The establishment of the Turkish Republic did not just alter the political order of the Ottoman State, but also drastically transformed its 600-year-old artistic and cultural life. During the Republican era, Turkish theater developed in accordance with the project of Westernization which had begun during the Tanzimat period. The main concerns of Turkish theater during the Republican era were raising a generation of Turkish dramatists; keeping up with new trends in stage acting; training people in the theatrical arts; managing the budgets of state-funded and private theaters; and building audiences of theatrical connoisseurs.
Throughout this period, Istanbul remained the center of the theater arts in Turkey. Various theater companies surviving from the Second Constitutional era continued to put on their plays at venues like the Fransız Tiyatrosu (French Theater), the Ferah Tiyatrosu (Carefree Theater), and the Odeon Tiyatrosu (Odeon Theater). The most notable of these were the İstanbul Operet Heyeti (Istanbul Operetta Society), the Hale Opereti (Halo Operetta), the Benliyan Operet Kumpanyası (Benliyan Operetta Company), the Yeni Operet Heyeti (New Operetta Society), and the İstanbul Şehir Opereti (Istanbul City Operetta). From 1927 onwards, operettas and musicals were staged by companies like the Cemal Sahir Opereti (Cemal Sahir Operetta), the Şark Operet Heyeti (Eastern Operetta Society) featuring Muhlis Sabahattin (d. 1947), and the Asri Operet (Modern Operetta).
A new genre of improvisatory theater known as tulûat tiyatrosu was born when actor Naşit Özcan brought the traditional art of the ortaoyunu (a type of comedic open-air folk theater) to the stage. Figures such as Kel Hasan (Bald Hasan) and İsmail Dümbüllü (d. 1973) continued to practice the art of the ortaoyunu until their deaths.
From the Darülbedayi to the Istanbul City Theaters
The Darülbedayi (House of Fine Arts), founded in 1914, is the oldest still-existing theatrical institution in Turkey, and is the ancestor of today’s İstanbul Şehir Tiyatroları or Istanbul City Theaters. Its history sheds light on an important phase in the development of Turkish theater. The first steps towards the founding of the Darülbedayi – the first state-funded theater in Istanbul during the Republican period – were taken when theater director André Antoine (d. 1943) was invited from France to Istanbul through the efforts of the city’s mayor, Cemil [Topuzlu] Pasha (d. 1958). However, the Darülbedayi was in danger of being shut down due to various factors: lingering financial problems from the Second Constitutional Period, the question of whether to allow female actors on stage, quarrels among the actors, and the lack of an audience of theatrical connoisseurs. In the years 1924-1925, newspapers began to announce that the Darülbedayi was “struggling to survive.” The tide started to turn in 1926, when Muhittin Üstündağ became mayor. Muhsin Ertuğrul (d. 1979), who had studied and worked in the theater in Russia, was appointed the head of the Darülbedayi. From 1927 to 1930, the Darülbedayi gradually put its house in order as it strove to become an established institution. Once Ertuğrul took over the reins of the theater, the Darülbedayi began to stage theatrical masterpieces from different eras rather than adaptations of low-quality plays by Western dramatists. Ertuğrul also encouraged local dramatists to write plays. With the passage of the Municipality Law by Turkey’s Grand National Assembly in 1930, the Darülbedayi became an officially recognized institution directly linked with the Istanbul Municipality. From 1934 onwards, it became formally known as the Istanbul City Theaters.
On July 31, 1923, the Darülbedayi actress Bedia Muvahhit (d. 1994) took part in a performance put on for Atatürk in Izmir, thus setting a precedent for Turkish women taking the stage during the Republican period. Around the same time, Turkish actresses such as Neyyire Neyir (d. 1943), Cahide Sonku (d. 1981), Şaziye Moral (d. 1985), Perihan Tedü (d. 1992), and Gülistan Güzey (d. 1987) could be seen onstage in Istanbul. In the 1930s, the Darülbedayi possessed a legendary ensemble of actors in addition to a highly renowned staff: Ahmet Muvahhit (d. 1927), Küçük Kemal, Raşit Rıza (d. 1961), İ. Galip (d. 1974), Behzat Butak (d. 1963), Hazım Körmükçü (d. 1944), Vasfi Rıza (d. 1992), Muammer Karaca (d. 1978), and later Sami Ayanoğlu (d. 1971), Talat Artemel (d. 1957), Hadi Hun (d. 1969), Ercüment Behzat (d. 1984), Abdurrahman Palay (d. 2002), and İsmet Ay (d. 2004).
