Turkey’s Artists at Risk: Dramaturgies of Resistance vs. Politics of Fear

SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN THIS AGE OF HOPE

Theatre artists in Turkey have a contentious role. Historically, the theatre arts are associated with the nation-building project of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Hence, many artists think still in the ‘Kemalist’ ideology, where state theatre was a form of popular edification through cultural participation, particularly in modern theatre and drama from the ‘West’. Theatre plays, therefore, a significant part in the lives and education of the urban middle class. Erdoğan’s populism, on the contrary, has often identified his own supporters as uncultivated ‘blacks’ (“zenci” in Turkish)1 in contrast to supposedly opposition-backed, ‘cultivated’ dissidents, among which academics and artists. By opposition, he means the largest opposition party, the ‘leftist’-nationalist CHP. In fact, Erdoğan has never ousted himself as a man of fine culture or taste2, but rather aligns himself with the uncultivated oppressed; a right-wing rhetoric that seems to resonate well with his electorate, although his voters are today from a very wide regional and social demography.

So it was of no surprise when the pro-Erdoğan press tried to individualize and confuse the Gezi Park protestors by setting up a conspiracy theory that would discredit theatre artists. Turkish film and theatre actor Mehmet Ali Alabora (also founder of the Turkish Actors’ Union) was suddenly brought forward as a scapegoat. On 9 June 2013, the Yeni Şafak newspaper accused his staging of the play Mi Minör for ‘rehearsing’ (“prova” in Turkish) the revolution and for taking financial support from the UK (it actually only concerned promotion)3. The play shows a dictator (played by Alabora) who rules over a fictional country Pinima, and who, despite its democracy, restricts its citizens in their freedom of expression and other human rights. Its use of social media on stage (Twitter, Ustream and its own smart phone app) enabled spectators to participate while the performance of the play overlapped in real time with an online version. Besides this small window of interaction, the play was not particularly ‘transgressive’ or ‘revolutionary’. Coincidentally, there was a ‘woman in red’ character in the play, which could be reminiscent of the “kırmızılı kadın,” one of the first Gezi icons that went viral. “What a Coincidence” headlined pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak.

Ankara mayor Melih Gökçek responded: “the state will persecute Memet Ali Alabora with God’s permission, and I’ll see him behind bars”4. Afterwards, Islamic newspaper Yeni Akit published a list of names of artists and intellectuals who supported the anti-government protests with the aim to expose them. We have seen such public lists of dissidents increasing ever since. It prepared the way for what has become today a witch-hunt against everybody who has dared to criticize the government or President Erdoğan.

Such lynch-campaigns give a lot of visibility to artists who willy-nilly want to keep making art. This has two significant implications. On the one hand, it presupposes a lot of responsibility in the hands of artists as public gatekeepers against political wrongdoing, and therefore, it asks for a theatre that can still educate and shape the public opinion, which it rarely does. In this regard, Alabora commented: “I owe an acknowledgment to Yeni Şafak newspaper for taking theaters this seriously”5. On the other hand, the public shaming of individual artists and intellectuals through mainstream and social media has made the public realm into an informal space of fear and suspicion. By the same token, such media campaigns create the false image that all theatre artists are dissidents and need to be kept under surveillance. In such an environment, self-censorship is standard practice.

Today, we see another campaign to discredit a theatre artist within the climate of the post-coup witch-hunt: the one-man show “Only a Dictator” played by TV and movie-actor Barış Atay (and written by Onur Orhan, directed by Caner Erdem) was recently banned in several cities in Turkey, including Istanbul where it played already since November 2015. The play shows a dictator struggling with inner conflict. During the performance, the audience is invited to form and directly voice their opinions on the dictator but the critical point of the play is that the audience is left with a feeling that they will never be able to stand up to him. Much like Mi Minör, the play works through mechanisms of association, self-identification, irony, and to some extent ‘shaming’ the audience, but with the traditional fourth wall restored in the end, which leaves the spectator only with a sense of comfort about her/his own position. At the end of Atay’s latest performance in Berlin’s Theatre286, the actor made even a small postscript on stage after the applause, by suggesting that no matter if one stands on the left or on the right of the political spectrum, ‘let’s meet together against dictatorship’.

