With countless plays and roles to his name, actor, director and playwright Haldun Dormen is a major contributor to theater in Turkey.
Born in the southern city of Mersin in 1928, Haldun Dormen took his Master’s Degree from the Yale University Drama School. Returning to Turkey in 1955, he staged his first play, ‘Cinayet Var’, at the Küçük Sahne (‘Little Stage’) directed by Muhsin Ertuğrul. Following a stint at the Cep Tiyatrosu, he founded the Dormen Theater, where in 1961 he staged a Turkish translation of Irma La Douce, the first western-style musical to be produced in Turkey. Dormen, who up to now has staged 160 plays and acted in 110, as well as winning a Golden Orange for the two films he shot, is about to open ‘Dormen’in Cebi’, a new, small theater, with no diminution of his original energy.
Your father Sait Ömer Bey told you, “Whatever you’re going to be, be the best!” So you went to the U.S. for your training in theater and got your start there. Why theater?
My decision to go into the theater preceded my going to the U.S. My father’s advice clinched it for me. As for “why theater?”, I’m always asked that question but even I don’t know the answer. I’ve always wanted to be an actor as far back as I can remember. Why? What for? I don’t know. But I suppose I might have been influenced by the German films that my German tutor took me to when I was very small. I didn’t decide to go into the theater at age 13 or 14; I think I was born knowing I would.
Among all the plays you’ve staged up to now, which one moved you the most?
The most moving one for me was a play that was universally liked: ‘Tovarich’. I acted in that play twice at an interval of thirty years. I first played in it with Aysel Seray and Nisa Serezli. It was expected to be a big flop. I was married to Betül (Mardin) at the time. People rang her up and said, “tell your husband to cancel that play; it’s going to be a disaster.” It was the night of 29 October, 1963 or ‘64. Contrary to expectations, Tovarich was one of the most popular plays the Dormen Theater ever produced. Thirty years later I played in it again, with Nevra Serezli and Sevil Üstekin. My age then was more appropriate for the role of Prince Mikhail. When the play ended I felt as if I was departing from a relative, or a very beloved friend. For the man was both an aristocrat and yet so humble as to be able to become a servant for his ideal.
If you were to compare theater in Turkey yesterday and today, what has changed and what has stayed the same?
Everything is changing, nothing stays the same. Like it or not, our lives are changing too. And our standards. I am teaching young people many things, but I’m also learning a lot from them. If I don’t keep up with them, I fall behind. Theater has changed too. Not just in Turkey but all over the world. They say now that theater in Turkey is in a very bad way. I don’t agree. Theater all over the world is going through a crisis. In Turkey as in other countries there are very few new writers. The situation was much brighter in the ‘60s. There were a lot of brilliant new writers back then in the U.S., in France, in England, and in Turkey. Brilliant young playwrights like Refik Erduran, Güngör Dilmen, Turgut Özakman... too many to enumerate here. I’m thinking of England now; there aren’t one-tenth the fabulous writers there were in the ‘60s. Theater has changed in that sense. The audience has changed too. Television and the internet have had a major impact. Rather than going to the theater, people prefer to sit at home and watch television or surf the internet. But theater is an intimate business; in other words, it addresses people’s eyes and souls directly. Consequently nothing can happen to the theater in my opinion. It’s a three-thousand-year-old art after all. For one thing, a very important new phenomenon has sprung up: the little theaters. Like Off Broadway, or what I call ‘Off Beyoğlu’. Three or four talented young people get together and start a theater. Most of these theaters are in the back streets of Beyoğlu. They stage quality plays good enough to be produced anywhere in the world. They’re the hope of Turkish theater to my mind.
Together with Peter Brook and Münir Özkul you were deemed worthy of a Lifetime Achievement award at the 15th International Istanbul Theater Festival and the 4th International Theater Olympics. How did it feel to get this award after more than half a century in the theater?
I was very happy. It made me very happy to receive an award along with such distinguished artists as Münir Özkul and Peter Brook, who is one of the deans of world theater. It was also a great pleasure for me to be recognized and rewarded by such a serious institution. What could be better for an artist?
The Dormen Theater celebrated its 50th anniversary in March, and then closed after training over 500 actors. Is this school going to metamorphose into a new form and inspire a new project? Do you have any new projects for cinema or television?
I’m not a young man. On the other hand, I’m a person who is constantly coming up with new projects. This is what keeps me going, keeps me young. I also have so many young students around me that I naturally feel compelled to show them the way. My new project is ‘Dormen’s Pocket’ theater. I want to start an experimental theater that will bring young people together with older actors. I’m also starting a television series with the popular Turkish singer İbrahim Tatlıses. That too is a project that will give direction to my life. And I’m opening a school called the MED Academy with Fatih Aksoy in Levent. And then there’s Eskişehir of course; I can’t give that up. I really believe in Eskişehir. As long as they want me, I’ll continue to stage plays there.
Is there anything you would like to share with our readers?
I get impatient with those who say that the theater is dead. Theater will never die. Art will never die. Why should it? If very few good novels have come out recently, for example, are we going to conclude that the novel is dead? That books are no longer going to be read? The theater is not dead in my opinion, and it’s not going to die. There’s something else nowadays that I really like. When I decided to be an actor back in the ‘50s, I didn’t know how I was going to tell my father. He had gone to the U.S. and I couldn’t tell him to his face, so I wrote him a letter and nervously awaited his reply. Then, as you pointed out at the start of this interview, his wonderful answer came. There are women today who come to my classroom at the school, or backstage when we’re on tour, and tell me their daughters want to be actresses. That change makes me very happy.