Theatre and Corona |

Theatre and Corona

Bringing theatre to the online stage
Feature14.08.2020Laura Kunzendorf

Dimmed light, closed curtains and a full theatre hall. Everyone is waiting with suspense for the actors to come to stage. The curtain opens and the play starts. What used to be a normal situation in theatres all over the world before the Corona pandemic is now unimaginable. Live performances in theatre, cinema and opera halls count among the many freedoms that were cancelled due to the pandemic. Yet, this does not mean that we cannot enjoy arts performances at all. With the support of the Friedrich Naumann for Freedom’s Turkey Office, the Beraberce Derneği (“Together Association”) brought to stage two online theatre plays under the topic of “Freedom in Times of Corona”.

In times, which are particularly difficult for artists who live from bringing audiences together, the project gives theatre professionals a new stage. By engaging with the topic of the Corona pandemic in a creative way, it also aims at promoting new perspectives and discussions on the relation between the Corona pandemic and our personal freedoms.

The first play “Ecowash”, written by Ebru Nihan Celkan and performed by the actors Ceren Taşçı and Barış Gönenen, opened its digital curtains on July 21. In the play, a young Turkish woman living in Germany encounters problems in a launderette. Her conversation with the customer support turns into much more than a discussion of technical problems. Somehow, the customer support councels her in her loneliness. In that sense, the play illustrates how despite physical distancing measures, the Corona pandemic taught us a valuable lesson about the importance of social relations.

On August 11, the actors Tilbe Saran, Fatma Yüksel Sendan und İlyas Özçakır performed the play “Bulaş-ık”, written by Çiğdem Şimşek and Sinan Akcan. On stage, a couple staying at home during the pandemic immerses into a freedom debate. By exchanging ideas on the possibilities of art, on a control society and on freedom issues, the couple takes the audience with it on a somewhat philosophical journey. Yet their discussion is far from being abstract – it also brings to light personal struggles and a weariness (not least in their relationship) with which many in the audience may identify.

FNF Turkey talked to the playwrights Ebru Nihan Celkan, Çiğdem Şimşek, Sinan Akcan and the actor and project coordinator İlyas Özçakır to get their opinions about the meaning and challenges of theatre in times of restricted freedom.


“Nobody is in a position to have a sound idea about the future of performing arts right now.”

İlyas Özçakır

Interview with actor and project coordinator İlyas Özçakır

FNF Turkey: Many media platforms dealt with the Corona crisis in all kind of forms. Yet, a theatre play is a rather innovative format. What are the advantages of theatre over other formats?

İlyas: Theatre means sharing an experience. You experience what happens to the character on stage together with her/him. If something similar happened to you, you compare your own experience with the actor; or you think about what you would have done if that had happened to you. In other words, theatre directly addresses empathy. Empathy is the feeling we need most in crisis moments. Therfore, I believe that theatre has much more power to influence and stimulate than other formats.

FNF Turkey: The plays touch upon the conflict between a control society and free citizenship. Do you think that the Corona crisis paved the way for governments to easily restrict freedoms?

İlyas: I think this is a reasonable and thought-provoking debate. We are in a period that can really be exploited. People question the intention behind every decision. In my opinion, governments at this point should avoid actions that may make them lose their citizens' trust. Once trust is lost, you question goodwill in every phase.
Yet, I think that a balance between taking control and protecting the freedoms of citizens is always possible. It is possible as long as governments are not afraid of free citizens. As in any relationship, mutual trust is the main issue in the government-citizen relationship. Prohibitions that are not approached with transparency will never receive a sound response by the governed.

FNF Turkey: The Coronavirus affected theatres, movies, etc. to a large degree. How did you cope with this situation as an artist?

İlyas: I cannot say that I fully handled it! I'm trying. We are one of the most affected groups. Our production completely depends on other human beings. I have serious fears about performing my profession on stage. I am trying to get ready so that I can start in more than a ready state when everything gets back to normal. Right now, I am working on online projects. I know this is not the same thing as performing on the stage. But we have to do something for ourselves unless somebody does something for us. I plan to perform “The Dandelion” by Wolfgang Borchert in an open-air theatre. There is little risk for the actor, at least since it is a solo performance. I can go back to my stage before the summer ends if enough precautions are taken for the audience. On the other hand, I do not know how long this problem will last, and I continue to build castles in the sky.

