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


It is in this context that we should try to understand the mechanisms of self-censorship, which are already institutionalized in how the state theatre productions are chosen for each season. All staged plays are selected a year in advance and are being decided by an overarching board that is organised by the artistic sector itself. This is standard practice, even before artists stood up during Gezi. Many plays that are seen as too contentious do not make it to the stage in this way. It is part of a political culture – which some have called ‘state communalism’1 – that creates suspicion around anyone or anything that sticks out or does not move along the shared ideas of the majority culture, the ‘community’. Difference is at best ‘endured’ until someone in the higher circles of the hierarchy decides to pull the plug.

When after the coup on 1 August 2016, some of the temporary contracts of performing artists and technicians of Turkey’s oldest theatre in Istanbul, the ‘Darülbedayi’, were suddenly suspended, the result was that at least 16 plays could not be staged. One of the actresses, Sevinç Erbulak, told in an interview: “Art exists because life is not perfect. And art is not a profession for cowards”2. This certainly rings true for all the artists who had been part of the Gezi protests and who had lost their funding because of it. Later, 11 of the sacked theatre artists were re-employed but a precedent had been created as a forewarning for everybody working in municipal and state theatres.

This also has resonances with the private theatre scene, as we have seen with the recent case of Barış Atay3. Theatre legend Genco Erkal has frequently lashed out to his colleagues of the state theatres for the self-censorship practices:

“Many fellow [actors] comply with terms imposed by municipalities just so they can receive funds. … They make changes to their texts, they make adjustments to the costumes, they leave out certain scenes … and make their [plays] non-controversial [for the government]”4

On the one hand, it is understandable that most state-subsidised theatres prefer ‘not to play with fire’ in order not to attract unnecessary negative attention5. But on the other, such long-term micro-management of thoughts and expressions in the theatre is believed to have damaging effects on the consciousness of a society and the individual, particularly in terms of a political subjectivity that goes unexpressed. So Genco Erkal and others are very right to criticize the self-censorship as a form of complicity to the regime.

The informal space of fear has also international consequences. The detainments of journalist Deniz Yücel (released from prison on 16 Feb. 2018), human rights activist Peter Steudtner (released on 25 Oct. 2017), and Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala – supporter of the free artistic scene as well as Gezi Park – made director Thomas Ostermeier decide to cancel the guest performance of the Berliner Schaubühne’s Richard III at the Theaterfestival in Istanbul, which was met with great criticism. “In Turkey, we fear the arbitrariness”, was the headline of the interview with Ostermeier in the SZ6). The ensemble literally feared repercussions because of the criticism against their Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, which was staged in Istanbul three years before. Back then, audience members were encouraged to reflect and speak out loud criticisms against Erdoğan and the regime. The pro-government press spoke of a ‘dirty German game’ the next day7. As he recently confirmed at an IRC Tea Time, Ostermeier felt that he could not guarantee the safety of his team, including those with a Turkish background.

At a recent debate (23 Nov. 2017) on international collaborations in the Akademie der Künste, a Turkish visual artist commented that censorship practices in Turkey have reached such a peak that even the anti-censorship website Siyahbant does not receive any more cases. Anxiety and self-control have shaped a total spectatorship where nothing is directly political or critical, but politics is felt everywhere. Political scientist Ahmet Erdi Öztürk wrote in an editorial: “political space has been enlarged by Mr. Erdoğan and every public domain has already been poisoned by political toxin”8.

  1. For instance, Özkırımlı, Umut. “From Semi-Democracy to Full Autocracy: ‘Statist Communalism’ in Turkey”. In: Ahval (12 Nov. 2017), https://ahvalnews.com/statism/dead-crowd-statist-communalism-autocracy-and-resistance. []
  2. Silahsizoğlu, Hakan. “Theaterbrief aus Istanbul (2) – Das türkische Theater im Angesicht der Gegenwart: On The Edge Of A New Struggle”. In: Nachkritik (26 Aug. 2016), http://nachtkritik.de/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=12899&catid=422&Itemid=99. []
  3. Atay’s case bears resemblance to the ban of Erkal’s play Every Day Anew from the Beginning in the 1980s by the military junta in the wake of their military coup d’état (Ahval, 29 January 2018). []
  4. Today’s Zaman, 19 Nov. 2014 []
  5. Particularly in the cities where during the last elections the majority voted for the opposition.
    Silahsizoğlu, Hakan. “Theaterbrief aus Istanbul (2) – Das türkische Theater im Angesicht der Gegenwart: On The Edge Of A New Struggle”. In: Nachkritik (26 Aug. 2016), http://nachtkritik.de/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=12899&catid=422&Itemid=99. []
  6. Gasteiger, Carolin. “In der Türkei haben wir Angst vor der Willkür”. In: Sueddeutsche Zeitung (7 Nov 2017), http://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/abgesagtes-gastspiel-in-der-tuerkei-haben-wir-angst-vor-der-willkuer-1.3739985. (my translation, PV []
  7. ibid. []
  8. Öztürk, Ahmet Erdi. “Turkey’s Two Bites at a Cherry: Erdoğan and Democracy”. In: Vocal Europe (5 April 2016), http://www.vocaleurope.eu/turkeys-two-bites-at-a-cherry-erdogan-or-democracy/. []

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