From Staging to Enacting Politics: The Case of Alternative Theatres in Istanbul
In her empirical study of alternative theatres in Istanbul, Zeynep Uğur focuses on artistic micro-practices that reshape public life. Alternative theatres are making the narratives of minorities visible, they reorganize the relationship to space by creating new ways of working and being in society, and they become autonomous spaces where people can socialize differently. In authoritarian political contexts, autonomous physical places become sites of resistance against the closure of public space and against the political system.
Theatre in Turkey is always considered as a stronghold of the Republic, since the mission attributed to theatre consists of edification of the people and promotion of the secular life style. However, this role has been challenged by the emergence of experimental and avant-garde theatres since 1960s. It is since the beginning of the 2010s that the trajectory of Istanbul gained a new momentum with independent theatres, also known as ‘alternative theatres’. I choose to use the term ‘alternative’, referring to the usage of the term Alternatif Sahneler (Alternative Stages) adopted by the actors and audiences. This label show that what is new or alternative is the space where the theatrical practice takes place. Unlike proscenium stages characterized by a net separation between the stage and the audience, alternative stages convert spaces that are not designed as theatres into black box scenes. Thus, they reconfigure the relationship to the spectator and to the space. In these theatres, with a capacity of 50-100 people, the stage is not fixed but reorganized for each play with folding chairs. Absence of a velvet curtain and seats and closeness between the public and the stage define this form of theatre. Therefore, any unexpected place such as a garage or an old workshop can be converted to theatres. The transformation of a theatre’s form and architecture stimulates new ways of making theatre. Renewal of the subjects, style, language, and dramaturgy enable a theatre rooted in the local and public life. Staging narratives of ethnical, sexual. and religious minorities give visibility to marginalised narratives and blur Turkey’s fault lines Turkish/Kurdish, Sunni/Alevi and conservative/secular. This transformation is strongly linked to the emergence of an autonomous intellectual sphere with intellectuals who engage in activism for women, LGBTI, Kurdish and Armenian causes, and anti-war alter globalisation, paired with a politicisation extending to the cultural sphere (Duclert 2010, 118). Secular public culture is transformed from within by autonomous political practices of citizens.
Their political nature comes from the fact that it’s the relationship between persons, social norms, life styles and practices that is reorganised and negotiated. This choreography of a new community is detached from politics corresponding to the space of vertical power exercise and the civic life of a society, and belongs to the space of the political defined by the organisation of a different world, allowing the expression of what can’t be expressed in the domain of politics. It incorporates the public life, where each person taking part becomes political by their existence. Changing the focus to the sphere of political assumes that ordinary citizens are practitioners of politics and that the fact that they express their demands in the public space represents new forms of public agency. This micro approach is even more pertinent to analyse authoritarian contexts where bottom-up transformation of society shifts to the space of public life by the reconfiguration of social norms.
This paper presents the results of my empirical doctoral research on the theatrical scene in Turkey after the 2000s, based on the ongoing fieldwork since 2017 (25 interviews) using semi-structured interviews and participative observations with alternative theatres. My hypothesis is that the alternative theatrical practice in Turkey contributes to the political transformation from below by transforming the relationship to the space, and thus to politics by creating autonomous zones and weaving the fabric of a new common life (Rancière 2005). In other words, I try to explore how the transformation of the relationship between the body and the space in the theatrical scene echoes the relationship between citizen and the city before and after the Gezi movement (2013, explained further down) by means of (re)appropriating the space, transforming social ties, thus enacting politics.
In order to analyse this theatrical practice, I adopt a physical and embodied approach of the public space and I focus on physical space, which enables alternative artistic creations, encounters, exchanges, and thus new ways of sociability. An empirical research is conducted with 29 semi-structured interviews realised in intervals between 2017 and 2019 with the members of alternative theatres and through participant observations. In this paper, I focus on seven specific theatres in Istanbul: Tiyatro DoT, Şermola Performans, Kumbaracı50, D22, Tiyatro BeReZe, Seyyar Sahne and Tiyatro Biriken.