FNF Turkey: Do you have any expectations about how arts like theatre, opera, and cinema will evolve after the Coronavirus crisis?

İlyas: To tell the truth, it's a complete uncertainty. Nobody is in a position to have a sound idea about the future of performing arts right now. As private theatres are always in financial struggle, I do not know how many of them will survive under the new conditions. With the capacity of fifty percent of spectators, is it possible for a play to – at best - gain profit in private theatres? Will theatres be able to find enough "fearless" spectators to fill the fifty percent capacity of the play? Will the excitement of this small audience sitting in social distance and nervously watching the play be enough for the motivation of the actor? I cannot find answers to any of these questions. But this doesn't mean that we haven't done anything on behalf of the theatre. I think we should focus on the positive sides of such periods. The preparation period is sometimes not enough and affects the quality of the play since we work very hard during the normal season. I think we will watch much more elaborate and creative works since the preparation periods of the plays became more efficient.

“I don’t see Corona as the end of something, I see Corona as the start of something more diverse.”

Ebru Nihan Celkan

Interview with playwright Ebru Nihan Celkan

FNF Turkey: Many media platforms dealt with the Corona crisis in all kind of forms. Yet, a theatre play is a rather innovative format. What are the advantages of theatre over other formats?

Ebru: The project’s title is “Freedom in times of Corona” but what does freedom mean? The first thing that comes to mind is the freedom of mouvement, for example. Yet, for me, freedom also means to be able to show your creativity. If, as a theatre professional, you cannot show your creativity, then you somehow lost your freedom. When the Corona crisis started, one of the first groups affected were theatre professionals. In that sense, the project first of all gives hope to them. It offers people a new stage and thus an opportunity to create. I also think that it gives hope to the theatre’s audience when they see that theatre professionals go on working.

FNF Turkey: You mentioned the difficulties that artists are going through in Turkey. What can be done to support artists under these difficult circumstances?

Ebru: First of all, it is important to find ways to empower creators in their own country. There are many projects for artists done in Europe. Often, these projects require people to come to Europe and stay there for the project. It is a good idea but when you can’t show your work in your own country in the end, it doesn’t help much. The FNF project is important in that sense. It gives local playwrights, actors, directors and project coordinators an opportunity to produce in their home country.

FNF Turkey: A main theme of your play is loneliness - a topic that preoccupies us in the isolation of the Corona crisis. Do you think that Corona tore us apart from each other or did the common experience rather bring us together?

Ebru: Obviously, the Corona crisis created a physical distance but I am not sure if the same is true for social distance. The crisis made us think about ways to get in contact. It increased our idea of the valuable time that we enjoy while we are in physical contact. Before Corona, where we really in contact with people? I am not sure about that, I think we didn’t know the value of being together. So, Corona brought us an opportunity to think about what it means if we meet with a friend but not really listen to them. Now that we need contact, we appreciate it much more.

FNF Turkey: You approached the topic “Freedom in times of Corona” by staging an everyday scenario and refrained from political comments. Could you summarize the main concept behind the staging of the play?

Ebru: The play is about a Turkish women who is doing an internship in a Germany. Many people returned to their home countries during the Corona crisis, she did not. The main (and a bit hidden) question is: Why is she in Germany?
In the discussions, we often focus on the critical cases: academics, journalists or activists who emigrated from Turkey for political reasons. But if my protagonist would have been a journalist or activist, some people would have immediately categorized the play and not watched it. The Turkish society is divided but I wanted to reach all people.
People are tired of hearing the same stories. There are many young, secular people who are not directly involved in politics but who still do not feel comfortable in Turkey. We need to hear more stories about them to see the whole picture. Not only the people who are under political pressure are concerned. Many people who just want to go out and drink a beer with friends on the street feel uncomfortable. We need to take a flashlight and light it on other stories to see the whole picture. My play showed a common life example that people can identify with. I hope like that, I can empower people to change their point of view.

FNF Turkey: Corona had a large impact on arts such as the cinema, the theatre etc. Do you have any expectations for the development of these arts in the future after the Corona crisis?

Ebru: Theatre dates back more than 2500 years, it always creates itself new ways. Theatre stages are obviously going to stay, their time is not over. But the methods of theatre may be enlarged. I don’t see Corona as the end of something, I see Corona as the start of something more diverse. Theatres couldn’t reach some people and audiences for many years. The digitalization of the theatre may open huge opportunities – for the first time, we may easily connect with new audiences. It’s a chance for us to explain ourselves to more people and also to force people to create. It is also an opportunity for the established theatres to open their ears and eyes and make the stories of more people heard. 

