EGEHAN DENİZ KOSKA
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Ankara Union Theater (ABT). When we look at the history of independent theaters in Turkey, this fifty years is actually a long period. However, according to what Gül Göker, who is an actress, director and manager of the theater, tells, the ABT process is a very difficult but also a productive experience. Prioritizing Anatolian tours and also prioritizing the workers as audience for their plays, ABT has staged its plays by going to provinces, districts, towns and even the villages it can reach during these fifty years. If there is a hall, they performed in the hall, otherwise they performed their plays in the squares, tractor trailers and coffee shops.
However, in this long journey, not everything was about ideals, dreams, art and creations; since 1971 till today, ABT has been the subject of hundreds of court cases. Zeki Göker, who established the theatre company with his friends, and Gül Göker, who still keeps the stage alive today, told us the story of their theater company and how the authorities of each era puts them to test when it comes to art. When you look through these 50 years, you see the productivity of a community dedicated to bringing theater to the workers and villagers, and you see a lifetime dedicated to the fight against prohibitions and censorship.
We talked to Gül Göker about these 50 years.
Can you tell us about the establishment process of Ankara Union Theatre?
Ankara Union Theater was established in a hostel room in Beyoğlu in September 1971 by Zeki Göker and his friends, who were acting and interested in theater in Adana and had to leave Adana after the 12 March military coup. The right to use the word ‘Union’ was taken from Halil Ergün, who was not in prison and was the manager of the Ankara Union Stage, which was closed a few years ago and whose other managers were arrested. So the name of the theater became Ankara Union Theatre.
The aim of the Ankara Union Theater was to carry out theater tours in Anatolia and in this way to meet the needs of the progressive and democrat people who were imprisoned after March 12, and to provide morale and motivation to the people of Anatolia in the darkness of March 12. Anatolian tours continued for five years without interruption, until the Ankara Union Theater settled in its own theater hall in Ankara. Ankara Union Theater visited all the cities, towns and sometimes villages of Anatolia with many plays. The theater performed its plays in tractor trailers, cafe tables or open spaces in cities, towns or villages without a hall.
In 1978, they moved to the settled theater hall in Ankara. In 1986, the theater moved to Istanbul due to the pressures it faced in Ankara. The theater has been performing its plays in Istanbul and Anatolia since 1986.
The theater decided to take a break in 2006. Why did you decide to come into action again now? How was the re-establishment process of the theater?
In 2006, we lost Zeki Göker, the founder and director of the theater, due to throat cancer. This was a tragic finale for Ankara Union Theatre, where everything ended. Without him, we couldn’t even think of the idea of doing theatre. This period lasted five years. There was a big gap in the political theater lane. Upon the request of our audience, we decided to start again.
The starting play was The Threepenny Dictator, written for our theater by Muzaffer İzgü thirty years ago. Ankara Birlik Theater actors gathered and the curtain was opened again. Zeki Göker formed the audience of the Ankara Union Theater during the thirty-five years from 1971 to 2006. There was a strong audience potential in Anatolia and metropolises. Although it was painful to stage the play, it was not very difficult for us, who experienced this process with him, assimilated the artistic understanding of the theater and comprehended the values of the political theater. The play was staged and set off.
We are in a period where pressure and censorship dominate many theaters and theater actors. Some theater actors such as Müjdat Gezen, Barış Atay and Levent Üzümcü can be clearly blocked and targeted during this period. What do you think about the recent censorship and intervention of the government towards art?
The censorship and intervention of the authorities in art is not unique to the ‘recent periods’. Although some people have just got to know all this situation, we have experienced this many times in all our plays after March 12. It was not just censorship and interference? Bans, detentions, courts, countless times, hundreds of times, in all plays and in unique ways…
While all these were happening in Turkey during the 1971 military coup, after this period the approach to political theater plays did not change, neither when the so-called democracy began, nor in all previous governments. However, there was a judicial system in someway or other. We were tried hundreds of times, acquitted from all courts. There was no criminal element in even a single play, we were not sentenced. We were acquitted in successive cases in all cases.
Despite these decisions, the bans continued, they detained and tried; we continued the plays. Neither they gave up nor we gave up. We came to this day…
It is our fiftieth year. Again, we are faced with a government that censors, intervenes, prohibits and judges, moreover, it hates theatre. We should not take these bans and interventions personal. These anti-democratic pressures are not only on art but in every aspect of life.
Has your theater ever been closed or in danger of being shut down since its establishment? What types of preventions have you experienced?
Since the day we were founded, our theater has not been closed even once. However, our halls were sealed, the hall owners and renters were threatened, discouraged, we lost the five halls we had created with our own hands. The Ankara Union Theater, which was left without a hall, did not stop, it met with its audience on tours in metropolises, Anatolia and six European countries.
Well, do you do self-censorship in an atmosphere of so much oppression and sanctions?