Tiyatro DoT can be considered as the pioneer of the alternative theatre movement with its theatre opened in the heart of Beyoğlu, in iconic Mısır Apartmanı on Istiklal Street in 2005, precisely chosen for its anchoring in urban life. It was founded by the couple Murat and Özlem Daltaban and Süha Bilal. DoT introduced the British movement In-yer-face in Turkey. In-yer-face aims at creating a moral shock by showing unsettling things on the stage. Contemporary plays show marginal and contested lives on the stage and challenge taboos on vulgar language, sexuality, violence, and moralism. In 2011, they moved to G-Mall and left Beyoğlu because of security issues due to the increasing population of the district. In 2015, they moved again, this time to the Mall Kanyon in Levent, which they left in May 2020 for an open-air stage in Kemerburgaz Forest, due to COVID-19 measures.
Şermola Performans was founded in 2008 by two Kurdish artists, Berfin Zenderlioğlu et Mîrza Metin. Şermola is defined as a multilingual and multicultural theatre. The relationship to the language is accentuated with plays in Kurdish, which was banned in public space in Turkey for a long time. After Gezi, they quit their theatre in Istiklal Street and declared that they faced censorship. All of their plays are written by their own members or by young playwrights from Turkey. Among their creations, Disko 5 No’lu [Cell Number 5] (2012) written and played by Mîrza Metin, addresses the torture that Kurdish political prisoners endured in Diyarbakır Prison, by mobilising the tools of physical theatre. The trilogy of Language Plays tackles the relationship with the native language. Şermola collaborate with artists from Turkey and abroad and develop international projects, particularly with Germany where Mîrza Metin is currently living as an artist at risk.
Kumbaracı50 was founded by a group of friends who met at Istanbul Technical University’s theatre club. They continued their theatrical practice in their company Altıdan Sonra Tiyatro [Theatre after 6pm] where they were reuniting to make theatre after their work hours. In 2009, they founded Kumbaracı50, which is now the oldest alternative theatre remaining in Beyoğlu. They mostly stage plays written by founder Yiğit Sertdemir. Kumbaracı50 equally host other companies and theatre workshops. They take part in international projects, particularly with Theatre an der Ruhr in Germany. Among their various plays, Fail-i Müşterek [Common Crime] (2008) adopts a dark humour on non-resolved crimes in Turkey. Kimsenin Ölmediği Bir Günün Ertesiydi [It was the day after of a day where no one was dead] (2011) stages a narrative of a transgendered woman, played by the famous Sumru Yavrucuk.
Tiyatro BeReZe was founded in 2006 by three students from Ankara University. Two of them, Elif Temuçin and Erkan Uyanıksoy, continued their studies in Commedia School in Copenhagen and specialised in physical theatre, and are now married. They create their own plays using the tools of physical theatre. In 2018 they opened Gösteri Evi (Show House) in Beyoğlu thanks to the sponsorship by an art-loving lady.
Seyyar Sahne [Mobile Stage] was founded in 2006 by graduates of Istanbul Technical University’s theatre club. Initially, their theatre was based at the university. In 2011, they built Tiyatro Medresesi in Izmir, a particular architecture of madrasa around a court, where a common life organised around theatre, art, philosophy, and social science workshops take place. Seyyar Sahne specialises in stage adaptations of literature and monodramas such as Anneannem [My Grandmother] (2010) adapted from the autobiographical book by Fethiye Çetin on trauma and oppressed memory of the Armenian genocide. Tehlikeli Oyunlar [Dangerous Plays] is an adoption of Turkish author Oğuz Atay’s novel and it’s one of the longest running plays, still being staged since 2009. Adaptations of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and Malone Dies by Beckett are other examples.
Tiyatro Biriken was founded in 2006 by the duo Okan Ürün and Melis Tezkan when they were studying performing arts at the Sorbonne University in Paris. Their interdisciplinary works combine installations, theatre, and performance. They don’t own a theatre, but pursue their career between Istanbul and Paris. They define their work as ‘queer’.
D22 was founded in 2013 by three friends from Mimar Sinan University Conservatory. Between 2013 and 2016, they had their own theatre converted from the former Pessah Bakery in Galata, Beyoğlu. In 2016, they moved to Hasanpaşa Köşkü, an old house in Kadıköy, but currently don’t have their own theatre.