Children’s theater also began working in the 1930s. While Ertuğrul was in Russia, he had the opportunity to observe the workings of the Moscow Children’s Theater. On October 1, 1935, children’s theater had its debut in Turkey with a performance of M. Kemal Küçük’s play İlk Tiyatro Dersi (First Lesson in Theater) at the Tepebaşı Tiyatrosu (Tepebaşı Theater). The Darülbedayi also staged musicals during this decade. As a temporary measure, Ertuğrul began staging operettas in order to reach a wider audience and make his theater more popular. Accordingly, there were performances of works by the brothers Ekrem and Cemal Reşit Rey: Lüküs Hayat (The High Life) (1933), Deli Dolu (Alive and Kicking) (1934), Saz Caz (Bağlama/Jazz) (1935), Maskara (The Jester) (1936), and Hava Civa (Nothing Much) (1937). The Reşit Rey brothers also composed revues such as Adalar (The Islands) (1934), Alabanda (Starboard) (1941), and Aldırma (Never Mind) (1942). This era also saw the composition of Muhlis Sabahattin’s operettas Ayşe, Çaresaz (In Search of a Solution), and Gülfatma. Though audiences flocked to the theater to see these performances, critics disparaged the fact that shallow works such as operettas were performed at the Darülbedayi. Another notable event occurred in 1930, when Turkey’s first theatrical journal was published under the name Darülbedayi. The journal, which was later named Türk Tiyatrosu (Turkish Theater) and then Şehir Tiyatrosu (City Theater), is still being printed today.
By 1935, the Istanbul City Theaters was giving performances at three different venues: dramas and comedies at the Tepebaşı Tiyatrosu, operettas at the Fransız Tiyatrosu, and children’s plays at the Tepebaşı Asri Sinema (Tepebaşı Contemporary Cinema). The City Theaters was compelled to put on a new play almost every week, due to the small number of theater-goers. Accordingly, in order to increase the number of performances per play, Ertuğrul started a campaign with the slogan “from three performances to a hundred.” In the 1943-1944 season, Reşat Nuri Güntekin’s Yaprak Dökümü (Falling Leaves) became the first Turkish play to have more than 100 performances. Similarly, in the 1945-1946 season, Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, with 105 performances, set a record for plays in translation.
In 1946, the city’s Açık Hava Tiyatrosu (Open Air Theater) – whose construction was begun by the governor and mayor of Istanbul, Lütfi Kırdar – was completed in just one year, opening with a production of Oedipus the King under Ertuğrul’s direction. In 1949, Ertuğrul left the Istanbul City Theaters, having been appointed head of the Ankara Tatbikat Sahnesi ve Devlet Tiyatrosu (Ankara Workshop Theater and State Theater). Immediately following his departure, the Municipal Council drafted a new regulation which led to considerable discontent among the actors. In accordance with the regulation, a “literary committee” was set up in 1952, which decided which plays were to be staged. The same year, director and stage designer Max Meinecke, a representative of the German Expressionist movement, was put in charge of the Istanbul City Theaters. Under his aegis, there was a decrease in the number of Turkish plays in the repertory of the City Theaters; on the other hand, two new theaters opened in the districts of Eminönü and Beyoğlu.
By the end of the 1950s, the Istanbul City Theaters – in the words of Haldun Taner – had become “a rotten ship” which needed to be revived with some “young blood.” With the support of the public and the artistic community, Ertuğrul was once more made head of the City Theaters in 1959. His first task was to make theater accessible to wider audiences. To that end, he oversaw the opening of the Kadıkoy Tiyatrosu (Kadıköy Theater) in 1960, the Üsküdar Tiyatrosu (ÜskÜdar Theater) and Fatih Tiyatrosu (Fatih Theater) in 1961, and the Zeytinburnu Tiyatrosu (Zeytinburnu Theater) – as well as a summer theater within the walls of Rumelihisari Fortress – in 1962. The Fatih Tiyatrosu (now known as the Reşat Nuri Tiyatrosu or Reşat Nuri Theater), located in the heart of the Saraçhane district, and the Üsküdar Tiyatrosu (now known as the Musahipzade Celal Tiyatrosu or Musahipzade Celal Theater) in the Doğancılar district, are both still in operation; the Zeytinburnu Tiyatrosu was later shut down. Ertuğrul also organized special showing for students, and offered discounted tickets, in order to attract young audiences.
Seeking to breathe new life into his theater, Ertuğrul had the following young actors invited to the Istanbul City Theaters: Ayla Algan, Beklan Algan, Genco Erkal, Tunç Yalman, Şirin Devrim, Engin Cezzar, Nüvit Özdoğru, Zihni Küçümen, Ergun Köknar, Çetin İpekkaya, Güngör Dilmen, Mengü Ertel, and Duygu Sağıroğlu. During this period, the company’s repertoire also included plays by young Turkish authors such as Aziz Nesin, Çetin Altan, Cahit Atay, Melih Cevdet, Oktay Rıfat, Recep Bilginer, Orhan Asena, and Adalet Ağaoğlu.
