By Simi Horwitz
"In my television and theatre companies, I am in control. I am like a God and everyone does what I order. Here I am just an actor, pure, poor, and unknown." Turkish movie-TV-theatre celebrity Ali Poyrazoglu smiles slyly, clearly not believing in his supposed obscurity for a moment. "Actually, I'm not all that unknown here, not after the reviews. Have you seen them? Yes, it's true, nobody turns around when I pass, well, not yet. Maybe within six months."
Poyrazoglu has, indeed, garnered rave reviews for his triple-star turn--he plays three roles--in "Pera Palas," a Turkish-American work that opened at Off-Broadway's McGinn/Cazale Theatre, June 11. (At presstime, Poyrazaglu had gone back to Turkey to make a film. If "Pera Pelas" moves to a larger theatre--rumors are that it will--Poyrazaglu will probably return to New York to star in it.)
Produced by The Lark Theatre Company, "Pera Palas" is an ambitious three-generational story that spans 80 years. Set in Istanbul's legendary hotel Pera Palas, the play examines culture clashes, gender conflicts, and the power of political forces as the country evolves from its failing Ottoman Empire days to modern Turkey, a nation still awash in ambivalence.
Poyrazoglu plays a wise and benign old lady living in a harem, circa 1918; a well-married former concubine who has become petty and mean-spirited in the mid-'50s; and a disillusioned drunken male intellectual in current-day Turkey.
Poyrazoglu (pronounced pooy-raz-o-lew) insists he does not alter his approach for American audiences, who admittedly are probably unfamiliar with the story's historical particulars. His acting style brings together at various points elements of commedia dell'arte, bunraku, and Stanislavksy.
"With the first two characters, I incorporate ritualized voice and body gestures that emerge from shadow-play traditions. I'm impersonating a woman as a man," he stresses. "I don't become a woman--I wear my mustache on stage--but rather suggest the two women through these formal gestures that are very familiar to Turkish audiences. Gender-bending is very popular in Turkish theatre, as it is worldwide today.
"With the third character, I use an Actors Studio style. We're luckier than American actors because we're familiar with many methods--from Stanislavsky to Chaikin to Grotowski to Peter Brook, plus Eastern acting styles that are presentational and epic."
The 55-year-old Istanbul native, whose English boasts a British accent, says unexpectedly, "Speaking English with a Turkish accent was a bit of a challenge." But the most daunting task, he admits frankly, was taking off his producer-and-theatre-owner hat. "This experience has taught me a lot. I'm seeing myself at a distance and discovering my mistakes as a producer. Like what? That's too long a list." He laughs. "Will I be less autocratic when I go back home? Probably." Not said with much conviction.
This much-awarded actor and director who is also a newspaper columnist and is now penning a novel, seems paradoxically both robust and furtive. He speaks in a near-booming voice and at the same time suggests a man engaged in a private joke, perhaps even a ruse.
He's totally serious, for example, when he says, "I've made it, I have money, and the only thing that's important to me now is enjoying myself. If the play moves to Broadway, I may go with it. I may not. I may do a movie here or I may go home to star in a sitcom that my production company is producing. But then again, I may not." Still, he's smiling at us, at himself. We meet with Poyrazoglu in his Trump Tower suite overlooking Central Park.
Becoming an Actor
The son of a pharmacist-father and an "intellectual mother who wrote for newspapers and spoke Russian and French," Poyrazoglu grew up in a Muslim home, wanting to be a puppeteer. To this day he is fascinated by puppets and owns, he says, the largest collection of 18th- and 19th-century puppets in Turkey.
Although he set his sights on an acting career in his late teens, his interest in the visual arts grew with time and income. In addition to his puppets, Poyrazoglu is an avid collector of 19th-century French and German paintings, he notes offhandedly.
Poyrazoglu studied acting at Istanbul Conservatory's Theatre Department and graduated in three years, instead of the usual five. Curiously, despite his golden-boy status in the school, he says frankly, "The experience was terrible. What you learn in school has nothing to do with what you do on the professional stage. And as an acting student, you are always in opposition to your teachers. They impose their own methods, they're autocratic, and they don't let you discover the method that best works for you. They also set time limits--when an acting student is supposed to achieve certain skills. Students develop at different rates. The best thing acting teachers can do is leave students alone--and the odds are they'll figure it out all by themselves.
"They'll also figure out if acting is for them. Nobody has to be thrown out of an acting school," he continues. "The cruel acting teacher is a problem worldwide. I believe it's because many of these people are frustrated actors themselves. Some of them are talented, but for whatever reason, just didn't make it."
Like many Turkish conservatory students, Poyrazoglu joined a subsidized repertory theatre--The Municipal Theatre of Istanbul--following his graduation. He emphasizes that, while there are some publicly funded companies, the overwhelming majority are privately owned.
In 1973, he forged his own company, "The Ali Poyrazoglu Theatre," because, quite simply, he wanted more creative freedom to choose the plays and parts that most interested him, as both director and actor.
"I suppose my vision in those days was more political than it is now. I was, after all, a child of the hippie age. I think I've become wiser with the years," he laughs heartily. "My overall vision hasn't changed that much, although I define myself today as a humanist. I'm certainly more of a perfectionist."
A Word From the Director
During his almost 30-year career, Poyrazoglu has avoided typecasting, he notes; as his own boss he's been in the lucky position to choose a range of characters to play. He insists he does not have a directorial stamp either. "It changes with each play. I don't want my relationship with the theatre to be like an old marriage where both parties are bored with each other, but neither admits it, and the relationship has become a life sentence. That's what I like about theatre--the chance to constantly evolve."
The theatre-film-TV scene in Turkey, says Poyrazoglu, is not all that far afield from what we see in the States. "Globalism, very in," he smiles."Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Mart Crowley--all popular in Turkey!"
The one genre, he observes, that doesn't seem to travel very well, at least to those countries that are not English speaking, is the American musical. The sensibilities are just at odds. "We did 'Hair' 30 years ago, and it was the biggest financial flop I ever produced." He pauses, "I think it might work today because of its appeal to nostalgia.
"Ionesco and Beckett are being rediscovered by a new generation, as they are in America. We also have a downtown scene that has its own brand of performance art. There is nothing that unifies the new Turkish playwrights either in theme, subject, or style. They are as eclectic as the playwrights in America."
Still, some issues are peculiar to Turkey--stemming from its history, culture, and place in the world. "Pera Palas" speaks to those realities, specifically: "The path of an underdeveloped country moving towards democracy. The country is still struggling to come to terms with it. I now have the rights to 'Pera Palas' and I'm going to be producing it in Turkey. I'm very curious to see how Turkish audiences respond to the work."
"We're luckier than American actors because we're familiar with many methods--from Stanislavsky to Chaikin to Grotowski to Peter Brook, plus Eastern acting styles that are presentational and epic."