First of all, when we analyse the social profiles of the interviewees, they are mostly born in the 1980s, originating from secular, urban and middle-class families. Secondly, almost all of the groups have their roots in university theatre clubs and consist of people with dissident careers who chose theatre after studies in different departments. Thus, socialisation comes out as a mobilising motor. The desire to make theatre combined with the absence of recognition in existing public and private theatres pushes actors to ‘create their own space to be able to make theatre as wanted’, an often heard phrase in interviews.
The artistic creations of these theatre companies tackle political subjects such as minorities and the political history of Turkey. However, this can’t be labelled as activist theatre openly defending an ideology or a cause and using theatre as one of the instruments to support a political cause. Instead, I follow Mathilde Arrigoni’s definition of ‘contesting theatre’, which has three elements: (1) It is created in particular conditions, concerning the hierarchy in the workplace, financial resources, and also the creative process. This aesthetic is characterised by certain scenic signs like the performance of the actors, the staging and scenography that gain a political character; (2) It prioritises aesthetics over ideology; (3) It defends a political cause, however in filigree (Arrigoni 2017, 41–42).
In order to understand how alternative theatres become spaces of the political, I will analyse the constitution of a contesting theatre scene according to these three traits, the implication of this scene in the Gezi Movement, and the transformation after Gezi.
Composition of a contesting theatre scene in Istanbul
First of all, a theatre scene’s politicisation can’t be separated from its conditions of creation, determined by precarity, instability, and fragility of resources and venues (Tonga Uriarte 2016, 75). Official recognition of a theatre depends on physical traits such as having at least 150 fixed seats and having a certain distance between the stage and the audience, whereas alternative theatres don’t meet any of these criteria (Resmî Gazete 2005). Therefore, they are considered as for-profit business and taxed accordingly, which causes a significant gap between income and outcome. Artists are obliged to take on extra work in movies, advertisements, and especially TV series to make money and keep their theatres alive. All of the interviewees underline that they have debts, that it’s totally irrational to invest in theatres but despite all these difficulties, artistic autonomy appears as an achievement that is worth all the struggle.
On the other hand, the absence of resources reconfigures the traditional distribution of work. It’s the members of theatre companies themselves who do the construction work to convert the spaces, sell tickets at the desk, serve coffee in their cafés, and clean the place. Absence of official recognition and precarious conditions have two faces. On one hand, they impose material constraints on cultural production, but on the other hand, absence of state control allows for an autonomy, a way to escape political oppression and thus a capacity for adapting by means of creating temporary and mobile spaces in the city (Gielen 2015, 292). This capacity especially becomes a strength in authoritarian contexts where cultural initiatives continuously risk being censored and closed. Instead of constructing themselves as established institutions, they develop an agility that allows them to continue their activity in different forms and places.
Creation conditions gave birth to the political mobilisation of the theatre scene. In 2011, the Alternative Scenes Collective Initiative (ASCI) and the Actors Union were founded for solidarity in addressing shared problems. ASCI was founded by 7 theatre companiesŞermola Performans, Kumbaracı50, Mekan Artı, İkinciKat, Maya Sahnesi, SahneHâl, Kara Kutu. that made their own theatres available to support and help each other. Kumbaracı50 played a pioneering role in this initiative by hosting other companies who didn’t have their own place, which encouraged them to do the same in the future. In 2011, they published a collective brochure to target a larger public.Gülhan Kadim (co-founder of Kumbaracı50, female, 43), interview, December 12, 2018, Istanbul. Meetings and panels were realised to build an independent theatre scene capable of defining itself. Between 5 and 13 October 2013, they organised the festival ‘Altfest’, showcasing 15 plays from Turkey for the first time. Nevertheless, the initiative didn’t last because of overwhelming work load of its members, which led to burnout.
