Turkey's ailing theatres fear politics at play in virus funding
Asmali Sahne, an independent theatre in Istanbul, applied for desperately needed state funds as it tries to survive the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but its request was turned down.
The co-founder of the theatre in Istanbul's bohemian Beyoglu district and other playhouse owners and actors suspect politics of playing a role in the delivery of relief funds.
They claim that independent theatres and those associated with the opposition are being left out, putting their future at stake.
Asmali Sahne felt sure it was ticking all the boxes by producing a Turkish play by a Turkish female writer.
It was the theatre's third attempt to win the funding and hoped for 108,000 Turkish lira ($13,600) but it was given a vague reason for being refused.
"We met all the criteria but we failed once again," co-founder Muharrem Ugurlu told AFP.
"For the first time in six years since we were founded, we are discussing whether or not to bring down the curtain," he said.
"The appropriation process is not transparent, and this makes me wonder if politics plays a role."
One of Turkey's most popular stage actors, Genco Erkal, agrees.
He has not even bothered to ask for virus rescue funds for his theatre as he thinks he would not stand a chance.
"It's all about politics," the 82-year-old told AFP, shielding from the virus at home.
"Theatres known as being part of the opposition, including our Dostlar Theatre, have not benefited from funds for years," he complained.
The Dostlar Theatre has long had a reputation for supporting the political opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erkal says he believes that even less controversial theatres are now losing out because "companies close to the government" have started using an increasingly opaque system to bid for cultural state aid.
"It appears that the government is not funding the art of theatre but the people it is acquainted with," Erkal claimed.
The culture ministry did not respond to AFP's requests for comment about the claims.
- Opaque system -
Turkey's theatres returned from a four-month hiatus in July and have since relied on outdoor productions.
But winter is coming and culture lovers who once trooped up Beyoglu's vertiginous hills for a play at Kumbaraci50 now have few options.
"Kumbaraci50 is facing the threat of shutdown," the independent theatre tweeted last month.
"It will take years to pay off our current debts."
Co-founder Gulhan Kadim, who is also an actor and director, said her demoralised actors "no longer have the strength to say 'let's play, come what may'".
The culture ministry said last month that it had awarded a record 12 million liras ($1.5 million) to 328 private theatre projects, which it said was "the biggest aid delivered from past to present in a single cultural season."
But actors counter that more than half of the companies bidding for assistance were either unknown in Turkey's tightly-knit theatre community, or involved in a completely different line of work.
"There are a lot of construction and tourism companies on the list," Kadim said, of this year's applicants.
"It is not clear who is getting the funding or how much."
Erkal also said that the list included "companies doing business other than theatre.
"In fact, some were founded only 15 days before the deadline to apply for funds," he claimed.
Ersin Umut Guler, founder of Istanbul's Yolcu Theatre and a board member of the Theatre Cooperative representing 62 independent theatres, said half the theatres could not apply for funds because one of the criteria was having a zero tax bill.
"We demanded this condition be removed at least temporarily," he said.
"Our income relies on 100-percent ticket sales. While we were playing to a 200-strong audience, this number is now as low as 70 over the pandemic restrictions."
- Censorship -
For some theatres, applying for state funding represents a moral dilemma -- if they do, they fear they risk having to toe the government's political line.
"Regardless of the funds, who even thinks there is free speech in Turkey," Kadim asked.
"The pressure felt in every other sector also exists in theatre," she said.
"Censorship has become a part of daily life."
Turkey ranked 154th out of 180 countries on this year's Reporters Without Borders' freedoms index.
Erkal said his theatre's plays started being banned after its artists came out in support of so-called Gezi Park protests that morphed from a local dispute into a major challenge to Erdogan's ruling party in 2013.
"We have been under heavy pressure," Erkal said.
But Kumbaraci50 actor and director Yigit Sertdemir has no doubts that artistic ingenuity and independence will ultimately prevail.
"This political power will leave and another will come. This place will shut down and another will open," the actor said.
"The art of theatre will stand on its feet."
Buying a ticket for Kumbaraci50's outdoor adaptation about the life of Edith Piaf, theatre lover Hasan Karadeniz was less certain.
"I am very sad. The only thing I can do now is to buy a ticket," he said. "My priority tonight is to support theatre -- the show itself is secondary."