- Palimpsests of Violence:Urban Dispossession and Political Theatre in Istanbul
What is the relationship between theatre and politics in contemporary Turkey? The answer to this question is linked to the proliferation of so-called alternative theatres in Istanbul in the twenty-first century. Designating theatre ventures that exist outside the publicly funded state and municipal theatre circuits, the phrase "alternative theater" is one way in which artists, critics, and audiences have referenced the proliferation of theatrical activity that has characterized the new millennium. Of course, a broader historical lens reminds us that experimental theatre companies had already emerged in Turkish metropoles in the 1960s; but the sheer political, aesthetic, and institutional variety of twenty-first-century alternative theatre is better traced to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Istanbul-based ventures like Bilsak Tiyatro, Kumpanya, 5. Sokak Oyuncuları, and Şahika Tekand's Stüdyo Oyuncuları sought to create autonomous spaces for theatrical expression, research, and pedagogy. This search has only accelerated in the twenty-first century, with new spaces like GalataPerform, Kumbaracı50, DOT, Moda Sahnesi, İkinciKat, MekanArtı, and Şermola Performans (among many others) vying for public visibility. Alternative theatre is not a monolithic whole, yet one trend that has characterized the domain's emergent work is a concern with the politics of both collective and individual memory as well as the complexities of national identity in twentieth-century Turkey.
If Turkish theatre has witnessed a shifting terrain in the new millennium, however, so has Turkish politics. The ascendancy and rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has challenged the Kemalist [End Page 349] state project that had previously defined Republican history, with its emphasis on Turkish nation-statehood and secular modernization. Campaigning on a neoliberal brand of Islamic social conservatism, part of what the AKP has introduced into Turkish political life is a historiographic tendency in which an array of past political grievances are brought together to rewrite Kemalist memory politics. While drawing attention to the "multiplicity of alternative memories" that have emerged in the wake of this shift, Onur Bakıner nonetheless signals the arrival of "a new state-sanctioned historiography," where conservative-nationalist readings of the past have resulted in selective reckonings as well as further silencings.1 Two trends in particular are important to note: first, the emergence of a depoliticized memory of the country's successive military coups that obscures the history of human rights violations, and second, a discourse of neo-Ottomanism that both imagines a Muslim-Turkish imperial past and engages in facile celebrations of Ottoman multiculturalism.
How did alternative theatre respond to this shifting terrain? How did playwrights and theatre artists negotiate the possibilities as well as the limitations of conducting political theatre in the new millennium? In this essay, I focus on Ahmet Sami Özbudak's play İz (The Stain), which was directed by Yeşim Özsoy at the alternative theatre venue GalataPerform in Istanbul in 2013, to formulate some preliminary answers to these questions. İz was created by Özbudak in 2010, in the context of the Yeni Metin, Yeni Tiyatro (New Text, New Theatre) writing workshops that Özsoy had been organizing at GalataPerform since 2006. Since then, the play has had a smooth run, and the company celebrated their hundredth performance in June 2016. Meanwhile, Özbudak has published a novelized version of the narrative that also includes the playtext, and negotiations are in process for a film adaptation. The play, in other words, has grown beyond its seemingly medium-specific identity, despite a tight dramaturgical structure and pronounced use of theatrical space and media.
What is the play's enduring appeal? İz tells three concurrent stories, each of which is anchored around a specific moment in modern Turkish history. The first story is set in 1955 and centers on Rum (Anatolian Greek) sisters Eleni and Markiz, who are tending to their mother, an elderly woman who has not exited her bedroom in a number of months. As they [End Page 350] discuss their mother's condition, the political tension that underlies their everyday existence culminates in the events of September 6–7, during which Istanbul's Greek community was systematically attacked by Turkish mobs...