In 2012, multiple theatre organisations, associations, and independent initiatives realised protests with public participation to contest the new legislation project interfering with Istanbul Municipality City Theatre’s administration. On April 24, they organised a festive protest in Istiklal Street. On 29 April, a night watch was organised in front of the Harbiye Muhsin Ertuğrul Theatre, to protest against its demolition. Finally, between 16 and 22 June, an Art Marathon took place in the Selamiçeşme park in Göztepe. For the latter, a stage was installed in the park. In order not to let the stage stand empty, public and alternative theatres as well as amateur theatres from Istanbul and other cities participated in this gathering. Speeches, workshops, and concerts animated this marathon for a week, continuing day and night. This artistic protest inhabiting the park with shows open to the public may be considered as a precursor on the eve of Gezi.
A second trait of contesting theatre is the prioritisation of aesthetics over politics. Style, language and dramaturgy appear as arenas of artistic research as well as sources of authenticity. In order to analyse the articulation between aesthetics and politics, I follow Jacques Rancière’s approach. Rancière defines distribution of the sensible as ‘the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it.’ (Rancière 2004, 12)
(Re)configuring space means reconfiguring the relationships that take place there and creating a new regime of the sensible (Rancière 2004, 12). Thus, reorganising the spatial organisation of daily life and the visibility regime has a political character. The artistic practice of alternative theatres becomes political and anti-establishment by building narratives and making visible minorities who are invisible and inaudible in public space. These spaces allow the appearance of actors who make themselves visible to each other. The aesthetic choice as a priority emerges notably in the trajectory of Şermola Performans, whose founders come from a political socialisation for the Kurdish cause. Berfin Zenderlioğlu talks about the reflexivity they had to develop: ‘We were strong in the political dimension but weak in the artistic. We worked a lot not to do propaganda but theatre.’Berfin Zenderlioğlu, interview, August 15, 2018, Istanbul. Its other founder Mîrza Metin also expresses the transformative experience of doing theatre (Verstraete 2018, 58):
I started to contribute to Kurdish drama to support the struggle for the freedom of Kurdistan. Yet during the process, it became more than a tool. It’s transformed to a profession. It has become a profession and a space of expression that privileges human values and the stories of the society in which I live, on stage. I believe that the better I do my job, precisely with an aesthetic sense, the more humanistic sensibilities will live in this profession. I no longer approach drama to contribute to something or someone. If it is beneficial, it could only make me happy. What everyone in this country needs is a pluralist democracy.
Thirdly, when we look at the repertoires of alternative theatres, we see that they cannot be identified with a specific political cause. Each company stages a multitude of stories in contact with themes of marginalisation, minorities, gentrification, through various artistic experiments. It corresponds more to a social and political artistic imagination than a cause. In other words, the aspiration for pluralism is an underlying cause and thus appears in filigree. So, the famous dichotomy ‘art for art’ and ‘art for society’ can no longer be used to identify this practice.
Gezi Movement: Extension from the stage to the street and from the street to the stage
Movements in the public space are characterised by the erasure of pre-established borders between private and public space. They interrupt, disrupt, transform the spatial organisation of public life. The reappropriation of public space stands out as the main characteristic of these movements. From June 1, 2013, Gezi Park was occupied by people who pitched tents, cooked meals, did housework, provided medical services, and set up gardens and libraries. In the global age, public space is threatened by the forces of corrosion, such as state surveillance, urban planning policies, security policies, privatisation, and segregation, which dismantle the social bond (Göle 2018). Thus, public life in global cities is determined by ‘mixophobia’, which manifests itself as the desire to be among alike people (Bauman 2016, 182–189). The absence of places to socialise with strangers destroys the possibility of familiarisation with others, which is the prerequisite for the social bond. It is the act of physical gathering and the occupation of space that make dissent, confrontation, and transformation possible. This is how the agonistic dimension of public space appears, which is crucial for democracy, according to Chantal Mouffe (Mouffe 2013, XII). This meeting brings into play ‘improbable social blending’ constituting a political challenge for transformation, both individual and collective (Göle 2018). For example, in Tahrir Square, left-wing activists protested alongside supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Gezi, seculars surrounded Muslims to protect them from police violence when they were praying. The meeting of the Kemalists and the Kurds revealed the frictions and tensions of the society. Nevertheless, this very encounter converges the imaginaries of democracy and enhances a political transformation from below. The atmosphere composed by the diversity of the actors transforms them in turn and provokes a reflexivity. The shared sensory, bodily, and affective experience sets in motion liminal moments where links are constantly made and undone, even if it is not possible to speak of the absolute overcoming of divisions (Ayata and Harders 2019, 125).
