It’d be an underestimation to define TOY Istanbul as a “theater.” It’s an organization that welcomes independent theater groups, hosts acting and screenwriting workshops, and stages its own productions. In short, it’s a place that should be visited by all those who cross paths with theater. Borrowing the first letters of “theater, acting and writing” in Turkish, TOY Istanbul has already finished its first season with 32 plays. To represent its three-letter name, we met three wonderful people from the company before the new season begins.
Cengiz Temel – Founding Partner
How did you decide to found TOY Istanbul? How did the idea come about?
There used to be a different group of people working here but they moved somewhere else a long time ago. I live in Cihangir, and there is only a handful of theaters in the district. Theater groups cannot find a stage around here to perform their play. We wanted to open a theater to welcome such people. We got together in July, founded TOY in August, started construction in September, and opened it in November. It all happened very fast. Our initial goal wasn’t founding a theater group. TOY is a theater stage. We wanted to become theater confidants with other people with the same ambition, not to earn money by leasing a stage.
What kind of ecosystem do you have? Why do you define it as being “theater confidants”?
We carry out commercial operations for plays such as social media promotions, posters and photography production. They bring their stage décor and perform their play, and we split the earnings from ticket sale. Sometimes it’s full-house, sometimes just 10 people – which means we also share the loss.
You’ve finished the first season. How would you evaluate it?
I’ve never managed a theater before but thinking back, we’ve staged 32 plays and welcomed nearly 7,000 audience. I think it’s a huge success for a theater in its first year. We’ve made some mistakes as well but we’ve learned from them.
What kind of mistakes?
We worked too hard. We staged six plays a week and they were all very different from each other. Both the guest groups and we were exhausted. We’ll take this into consideration while planning the next season.
TOY is a theater stage but you also have house productions. Can you talk about them?
The play “Kaplan Sarılması” was led by Bahar. It was a play written by Kemal Hamamcıoğlu who organized a workshop at TOY. I was very excited when Bahar told me about it and decided to support it.
In addition, Meltem Cumbul’s students wanted to stage a play. Meltem directed it. I wasn’t involved in the production but I let them use one of our stages. We also paid the wages and insurance fees for all cast and the technicians, which is very important for us. It was like a social responsibility project.
How do you decide which theater groups to support?
We have a few criteria. Necati Kutlu, a member of our group, is responsible for choosing plays. Sometimes he recommends a few, sometimes we have applications from the groups themselves. Last year, it was a sort of collaboration but this year, we plan to organize a committee to systematize it a bit because not every play is suitable for black box theater. But what I mean here isn’t snobbishness. We can welcome a famous actor one night and have a first-time performer the next day.
What kind of approach do you plan to have as TOY?
People cannot express themselves in this country neither in print media nor in cinema or TV. Our biggest problem is not being able to talk about the things that touch our hearts; the plays should care about the problems of this country. The black box theater puts performance before décor, and is in constant interaction with the audience. So you need to be innovative.
There’s only a few investments in culture and arts. Isn’t it a bit unconventional to make an investment in this area?
If no one does nothing, the water in the cup will continue to diminish. Having seen that, I wanted to contribute to art even if it’s a small one. If you’re not brave to be crazy, no one will do it for you. In a country like Turkey where literacy rate is very low, what you’re doing is kind of like being Don Quixote.
What kind of preparations do you have for the new season?
We’ll continue you to stage some plays from the last season. We’ll also have new productions and workshops. We plan to change the program every 2 months so as to offer an opportunity for more teams so not everything’s clear at the moment. But I can say this – we’ll open the curtains with 9 plays.
What excites you the most about this?
All of them. I’ve watched the play dozens of times and I still feel the same excitement. For instance, I think I’ve watched Kaplan Sarılması 16 times. So I can be a substitute if something happens to one of the actors! (laughs)
Pınar Bulut – Instructor / Screenplay Workshop
You’ve mostly written scripts for TV productions throughout your career. How did your path cross with theater and TOY?
We have a company called Yazı Odası, founded three years ago to educate new scriptwriters. A writing company isn’t that common in Turkey. We needed a platform where we could gather screenwriters and educate new talents for the industry. Cengiz is a partner there. We were very happy to hear about TOY because we shared common goals and passions. We expanded the workshops at Yazı Odası and created a 1-year program. We started teaching screenplay workshops with Kerem Deren. One of our dreams was also to bring together participants of acting workshops and our classes because we care deeply about interdisciplinary collaboration. We’re following what lies in our hearts, and further excited to see enthusiastic writers.
How did you become a screenwriter?
The passion of writing is odd. It must have a different way of manifestation in everyone but here’s mine: I worked at a radio, and had been an editor and translator. Every day I was working in a different field, I felt that I was doing something wrong. It was like there were all these possibilities floating in the air and I could only catch them by writing. This feeling never stopped chasing me, and finally, I left everything and found myself attending a screenplay workshop by Kerem. I decided that this was where I wanted to be and started writing.
Screenwriting is still a foreign concept to Turkey, especially for TV.