In 1964, during a performance of Brecht’s The Good Woman of Szechuan, a group attacked the theater, beating up the actors, tearing posters and breaking glass. Istanbul was then under martial law, and the play had been found objectionable by the authorities. It was subsequently examined by a panel of experts, who gave permission for it to be performed. However, this was not the end of the story. In 1965, similar disturbances occurred at performances of Heinar Kipphardt’s play The Oppenheimer Incident. Haldun Taner’s play Eşeğin Gölgesi (The Donkey’s Shadow) was banned for a while, as well, until the court reversed its decision. An investigation was opened against Ertuğrul, on the grounds that he had staged plays by author, columnist, and parliamentary delegate Çetin Altan. In short, more and more political pressure was exerted on the City Theaters as time went on. Finally, the Ministry of Education got rid of its “board of directors” and Ertuğrul was dismissed from duty. Some of the company’s talented young actors resigned in protest. The Türk Tiyatro Yazarları Derneği (Society of Turkish Dramatists) published a memorandum stating that its members were boycotting the Istanbul City Theaters from that point on.1
In the years 1967-1974, the Istanbul City Theaters were under the direction of Vasfi Rıza Zobu. During this period, there was no support for productions of local plays or for works by young authors, and the repertoire generally consisted of works of inferior quality. In the words of Özdemir Nutku, the City Theaters at the start of the 1970s was “a theater with nothing to say, with no personality, with no idea what it is doing or how to get back on track.”2 Meanwhile, in 1969, the municipality had constructed a new theater in Harbiye. The Tepebaşı Tiyatrosu (known as the “Petits-Champs”), which had been used since the Darülbedayi era, was left to its fate; soon afterwards, the building caught fire and became completely unusable.
In 1974, Vasfi Rıza resigned due to the “complete lack of suitable working conditions,” and Ertuğrul was once more made general art director. As before, Ertuğrul planned to reach a wide audience by using young actors, and arranged discounted theatrical performances in parks, recreation centers, stadiums, and cafes. However, the young performers no longer wished to heed the wishes of a central authority. Instead, they wanted autonomy for their neighborhood theaters, which were to be under local management. A 1976 regulation divided the Istanbul City Theaters into five branches. The powers of the general artistic director were abrogated, and Ertuğrul once more departed from the institution. Beklan Algan, Başar Sabuncu, Hamit Akınlı, Burçin Oraloğlu, and Ergin Orbey were appointed the directors of the neighborhood theaters. However, unable to deal with the ongoing political conflicts, they too were compelled to resign.
Between 1978 and 1980, Hayati Asılyazıcı was in charge of the Istanbul City Theaters. Asılyazıcı once more appointed the artistic directors of the neighborhood theaters, and added young actors to the institution’s ranks. His tenure came to an end with the 1980 military coup. The subsequent era was marked by a lack of artistic freedom. Vasfi Rıza Zobu was reappointed the head of the Istanbul City Theaters; a system of central administration was reinstated, and the neighborhood theaters were shut down one by one. The powers of theater directors were also restricted. A large number of actors and authors working in the theater were dismissed from their posts.
Gencay Gürün – the head dramaturge and general secretary of the Devlet Tiyatroları (State Theaters) – was put in charge of the Istanbul City Theaters in the 70th year of its existence. Under Gürün’s directorship – which lasted between 1984 and 1994 – things returned to normal at the City Theaters, as the effects of the September 12th era began to abate. In order to rebuild the audiences which it had lost, the theater reverted to Ertuğrul’s practice of including musicals and operettas in its repertoire. To this end, the Reşit Rey Brothers’ operetta Lüküs Hayat was staged again, under the direction of Haldun Dormen, with acclaimed performances by actors and actresses like Suna Pekuysal, Zihni Göktay, Sezai Altekin, and Alev Gürzap. One of the company’s legendary plays, Lüküs Hayat continues to be performed today. During this period, audiences were enticed to the City Theaters with musicals like Evita – featuring performers from both inside and outside the company (e.g., Zuhal Olcay, Cihan Ünal, and Neco) – and plays like Bilgesu Erenus’s Misafir (The Guest), Murathan Mungan’s Taziye (Condolences), and Ferhan Şensoy’s version of Keşanlı Ali Destanı (The Epic of Keşanlı Ali). This period also saw the creation of the Tiyatro Araştırmaları Laboratuvarı (Laboratories for Theater Studies) or TAL, founded by Beklan Algan, Ayla Algan, Erol Keskin, and Haluk Şevket Ataseven in order to research plays and do experimental work in theater. TAL studies pioneering approaches in theater by world-famous names such as Peter Stein, Joseph Szajna, and Eugenio Barba; although great progress has been made educationally, this project has not been very productive in terms of staging actual plays.
