Turkish Theater

Ephesus Theater, Izmir province, Turkey

The history of Turkish theater began not so long ago. Before the 19th century, Turkey had its specific predecessors, rooted in the ancient culture of the inhabitants of Anatolia and the Seljuk Turks. The interaction between various tribal groups in the 10th century paved the way for the following three theater genres:

  • Ortaoyunu – open-air performance;
  • Meddah – a theater of one person or a storyteller;
  • Karagoz – shadow puppetry.  

By the end of the 18th century, we see theater troupes from Europe visiting Turkey. Then, in the middle of the 19th century, Tutuncuoglu Michael Naum Efendi built the first theater premises, The Naum Theater (Naum Tiyatrosu), located in one of the Istanbul neighborhoods. This became a landmark in the development of the Turkish theater. Gedik Pasha, founded in 1869, became the first theater, where native actors, speaking Turkish staged their own plays and world performances, such as Shakespeare, Schiller, Heiner Mueller, and Hugo.

In 1908, a despotic Sultan Abdul-Hamid of the Ottoman Empire was overthrown, and this event gave a new breath to theater in Turkey. Drama groups at that time were split and didn’t last long due to a lack of financial funds and government support.

Only six years later, in 1914, the Istanbul Municipality managed to set up the Ottoman Imperial Theater (Darulbedayi (House of Fine Arts). The founders also conceived the idea of opening schools that would teach acting. French Antuan became the theater’s director. Muhsin Ertugul became the true revolutionary of Darulbedayi and its new director. In 1935, he founded a municipal Istanbul City Theater and the first children's theater. His contribution, including in Turkish cinema, was so huge that he was called the “father of Turkish theater.” Almost all drama theaters in Ankara and Istanbul occurred under his leadership.

Today, theaters in Turkey can be divided into three categories, government, municipal, and independent. Istanbul hosts the biggest number of municipal theaters, while Ankara, the capital of Turkey, has the most government theaters. Private theaters emerged in Istanbul with famous actors in charge of them.

Turkish Traditional Theaters and their Origin

We’ve just covered the main aspects of Turkish theater development in history. Now let’s approach each of them in detail.


Orta oyunu (the Turkish “middle show”) is a spectacular and much-adored genre that originated in the 13th century, deeply rooted in Turkish culture and performed in the open air, especially in public squares. The performance didn’t have any decorations except for a tent with actors staged within a circular arena. The show typically began with an announcement explaining the plot’s location.

Like an Italian Commedia dell’arte, the theater had a certain line of characters: a pilgrim, a foolish old man, a young man, and a frivolous woman. The actors were usually non-Muslims, and women were not allowed to participate in the play.

Ortaoyunu usually doesn’t rely on written dialogue and all dramatic scenes are pure improvisation. This live play begins and ends with dances.


Karagoz (“black eye” in Turkish) is a form of shadow puppet play, where figures known as tasviris in the shape of people are manipulated by rods. A play begins with a prologue to set the scene, featuring drama plots followed by the sound of a whistle and introducing a main performance that may involve myths, poetry, tambourine music, singing, and riddles.

Shadow theater initially was widely used in Arab countries for philosophic and mystical shows that talked about the origin of the universe, the essence of God, and human life. The shadow was compared to a soul from the other world and a puppeteer was a medium.

Some Egyptian sources say that the name Karagoz derived from Qaraqosh, a vizier during Sultan Saladin’s reign in Egypt, who had a reputation as a foolish and harsh person. His “fame” reached Constantinople, where he became the main hero of the shadow puppetry plot.

It’s believed that Karagoz was a follow-up to the gatherings around the fire when the most talented one would step forward and improvise poetry. The travelers’ notes reveal the appearance of the theater. The figures were cut from paper and placed around glimmering lanterns. With heated air rising, figures started to move. Later, they were made of different materials.

Karagoz is depicted with a black beard curled into a ring, wearing a vibrant hood, a red kaftan, blue trousers, yellow stockings, and red shoes accented with black heels. Despite a rustic look, he is shrewd and smart. He always managed to puzzle his opponent Hacivat with his stinging phrases.

It’s no wonder that the public loved Karagoz, and his name was associated with wisdom. Coming from a poor family, he is often in trouble, yet always retains a sense of humor.

His rival, Hacivat is characterized by a scarlet fez, green caftan with a red collar, blue pants, and red shoes with blue bows. He has a short, peaked beard and always flaunts his education, the knowledge of morality. He argues constantly but every single time gets defeated.

Additional characters are involved, such as an opium smoker (a hunchback man in European boots, with a cane and a pipe), a beggar (patched caftan), a doctor (he funnily twists Turkish and Arab words), a silly official, and others.

Karagoz has all the signs of drama theater – script, music, and acting. Musicians would usually form a semi-circle on the stage and entertain the audience in between the shows. They often sang with various accents since, as mentioned earlier, actors came from different nationalities.

The lead artist was Hayali, a puppet master, who operated and made them talk. Theater initially had one or two artists, but their number increased with time.

Islam forbids the images of people, that’s why the shadow theater was the best solution. Besides, it didn’t address topics related to Muslim saints but only daily life. For a long time, such theaters didn’t depict women, eunuchs, and madrasahs.

