Interview: Yıldız Kenter

“It’s as if there are a thousand different people inside me,” says 81-year-old Yıldız Kenter, a 62-year veteran of the theater, adding, “I see a part of myself in every person I meet and every character I play.”

It was somewhat early on a cold Saturday morning when I rang her bell. She was up but had not had breakfast yet. She settled us into big overstuffed armchairs and thrust cups of Turkish coffee into our hands. Her house, overlooking the Bosphorus at Bebek, was literally covered in plants. As we were admiring them, she got dressed and came back. Then she confessed, like a naughty child: She had turned the television on quite at random and then been glued to the screen from early morning. ‘Viva Zapata’, co-starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn. As exciting as ever, not dated in the least. Like Yıldız Kenter herself.

How long have you lived in this house?
Since 1964, I think. I moved here when I was playing in ‘Pembe Kadın’.

Which corner of the house is your favorite?
I like all of them. A house is very important to me. I take an interest in every part of it and do all the work myself. I keep it tidy all by myself.

How tidy are you?
That’s why you looked in the kitchen, isn’t it? I’m extremely tidy. My life is chaotic so I want my house at least to be tidy. I actually like sparsely furnished houses. But houses tend to fill up as one gets older. The memories accumulate and a person cannot sell them or throw them away. I have a lot of plants, and I just can’t seem to give them up. Especially the ones on the balcony. But it’s a trifle over crowded, isn’t it, with these armchairs?

Are you very self-critical?
Very. Let’s not say that I’m critical but rather that I see. Both myself and others.

Do you remember the first critical review you got on stage?
How could I forget?  I left school all puffed up. I had even skipped a grade. But as soon as I graduated I was deflated like a balloon. I was playing Olivia in Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’. “She would be very beautiful if only she didn’t open her mouth!” That’s what they said about me. They didn’t like my voice in other words. They even compared me to a peacock. Peacocks are magnificent birds but their voices are pretty awful... Later of course they got used to my voice, and there are even those who like it.

The inevitable question: What is it like to remain on the stage so long with such indomitable enthusiasm?
Acting is addictive. It’s a kind of catharsis. Like the strange lightness you feel after a good cry. There’s a mystical aspect to it. You are purged, you get to know yourself, and you feel a strength inside you. The more you act, the more your life expands and multiplies. Every role gives a person release and makes him happy. You discover something different about yourself each time, you get to know yourself a little better. And this, believe me, is something inescapable.

How much do you consider the audience when you are choosing a play?
Whatever I do, it is not that beautiful, not that complete, if I don’t share it with somebody. I absolutely have to share. I am one half of an apple that needs to find its other half. There can be no theater without an audience. I choose plays that I like and love first of all, and only then plays I think the audience will like. The thing I pay most attention to is the human being. Is there a human being in this play, or merely a puppet? Is there a human being on stage who is like all of us, in terms of his emotions, his thoughts, his manner, his body? That is what’s important. I’m talking about a human being in whom everyone can find himself as he watches. Can you say, for example, ‘There is no Lady Macbeth in me?” Can you say that you never felt like that, never thought like that? Maybe you have not done those things; that’s something else. But surely they have crossed your mind. I always play myself in every role. Because there is a piece of every character in me. One part of me is weak, one part strong, one part fearful, one part brave.

Is there perhaps more than one part of you in Jane in your most recent play, ‘Queen Lear’?
I’ve never had any trouble memorizing my lines, but yes. The playwright was Eugene Stickland. He promised an old friend he would write ‘Queen Lear’ as a birthday present. The play was sent to me by an admirer from Izmir who saw it when he was studying in Canada. I loved it and found it very appealing. It’s not easy in any case to get roles in film or the theater after a certain age. I didn’t want to miss out on it. The playwright came to the gala, and do you know what he said? “I actually wrote the play for you!”

They say that audiences in Turkey don’t care much for plays about what goes on backstage in the theater. Was this play well received?
That’s exactly what I said! Yes, it’s only theater actors who like those plays. The audience has little interest, I think, in the life of an artist. But ‘Queen Lear’ is new. It’s still too early to judge the audience response.

Still on the stage so much of the time...
And I find all this “still, still...” very strange.  “Are you still driving?” I am. ‘Are you still going for walks.” Yes, I am. “Still? Why don’t you sit down?” Why should I? To wait for death? We have to accept that we lose gradually more and more, and then we go. But why not do whatever do can while we can? We should go with a smile on our face. There’s nothing else for it.

Has there been anything missing?
I’ve had very little time I could actually devote to myself, so I’ve missed that a little. Only now do I have a little time. Last year, for example, I wanted to go to Prague, and I did. I gave myself a little present of a week in Prague. It’s an incredible city, and I spent an entire week doing nothing but going to museums. It was lovely... I had heard about it from my friends, from my daughter in particular, but I’d never had a chance to go there.

Where are you going to go this spring?
I want to go to Vietnam. But let’s see how it goes. I’m still mulling it over.

THE KENTER PLAYERS
Born on October 11, 1928, Yıldız Kenter moved to Ankara when she was still quite small and started out in theater at the Ankara Children’s Club. Skipping a grade at the Ankara State Conservatory, she graduated and immediately made her debut as a professional actor in Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ at the Ankara State Theater on December 12, 1948.  Awarded the title of ‘State Artist’ in 1981, Yıldız Kenter continues to act today as one of the ‘Kent Players’, which she founded with her brother Müşfik Kenter and Şükran Güngör.