state theatres.”

At the beginning, finding Turkish scripts which reflected their concerns was a challenge for Sıfırnoktaiki. Berat Marçalı blames this on an overall lack of scripts written in Turkish, but also on the fact that young playwrights lack enough courage to share their works with the public. “Because of that, we choose to stage translated scripts. We prefer dynamic scripts from writers like Mark Ravenhill and Philip Ridley over texts that don’t meet our expectations.” But, the group has not given up on Turkish playwrights. Last fall, they worked with Istanbul-based actor and playwright Nihan Celkan to stage the play 17.31, which focuses on the current global crisis and how it has affected people from all walks of life. The play suggests that the crisis has melted people’s lives through the perception of corporate business life. Violence has been normalised, the concept of happiness has been changed, and the entire ethical approach in our world has been changed.

Indeed, every opening of new independent spaces is a big contribution to the larger Turkish theatre scene. Playwright Yeşim Özsoy Gülan from Biz Ve Diğer Şeyler Topluluğu (The Society of Us and Other Things) and Galataperfom: “In Turkey, the government happily supports the platforms are under its control, so all money and support goes to state theatres. On these stages, there are many potential obstacles to freedom of thought. That’s why independent theatres are so valuable.” But, recent years have seen promising developments. “Galataperform started in 2003 and since then, we’ve seen an upsurge in these kinds of platforms and groups,” explains Gülan. Also, independent theatres are an important outlet for actors and playwrights. “With us, they both have the opportunity to express themselves freely and to earn money,” he says. “That triggers the art of making theatre.”

Being an independent art venue is not easy. Despite attempts to keep both themselves and the larger scene alive, staying open is a hard task. “Everything depends on financing. We often have a small budget to work with, and creating good drama can be hard in such conditions. PR is another challenge, since we have to advertise all our plays in the media. The very crucial thing is reaching an audience,” says Kurt from Altıdansonra Tiyatro. Struggling hard, the independent venues nevertheless maintain great creative value. “I think that being an independent venue is a positive thing,” concludes Berat Marçalı. “It gives us the chance to produce performances that we believe in and care about, which is important for us. For us, that’s a chance to prove our words in art.”

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