When I visited Istanbul in November, the streets of the Beyoğlu neighborhood were filled with shoppers and tourists, but there was a police car parked in the middle of Taksim Square. Nearby Gezi Park was the center of the 2013 government protests in Istanbul and this police car served as a reminder of the ongoing efforts of the Turkish government to squash any further unrest.
Across the Bosphorus from Gezi Park in the Asian part of Istanbul called Kadıköy, I met with Studio 4 Istanbul, an experimental theater company who had just opened their first full-time performance space. Gezi has proven to be a critical point of inspiration for them but they’ve chosen to work in a neighborhood where it seems every day a new café and restaurant are opening up, a place which is home to many young people with whom Studio 4 Istanbul hopes to connect. The space is housed in a corner building and their new neighbors keep referring to them as “the guys from the corner.” So when it came time for Studio 4 to name their new space, this is what they called it: Köşe, meaning corner, but a word which also connotes a place where people meet up, and their hope is that Köşe will become such a gathering space.
The company go back to high school where the three original principles met and started making theater together. They continued to make theater through college while they all studied other things and then, with no theater graduate programs in Turkey at the time, they went abroad to study. The company formed in earnest in 2002 when they found themselves, by chance, all doing graduate work in New York at the same time. Onur Karaoğlu studied theater directing at Columbia University, Deniz Buga was in the film program at NYU, and Fatih Gençkal studied acting at Brooklyn College.
For the past two years in Istanbul, Karaoğlu and Gençkal (after his studies, Buga ended up settling in Amsterdam) set to work on making experimental theater in a country not known for its avant-garde. Zinnure Türe, an actress in the company and star of one of their recent adaptations, Utanç (Shame), an interpretation of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, also joined us in conversation.
In the past year they have staged three different shows and they are interested in exploring performance in a variety of forms. “We are very open to improvisation in our performances. And we are adapting a lot of texts too. We did a couple of novel adaptations and we did devised pieces in the past. We are into creating our own texts and performances,” Karaoğlu says.
Since their return to Istanbul they have staged a number of challenging pieces which push the envelope on subject matter and approach. They did a stage adaptation of Perihan Mağden’s bestselling novel, Ali and Ramazan, based on a true story about a tragic, homosexual love story set in 1990’s Turkey. Isn’t It? was a devised performance about a generation of young Turkish men and women who lived through the change and conflict of the 1990’s and was staged using cultural images of their childhood, videos of personal anecdotes, songs, and dances.
Türe notes how unique Studio 4 Istanbul is from other companies, “They are really open to all cultures and inter-disciplinary work–working with dancers and designers and other people. And they are really welcome[ing], those guys, to everyone.” Türe has been in four of the company’s shows. She met Karaoğlu and Gençkal through an audition for their Turkish adaptation of Charles Mee’s adaptation of Orestes, Atış Serbest (Shoot to Kill),which was a dark comedy about all too “familiar” murders in Turkey and young people whose lives are filled with revenge. The Turkish theater world is modest in size compared to other cities around the world. The State Theatre dominates the landscape doing classics and contemporary Turkish plays at very cheap ticket prices. But in the past five to ten years there has been a trend of alternative theater companies emerging in Istanbul. According to the Studio 4 team, students and recent graduates with no particular training in theater are starting their own theater companies. They are renting spaces and writing plays to put on, but many of these plays still tend to be mainstream in character.
Studio 4 is really interested in pushing beyond the mainstream. Türe says of these alternative companies, “If they are Off-Broadway, we are Off-Off-Broadway.” In fact, they are seeking an audience who might not even be looking for “theater.” “People who are interested in theater, they are okay. Nice. They can come. But people who are not interested in theater, who would rather go see a band play or go to a football game or something. If it is really interesting for them then they come. …That’s what we are aiming for,” says Gençkal. There is an advantage to being small, “we are not risking a lot of material resources on what we are doing,” says Karaoğlu. “We want to have the freedom to experiment somehow,” furthers Gençkal.
Currently Studio 4 is staging two experimental works: Utanç (with showings at Köşe and the Roxy nightclub where I saw it) and a devised piece in response to the Gezi protests called Bilim- Kurgu (Science-Fiction) performed by Gençkal which was made in collaboration with New York theater company Sister Sylvester. Bilim-Kurgu has some performances in English in an attempt to reach the foreign students and ex-pats living in the Kadıköy neighborhood.
For the Studio 4 team, they feel disconnected to Turkish theater history and have sought inspiration from theater in other parts of the world—Ivo van Hove came up in conversation a lot. Some of this disconnection is a result of the 1980 military coup. “For Turkish pop culture, it emerged after [the] 1990’s because there was a break for a decade after the military coup,” Karaoğlu states.
The current political situation cannot be easily overlooked either. When I raise the topic of the Gezi protests, Gençkal looks to Türe and says “She’s going to cry now.” Gezi brings up memories of police brutality and Türe remains sensitive towards the ongoing police presence. Gezi effected them in ways they were not prepared for—providing moments of hope and inspiration but also disappointment and frustration. Gençkal surprised himself at his own involvement in the protests, “I was never that kind of person.” He continues, “When Gezi happened for us. It was a very unexpected and very, very big moment. But then afterwards things turned out quite differently than we thought. The government became much more oppressive and non-compromising somehow.” During that time Gençkal found himself participating in the protests, “It was more important for me to be part of something. Be on the street, be more with the people. There’s something that was lost there.” Karaoğlu replies, “Innocence.” In the aftermath, when the government ended the protests through brute force and politicized what had happened for their own ends, Gençkal saw that they still had the ability to resist and challenge political action through their art. “Afterwards I realized this is what I can offer. This is what I must offer. This is what we need to do. Is to make this circle somehow, make our circles bigger. Get more people interested,” says Gençkal.
It’s easy to be flippant about the lack of power of theater in the United States or the United Kingdom as we lament dwindling audiences and increasing competition for audience attention from other cultural forms. But theater artists in Turkey can be considered a threat to the government when they do work challenging the status quo. “They take it seriously here,” says Karaoğlu.
As the PEN Report on the Gezi Protests noted, a famous Turkish actor/director, Mehmet Ali Alabora, who participated in the protests, was accused by a pro-government Turkish newspaper of staging an interactive play, Mi Manor, months before the protest as a rehearsal for the protests. The newspaper accused the play of merely being a front for a British-funded conspiracy to topple the Turkish government. The play involved creating a country, choosing a president, and the use of social media by the audience and the actors. Alabora became subject to a government investigation.
A smaller work called Lick But Don’t Swallow! also ran into trouble. As Gençkal explains the subject matter of the show brought attention, “Just the fact that there’s an angel coming in the body of a prostitute, one newspaper which is famous for…targeting people said that they are insulting Islam in this play and then people attacked the theater one night. And then they couldn’t perform it.” Gençkal points out that “this company was not a famous company. This play wouldn’t change anything. They were quite a small company but they decided to target them.”
These examples are chilling to me but as Karaoğlu says, “We are playing with these rules. We know that. I don’t know. You cannot estrange yourself to what is happening here but at the same time you have to function. You have to….” Gençkal completes the thought, “Not go crazy.” Continuing to do their work after all that happened at Gezi is important to them. They don’t dwell on whether they could ever become a target. “When we are doing our shows or when we are performing we never feel that…pressure or concern. But who knows?” Gençkal says. “Until the day comes,” laments Karaoğlu.