In 2008, the Muhsin Ertuğrul Tiyatrosu (Muhsin Ertuğrul Theater) in Harbiye – the main venue for the Istanbul City Theaters – was demolished, as part of a convention center project planned for the area. It was replaced by a new theater which is still in use.
The Bakırkoy Belediye Tiyatrosu (Bakırkoy Municipal Theatre)
In 1990, Turkey’s second municipally-funded theater was established in the Bakırkoy district of Istanbul. Founded by Zeliha Berksoy, the Bakırkoy Belediye Tiyatrosu (Bakırkoy Municipal Theater) caters to Bakırkoy residents, in line with the principle of “local theaters” espoused by the State Theaters. The venue opened with a performance of Aziz Nesin’s play Demokrasi Gemisi (The Ship of Democracy); over the years, its general art directors have included names like Pekcan Koşar and Müşfik Kenter. Its plays are performed at two renovated historical landmarks: the Yunus Emre Kültür Merkezi (Yunus Emre Cultural Center) and the İspirtohane Kültür Merkezi (Old Distillery Cultural Center).
The State Theaters and Istanbul
The story of the State Theaters in Istanbul begins with the construction of the Atatürk Kültür Merkezi (Atatürk Cultural Center), a building whose fate today is still uncertain. After the founding of the Republic, there was a wish to build a large, modern, Western-style opera house befitting the city of Istanbul. Thus, the foundations were laid for what would become the Atatürk Kültür Merkezi. The first dispute occurred over the issue of where to build the opera house. In 1929, a German consortium made an offer to build it; first Taksim, and then the Tepebaşı Gardens were decided on as a location. Next, Sultanahmet Square was considered as a possibility, but the Directorate of Museums would not give its permission. Similarly, the Armenian Foundation would not allow construction on another proposed site, the Surp-Agop Armenian Cemetery. By 1935, it still had not been decided where the theater would be built, or by whom. Henri Prost, an expert in city planning, was in favor of having the theater built in Tepebaşı. Nonetheless, in the end, construction began in Taksim in 1946. To mark the start of this project – which was overseen by architect Auguste Peres – a document was placed inside a bottle, signed by Governor and Mayor Lütfi Kırdar as well as theater professionals such as Muhsin Ertuğrul, Vasfi Rıza, Galip Arcan, and Behzat Butak.3 However, seven years later, only 30% of the building had been completed. In 1956, construction resumed under the supervision of master architect and engineer Hayati Tabanlıoğlu; it was finished in 1969. A full 40 years after it had been designed, the building opened as the İstanbul Kültür Sarayı (Istanbul Palace of Culture). It was not used by the Istanbul City Theaters, but was used jointly by the State Theaters as well as the Devlet Opera ve Balesi (State Opera and Ballet). Ever since construction had begun, the Istanbul City Theaters had longed for a modern stage. Losing out on the chance to perform at this venue was a crushing blow to its actors. As the State Theaters and the State Opera and Ballet did not have any permanent companies in Istanbul, their first performances were given by companies on tour from Ankara.
But the real disaster occurred on the night of November 27th, 1970. During a performance by the State Theaters of the play Cadı Kazanı (The Witch’s Cauldron), a fire broke out in the İstanbul Kültür Sarayı, seriously damaging the building. It was not clear if this was an accident or was due to sabotage. The actors were of two minds as to whether to rebuild the building. Finally, in 1977, the building was repaired, and reopened as the Atatürk Kültür Merkezi (AKM). Can Gürzap was put in charge of establishing the Istanbul branch of the State Theaters. The Istanbul State Theater’s opening season (1979-1980) featured the plays Deli Dumrul (Crazy Dumrul), Duruşma (The Trial), and Antigone. The theater’s first troupe of actors included Zeynep Irgat, Nihat İleri, Zuhal Olcay, Civan Canova, Arsen Gürzap, Haluk Kurtoğlu, Macit Flordun, Şerif Sezer, Derya Alabora, and Müge Gürman. In 1993, a group of 30 theater professionals demanded a “private and free” theater. Accordingly, the State Theaters created its first and only birim tiyatrosu (a small-scale, curtainless theater in which the performers are in close proximity to the audience). The company’s plays were performed at the Aziz Nesin Tiyatrosu (Aziz Nesin Theater), which was constructed out of a warehouse in the AKM, and built to resemble an arena theater. The company’s most controversial play was a production of Hamlet directed by Müge Gürman.
The AKM remained in operation until 2007. Subsequently, as part of the 2010 European Capital of Culture Project, it was decided to demolish it and construct a better building. However, a number of prominent intellectuals and artists opposed the building’s demolition. In the end, it was decided that the AKM would be preserved, and it was cleared out in order to begin repairs. As of present (2013), these repairs are still ongoing.