The concept of censorship is very naive, very light. I’ll still use your definition though. Let’s look at the last fifty years of Turkey. Censorship was timid, that is shy at first. We would encounter local preventions. In other words, when the city’s law enforcement officers – police- detained the actors en masse and brought them before the prosecutors in the city where the play was staged, we would be released by those prosecutors who were sane, respectful of the Constitution and believing in the law. While we were experiencing these in some cities during our long Anatolian tours, we used to open our curtains in other cities without any problems.
By 1989, a more organized prevention period began with the Pir Sultan Abdal play. This play, which was performed 1400 times in three years in 1989, 1990 and 1991, was banned without exception in all the cities where it was performed. It has been the subject of lawsuits until the Administrative Courts and the Council of State. Detentions, bans and courts spread throughout the cities. It was a systematic practice centered on the Ankara Police Department.
The ban by the administration and the transfer of the ban to the relevant Administrative Court spread to all cities. It was a vicious circle. In other words, despite the effort to prevent the play from being performed under all circumstances, that conflict would have ended with ABT’s absolute performing of the play under all conditions, but it would have been experienced in the other cities as well. The press was supporting us in all these processes, watching step by step, and this was partly dissuasive for the rulers. Even though the doors of the halls were closed in our faces at that time, it would be reopened with court decisions and the play would meet with the audience at the announced time.
But those who have banned the our plays have learned in the last fifty years, too. Governors, District Governors, Administrative Courts cooperated deeply to prevent culture and art as a whole. There used to be a separation of powers. One would write, and the other reverse it. Unfortunately this is not so today. However, this is exactly where the words of Erol Toy, the author of Pir Sultan Abdal, come to mind: “The more prey the hunter knows, the more ways the fox knows!” A firm stand is required to perform the plays; this is the unchanging truth of fifty years. Not “They ban me, I’m banned everywhere, always me, always to me”. We are living through a process during which they are hostile to everything that does not work for them, does not obey them, that is bright and opposing. These pressures are not just targeting art.
We do not practice self-censorship. We don’t have any expectations from the government. We are the freest theater in Turkey. Our class consciousness lights our way. In our fifty years of theater history, we are known for our resistance to all pressures and our firm stand. The more we know the government, the more they know us.
The play Don’t Let the President Hear written by Muzaffer İzgü, was banned twice in Malatya recently. What’s your take on this situation?
The play we want to perform in Malatya is actually named The Threepenny Dictator, which I staged while relaunching the Ankara Union Theatre.
The play was performed 17 times and a lawsuit was filed in the Burhaniye Criminal Court of First Instance with the allegation of “Insulting the President”. The trial, which lasted three years, ended in acquittal. When we received the court decision in August 2019, we wanted to re-stage the play. Well, the trial lasted for three years, two judges changed and the third judge concluded the case and acquitted us. We should have stood behind this decision. Since the name The Threepenny Dictator created sensibility, we started with a more humorous name Don’t Let the President Hear.
It was performed in Erzincan, Tunceli and Pertek, and was banned in Malatya on the fourth day. Twice, in two separate halls. Even the acquittal of the play could not stop the Malatya Governorship. In other words, they didn’t like the name Don’t Let the President Hear, either.
We applied to the Malatya Administrative Court, the earthquake delayed the court’s decision, and the coronavirus epidemic stopped the process. While the court in Malatya was trying to make a decision, we started to stage the play in Ankara and moved it to Anatolian cities and we have been performing it.
You went on an Anatolian tour with the play Mahzuni Şerif. How did you come up with the idea of staging this play? What was the reaction you got from the tour?
The play Mahzuni Şerif entered the repertoire of ABT as a result of the suggestion by the Istanbul Performance Theater. It toured in 80 cities and was very popular. It has become a sought-after play and will continue.
With the epidemic, our lives are at risk, but the already difficult conditions of many private and independent theaters have also entered a dead end. What do you think about this issue?
I think we deserve this situation altogether. This is not a surprise for human beings, who have ignored the laws and values of nature, especially for the last fifty years. I try to look optimistically in general. This process is an opportunity for all of us to rethink ourselves, our productions, and our responsibilities towards humanity and nature. Frankly, even scientists cannot predict when this period will end. If it ends, I don’t think any artist is clear on where and how to start. We all love our job very much. We exist through artistic productions. We spring to life. In a country where human life is so worthless, I expect a declaraion of curfew for everyone from a government that cannot declare a curfew due to economic concerns.
For the demands of the theaters, we have the ‘Theater Cooperative’. Since the first days of this pandemic crisis, it has been trying to find solutions in close dialogue with the Ministry of Culture. If these solutions come true, they will happen for all theaters, not just for us, the cooperative components. We sincerely hope and look forward to it.
What are the projects of Ankara Union Theater in the upcoming period?
For our fiftieth anniversary we are planning different and more dimensional projects, such as a celebration. When life returns to normal in our country, like all theaters, we have the excitement of producing and the desire to start theater as soon as possible. We would like to thank the Speak Up Platform for its interest in our theatre.
We wish to reach good days when we will talk about artistic productions instead of bans and censors.