When the Gezi movement started on May 28, 2013, the alternative theatres were directly affected and involved in the movement, given their spatial proximity. In 2013, the topography of the alternative theatre scene was around the Beyoğlu district. This is the reason why daily life in theatres is interrupted by the emergence of this collective time, the rhythm of which is defined by protests and police violence. The respondents describe this moment as one of reflection, of questioning the limits between the stage, the theatre, and the street. Revisiting the famous duality of reality and representation, the interviewees shared the expression ‘the real theatre was in the street’. Theatres in turn became an expansion of the street as companies sheltered protesters trying to escape police violence. Protesters and company members slept, waited, and ate together in theatres. Philosopher and playwright Camille Louis analyses this ambiguity as the passage from the stage organised by political art, to stages beckoning towards the current places of politics (Louis 2014, no.42, 63). The place occupied becomes the place of visibility, where citizenship is staged. Spatial organisation of the politics transforms and enhances a double spatialisation of politics. While the public square becomes a stage, the theatres in turn become the extension of the public square.
Beyond opening their doors, the actors of the theatrical scene were engaged in the movement from its beginning and drew a reaction from political power to the point of public targeting. A few among several examples: Mehmet Ali Alabora was accused of inciting the Gezi movement through his play Mi Minör (2013) which told a story of an uprising in a fictional country dominated by a dictator. Alabora immigrated to England following the trial. Barış Atay, member of the alternative theatre Emek Sahnesi (Scene of Labour) was arrested and accused of being a member of the socialist group of Redhack hackers. In the aftermath of Gezi, Atay became a member of the pro-Kurdish party HDP and later of the worker party TİP (CNN Türk 2013). Twenty artists, including Ragıp Yavuz, Levent Üzümcü, and Sevinç Erbulak, who were visible figures of Gezi were fired from the Municipal Theatres of the City of Istanbul.
The Gezi experience was conceived as a transformative experience by the actors who were present. Independent artists from different disciplines came together in the ‘Orange Tent’ at the park to share experiences and build solidarity networks.
The presence of performing arts artists contributed to the performativity of the movement. We speak of performativity in a double sense. The first emanates from the bodily dimension of politics and physical gathering. It is performative in the sense that it stages the social order to establish its own modes of sociability (Butler 2015, 84). The second meaning comes from creative combinations between the audience and the public, which implies a different sharing of the sensible (Göle 2018). During the protests, four authors from the alternative theatres staged the play Gezerken [Walking around] composed of four monologues about the different experiences in Gezi Park. The play was performed in the park during the movement. Cem Uslu from SahneHâl staged the story of a protester from Gezi, played by Serkan Altıntaş who has no previous experience of activism and thus experiences marginalisation for the first time. Mîrza Metin, from Şermola Performans wrote a play from the point of view of a street dog, played by Sermet Yeşil. Özen Yula, a playwright collaborating with different alternative theatres, superimposed the spatial memory of Taksim Square by giving voice to a ghost played by Erdem Akakçe, who was killed on the ‘Bloody’ May 1, 1977 when 34 people died because of police violence. Yiğit Sertdemir from Kumbaracı50 wrote an absurd text from the eyes of a TOMAToplumsal Olaylara Müdahale Aracı or ‘vehicule of intervention to social incident’., symbol of police violence, played by Şebnem Sönmez and Sevinç Erbulak, alternatingly. This piece narrates the movement and creates a memory on the spot while at the same time living there.
However, the most striking creative expression was made by performance artist Erdem Gündüz on June 17, 2013, after the evacuation of the occupied park. Gündüz stood alone, without moving, in Taksim Square, looking at the Ataturk Cultural Centre for hours. The stillness introduced by the ‘standing man’ could be seen as an explicit refusal to be displaced and dispossessed and as an insistence on remaining public (Ertem 2018, 95).