Istanbul’s Private Theaters
The early years of the Republic typically featured various theater companies composed of actors from the Darülbedayi. These companies were usually short-lived, due to financial and venue-related difficulties as well as disagreements among their actors. Most of them put on vaudeville productions and adaptations.
Istanbul was the prime location for private theaters in particular. These theater companies were typically set up in Beyoğlu and the surrounding districts; in more recent years, theater groups have also emerged in Kadıkoy and the neighboring areas on the Asian side. In the past, just like today, many theater companies came into existence as a collaborative effort between actors and producers; some of these were quite short-lived, while some made their mark on the history of theater. Unfortunately, very few of them have been able to maintain their legacy down until the present day. The Millî Sahne (National Stage) was the first well-known private theater to be established in Istanbul after the founding of the Republic. This company performed at the Tepebaşı Tiyatrosu; its first plays were Sekizinci (The Eighth One) and Hisse-i Şayia (Common Stock), adapted by İbnürrefik Ahmet Nuri (d. 1935). The founder of the Millî Sahne, Fikret Şadi (d. 1941), created the Türk Tiyatrosunu Himaye Cemiyeti (Society for the Patronage of Turkish Theater); his company thus became the first private theater organization to procure state support. The Millî Sahne featured actors and actresses like İ. Galip, Neyyire Neyir, Hazım Körmükçü, Miss Kınar (d. 1950), Miss Afife (d. 1941), Şehper, and Anayis.
In the 1924-1925 season, Muhsin Ertuğrul founded a theater company at a theater called the Ferah Sahnesi (Carefree Theater) in the Şehzadebaşı district of Istanbul. This company, which came to be known as the Ferah Sezonu (Carefree Season)”4 included a number of Ertuğrul’s artistic colleagues, such as İ. Galip, Behzat Butak, Neyyire Neyir, Hazım Körmükçü, Muammer Karaca, and Miss Kınar. The company was especially noted for its performances of plays by local dramatists: Faruk Nafiz’s Canavar (The Monster), Vedat Nedim Tör’s İşsizler (The Jobless), and Sermet Muhtar’s Duvar Aslan (The Lion Relief). However, the company was dissolved in 1925 due to disagreements between Ertuğrul and Behzat Butak, as well as financial problems.
In 1930, the Türk Akademi Tiyatrosu (Turkish Academy Theater) or T.A.T. was created with the stated aim of countering the negative influences of the Darülbedayi tradition. Founded by Ercüment Behzat and Ertuğrul Sadi, the company performed at the newly repaired Hilal Tiyatrosu (Crescent Theater) in the Şehzadebaşı district.
In 1946, Muammer Karaca – who had received his theatrical training at the Darülbedayi – founded the Karaca Tiyatrosu (Karaca Theater). Karaca blended the tradition of improvisatory theater with political satire. In 1955, he and his company moved to the building in Beyoglu which still bears his name. The company initially included performers like Adile Naşit, Selim Özcan, and Aysel Gürel. A clear stand-out among its productions is the play Cibali Karakolu (The Cibali Police Station), co-authored by Karaca and Refik Kordağ, which has been performed more than 4,000 times.
In 1951 Muhsin Ertuğrul founded the Küçük Sahne (Little Stage) theater company, with the assistance of Yapı Kredi Bank. The company’s first play was Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. In addition to theater, the company put on screenings of children’s cinema, musicals, and opera. It also published a journal entitled Küçük Sahne. The group’s ensemble of experienced performers as well as talented young actors included Lale Oraloğlu, Çolpan İlhan, Altan Karındaş, Cahit Irgat, Münir Özkul, Mücap Ofluoğlu, Haldun Dormen, Şükran Güngör, Pekcan Koşar, Kamuran Yüce, and Sadri Alışık. After Ertuğrul’s departure in 1955, the group disbanded.
After completing his Master’s degree in Theater at Yale University, Haldun Dormen returned to Istanbul and founded the Dormen Tiyatrosu (Dormen Theater) in 1955. His theater opened with a play which he wrote and directed, Papaz Kaçtı (Old Maid). The company continued to put on its plays at the Küçük Sahne until 1962, when it repaired the old Varyete SES Tiyatrosu (Variety VOICE Theater), eventually moving there permanently. Dormen’s company was one of the foremost names in vaudeville and boulevard comedy in Istanbul; its memorable productions include Sevgilime Göz Kulak Ol (Keep an Eye on My Sweetheart), Şahane Züğürtler (The Majestic Paupers), Yaygara 70 (1970 Brouhaha), and Yer Demir Gök Bakır (Iron Earth, Copper Sky). In 2006, the theater celebrated its 50th anniversary. A list of actors and actresses who received their theatrical training at the Dormen Tiyatrosu would include Erol Günaydın, Nevra Serezli, Altan Erbulak, Metin Serezli, İzzet Günay, Nisa Serezli, Erol Keskin, Fikret Hakan, Asaf Çiyiltepe, Başar Sabuncu, Ayfer Feray, Füsun Erbulak, and Göksel Kortay.
