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Turkish Actors Protest State Control of Theaters

Protestors carry banner that reads "O Sultan, take your hands off theaters," May Day rally, Ankara, Turkey, May 1, 2012.
ISTANBUL - Hundreds of actors and supporters of free expression recently demonstrated in the heart of Istanbul against what they call growing political control of the country's municipal and state theaters.

Istanbul City Theater sparked controversy with its April 2012 production of Daily Obscene Secrets by Chilean playwright Marco Antonio de la Parra.

Conservative media outlets condemned the play as "vulgarity at the hands of the state," after which Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas, a member of the ruling AK Party, promptly transferred control of what is produced by municipal theaters to his administration.

Despite the protests that followed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan quickly backed his mayor in an address to party supporters in which he accused actors and producers of being elitists who look down on their own people by creating their own areas for power and profit.

"Those involved in theater stand outside the bars with a whiskey glass in their hand, an all-knowing attitude, and insult the people without producing anything," he said.

If state theaters need government support, he added, then government should decide what plays are produced, and then warned that he is considering privatizing the country's 58 state theaters.

A History of State Control

Turkey’s tradition of state-financed theaters dates to the formation of the republic in 1923, when the policy was seen as a way to further the Westernization of society.

State theaters are subsidized with $63 million annually, and each year about 5,000 performances enjoy strong attendance.

But that support has led many Turkish Muslims to view theaters with suspicion.

In the Taksim area of central Istanbul, the heart of the city's vibrant entertainment district, some voice concern about Prime Minister Erdogan’s tough stance and a rekindling of fears about the Islamic roots of his party.

"There is no soul of the conservatism in the art," said one individual. "Art is not conservative. Art is freedom, art is self-expression. If you conserve our past, we cannot live in the nowadays."

"Art must be independent," said another. "I believe he will understand his mistakes."

Increased Fines, Bans

The latest dispute, however, is not an isolated event.

Despite popularity among Turkish viewers, "Behazat c," a hit television show about a hard-drinking, womanizing police detective, has caught the attention of Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, who has slammed the program and warned that he is “closely monitoring it.”

Fines and temporary bans of other TV programs for breaking the state regularity board's morality code have soared in the past year.

Since the Islamic-rooted AK Party came to power a decade ago, fears have persisted it will threaten the country’s secular way of life. After a third successive AK Party election victory last year, Zaman Today newspaper columnist Cengiz Aktar said there is now reason to be concerned.

"The prime minister now is feeling so confident and so sure of [the party's] endless power, that [he] is now giving a signal of overall social engineering, which ends up remodeling the cultural, social, religious, and linguistic futures of Turkish society," said Aktar. "Turkish society is a very heterogeneous society, and he has in his mind a very homogenous Turkish society."

Turkey's Ministry of Culture has denied such accusations, saying artistic and cultural life in Turkey will in no way go backward.

Despite such proclamations, the controversy is fueling concerns about the prime minister's style of leadership and the direction the country is heading.