For Turkish director and actor Memet Ali Alabora, theatre is about creating an environment in which the audience is encouraged to think, react and reflect. His goal is to leave the audience thinking about and questioning issues, whether it be democracy, free speech, women’s rights or the concept of belonging.
Alabora has always been fascinated by the notion of play and games, even as a child. “I was in a group of friends that imitated each other, told jokes, made fun of things and situations,” he says. The son of actors Mustafa Alabora and Betül Arım, he was exposed early on to the theatre. In high school, Alabora took on roles in plays by Shakespeare and Orhan Veli. He was one of the founders of Garajistanbul, a contemporary performing arts institution in Istanbul.
For Alabora, ludology — the studying of gaming — is not merely about creating different theatrical personalities and presenting them to the audience each time. Rather, it is about creating an alternative to ordinary life — an environment in which actors and members of the audience could meet, intermingle and interact. For those two hours or so, participants are encouraged to think deeply about and reflect upon their own personal stories and the consequences of their actions.
“I think I’m obsessed with the audience. I always think about what is going to happen to the audience at the end of the play: What will they say? What situation do I want to put them in?” the Turkish actor says “It’s not about what messages I want to convey. I want them to put themselves in the middle of everything shown and spoken about, and think about their own responsibility, their own journey and history.”
“It’s not easy to do that for every audience you touch. If I can do that with some of the people in the audience, I think I will be happy,” Alabora adds.
It is this desire to create an environment in which the audience is encouraged to take part, to reflect, to think that Alabora brought to Mi Minör, a Turkish play that premiered in 2012. Written by Turkish playwright Meltem Arıkan, it is set in the fictional country of “Pinima”, where “despite being a democracy, everything is decided by the president”. In opposition to the president is the pianist, who cannot play high notes, such as the Mi note, on her piano because they have been banned. The play encouraged the audience to use their smartphones to interact with each other and influence the outcome.
Alabora explained the production team’s motivation behind the play: “At the time when we were creating Mi Minör, our main motive was to make each and every audience if possible to question themselves. This is very important. The question we asked ourselves was: if we could create a situation in which people could face in one and a half hour, about autocracy, oppression, how would people react?”
The goal wasn’t to “preach the choir” or convey a certain message about the world. It was to encourage the audience not be complacent. “Would the audience stand with the pianist, who advocates free speech and freedom of expression, or would they side with the autocratic president?” Alabora asks.
Alabora considered was how people would react when faced with the same situation in real life. “They were reacting, but was it a sort of reaction where they react, get complacent with it and go back to their ordinary lives, or would they react if they see the same situation in real life?”
On 27 May 2013, a wave of unrest and demonstrations broke out in Gezi Park, Istanbul to protest the urban development plans being carried out there. Over the next few days, violence quickly escalated, with the police using tear gas to suppress peaceful demonstrations. By July 2013, over 8,000 people were injured and five dead.
In the aftermath, Turkish authorities accused Mi Minör of being a rehearsal for the protests. Faced with threats against their lives, Arikan, Alabora and Pinar Ogun, the lead actress, had little choice but to leave the country.
But how could a play that was on for merely five months be a rehearsal for a series of protests that involved more than 7.5 million people in Istanbul alone? “You can’t teach people how to revolt,” Alabora says. “Yes, theatre can change things, be a motive for change, but we’re not living in the beginning of the 20th century or ancient Greece where you can influence day-to-day politics with theatre.”
The three artists relocated to Cardiff, but their experience did not prevent them from continuing with the work they love. They founded Be Aware Productions in January 2015 and their first production, Enough is Enough, written by Arikan, told the stories of women who were victims of domestic violence, rape, incest and sexual abuse. The team organised a month-long tour of more than 20 different locations in Wales.
“In west Wales, we performed in a bar where there was a rugby game right before – there was already an audience watching the game on TV and drinking beer,” Alabora says. “The bar owner gave the tickets to the audience in front and kept the customers who had just seen the rugby game behind.”
“After the play, we had a discussion session and it was as if you were listening to the stories of these four women in a very intimate environment,” he adds. “When you go through something like that, it becomes an experience, which is more than seeing a show.”
After each performance, the team organised a “shout it all out” session, in which members of the audience could discuss the play and share their personal stories with each other. One person said: “Can I say something? Don’t stop what you are doing. You have just reached out one person tonight. That’s a good thing because it strengthened my resolve. Please keep doing that. Because you have given somebody somewhere some hope. You have given me that. You really have.”
Be Aware Productions is now in the process of developing a new project that documents how the production team ended up in Wales and why they chose it as their destination.
“What we did differently with this project was that we did touring rehearsals. We had three weeks of rehearsal in six different parts of Wales. The rehearsals were open to the public, and we had incredible insight from people about the show, about their own stories and about the theme of belonging,” Alabora shares.
Just like Mi Minor and Enough is Enough, the motivation behind this new project is to encourage the audience to think, to reflect on their own personal stories and experiences: “With this new project, I want them to really think personally about what they think or believe and where this sense of belonging is coming from, have they thought about it, and just share their experiences.”