Last month, I visited a fine arts school to receive an award. I was talking to the students and asked who wanted to be a screenwriter – there was only two people. Most of them wanted to be an actor or a director. Since the competition is dramatically low compared to other fields, I can say that those two people are very lucky. (laughs) In short, yes, not many people have an idea as to what screenwriting is. I didn’t know what it was at first; I just wanted to do something similar to the movies I watched. It’s hard to enter this industry from outside if you don’t have a network. But once you’re through the door and are equipped for the job, it’s very easy to rise up because there aren’t many qualified candidates.
How’s the market?
Actually; many screenwriters don’t know about screenwriting either. Looking at the works, you can see that most of them are unaware of the basic rules of screenwriting. So, we start from the basics of writing. How is an idea born and how does one find inspiration? During the first part of the course, we rarely give writing assignments. We watch videos, examine paintings, listen to music, and try and come up with a proper story. In the second part, we start teaching them international standards for screenwriting. Then it’s all production and practice. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can write a whole scenario by yourself. Though people believe that writing is a path that begins inside and leads outside, it’s actually an inner journey one goes through. So, first, you need to be brave. That’s where our workshop begins.
Can you talk about the workshop program at TOY Istanbul?
Our program mostly focuses on educating new members of the industry. We try to offer something where students who finish the workshop can interact with the industry. We shot short films and will share this with an audience one day.
Have you ever written a play?
No but I’m very excited about it. I want to do it when I’m fully knowledgeable in that genre. TOY Istanbul offered me a new opportunity in that I’ve watched more plays this season than any part of my life. Some have inspired me a lot to write one.
Can you give us a few examples?
I watched a play called “Tesir” on the chemistry of love. The performance was amazing. Berkay Ateş’s “Kuş Öpücüğü” showed me how a heart-warming storytelling can be realized in different forms in theater. I wondered if I would be able to write something like that someday. However, this is a premature enthusiasm for me because I wouldn’t want to produce things in an area where I don’t have any expertise.
Everyone talks about the difficult working conditions in Turkish TV series industry. How’s theater in that respect?
Like an oasis! (laughs) Jokes aside, I saw that working in theater is a hard job in Turkey. The conditions of the TV industry are not difficult – they’re impossible. There’s no way you can create something innovative and qualified in that industry. You can write 2-3 episodes but you won’t be able to keep it up. So, I haven’t written anything for TV for a long time and I won’t be doing it until conditions are changed.
Bahar Kerimoğlu – Instructor / Acting Workshop
You organized a 7-month acting workshop with Gizem Erden last season. How did it go?
It all happened too fast and we didn’t have much time to prepare for the workshop. Despite that, we opened two classes – advanced acting and screenwriting – and the result was lovely.
Will you open the same workshops in the next season?
Sure. In addition to those two, we’ll have beginner’s acting and, hopefully, stage direction classes. This year, we’ll add a few other qualified instructors to the team and maybe welcome guests from abroad. So, we plan to expand it a bit. I’ll be giving shorter workshops. I’m very excited about the new season.
What would you like to say about the independent theater scene in Istanbul?
There are many independent theaters in Istanbul and I follow some of them closely. I respect everything in which people put a lot of effort, and try to support them as much as I can because they’re trying to exist in really dire conditions. I’m glad they all exist. Professional or amateur, I think we should support all kinds of art in these times.
Are you also a part of the cast in TOY’s productions besides teaching acting?
I haven’t been an actress for a long time. I offer private classes in my own workshop and also teach at TOY. I feel great behind the camera but I’d like to play in a production next year – I think it’s time.
Last season, you directed a play at TOY. Was that a first?
I did direct a play at Ankara State Theater but this was a first at a private theater. It’s very different from a state theater, and I’ve learned a lot in this process. Opportunities are very limited in a private theater. For instance, though Kaplan Sarılması was written by Kemal Hamamcıoğlu, a popular playwright, and that Şebnem Bozoklu was the lead, we couldn’t promote the play financially. Then, Cengiz Temel and CoolEvent sponsored the play. It was when I understood that you have to be in a serious struggle to do theater in this country.
What are your sensitivities when you sit in the director’s chair?
The script is very important to me. I prefer to work with scenarios where I can implement my own imagination and creative power. Kemal’s play was one such example. Indeed, when he trusts the director, he can trust his text with him/her completely. Kaplan Sarılması was enjoyable in that I could play little games while directing it.
Which do you enjoy more, contemporary or traditional texts?
I love post-modern theater in terms of staging styles but when it comes to content, I love texts that are sincere, and can touch my heart and resonate with my inner scream. If the text excites me, only then can I relay that emotion to the audience because usually what touches me, touches all of us.
Is there an auditioning process while selecting students for workshops?
Beginner’s classes are open to everyone but in advanced classes, I prefer to work with actors who are ready to create a character. It’s important to have a consistent level of acting in one class so we have small interviews and have them fill out an application form. We select from among the applicants. Based on demand, we may even hold an audition this year.
Which do you think weighs more in acting, talent or discipline?
I believe that everyone can be an actor as long as they have awareness and sensitivity. There is a thing called talent, yes, but acting is actually an ability to convince one’s self. It’s always an advantage when an actor has well-developed characteristics and an open perception.
Which kinds of characteristic are these?
Being aware of the environment you live in, of the feelings you and the people around you have, and the ability to sympathize with people.