Theater Calling: From Turkey Onto Viennese Stages

Vienna’s theater scene is enriched by a multitude of actors, groups and playwrights who have roots in Turkey and a very diverse outlook.

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“Toi toi toi!” might sound a bit unusual for a group of Turkish speakers before they get on stage. But this good-luck expression (e.g. “break a leg!”) is where their enthusiasm for this universal craft meets the local culture.

Here is a glimpse of some of the Viennese professional theater people who create, teach and perform the oldest of art forms in both the language of their first land and that of their current home, collaborating with each other in stitching the immigrant and Austrian cultures together. 

“I believe in the immortality of theatre. It is the most blessed hiding place for those who secretly put their childhood in their pockets and went off to play for the rest of their lives.”


Max Reinhardt, speech to actors from 1928

Aret Aleksanyan

The words above are those the prominent actor, director, and theater manager Aret Aleksanyan lives by – not only in his art, but also his life. Until recently, you could see him arriving at the WUK on his bike, carrying his leather postman’s bag full of whichever surprise tool of wisdom and creativity he had for that day’s acting class at Theater Sahne Wien. 

But Aleksanyan’s contribution to Austrian culture goes way back, building since he came to Austria as a 20-year-old, a newly minted graduate of the Austrian high school Sankt Georg Kolleg in Istanbul. Being born there to Armenian parents and having spent his youth in one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the world, he stepped into eternally-young-at-heart adult life in another country and culture and went on to study at Vienna’s renowned Max Reinhardt Seminar (University of Music and Performing Arts).

Since then, he has led a life full of the ancient art form at the Klagenfurter Landestheater, the Ensemble Theater, the Schauspielhaus Wien, and the Intercult Theater, which he headed from 1992 on. On top of that, there were numerous TV projects, and last but not least, his own ensemble founded in 1988.

His work with Vienna’s most distinguished theater figures, however, should not mislead anyone: Aleksanyan has always kept his special connection to young immigrants active, both through the Rudolfsheim youth center in the 15th district that he headed for many years, or through his acting class, as a tireless, notorious and rightfully hard-to-please teacher, under the motto “Eine andere Welt ist möglich / Another world is possible” – awarded the Gold Medal of Merit of the City of Vienna in 2008, “for his sustained efforts and tireless commitment to the intercultural dialogue between cultures.” Creating another world is hard work, after all! 

If you are lucky, you could still catch him shine his light on stage during his widely popular one-man show “Derwisch Erzählt” (“Dervish Recounts”), woven of fascinating immigration and culture-clash stories and poems in German, which, after a good laugh, leave you deep in thought. 

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Aslı Kışlal

Aslı Kışlal (c) Magdalena Possert

This multi-award-winning firecracker of an actress, director, dramaturg, screenwriter, or in better terms, “theater activist” who was born in Ankara is an alumni of the Schubert Conservatory. As her 16-year-old’s passion turned into a professional career, Aslı Kışlal has plunged herself into the world of theater in Austria and Germany since the early ’90s working with international directors at the Theaterhaus Stuttgart, Theater der Jugend, Stadttheater Klagenfurt, Interkulttheater Wien, Kosmos Theater and Werk X, among others. 

Seeing herself more Viennese than Turkish today, she has successfully represented Austria in international cultural platforms with her work.

In addition to performing, Aslı has also been involved in cultural policy building as the founder and/or artistic director of daskunst, Kunst am Grund and Theater des Moments, as well as the project series on post-migrant positions, Pimp My Integration, and D/ARTS (Project Office for Diversity and Urban Dialogue), among others. Her latest initiative is the “performance and theater laboratory” diverCITYLAB, which she has headed since 2013. She describes it as “a synthesis of an art project and a practice-oriented training facility, which aims to open the theater scene to all members of our post-migrant society.” 

Not far from this theme and with a background in International Political Relations from Turkey and Sociology from Vienna, she has been a human rights activist focused on immigration and asylum issues, in legal and cultural terms (check out #hiergeboren). 

Aslı has put her mark on theater and film through many projects with her many hats all around Austria and Germany (including the theater remake of Fatih Akin’s film Gegen die Wand (Against the Wall) that she performed in from 2013 to 2019 at Werk X, and Das Kleine Gespenst (The Little Ghost) that she has produced for Landestheater Niederösterreich that will stay on through 2022. One notable project is the brilliant Medeas Töchter (Medea’s Daughters), showcasing stories of not only immigrants but of minorities of gender, sexual orientation, skin color or political views.

Unstoppable even by the pandemic and related performance restrictions, she developed the audio piece Medeas Irrgarten (Medea’s Maze), which won ASSITEJ Austria’s (International Association of Theatre for Children and Young
People) STELLA * 21 award in June. 

