The issue of theaters in Turkey has taken on a different dimension lately. The argument over the situation of state-funded and municipal theaters and their regularly paid artists has again sparked a series of discussions that started with the staging of an obscene play and continued with a subsequent İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality move to change the regulations of its theaters.
The discussion pits two groups against each other. While one group insists that the current system should continue, saying state and municipality-funded theaters must survive and stay under the autonomous dominance of the artists, another underscores that these theaters must be privatized and gain independence.
The second group also argues that these theaters must be shut down because authorities such as states are not supposed to own theaters. Those who raise dissenting voices against the current system of funded theaters call the artists employed in these institutions “civil servant artists,” arguably a thing that is opposed to a very natural need of art and artists’ freedom.
The incident that ignited this heated debate was a play. The municipality-owned İstanbul City Theaters in recent months staged Chilean playwright Marco Antonio de la Parra’s “Daily Obscene Secrets” (Günlük Müstehcen Sırlar, in Turkish), restricted to audiences above the age of 16. The play, revolving around two men who expose themselves to young girls, was harshly criticized by intellectuals, including Professor İskender Pala, who called it “vulgarity at the hands of the state.”
In his February column in the Zaman daily, Pala argued that the play insults its audience and that the majority of the plays performed are obscene. “Nowhere in the world is a warning of 16 seen on a theater poster because a play put on by a [municipal] funded theater is not a show staged at a night club with purple/pink neon lights,” he noted and went on to say in his column that these theaters attempt to deceive their audiences with such far-from-art and superficial issues with the money they receive through taxes. He added that what he says has nothing to do with putting a restriction on the independence of art. Pala several years ago argued that state-funded and municipal theaters must be shut down.
In late March Secretary-General of the Office of the President Mustafa İsen, former undersecretary of the Culture Ministry, added to the controversy when he said a state is not supposed to own either cinema or theater companies. He said in an interview with the Zaman daily earlier this month that only 35 percent of the artists employed in the state-owned art facilities do their job and suggested the establishment of a project-based system instead of hiring artists.
The discussion continued to receive attention after an İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality move to change regulations governing the municipality-owned İstanbul City Theaters was announced last week. The municipality said in a statement that the older regulations, enacted in 1980, were outdated and caused İstanbul City Theaters to lack artistic vision.
The new regulations will make the most dramatic impact on the selection of plays to be staged by the municipal theater. The theaters’ repertory will be determined by the Literary Council instead of the general art director, who previously held near-autonomous authority in deciding on the plays to be staged. The Literary Council will be composed of thespians and bureaucrats from the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality as well as academics and representatives from civil society organizations that focus on theater.
According to Pala, municipal theaters, as well as state theaters, need a much more fundamental change. Pala’s suggestion is overall privatization of these state and municipal theaters. “I support the privatization of municipal theaters,” he told Sunday’s Zaman. Pala underscored that the artists should not be civil servants but should be free from any authority in performing their art.
İsen’s statements are in line with Pala’s. He said the state theaters are managed with outdated regulations. “The laws on the state theaters were put into effect in 1949, and they have remained there [not modernized],” he said, adding that movie-making is supported financially by the state and have made a huge leap in recent years, while state-owned theaters use the state’s money “irrationally.”
There are dissenting voices to these arguments. Writer, journalist and theater critic Hayati Asılyazıcı, also a former director of İstanbul City Theaters, opposes the idea that a state should not have theater. Asılyazıcı told Sunday’s Zaman that privatization of state and municipal theaters should be out of the question as they belong to the people, and they survive with their taxes. Shutting down these institutions would be a shame for Turkey in the eyes of the international artistic world.
With regard to the “civil servant artists” discussion, Asılyazıcı said he does not like this definition and that their managers can terminate their contract if they underperform. He said these artists are diligent workers in culture and the arts.