As more fringe festivals are launched all over the world, Nick Awde talks to the co-artistic director of Istanbul’s inaugural event about the inspiration behind it and what he and his team hope to achieve in their home city
The fringe isn’t just for August – new fringe festivals inspired by Edinburgh are breaking out globally throughout the year. The latest city to stage such an event is Istanbul, launching this September, and with a population of 15 million the potential audience is huge.
“In Istanbul, there are lots of alternative theatres, shows and initiatives that have relationships with the international art scene,” says co-artistic director Emre Yildizlar. “But these are mostly companies who go to perform abroad. We wanted to fill this void by bringing together international works of emerging artists with Istanbul audiences across the city with easily affordable prices.
“To do that, we knew that we needed to organise a multicultural, accessible, participative, alternative and sustainable festival. Decentralisation in the city and accessibility were our core ideas to begin with.”
Outside Istanbul, Turkey has performing arts festivals such as Datca (billed as ‘theatre at sea level’) and Bergama (international, launched in 2018) but these are fringe in neither structure nor spirit. On the other hand, Istanbul’s existing alternative festivals limit themselves to single disciplines, so they don’t encompass performing arts as a whole. Weighing in at the other end of the spectrum is the mighty Istanbul Theatre Festival, the country’s biggest, organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts.
Theatre in Turkey has a centuries-old tradition that today is couched in a network of national and municipal theatres, on a par with the system found in most of Europe. It’s a familiar set-up where the funded theatres programme evergreens as vehicles for TV stars, while the unfunded commercial venues rely on box office income from light comedies. International shows are mostly large-scale by cachet directors, staged in the centre of the city and charging top ticket prices.
The past 10 years have seen a boom in alternative theatres, centred around the Beyoglu (European side) and Kadikoy (Asian side) districts of the city. Possibly because of, rather than in spite of, the political turmoil that has rocked the country over the decades, these producing venues have found audiences and many have built a close relationship with the UK, particularly in Istanbul. Talimhane Theatre, for example, was started in 2008 by Mehmet Ergen, artistic director of London’s Arcola, and there’s a vibrant parallel in Londoner Asli Akbay’s setting up of the Take Me Up the Bosphorus comedy nights (now Bosphorus Comedy Nights).
Another pioneer is the city’s Galata Perform, which founded its New Text New Theatre workshops in 2006. This led in 2012 to the New Text New Theatre Festival for both Turkish and foreign playwriting – and this year the company took its multimedia show House of Hundred to Edinburgh.
‘We believe that this festival will change the city’s dynamic’
During the same period solo theatre has also grown worldwide and its early adoption in Turkey has given a significant boost to matching performers to material and then sharing the results at Edinburgh, as well as other fringes and monodrama festivals overseas. In fact, it was Stockholm Fringe Festival that provided the spark for Istanbul’s own festival when Yildizlar and Switzerland’s Mélissa Guex took their show Hayali – ‘imaginary’ in Turkish – there in 2017.
Yildizlar’s conversations with STOFF artistic director Adam Potrykus led to a meeting the next year at Buffer Fringe Performing Arts Festival in Nicosia, Cyprus, where the partnership took shape. “Adam helped us a lot during the organisation process. STOFF became our first fringe partner and we hope to collaborate more in the upcoming years,” says Yildizlar.
Edinburgh and the other fringes that make up the World Fringe network also contributed to the Istanbul template, with members of the founding team bringing their experience in Europe both as artists and volunteers, says festival communications manager Eda Erman. “Fringe festivals serve as an alternative art platform where artists and the audience can get together easily during a couple of days making a meaningful exchange possible. As a crew, we decided to blend this experience with the dynamics and the needs of Istanbul and created Istanbul Fringe’s vision.”
It’s an impressive first showing with 22 shows – six Turkish (all from Istanbul) and 16 foreign, spread over 13 venues, with a further six sites for side events. An open call brought in 184 applications from all around the world. The artistic directors sent a longlist to a ‘consultancy council’ which drew up a shortlist from which the final programme was decided.
“We took into consideration technical needs, the balance of genres, venue conditions, target audience interest and overall expansion within the city,” says Erman. “We tried to offset between genres and countries. When selecting applicants from Turkey we also gave priority to companies that need visibility.”
The international companies come from 11 different countries: Hungary, Belgium, Hong Kong, Poland, Italy, France, Switzerland, Taiwan, US, Greece and Iran. The answer to the question of language was simply to put the emphasis on the non-verbal among the theatre, mime, dance and circus productions. Two of the text plays are performed in English with no surtitles: The Chess Player by the US’ Theatre Omnibus, and Waiting for the Fishes by Italy’s Silvia Pezzarossi.
The shows from Turkey include Shakespeare Muzesi (Shakespeare’s Museum), a ‘live exposition’ inspired by Shakespeare’s plays; Vicdani’nin Icinde bir Hissikablelvuku (A Feeling of Conscience), an interpretation of Haldun Taner’s classic Gozlerimi Kaparim Vazifemi Yaparim (I Close My Eyes, I Do My Duty) inspired by commedia dell’arte; Ama (But), a play questioning the actor’s craft, gender roles and professional relationships in Turkey; Vorteks is inspired by the video installation Massive Ghosts by Omer Kanipak, an exploration through dance and movement of the obstacles that keep people from being themselves; while Fisilti Odasi (Whisper Room) is a children’s mime.
The international productions help frame the local shows. “We believe that this festival will change the city’s dynamic, that it will create a different atmosphere,” adds Yildizlar. “Istanbul’s performing arts scene is highly creative and it keeps spreading all around the country. This is the reason why we’re holding Istanbul Fringe in 2019 – we feel an opportunity and courage. We don’t want to import fringe into Turkey, but we aim to create an alternative festival that will take root in this country.”
There has been no shortage of volunteers, while sponsorship, funding and support in kind have worked out well, at least relating to the venues, says Erman. “We don’t yet have a paid partnership, but we get the precious help of our product sponsors and also the municipality of Kadikoy by providing logistic support and by opening up its venues, the Caddebostan Kultur Merkezi and the Baris Manco Kultur Merkezi.
“We hope the potential audience for fringe in Turkey consists of everyone who’s looking for alternative theatre and different genres brought together in a single programme.”
Open access of fringes can often bring a degree of friction with wider society, particularly in more conservative countries, but the organisers are at pains to point out that they’re not in the business of taboo-breaking. “However, there was no performance that required a critical evaluation,” Erman adds. “The most important thing for us was the artistic and aesthetic value of the works that applied.”
Outside Istanbul, is there anywhere else there could be a fringe in Turkey? Yildizlar is thoughtful. “We don’t plan to organise the festival in any other city in the near future, although we are open to conversations and cooperation with other cities and associates who have the same vision. We are from Istanbul, and our understanding of fringe is intrinsically related to this particular city’s urban dynamics.
“There are benefits in moving out from the centre and hypothetically another fringe could take place in another city, but then it would be a different fringe entirely.”
Artistic directors: Denizhan Cay and Emre Yildizlar
Performance spaces: 13, plus six venues for side events
No of productions: 22 (six from Turkey, 16 foreign)
Staff: Eight core team plus volunteers
Key contacts: Eda Erman, communications manager – firstname.lastname@example.org
The Istanbul Fringe Festival runs September 18-22