Is Erdogan purging Turkish state theatre?

At least 150 theatre professionals were recently fired without reason in Turkey, just days before they were expecting to receive permanent contracts. Creatives accuse the government of a politically motivated purge. By Pelin Unker

By Pelin Ünker

"We started the new year with great hope because we were expecting to be getting a contract soon," said a 30-year-old actor who was laid off from a Turkish state theatre without any warning. The artist, who wants to remain anonymous, played there six days a week and had leading roles in two different pieces.

He was among the theatre staff whose everyday life was suddenly shaken by an unexpected series of dismissals: "We're all very tense because nobody knows what they're charging us with. Those who weren't on the list are concerned because it could affect them at any moment."

An unfortunate turn of events

Actually, 2020 was supposed to be a good year for the staff of Turkey's state theatres. An official gazette published on 26 December even gave them the impression that their working conditions would improve. Entitled "Changes to the guidelines for the employment of contract agents," it stated measures that would allegedly enable more permanent positions in state theatres.

"Some of our artists and technical staff [at the state theatres] have been working without a clear status; now they will become our staff on a contractual basis," Minister of Culture and Tourism Mehmet Nuri Ersoy said at the time, even adding that "all worries about job security will be eliminated; work conditions are now guaranteed by the state."

Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Nuri Ersoy at the ITB in Berlin, 2019 (photo: DW)
Rausschmiss unbequemer Kulturschaffender durch die Hintertür? "Alle Sorgen um die Arbeitssicherheit wurden beseitigt, das Arbeitsleben unterliegt jetzt der Garantie unseres Staates", beteuert jedenfalls Kultur- und Tourismusminister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy.

As a result, the directors of state theatres offered their freelancers to apply for a permanent position between 26 and 30 December. Many did so. Yet just a few days later, they were in for a nasty surprise: at least 150 freelance employees of state theatres, state operas or ballets were fired without notice, for unknown reasons.

An official letter with devastating effects

"The employment of the contract staff was not approved by the theatre director under the terms of employment" were the simple words in the official letter that was unexpectedly placed in their hands and sealed their dismissal. However, the theatre employees were left completely in the dark as to the exact reasons.

"A year ago, I was personally informed that I would gain access to full employment. After that, I fully focussed on that option and made my plans for the future," complains one actor, whose letter was handed to him immediately after a stage appearance.

The artists can only speculate about the motives for the layoffs. Many believe that this is a reckoning with those who took part in the Gezi protests in 2013 and thus positioned themselves against the government at the time.

ʺMajor anxiety about the futureʺ

"There was no official statement attached to the dismissal, but it is said to be related to a security investigation. There is a lot of speculation because there is no transparency surrounding the situation," said Sercan Gidisoglu of a Turkish actors' union. According to Gidisoglu, there are no exact figures about the number of dismissals either.

It is assumed that the mass layoffs were not spontaneously decided upon by various theatre directors. The current political climate is very worrying. "Those whose contracts have been terminated do not have a uniform profile. Because it can affect everyone, there is major anxiety about the future."

Gezi Park protests on 15 June 2013 in Istanbul (photo: Reuters)
Späte Rache für politischen Aktivismus im Rahmen der Gezi-Park-Proteste? Die Theaterschaffenden mutmaßen über die Motive ihrer Entlassungen. Viele glauben, dass es sich um eine späte Abrechnung mit denjenigen handelt, die an den Gezi-Protesten im Jahr 2013 teilgenommen und sich damals damit gegen die Regierung gestellt haben.

One actor who applied for a permanent position points out that the process of filling new positions has also recently become more unfair: "There used to be an aptitude test for staff. Today, new employees are selected from above, regardless of whether they have a Conservatory degree or not." The young actor speculates that the goal is to get people supporting the state to take over. ʺIt is simply totally unfair.ʺ

The long arm of President Erdogan's influence

Critics assume that the Turkish government wants to expand its dominance in the cultural and social sector. Some actors were concerned that censorship at state theatres is increasing. There is already political interference in the selection of plays. For instance, Turkish playwright Memet Baydur says that his play Kamyon, which he dedicates to the villagers expelled from their homeland, cannot be staged.

He points out that another play had to be cancelled because the main actor was among those who were fired. It also happened to be too revealing for conservative tastes, adds the author.

Baydur believes that there is enormous self-censorship in the state theatres. "Self-censorship will continue to increase with current developments." According to Baydur, the decisive factor is the influence of the President's communications authority (CIMER): "There are always people who complain to CIMER. This pressure has increased over time and will continue to increase."

The circumstances surrounding the layoffs of theatre professionals remain opaque. There is only a vague note on the official website of the Turkish State Theatres, the official directorate of national theatre companies in Turkey: "From 1 January  2020, the responsible personnel must meet certain requirements in accordance with Article 8 of the Guidelines for the Employment of Contract Personnel."

Members of parliament Baris Atay from the Turkish Workers' Party (TIP) and Alpay Antmen from the Social Democratic Party (CHP) submitted a parliamentary question to Ersoy, Minister of Culture and Tourism. They called for clarification regarding the massive layoffs – as well as transparency as to who will fill the sudden vacancies in state theatres.

Pelin Unker

© Deutsche Welle 2020