Winter break experience in Turkey to inform theatre production

visiting TurkeyThe Turkish Cultural Center of Syracuse and its president, Fehmi Damkaci of SUNY Oswego’s chemistry faculty, have had a helping hand in the college’s next theatre production.

“Pera Palas,” a play by the Turkish-American writer Sinan Unel, will open in three weeks in Tyler Hall’s Waterman Theatre. Over winter break, a team of Oswego faculty and staff behind the play spent eight days touring Turkey, a trip made possible by an $18,000 TCC grant.

“We couldn’t imagine doing this play properly without going to Turkey,” said Jessica Hester, dramaturge for the production. “There are a lot of things about the culture that you just can’t understand without going there.”

Just back from their experience before spring classes began, Hester and director Deanna Downes described a number of “aha moments” as they visited historic sites and host families.

“I’ve learned a lot and I’m still processing,” Downes said. “I know now what the challenge is before us, and I didn’t before.”

The epic play is centered in Istanbul and its historic and opulent hotel Pera Palas, or Palace, at three points in the 20th century—post World War I with the end of the Ottoman Empire, the 1950s when Turkey entered NATO, and the 1990s. The dramatic relationships in each generation reflect tensions and misunderstandings between Western and Middle Eastern cultures.

Among the eye-openers for Hester and Downes, they said, was a better understanding of what a harem would have been in cosmopolitan Istanbul of 1918—not the exotic and timeless fantasy typically conjured up by Westerners. That realization helped Downes appreciate a new degree of complexity in a key character, she said.

Another was “a new understanding of the Turkish family and how important family is,” Hester said. Their dinners with host families were as valuable as their visits to cultural and historic sites and helped inform scenes in the play, she said.

Downes added that they were surprised to learn the degree to which the Muslim, Christian and Jewish belief systems are integrated in Turkey.

Once Oswego’s theatre department decided to produce “Pera Palas,” Downes began looking for a way to visit Turkey. Jack Gelfand, Oswego’s director of research development, put her in touch with Damkaci, who told her and Hester of a Turkish Cultural Center grant program designed to expose people from other nations to Turkish culture.

The Oswego group of six was a good match for the program because their experience will be communicated in part to the hundreds of people who see “Pera Palas” during its run from Feb. 24 to March 1. (For ticket information, go to oswego.edu/arts and click on “Pera Palas.”)

Besides Downes and Hester, the group included the play’s costumiers, Kitty Macey and Judy McCabe; Greg Parsons, the faculty director of Hart Global Living and Learning Center; and Jane Winslow of the communication studies department, who documented the trip on film. They were guided by Adem Bahar, a Syracuse University graduate student.

The Turkish American Business Improvement and Development Council arranged accommodations, transportation within Turkey and guides for each of five cities, Damkaci said.  The Americans had only to pay their airfare to Turkey. Turkish Cultural Centers in New York and the Northeast hope to bring hundreds of people to Turkey in 2009, Damkaci said, and he would like to see many of them come from this area.

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PHOTO CAPTION: Harem viewpoint—While visiting the 19th century Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul, the last palace used by a Turkish sultan, Deanna Downes (left) and Jessica Hester of SUNY Oswego’s theatre department look out semicircular stained glass windows in the harem wing toward the entrance to the palace from the Bosphorus. Through these windows the harem women could see who might be arriving or leaving the palace by waterway.

(Posted: Feb 04, 2009)

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