Why this is the golden age of Istanbul theaters

Why this is the golden age of Istanbul theaters

Caner Kocamaz
March 27, 2017

There has been a general perception in Turkey that in the face of competition from the movie industry and technology, theater is gradually dying. However, a hungry audience and increasing interest from new generations of actors shows otherwise. Along with state-run theaters, there are also numerous independent theaters founded by theater enthusiasts who come together around a common worldview.

Yoldan Çıkan Oyun, Zorlu PSM

“I think theater is in its most productive age,” says Haldun Dormen, a prolific name in Turkish theater at the age of 88. Dormen thinks that alternative theaters will be the future flag carriers of the Turkish theater scene. “In our time, we lacked directors and playwrights. Incredible actors, writers, and directors are training now.” Coming together on common ground, these young talents are founding theaters where they can enact their own plays, or translate a popular new play hailing from London without following a strict set of guidelines.

When people turn to theater for entertainment, there are now a lot more choices to pick from when it comes to looking for an intriguing play, a different stage, or a group of faces. Today, it is easier to see how both the unfortunate and joyous aspects of Turkey and the world are represented on the stage, with independent theaters and theater groups growing in number. Although these may not be the best of times, Istanbul’s theater scene is growing with every new stage and world-famous production that drops by the city.

West Side Story, Zorlu PSM, photo credit Nilz Boehme

Acclaimed plays, operas, and musicals such as West Side Story or Royal Opera House screenings are also visiting Istanbul, and there is such high interest in these shows that you often struggle to find tickets. Since these productions are staged in their original language, the non-Turkish-speaking population of the city and visitors alike have a chance to catch them. In addition to these big titles, theaters such as Sahne Pulchérie and İkinci Kat offer surtitles to accommodate an international crowd.

An international audience

Set in the grounds of Lycee Sainte Pulchérie, Sahne Pulchérie curates an array of plays from theater groups around the city. The institution has been offering French and English surtitles to bring together Istanbul’s English and French speaking population for four years. “We are trying to offer expats in Istanbul different examples from Turkish theater,” says Arzu Bigat Baril, the art director of Sahne Pulchérie. Now the theater has an expatriate crowd that regularly watches the plays, and then meets and discusses afterwards with the cast.

Macbeth, Sahne Pulcherie

All these efforts and developments in theater are not left unreciprocated. Istanbul is supporting these alternative, independent theaters by going to the plays more often than before. In addition to the theater fans who religiously follow new plays and visit the theater as frequently as every week, more and more newcomers are also buying tickets. “Last season (2016) we sold 100,000 theater tickets at Zorlu PSM alone,” Murat Abbas, the venue’s general manager, told The Guide Istanbul. Zorlu PSM is hosting 24 plays this season, among them plays from alternative theaters such as Moda Sahnesi or Oyun Atölyesi. “We have a busy play schedule, yet we constantly continue to look for new theaters to host.”

A new way to decompress

When an unfortunate event hits Istanbul, entertainment is one of the first industries to be affected. Concerts get canceled, and performers postpone or cancel their upcoming shows. Nightclubs and concert venues become places to avoid. Unfortunately, some people withdraw from the streets or choose to stay home for a while. At times like this, theater has a unifying role - allowing people to get away from national anxieties, be among familiar faces, and think about something else for a few hours. 

“When there is an act of terrorism, concerts are the first events to get canceled, yet theater plays don’t stand out in this manner,” Abbas explains. Istanbulites don’t let these awful happenings scare them off. In place of canceled concerts, they choose the theater to socialize. At these times, “people need to be together, watch a play, and decompress,” Pulcherie’s art director Baril comments. 

The power of storytelling has been bringing people together for centuries. With more and more independent theaters opening up to tell their side of the story and a young generation growing up to raise their voices onstage, it seems that theater will continue to be a unifying force among the people of Istanbul.