“The capacity of arts to explore, challenge and cross borders also enhances in pandemic-like incidents.”

Çiğdem Şimşek and Sinan Akcan

Interview with playwrights Çiğdem Şimşek and Sinan Akcan

FNF Turkey: Many media platforms dealt with the Corona crisis in all kind of forms. Yet, a theatre play is a rather innovative format. What are the advantages of theatre over other formats?

Çiğdem & Sinan: The basic concern of emancipatory and critical politics, science, philosophy, and art is to challenge our daily perception, which is reduced into dualities on what is beautiful, true and good. Each has various possibilities. Yet, we think that art is a more advanced form that can connect our ability to name (epistemological), make sense of (ethics) and refine (aesthetics) our actions. It can easily break the tendency to give fossilized definitions and touch consciousness and will together. It is the original side. And, the theatre takes its share from this originality.

It is too early to comment on the advantages and disadvantages of "digital forms" of theatre; only a limited audience has experienced this. The interaction created between the audience and the performers through virtual form shakes the atmosphere of theatre that we are accustomed to. These new forms may be attractive and preferable for younger generations. And the experience of listening to radio dramas can also turn this "new situation" into a nostalgic experience for older ones.

FNF Turkey: One of the main themes of the play is freedom. Yet, in Turkey it may be critical to openly express your opinion. While writing the play, did you ever feel under pressure or the need to be careful in the choice of the wording?

Çiğdem & Sinan: Even if we are surrounded by an increasingly oppressive regime and norms that limit our lives, we cannot say that we have much difficulty in expressing ourselves. Even though we point out local problems, the fact that we place more emphasis on the universal scope of the problem results in comfort. J Yet, if the play was entirely focused on a Turkey related issue, self-censorship may have been applied. Today in Turkey most of the voices that truly favour peace and freedom are trapped between walls. We hope the play might contribute to demolish the walls restricting us to the dominant ideas, as a hammer blow.

FNF Turkey: In the play, you are touching upon the basic conflict between a control society and freedom. It indeed seems like Corona opened the way for governments to reduce freedoms in the name of security. Yet, do you think that a balance between the two still may be possible?

Çiğdem & Sinan: In the play, we are trying to express that the thesis that the state reduces our freedoms is brought forward too easily. This does not mean that our freedom is not restricted. However we want to emphasize that this is not -merely- a consequence of the pandemic…
Protecting yourself during the pandemic is a health right. Many people were forced to go to work for the sake of the economy. The homeless unfortunately do not even have the chance to say “We stay at home”.  In this manner our concern is to question our perception of “normal”: Does freedom mean freedom of consumption? Or is it limited to complaining about government practices? Our normal is a “normal” that many people have not been able to live. And more "advantageous" people are blind to this fact.

FNF Turkey: Corona had a large impact on arts such as the cinema, the theatre etc. Do you have any expectations for the development of these arts in the future after the Corona crisis?

Çiğdem & Sinan: The capacity of arts to explore, challenge and cross borders enhances in pandemic-like incidents. They provide the opportunity to re-examine everything and discover new possibilities. Yet, for this the social support is needed.
When we look at Turkey, we see that no remedies were put in place although many stages were closed and supporting arts is a constitutional obligation. The support given to some theatre groups since the pandemic is only enough to cover their monthly rent and tax. On the other hand, we received the good news that theatre stages could open as of July with a maximum of 60% capacity. It is necessary to question why stages are forced to open with a maximum capacity of 60 % while shopping malls, planes, public transport, cafes etc. are operated with full capacity.
Theatre artists do not demand grants or alms. They expect support in return for their artistic labour. Many theatre stages will shut down and it will take decades before they revive if it continues like this.

FNF Turkey: Is there anything you would like to mention in addition?

Çiğdem & Sinan: In extraordinary situations that interrupt our “normality”, the chance to stop for a moment and question the “normal order” arises for everyone. This is really important, but of course, it does not create a transformation by itself. Those situations lead the way to broaden our perceptions, to reveal possibilities for other ways of thinking and living. The power of their (political, scientific, philosophical and artistic) outcomes is very valuable in order to enforce terms of freedom against terms of power.