ISTANBUL — Perched as it is on the edge of two continents--Europe and Asia--Istanbul is not a city that would automatically come to mind as a theatrical center.
A place of great antiquity, yes. From the amazing sultanate halls of its Topkapi Palace to the vaulted domes of AyaSofia (the basilica of Saint Sophia) and the needle minarets of its Mimar Sinan mosques, Istanbul is a curious amalgam of cultures, straddling East and West, past and present, as handily as it straddles the Bosporus.
Its polyglot history has receded into a population of 7 million, 97% of which is now Muslim, yet, by its own insistence, not Arabic; whose upper strata is dedicated to the emulation of Europe and America (which includes sending its children to Western colleges), whose traffic and air pollution choke in full-fledged Western style, and yet whose pace, customs and lavish hospitality remain distinctly Old World and Near Eastern.
In other words, Istanbul is contrast heaped on paradox. So is the life of its theater--a widespread, well-regarded activity with a lengthy roster of playwrights, directors and actors whose comfortably salaried lifetime positions could be the envy of struggling Western artists. Or could they?
Like eunuchs in a harem, Turkish theater artists are impotent in Eden. They have no control over what parts they play, what plays they do or what company does them. Of the 20 or so theaters in Istanbul, roughly 15 are vanity operations, owned by star actors who use them as personal showcases. In the state and municipal theaters, all is decided by theater boards and politically appointed artistic directors. Since no one gets fired, there's no need to try harder. Standards can't be measured by high-risk factors and other rigors of the American theater.
The three-day International Theatre Institute Symposium that brought us to this city was intended precisely to examine these differences in all of our cultures.
It was hosted by the Turkish arm of ITI, an organization founded in 1947/48 at the urging of Julian Huxley (then-director general of its parent outfit, UNESCO) "to promote the exchange of knowledge and practice in the theater."
So in a mild October, participants from the United States, the Soviet Union and Turkey came together at the ornate Yildiz Palace (a rococo yellow and white structure erected at the turn of the century by Sultan Abdel Hamid) to discuss theater in their respective countries and how in each, money and art, freedom and power, interact.
From the United States came playwright Edward Albee; La Mama's free-spirited real mama, Ellen Stewart; Michael Miner, artistic director of the Actors Theatre of St. Paul (currently producing a Soviet play, Vladlen Dozortsev's "Breakfast With Strangers"); Alan Rust, Dean of the School of Drama at the North Carolina School of the Arts; Martha Coigny, president and director of U.S. ITI, and this reporter.
On the Soviet side were Oleg Tabakov, an actor with the Moscow Art Theatre who serves as director of its drama school and is best known in the West as the star of the exquisite film "Oblomov." He was accompanied by Valery Fokin, artistic director of Moscow's Yermolova Theatre; Anatoly Smeliansky, theater researcher and dramaturg of the Moscow Art Theatre; Aleksandr Rubinstein, chief of sociological and economic studies at the Soviet National Institute of Artistic Studies; Uri Taratorkin, an actor with the Mossoviet Theater; Azerpasha Neymatov, artistic director of the Azerbaidjan Theater of Youth in Baku; and Valery Khasanov, critic, translator, and director of Soviet ITI.
Our host was Refik Erduran, a Turkish journalist and playwright, head of Turkish ITI. From France came the institute's secretary general, Andre Louis Perinetti.
The hope was that Soviets and Americans meeting on so-called "neutral" soil would feel freer to express their views. While the Turks spoke in proverbs, the Russians in parables and the Americans in declarative sentences, the talks remained informal and provided instant surprises--none greater than the candor with which our Soviet friends described the influence glasnost and perestroika --openness and restructuring--are having on Soviet theater.
Smeliansky tackled the subject in his opening remarks. He spoke of the end of a long night--the stultifying era of centralized, bureaucratically decreed and censored Soviet theater and of the recent blossoming, in its decentralized wake, of many smaller, free-enterprising "studio theaters."
These new cooperative ventures are the result of an underground theater movement that mushroomed in the '80s, supported by audiences equally fed up with the status quo. While still partially subsidized, these experimental theaters are now officially free to govern themselves, stand or fall by their own artistic choices, shielded only by the new National Union of Theatre Workers established last year to help smooth the transition to self-determination.