In the atmosphere of freedom brought about by the 1960 Constitution, private theaters – both classical and avant-garde – multiplied in Istanbul. Companies in search of experimental theatrical techniques abandoned the conventions of the “Italian stage,” creating alternative theatrical spaces.
At the beginning of the 1960s, the brothers Yıldız and Müşfik Kenter resigned from their positions at the State Theaters and founded the Kent Oyuncuları (City Players). Genco Erkal, Şükran Güngör, and Sadri Alışık made up the core members of this company. The Kent Oyuncuları first performed during 6 PM matinees at the Karaca Tiyatrosu, then the Site Tiyatrosu (“City Theater,” not to be confused with the Istanbul City Theaters), and then the Dormen (SES) Tiyatrosu. Later, the company had the Kenter Tiyatrosu (Kenter Theater) built in Harbiye at its own expense. The Kenter Tiyatrosu opened in 1968 with a production of Hamlet. Still a thriving theater company today, it is known for memorable productions like Necati Cumalı’s Nalınlar (The Clogs), Melih Cevdet’s Mikadonun Çöpleri (The Straws of the Mikado), and Güngör Dilmen’s Ben Anadolu (I Am Anatolia).
The Gülriz Sururi - Engin Cezzar Topluluğu (Gülriz Sururi - Engin Cezzar Company) was founded in the 1960s. Its most notable production was undoubtedly Haldun Taner’s Keşanlı Ali Destanı, directed by Engin Cezzar and immortalized through Gülriz Sururi’s portrayal of the character of Zilha. Performing at many different venues, such as the Küçük Sahne, the Elhamra Tiyatrosu (Alhambra Theater), and the Fatih Tiyatrosu, the company has staged plays like Güngör Dilmen’s Kurban (The Sacrifice), Yaşar Kemal’s Teneke (The Tin Pan), and Nazım Hikmet’s Ferhat ile Şirin (Ferhat and Şirin), in addition to musicals like The Little Sparrow and Cabaret.
The Gönül Ülkü - Gazanfer Özcan Tiyatrosu (Gönül Ülkü - Gazanfer Özcan Theater), which was founded in the 1960s and closed in 1994, was known for its superb comedic performances. The company won over audiences through its portrayal of the tragicomic inability of Istanbul’s middle classes to keep up with the times.
Among the private theaters of this era, one should mention the Gen-Ar Tiyatrosu (Gen-Ar Theater), created in a room of an art gallery on Parmakkapı Street in Beyoğlu, the Oraloğlu Tiyatrosu (Oraloğlu Theater), the Nisa Serezli - Tolga Aşkıner Tiyatrosu (Nisa Serezli - Tolga Aşkıner Theater), the Nejat Uygur Tiyatrosu (Nejat Uygur Theater), and the Alpago Tiyatrosu (Alpago Theater). Also worthy of mention are the experimental theaters of the 1960s, such as the Arena Tiyatrosu (Arena Theater) under the direction of Asaf Çiyiltepe and Atilla Tokatlı, and the Language and Culture Center (LCC) – which Mesut Üstünel constructed as a school – with its elliptical-shaped, moving theater-in-the-round type stage.
In 1967, the Devekuşu Kabare (Ostrich Cabaret) was founded by Haldun Taner, Zeki Alasya, Metin Akpınar, and Yalçın Gülhan. During the 1970s and 1980s, it provided audiences with performances of political satire. The company’s first play was Vatan Kurtaran Şaban (Şaban, Savior of the Nation); its ensemble included names like Perran Kutman, Cihat Tamer, Kemal Sunal, and Selim Naşit. The Devekuşu Kabare received great acclaim during the 1980s, with its productions of the plays Aşk Olsun (For Shame!), Deliler (The Lunatics), Yasaklar (Forbidden Things), and Beyoğlu Beyoğlu. However, due to the growing influence of television and the decrease in theater audiences, the group disbanded in 1992.
Created in 1969, the Dostlar Tiyatrosu (Friends Theater) adopted a presentational theatrical approach right from the start. The group’s founders included Genco Erkal, Mehmet Akan, Şevket Altuğ, and Arif Erkin. During the 1970s, the company was involved in documentary theater, staging plays like The Rosenbergs Must Not Die and The Havana Inquiry in addition to Orhan Asena’s Şili’de Av (The Hunt in Chile), focusing on the overthrow of Allende, and Haşmet Zeybek’s Alpagut Olayı (The Alpagut Incident), depicting a mine workers’ strike. One of the company’s most significant productions was its staging of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, directed by Mehmet Ulusoy, with stage design by Metin Deniz, masks by Kuzgun Acar, and acting by Zeliha Berksoy and Genco Erkal.