Myths, legends, ancient tales, and satires based on local habits and family drama were used to make a plot. So, this theater was extremely popular in the 17th and 18th centuries during the heyday of the Ottoman rule. Shadow puppetry was common at coffee houses. Decorations became more complex, and theatre started using a curtain. Some plots were based on contemporary literature. Karagoz was the first to introduce Moliere to a Turkish audience.


Lastly, Meddah is a genre of Turkish theater with a single artist in charge of the whole performance.  The Meddah first depicted the holy history of Islam, and later these were tales relating to social and daily life and even Oriental poetry. Improvisation mattered a lot since it showcased Meddah’s talent.

Such performances were typically played at the Ottoman Palace, on Ramadan nights, and at circumcision celebrations.

20th Century

European theater as we know it today appeared in Turkey in the 20th century after the Young Turk Revolution in 1908. Many troupes and private theaters were established at that time. However, they didn’t last long.

The founder of the contemporary Turkish theater is Muhsin Ertugrul. He spent some time in France and staged Hamlet upon his return.

Changes in the country lead to changes in theater performances. They were more about justice, equality, and criticism of the violent Ottoman rulers. The revolution opened a way for women to act, although they had to cease acting because society and imams persecuted them.

The 1960s coup left a mark on theater, giving rise to new genres, such as cabaret, street theaters, and amateur troupes. Theaters staged plays by Aziz Nesin, Orhan Asena, and Sermet Cagan, including Turkish adaptations of Russian classics, such as Chekhov, Tolstoy, and others.

21st Century

Turkey National Theater encompasses 52 theaters in 19 different cities. These government-founded theaters stage famous Western plays, Russian classics, Greek tragedies, and many others.

During the last decade, theater in Turkey has seen the emergence of new groups and research centers like Tiyatro Medresesi, GalataPerform, and Kadikoy Theatron. These new entities focus on finding new theatrical forms and narrative techniques. As a result, theater has become democratic with more websites and blogs dedicated to discussion of current performances. The number of critics increased as well. Furthermore, there are academic departments that offer education in Dramaturgy, Performance Art, and Acting.

International Theater Festivals

Another sign of striving Turkish theater is the presence of international festivals. And Turkey hosts international theater festivals each year. 

  • The number one is the Istanbul International Theater Festival organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Arts and Culture (IKSV) each November. 
  • The other one is the International Sabanci Theater Festival held in spring and lasting a month. In 2023, the event was held from April 28 through May 20. 
  • Izmir International Puppet Days usually takes place between March and May annually. The festival brings together dozens of puppet companies from all over the world, offering puppet show contests, exhibitions, and professional performances. 
  • The 27th Bursa International Children and Youth Theater Festival held in November 2023 featured 12 shows and 30 stages. 

Independent Theaters in Turkey

Apart from government-subsidized theaters, others are engaged in contemporary Turkish drama performances as independent theaters. They focus more on methods to spur interaction with the audience. The last decade has seen changes in the techniques of storytelling. The productions of Tiyatrotem, founded by Sehsuvar Aktas and Ayse Selen illustrate that trend very well. They are bringing the Turkish traditional shadow play, puppetry, storytelling, and elements of dramatic theater under one umbrella.

Some independent theaters use their stage to cover sensitive topics like homosexuality, transgender issues, subcultures, women's issues, and many more. Sermola Performance, for example, is involved in Kurdish issues.

In 2018, BGST staged a women’s play Zabel, featuring the Armenian diaspora. Other troupes pay great attention to the “essence” of drama theater putting forward the idea of a real encounter with the audience. One can see that in Mek’an Sahne’s performance of Apache Girls.

Seyyar Sahne artists experiment with non-theatrical texts, like novels, and bring them to life on stage. The goal is to present theater as a dynamic force that will transcend the common conception of theater viewed as “entertainment” or a “museum piece.” They mix storytelling and physical theatre as the epitome of a single actor on a stage without any decorations. Their most prominent production, Dangerous Games, is a talented adaptation of Turkish novelist Oguz Atay.

All these groups continue to contribute to the transformation of the theatrical scene in Turkey. And the greatest among them is GalataPerform, which was founded in 2003 by Yesim Ozsoy. They organize various projects, workshops, and festivals as well as promote new playwrights and directors.

Turkish Historical Theaters not to Be Missed

One can’t come to Turkey without visiting magnificent historical theaters that used to promote art in ancient cities.

One of them is Ephesus Theater in the western Izmir province tracking back to 2,300 years. Its capacity is 24,000. Today this monumental open-air theater hosts famous artists and orchestras in the world to take advantage of the unique acoustics.

If you drive three hours away from Ephesus, be sure to prepare yourself for the sight of Hierapolis theater in the western Denzili province. It was built in the third century AD under the rule of the Roman Empire Hadrian. It could easily fit 12,000 spectators.

Mugla province in the western part of the country is home to the pre-Roman Imperial Period theater known as the Bodrum Antique Theater. This ancient theater could accommodate around 12,000 people.

Many historical theaters are in the Mediterranean city of Antalya. These are Myra, Xanthos, Aspendos, Antiphellos, and Termessos.

Aspendos Theater is the best-preserved monumental structure constructed during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Its capacity ranged between 15,000 and 20,000 spectators.

Built in the 2nd century AD, the theater of Myra is another well-preserved archeological site of the ancient city.  Xanthos theater could seat 2,200 people. And, finally, Termessos, also built in the 2nd century AD, could accommodate an audience of 4,000-5,000.