Theatre: Space of political resistance after Gezi
The political context of the post-Gezi period is marked by the criminalisation of the streets and the polarisation of society between supporters and opponents of the government. The legislative changes concerning the protests led to widening the measures of the police intervention, the arrests of political opposition figures, the declaring state of emergency after the attempted coup of July 15, 2016, and the return to the security paradigm in the Kurdish question. All this has led to the suffocation of public space and the oppression of opposition actors, especially journalists, academics, and intellectuals, alongside political figures. This atmosphere of authoritarianism is also manifested in the theatrical sphere. 15 theatres, including Şermola Performans and Kumbaracı50, which openly supported Gezi are now deprived of state subsidies. Due to the urban development of the Taksim district, most of the theatres have had to close, or move to Kadıköy, which has become the new cultural centre of the city. Among the respondents, Tiyatro Pera moved to Şişli, D22 first moved to Kadıköy and later closed it to play in other scenes, Seyyar Sahne concentrated their activities in Izmir, Tiyatro DOT moved to Levent. The change becomes more visible in Şermola Performans, who has not only left their theatre, but has been systematically rejected by municipalities and national festivals following the return of political violence in the Kurdish regionBerfin Zenderlioğlu, interview, August 15, 2018, Istanbul.. In such a context of the closure of the political system accompanied by the feeling of insecurity caused by the successive attacks in 2016 and 2017, we observe a significant number of actors choosing exile as a strategy of resistance. Although exile means exit from the surveillance of political system, it also becomes a strategy of resistance to continue the politic and artistic activities from distance and thus take part in the political scene (Hirschman 1995). The links of the Turkish scene with the German scene play an important role in the choice of destination. As a result, a diasporic theatrical scene emerges and this theatrical scene forges stronger ties with the international scene, which is also a strategy of resistance against populist policies of closure.
In this context, one would expect a decrease in numbers of venues and spectators. However, the number of theatres has increased by 50 percent since the beginning of the 2000s (Aksoy and Enlil 2011, 142). Across Turkey, the number of spectators increased by 16.4 percent from the 2015-2016 season to the 2016-2017 season (Kültür.ltd 2018). In Istanbul, around 150 theatres, stages, and initiatives were founded (Tonga Uriarte 2016, 79). The space is polarised between large stages in malls with 500-800 seats such as Zorlu Center for Performance Arts, Uniq Hall and Artı Sahne, and alternative theatres with 50 seats, without any medium-sized venues in between. The alternative theatrical scene in turn is living its golden age with the proliferation of venues, plays, events, and festivals that attract more public than ever before.New independent initiatives in national and international in scale in Istanbul such as A Corner in the World Festival (2016-2018), OffIstanbul alternative theatre festival (2019), Istanbul Fringe international performing arts festival (2019) are accompanied by a wave of decentralisation that manifests itself with festivals such as Bergama international theatre and performing arts festival, (2018) and Datça theatre festival (2018).
In the authoritarian political context, the stories and memory of the Gezi movement become inaudible and invisible under the political discourse, which considers it a terrorist movement. Yet the testimonies are narrated and made visible on the stages of alternative theatres that have continued to make personal testimonies public. In addition to the pieces that bear directly on Gezi, the implicit references mark the creations as a way of recalling the atmosphere shared in Gezi in a way only accessible to the spectators. Among others, D22 staged Karabatak [Cormorant] in 2013 which staged Gezi’s tale from the poems of Nazım Hikmet. In Moda Sahnesi’s Hamlet (2014), the soldiers were wearing police helmets and uniforms and Gezi’s ironic slogans in the décor became tools to draw a line between the aesthetic and the political. The selection of the Istanbul Foundation for Arts and Culture’s (IKSV) International Theatre Festival in 2014 showed the porosity between art and politics around Gezi. Tiyatro DOT carried out the Scissor Pieces project with the participation of English and Turkish playwrights where they created plays read at the Istanbul Theatre Festival. The plays were created from the contributions of journalists, lawyers, and sociologists. Istenmeyen [Persona Non Grata] by Gülce Uğurlu and Ceren Ercan presented the story of a meeting between Khaled who immigrated to Istanbul due to the political capsize in Egypt after Tahrir, his wife Bahar, and his brother Barış during Gezi ) (IKSV 2016, 296). In the same year, the famous German director Thomas Ostermeier’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, which tackled the theme of authoritarianism and resistance, sparked a controversy due to its interactive structure which ended with a forum at the end where spectators were keenly involved and discussed Gezi (Güreli 2014). Ostermeier withdrew his creation Richard III from the same festival in 2017 due to political risk (Acar 2017).