In the 1980s, Egemen Bostancı rented the Şan Sineması (Singing Cinema), thus inaugurating the era of the Şan Müzikholü (Singing Music Hall). Actors and actresses like Emel Sayın, Erol Evgin, Sezen Aksu, Adile Naşit, Şener Şen, Ayşen Gruda, Müjdat Gezen, Perran Kutman, Savaş Dinçel, İlyas Salman, and Gülşen Bubikoğlu took to the stage in productions like Yedi Kocalı Hürmüz (Hürmüz and Her Seven Husbands), Hisseli Harikalar Kumpanyası (The Joint Venture Company of Wonders), Artiz Mektebi (The School for Actors), and Bin Yıl Önce Bin Yıl Sonra (A Thousand Years Ago – A Thousand Years Later).
The year 1980 saw the founding of the group known as the Ortaoyuncular or “Performers of Ortaoyunu” (a reference to the genre of comedic open-air folk theater mentioned earlier), under the direction of Ferhan Şensoy. The group’s first play, performed at the Küçük Sahne, was Şahları da Vururlar (They Kill Shahs Too). From the start, the Ortaoyuncular’s repertory was characterized by wit and ironic social satire. Searching for a permanent location, the company rented the Şan Müzikholü; however, the building burned to the ground in 1987. The following year, the Ortaoyuncular repaired the SES Tiyatrosu, and began staging their plays there. The group featured actors and actresses like Rasim Öztekin, Ali Çatalbaş, Derya Baykal, and Baykal Kent. Some of its more popular plays include Soyut Padişah (The Abstract Sultan), İstanbul’u Satıyorum (I’m Selling Istanbul), and Kahraman Bakkal Süpermarkete Karşı (The Heroic Grocer vs. The Supermarket). Memorably, the company also created a space for itinerant theater out of a boat moored to the shore in the Kuruçeşme district of Istanbul. The space was called the İçinden Dalga Geçen Tiyatro or “The Theater with Waves Passing through It,” a pun on the Turkish expression dalga geçmek (to pass a wave, i.e. make a joke). The company’s director, Ferhan Şensoy, has also had a one-man show, Ferhangi Şeyler (Ferhan-y-thing) running continuously since March 7th, 1987.
Other private theaters of the 1980s include Hadi Çaman’s Yeditepe Tiyatrosu (Yeditepe Theater), Zafer Diper’s Bizim Tiyatro (Our Theater), the Ali Poyrazoğlu - Korhan Abay Tiyatrosu (Ali Poyrazoğlu - Korhan Abay Theater) with its magnificent debut production of La Cage aux Folles, the Enis Fosforoğlu Topluluğu (Enis Fosforoğlu Company), and the Levent Kırca - Oya Başar Tiyatrosu (Levent Kırca - Oya Başar Theater).
In the 1990s, theater began to recover from the effects of the 1980 coup, regaining its former vitality and seeking out new styles and techniques. In this era marked by experimental works, the Bilsak Tiyatro Atölyesi (Bilsak Theater Atelier) was founded under the leadership of Nihal Geyran Koldaş. The company attracted a following with its production of Sevim Burak’s play İşte Baş, İşte Gövde, İşte Kanatlar (Here Is the Head, Here Is the Trunk, Here Are the Wings).
Founded in 1991 by Kerem Kurtoğlu and Naz Erayda, the alternative theater group Kum-pan-ya (Com-pan-y) is chiefly concerned with the relationship between theater and theatrical space; every new play by group reconfigures the space in which it is shown. Kum-pan-ya puts on its plays at the İstanbul Sanat Merkezi (Istanbul Art Center) or İSM, and has gained a large following among theater cognoscenti with works like Fayton Soruşturması (The Horse and Carriage Investigation), Canlanan Mekân (The Awakening Space), Haritadan Naklen Yayın (Broadcast Live from the Map), and Vınnlamanın Binbir Yolu (A Thousand and One Ways to Whiz Past). Companies like the 5. Sokak Tiyatrosu (5th Street Theater) under the direction of Mustafa Avkıran, Tiyatro Grup (Theater Group), and Tiyatro Pera (Theater Pera) have performed at this space, an old Armenian Catholic monastery in the Tarlabaşı neighborhood of Istanbul which has been transformed into an arts center.
The Stüdyo Oyuncuları (Studio Players), founded by Şahika Tekand, kicked off with a production of Beckett’s Happy Days in 1992. During the 21 years it has been in operation, the company has performed its plays at its spaces in Nisantasi, using the performative methods of staging and acting developed by Tekand.