When not immersed in her countless projects, you can find her entertaining her dog in her garden surrounded by the pleasures of nature. 

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Özge Dayan-Mair

A devoted Aegean from İzmir, Özge Dayan-Mair built her artistic craft in Turkey before bringing it over with the rest of her life to Vienna in her late 20s in 2006. Her bachelor’s degree in journalism sure helps her communicate not only with her students, but also with the different communities on the social and cultural scene here in Vienna, but her heart has been set on acting. In this pursuit, she got educated by two of the greatest theater figures of Turkey, Şahika Tekand and Ayla Algan of Studio Oyuncuları (The Studio Players) and TAL – Tiyatro Araştırma Laboratuvarı (Theatre Research Laboratory), respectively.

In addition to theater projects and international festivals, her multilayered cultural and artistic work has shown itself in the radio programs she co-produced and presented in the independent, cult station of Istanbul, Açık Radyo (Open Radio). 

Özge has continued acting full force in Vienna, from plays by Samuel Beckett to modern day cinema, and her own production, Cascando and Act Without Words 1.  In 2018 she played in Matei Visniec’s tragic comedy Migraaaanten – Wir sind zu viele auf diesem Boot (Immigraaaants – There Are Too Many of Us on This Boat) directed by our very own Aslı Kışlal (above).

She has been staging and playing the monologue Homebody / Kabul from the play by Tony Kushner through her own Dyan Theater that she co-founded with Brigitte Pointner. Her latest involvement Anka – Biraz Hayat (Anqa – A Little Life) is a collaboration with other productive women such as Demet Kavut Holly (see below) and Derya Schuberth Gülcehre, tackling women’s issues and rights. 

Like many other artists and cultural contributors, Dayan-Mair gives back in multiple ways: She teaches Contemporary Acting Techniques at Theater Sahne Wien and via independent workshops and brings participatory community projects to life such as Chor 129’ at Caritas’ Stand129. When she finds a break from this busy life, she escapes to her hometown to enjoy the Aegean coast and its blissful summer nights.

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Hakan Çepelli & Theater Sahne* Wien

Shortly after coming to Vienna to study theater, film and media studies at University of Vienna, an idealistic and determined Hakan Çepelli saw the lack of cultural platforms for Turkish-speaking people and decided to take the matter into his own hands.

The result was Theater Sahne Wien, born in 2011, in a pursuit of using the unifying power of art in service of the integration of Turkish-speaking migrant workers and their families into Austrian society while keeping their native language alive.  

After staging several plays for different age groups, with support from like-minded cultural figures immigrated from Turkey like Aret Aleksanyan (acting), Aslı Kışlal (acting), Özge Dayan (acting and elocution), Barış Acar (art history) and İlker Ülsezer (music), Theater Sahne Wien expanded into Theater Sahne Atelier with intensive classes that trained some 40 amateur actors.

Currently the only one of its kind in Vienna, Theater Sahne Wien’s curtains have gone up some 20 times, with remakes of prominent Turkish plays or their own creations, with an audience reaching nearly a thousand people from all walks of life among the Turkish-speaking Viennese community. This ambitious ensemble of theater and culture enthusiasts is looking forward to the end of the pandemic to regroup and perform all around Vienna once again.

* “Sahne” means “stage” in Turkish and “cream” in German – a little word trick to act as a bridge through the prominent elements of theater and Austrian culinary culture.”

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Demet Kavut Holly & ANKA DRAMA 

Dance & Theater 

Demet Kavut Holly is another Ankara-born Viennese who brought her art to her new home. She has taken to the stage many times as a dancer (in ballet, contemporary dance, and flamenco) and as an actress. 

Perhaps because she started as a child herself, Holly holds children’s education close to her heart and builds her passions around it: At university, she specialized in German studies with a focus on children’s literature, became a recreational pedagogue and worked as a language teacher at MA 10 (kindergartens). In addition, she teaches ballet, creative dance and gymnastics to children, and has recently started Oriental fairy tale and story-telling sessions for children and adults. 

To bring all this under one roof, she founded Anka Drama Tanz & Theater in 2019, offering courses in dance and movement, play education, performing games, reading and language support and music lessons for young and old, in German and Turkish. The pandemic has, as it has done to many others, pushed her to find creative ways to continue and launch the program “Anka Drama – Dance & Theater Goes to the Park” at the Rudolf-Bednar-Park in Leopoldstadt (and other convenient places on demand), with engaging workshop titles like “The Joy Of Movement, I Have In My Case… ,” “Improvisation Theater For Parents And Children,” “Fairy Tale Game Workshop ”and others.

To share with your kid or to please your own inner child! 

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