As for artistic work, the actors of the alternative theatrical scene point to the fact that they continue their work of cultural production, that they exist, and keep these meeting spaces as a resistance in everyday life. In the authoritarian context, a term repeated often is to ‘resist otherwise’. Can Kulan (D22) expresses what has changed by saying:
Yes, Gezi is finished but we’re still here. The people who made Gezi are still here. We had to leave our theatre in Galata. We also stopped playing Yirmi Beş [Twenty Five] which dealt with the meeting of a Turkish soldier and a Kurdish guerrilla. But we continue to play. We also founded Ante Sanat for children with my wife Duygu Üzüm Arat. Here we give lessons, but the goal is for the children to learn to listen to themselves, to empathise, to make contact through the theatreCan Kulan (co-founder of D22 and Ante Sanat, male, 29), interview, August 10, 2018..
Erkan Uyanıksoy from Tiyatro BeReZe, defines this practice by saying:
Today, I think the most effective resistance for everyone is doing their job the best they can. What we are trying to do is not to confront political power, but to refuse to think in their terms, to create our own language and not to submit to the divisions imposed by themErkan Uyanıksoy (co-founder of Tiyatro BeReZe, male, 40), interview, December 25, 2018..
In the aftermath of Gezi, the theatres have become excellent living places with the organisation of theatre classes, seminars, workshops, presentations, concerts, and various events. They are frequented also outside of show times. Cultural venues are also becoming alternative places to universities for academics for peace who were sacked because they signed the petition condemning the violence of the Turkish state against the Kurdish people. Kültürhane (House of Culture) in Mersin, initiated by the dismissed academic Ulaş Bayraktar, is an important example that allows academics to continue their professional and public life, but also forges another way of living together (Öz 2018). Tiyatro BeReZe opened Gösteri Evi in 2018, near Taksim, and describes this space as ‘a place where we talk about the theatre with a café where those who want can work there by making their tea themselvesErkan Uyanıksoy and Elif Temuçin, interview, August 25, 2018..’ BeReZe also hosts workshops given by teachers fired from Ankara DTCF (Faculty of Language, History and Geography). Another example of social imagination is presented by the Kara Kabare (Cabaret Noir) troupe, which does not sell tickets but set up an exchange economy. A theatre ticket can be paid for with different products such as books, meals, or lessons, which allows a long-lasting interaction with the audience. Among others, Tiyatro Medresesi in Şirince is an emblematic place with its madrasa architecture. One of its founders, Nesrin Uçarlar, is a former academic whose research focuses on the political representation of the Kurds. After the problems she faced with regard to her research topics, she abandoned her career to move to Medrese where she now coordinates the organisation of collective life on site and continues her practice as an actress. Tiyatro Medresesi hosts workshops in theatre, art, dance, music, philosophy, and social sciences. Unlike in other places, the participants live there during the workshops. They live, sleep, cook, eat, and clean together. Uçarlar underlines the relation between the notions mekân (space), imkan (possibility) and mümkün (possible) by saying that for her it is the space which makes it possible to be in public, to think, and to be political, which would be impossible in the cityNesrin Uçarlar (co-founder of Seyyar Sahne and Tiyatro Medresesi, female, 38), interview, December 29, 2018.. Similarly, she defines her definition of being political by referring to Mouffe:
What I understand to be political is not to speak the language of politics. It is not to express a political position or a criticism of another position in current politics. It is to play politics. It is politics disguised as art. Politics is different. It is to produce actions, discourse and aesthetics that intervene in the existing political order. This could be possible by making an avant-garde work. It is to show people ways of economic, social and political existence proposed apart from those proposed by current politics. It is to change and open up the possibilities of thinking and imagination. It is to offer a way to live togetherIbid..