In 1990, Ahmet Levendoğlu, Zuhal Olcay, and Haluk Bilginer joined together to found Tiyatro Stüdyosu (The Theater Studio). The group has presented audiences with fine examples of contemporary theater such as Aldatma (Don’t Deceive Them), Derin Bir Soluk Al (Take a Deep Breath), Kan Kardeşler (Blood Brothers), Histeri (Hysteria), Balkon (The Balcony), and last but not least, Çöplük (The Garbage Dump). After leaving the group, Zuhal Olcay and Haluk Bilginer founded Oyun Atölyesi (The Play Studio) in 1999. Oyun Atölyesi achieved great acclaim with its production of Steven Berkoff’s Kvetch; since 2002, it has been staging performances at its venue in the Kadikoy district of Istanbul.
Further additions to theater life in Istanbul in the 1990s include Tiyatro İstanbul (Theater Istanbul), founded in 1995 by director Gencay Gürün, Dilek Türker’s Tiyatro Ayna (Mirror Theater), the Aksanat Prodüksiyon Tiyatrosu (Aksanat Production Theater), and Tiyatro Kare (The Square Theater) under the direction of Nedim Saban.
In the 2000s, there was another noticeable increase in the number of private theaters. Theatrical life in Istanbul was greatly enlivened by the opening of theater and acting departments at many Turkish universities, the graduates of which then came to Istanbul, a prime location both for television serials and for the theater market. During this period, it was common to encounter theater companies performing works they themselves wrote and directed at small theaters or bars.
In 2002, a dynamic group of young people led by Işıl Kasapoğlu founded the Semaver Kumpanya (Samovar Theater Company) at the Çevre Tiyatrosu (Periphery Theater) in the neighborhood of Kocamustafapaşa. The company inaugurated its project “Theater on the Other Side of the Golden Horn” with plays like Twelfth Night, The Conference of the Birds, Murtaza, and Süleyman ve Öbürsüler (Süleyman and the Others).
Another manifestation of this tradition of alternative theater is DOT, founded in 2005 by Murat Daltaban, Özlem Daltaban, and Süha Bilal on the fourth floor of the Mısır Apartmanı (Egypt Apartments) in Beyoğlu. DOT performs in a space consisting of a mobile, shifting stage known as the Black Box. It has won considerable acclaim for its productions like Frozen, The Censor, and Mercury Fur, belonging to the harsh, outspoken, provocative, raw theatrical genre known as “in-yer-face.”
Mustafa Avkıran and Övül Avkıran, the founders of the 5. Sokak Tiyatrosu, moved their company to Garaj İstanbul in the Galatasaray district. The venue was designed as an alternative space operating outside the conventions of Italian stagecraft; today, with its dance and music groups, it is an arts center which is host to many different artistic disciplines.
Even an incomplete list of the many private theaters which have recently opened in Istanbul would have to include the Altıdan Sonra Tiyatro (Theater After Six), which performs at Kumbaracı 50; Galataperform; the Mask-Kara Tiyatrosu (Mask-Kara Theater), whose name plays on the Turkish words maskara (jester), mask (mask), and kara (black); the Talimhane Tiyatrosu (Talimhane Theater); the Boğaziçi Gösteri Sanatları Topluluğu (Boğaziçi Performing Arts Society); the Sadri Alışık Tiyatrosu (Sadri Alışık Theater); the Sarıyer Sanat Tiyatrosu (Sariyer Art Theater); Tiyatro Kedi (The Cat Theater); the Ak’la Kara Tiyatrosu (White and Black Theater) on the Asian side of the city; and the Müjdat Gezen Sanat Merkezi (Müjdat Gezen Arts Center), which functions both as a theater and as a school.
In short, the erstwhile capital of Istanbul remains a place where beauty and culture of every sort is collected, produced, and disseminated to the rest of the country; it is the trailblazer and focal point for every artistic movement in Turkey.
Karaboğa, Kerem, Geleceğe Perde Açan Gelenek Geçmişten Günümüze İstanbul Tiyatroları I, Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2011.
Özsoysal, Fakiye and Metin Balay, Geleceğe Perde Açan Gelenek Geçmişten Günümüze İstanbul Tiyatroları III, Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2011.
Pekman, Yavuz, Geleceğe Perde Açan Gelenek Geçmişten Günümüze İstanbul Tiyatroları II, Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2011.
1 Sevda Şener, Cumhuriyetin 75 Yılında Türk Tiyatrosu, Istanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, n.d., p. 164.
2 Özdemir Nutku, “Cumhuriyet Tiyatrosuna Genel Bir Bakış,” Atatürk ve Cumhuriyet Tiyatrosu, Istanbul: Özgür Yayınları, 1999, p. 83.
3 Rakım Ziyaoğlu, Yorumlu İstanbul Kütüğü, Istanbul: Yenilik Basımevi, 1985, p. 80.
4 Metin And, Cumhuriyet Dönemi Türk Tiyatrosu, Ankara: Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, 1983, p. 187.