After the governors of Artvin and Hopa in northern Turkey officially banned the play on 9 January 2018 – despite a court ruling against the ban – the play was prohibited across Turkey from the 24th onward. Even the Emek Theatre House in Kadiköy, the play’s home base, was put under quarantine by the police to prevent unpermitted stagings. The authorities claim a law under the emergency rule as reason for the ban: “It has been evaluated that the play may affect public order and safety negatively, endanger security and well-being of the public and disturb the environment of public peace and trust”7. In response, a call for a live-reading to reclaim the play was launched, after which the play was read by theatre groups in numerous locations, on Twitter over Periscope, and on different radio stations, even in Kurdish. The initiative was supported by the ‘Do Not Touch My Theatre’ Platform8.

It is not the first time that this German-born Turkish artist9 and activist got into trouble after calling out Erdoğan. In 2017, he was fined for ‘insulting the president’ because of an article he published in the Birgün newspaper titled “Hey, Erdoğan”. In DW, he is quoted: “If today we are already too fearful to say some things, we must realize that it will soon be impossible to say anything at all”10. Despite the heavy measures to prevent him from entering a stage with his play, Atay still chooses to stay in Turkey. But a lot of artists, just as academics, have already left. Alabora fled right after the media hype against him to Wales and also the author of Mi Minör, Meltem Arıkan, left Turkey for the U.K.11. In post-coup times, however, the consequences of dissidence for state theatre artists are much harder if you are fired by decree, which directly leads to cancelation of the passport, loss of all previously built up privileges and, consequently, civil death.

According to theatre director Nurkan Erpulat of the Maxim Gorki Theatre, there will be no theatre in Turkey anymore in three years. He said in an interview after the alleged coup: “They are trying to criminalize the stage, to exchange the protagonists bit by bit, to make it redundant and eventually to silence it”12. Despite his criticisms, he did admit that in his staging of Wolfram Lotz’s Die Lächerliche Finsternis in Istanbul he had to cut words like ‘Turkey’ and ‘Erdoğan’ to protect the actors. Theatre’s response-ability is highly at risk.

  1. For further information: https://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/07/09/turkeys-prime-minister-uses-a-racially-loaded-slur-about-black-people-to-insult-political-rival []
  2. However, not that many people seem to know that Erdoğan dabbled with amateur dramatics himself in his student years. He even wrote a play, entitled Mas-Kom-Yah, which premiered in 1975 but which Der Spiegel considered anti-Semitic.
    Gibbons, Fiachra. “Turkey’s PM threatens theatres after actor ‘humiliates’ daughter”. In: The Guardian (17 May 2012), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/may/17/recep-tayyip-erdogan-theatre-daughter. []
  3. The full article can be read here: https://www.yenisafak.com/gundem/bu-ne-tesaduf-530647 []
  4. Melih Gökçek qtd. in: Moraitis, Stratus. “#Turkey: Stop lynching artists!”. In: The Globe Times (7 July 2013), http://www.theglobetimes.com/2013/07/07/turkey-artist-memet-ali-alabora-declared-enemy-of-the-state/. []
  5. Bia News Desk, 25 July 2013,
    http://bianet.org/english/media/148733-alabora-sues-yeni-safak-newspaper-for-1-tl []
  6. Barış Atay staged his play quite recently at Wedding’s Theatre28, on 17 and 18 March 2017. Unsurprisingly, the CHP Berlin headquarters are located in the vicinity of this theatre. As the play was in Turkish without translations, the audience mainly consisted of appreciative spectators of the German-Turkish community in Berlin. []
  7. Kucukgocmen, Ali. “Istanbul district bans play about dictator by Erdogan critic”. In: Reuters, World News (19 Jan 2018),
    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-play/istanbul-district-bans-play-about-dictator-by-erdogan-critic-idUSKBN1F825D. []
  8. Öztüran, Gürkan. “Banned theatrical play ‘Just a Dictator’ live-reading took place in Turkey”. In: dokuz8haber.net (29 Jan 2018), http://www.dokuz8haber.net/english/banned-theatrical-play-just-a-dictator-live-reading-took-place-in-turkey/.
    The ‘Do Not Touch My Theatre’ Platform’s website is http://www.tiyatromadokunma.org. []
  9. Barış Atay Mengüllüoğlu was born in Wilhelmshaven, Germany in 1981. []
  10. Acer, Gezal. “‘Only a Dictator’ Play Banned in Parts of Turkey”. In: DW (28 Jan. 2018), http://www.dw.com/en/only-a-dictator-play-banned-in-parts-of-turkey/a-42339025. []
  11. A summary of the his case can be read here. []
  12. Interview with Susanne Buckhardt, 30 July 2016 on Deutschlandfunk Kultur (my translation, PV); Original quote: “Sie versuchen, diese Szene zu kriminalisieren, Stück für Stück die Protagonisten auszutauschen, überflüssig zu machen und letztendlich zuzumachen” []

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