The interviewees underline the demand they meet for shows and courses. Theatre classes stand out as a special social activity of this era. They are divided into two categories: those intended for future actors (professionals) and those intended for the middle classes to provide a new way of sociability after work (amateurs). The enthusiasm for these alternative practices highlights the desire to socialise in a semi-public place, on a micro scale. Theatre classes allow interaction between strangers in a political context determined by state surveillance of public space, through theatrical exercises. The profiles of the course participants are described as very diverse in terms of age and social background. An interviewee tells with great surprise the example of a policeman from the anti-terrorism department who rigorously follows his son to workshops given by an academic who was dismissed because of her signature in the Peace Petition condemning the State violence in Kurdish cities. Thus, theatres become places of improbable social mixing and enhance a performative socialising with strangers. According to sociologist Pascal Gielen, what defines the social bond is no longer identity, similarity, or consensus, but it is alterity, internal contradictions, and dissent that form a new social fabric (Gielen 2015, 289). The existence of an autonomous space allows the questioning of the AKP’s social engineering project, the creation of new social imaginaries, and the reinvention of the social bond.
This transformation on the micro scale has an impact on the relationship to politics at the meso level. In 2016, the Kadıköy Theatres Platform was founded by 33 members, theatres and troupes performing in Kadıköy. This platform works in collaboration with the Municipality of Kadıköy. The collaboration gave birth to the project of building a theatre open to all independent initiatives for their shows and rehearsals. The Municipality is involved in projects such as the Kadıköy Theatre Festival and ‘My neighbor is a theatre’ which aims to establish theatres locally in the neighbourhood. More recently, 32 independent theatres have founded the Theatre Cooperative ‘Common Economic’, which is a pioneer with its structure according to which all members are equal and all decisions are taken unanimously. The cooperative aims to have legal recognition in order to be able to negotiate with local and national authorities. The first project is launched to change the legislation which would allow official recognition and reduced taxes.
The last municipal elections, which marked the end of the AKP’s success in Istanbul, show a translation of this cultural and political overactivity into Istanbul in the political sphere. In the municipal election of March 31, 2019, CHP opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu won 48.80 percent of the vote while AKP candidate Binali Yıldırım won 48.55 percent. However, the elections were held again on the demand of the political power. In the elections of 23 June 2019, İmamoğlu increased his votes to 54.21 percent and became the new mayor of Istanbul.
In the empirical study on alternative theatres in Istanbul, I focused on artistic micro-practices that reshape public life. Alternative theatres could be identified as ‘contesting’ for several reasons. First of all, they create another distribution of the sensible by making visible the narratives of minorities. Secondly, they reorganise the relationship to space by creating places that make possible new ways of working and being in society. Third, these places become autonomous spaces where people can socialise differently. Castoriadis advocates the advent of an autonomous society for which Athenian democracy is not the model but the germ (Castoriadis 1999). An autonomous society would be one that escapes the institution of social, political, or ideological structures and one that could set up the instituting collective imaginary, the power of self-institution that binds the individual and society in a constituting way (Castoriadis 1999). The creation of autonomous and self-managed spaces enable the negotiation of norms and social engineering of political power.
In authoritarian political contexts, autonomous physical places become sites of resistance against the closure of public space and the political system. This is the reason why the experience of alternative theatres broadens our way of thinking about public space. When we talk about public space, we tend to think of open public places. Nevertheless, after the moment of occupation of the public square, these places become fragmented public spaces on a micro scale that escape state surveillance. As Arendt reminds us, the space of appearance can emerge at any time and place if a plurality of people create space between them through action and speech (Arendt 1998, 83). Beyond the action and the word, the new dramaturgies and the reconfiguration of the relation to the spectators forge a shared sensory experience and thus put forward the performative to create a social bond. Nilüfer Göle conceptualises maidan to designate the space created by occupation movements: ‘It is the place where we can reinvent forms of familiarisation in an increasingly heterogeneous society, and reconfigure a new social fabric from below. Maidan is the name of the embodiment of the inclusive city and a new political aesthetic of pluralism. It is the emancipated form of public space.” (Göle 2018) To the detriment of the reconfiscation of the maidan created in the Gezi movement by the political power, the alternative theatres are creating new maidans where social experimentation and self-institution continue.
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