The Stage, Fighting

My first post today is a fascinating and troubling programme broadcast by the BBC last week. In it, the UK-based, Turkish theatre director, Mehmet Ergen travels back to Istanbul to explore the current state of the theatre in the country after the Arab Spring and Gezi Park protests.

Mehmet ErgenA background to Ergen and the programme, call A Tale of Two Theatres, is given here in the publicity from the BBC:

Acclaimed director Mehmet Ergen leads a double life, directing on stages 3000km apart. This programme follows him from London to Istanbul, to learn how much is now at stake for Turkish theatre.

Mehmet is best known to UK theatre audiences as Artistic Director of London’s Arcola Theatre. But his pioneering work in Hackney is only half the story as the programme discovers on a journey to his Turkish homeland, post Gezi Park and post Arab Spring, caught between the Syrian conflict and EU aspirations.

An Istanbul-born former DJ, Mehmet became the toast of London’s theatre scene by creating venues and careers from scratch. In 2000 he transformed a derelict clothing factory in Dalston into a destination venue, twice recognised by the Peter Brook Empty Space Award. Not content to run ‘a powerhouse of new work’ (in the words of theatre critic Susannah Clapp) in his adopted city, he later opened its opposite number back in his hometown.


Tensions have been rising in Turkey between artists and politicians ever since the Prime Minister’s daughter was mocked on stage, allegedly for wearing a headscarf to the Ankara State Theatre in 2011. In 2012, a performance of Chilean play Secret Obscenities was censored by Istanbul’s Mayor Kadir Topbas.

Turkey Artistic FreedomsPrime Minister Erdogan then threatened to withdraw subsidies of up to 140 million
Turkish Lira from approximately 50 venues, employing roughly 1,500 actors, directors and technicians. Although wholesale privatisation has yet to be enacted, theatre companies openly opposed to government tactics during 2013’s Gezi Park protests promptly had their funding withdrawn.

Entrepreneurial ex-pat Mehmet acts as the listener’s guide to this politically charged arts scene, as he negotiates national and cultural borders to stage work that is as unpretentious as it is provocative.

A Tale of Two Theatres:

Somehow the situation in Turkey, which began in 2012, had passed me by and a little further digging only underscores what Ergen has to say. LABKULTUR ran a piece, Ethics of Art or Ethical Art, that is the question! that details the situation nicely, as did the Huffington Post.  You don’t need to speak Turkish to understand the following protest video. Entitled Şehir Tiyatroları Yok Edilemez, which roughly translates as our city theatres won’t be destroyed, is a powerful 24 seconds.


Let’s not forget that this is the same Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, who a couple of weeks ago attempted to block Twitter and Youtube to the whole country as both were hosting evidence of wide-ranging corruption in his government.

In 2012, Erdoğan accused theatre artists of being arrogant, saying They have started to humiliate and look down on us and all conservatives. Clearly theatre in Turkey is doing a great job if it manages to rattle the politicians in this way.

While researching this post I came across artsfreedom, an organisation which gathers international news and knowledge about artistic freedom of expression – or the lack of it. Click the image below to see what they do:

af_Fotorartsfreedom is an extension of Freemuse, a Danish-based organisation that advocates freedom of expression for musicians. Freemuse have started to gather annual statistics that cover artistic freedom of expression violations globally and the ones for 2013 make grim reading. A total number of 199 cases of attacks on artists and violations of their rights have been registered. The cases include 19 artists being killed, 27 newly imprisoned, 9 imprisoned in previous years but still serving time, 8 abducted, 3 attacked, 13 threatened or persecuted, 28 prosecuted, 19 detained, as well as 73 cases of censorship.

Visually it looks like this:

freemuse_FotorThe breakdown by country is here. The artsfreedom newsletter that reflects on these statistics is worth a (depressing) read here.

While artsfreedom works right across all arts, the pieces on their site that relate specifically to theatre are here.

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