19. Istanbul International Puppet Festival

With the 19th Istanbul International Puppet Festival set to take place in October, we spoke with the event’s artistic director Cengiz Özek to learn about the history of the festival and his passion for puppetry
Cengiz Özek
Uluslararası İstanbul Kukla Festivali Genel Sanat Yönetmeni: Cengiz Özek
By Time Out Istanbul editors |

How did you decide to organize the festival 19 years ago?
“Some of our goals were to revive our country’s puppetry tradition, to do a better job of promoting Karagöz internationally, to help Istanbul stand out among other metropolises in this area of arts and culture, to boost tourism, and to bring world-renowned artists to our city. The first festival was more academic in nature, with conference series and exhibitions on Turkish shadow puppet theater in addition to puppetry shows. Now the festival boasts a jam-packed program and is spread across many more venues.”

What were some of the challenges you faced over the last 19 years?
“In the first years we had trouble finding Turkish puppetry groups; now there are dozens of them wanting to participate in the festival. We brought the best puppetry artists in the world to Istanbul to form a dialogue between them and Turkish artists. We had scarcely any education opportunities for puppetry; now we see there’s great demand for puppetry education and workshops in educational institutions. We also receive more requests for puppetry shows from shopping malls. Most importantly, there is now an audience with an interest in puppetry. When you consider these developments, the festival contributes greatly to the prestige of puppetry as an art form.”

How did you discover you were passionate about puppets?
“When I was 13, I became involved with the Karagöz shadow puppet theater on the recommendation of my art teacher Ali Kıyak, who was a student of master Karagöz performer Ragıp Tuğtekin. Before long I was making my first Karagöz puppet out of camel leather. I later enhanced my knowledge by studying many private collections, starting with the collection of Karagöz characters at the Topkapı Museum. I held my first exhibition on Karagöz figures when I was 17 at the Kazım Taşkent Art Gallery. Later on, the Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia Museum and many galleries presented my Karagöz characters in exhibition. As a result, my collections were shown in museums around the world. I then started studying at the Theater Department of the Istanbul Municipality Conservatory and performed in prominent theaters, but I never lost interest in puppetry and Karagöz.

Traditionally, Karagöz has been an agent of socialization in Istanbul: in a way, the character’s quick wit and tendency to malign just about everything and everyone represents Turkish society. My Karagöz, on the other hand, has a more theatrical identity. I adapt the theatrical pacing, speeding it up to appeal to audiences in a digital age.”

What would you say to those who believe that puppetry is just for kids?
“If course kids love puppetry, but it would be wrong to say that it’s a theatrical form which only appeals to them. Puppetry emerged as a religious ritual, and it’s still performed as such in India and Indonesia. Over time it became a form of entertainment and art. There are many different styles and traditions, such as hand puppets, animation, shadow plays, traveling puppet theaters, marionettes, masks and bunraku. Puppetry uses imagery and music to effectively deal with serious matters like death, violence and social issues, recasting them in the audience’s mind. It’s an art form that’s powerful enough to transport the viewer to a whole other world in his mind. As a tradition that dates back thousands of years, puppetry appeals not just to kids but to audiences of all age groups and socio-economic backgrounds.”

With so many international participants, do you spend the year watching puppet shows in all these different countries?
“We’re a puppet troupe as well, so we regularly attend international festivals. We watch the plays in these festivals to gauge the viewers’ reaction, the structure of the plays and their effect on the audience, which all contribute to our selection. Additionally, there are groups who get in touch with us via the festival’s website to send information and videos pertaining to their plays. We watch over 200 shows a year with the aim of inviting the most impressive ones to the festival.”

Who are some of the puppetry artists you admire?
“Some of the puppet artists I am trying to bring to Turkey are Yeung Faï from Taiwan, Neville Tranter from the Netherlands, Stephen Mottram from the U.K., Jordi Bertran from Spain… And of course Philippe Genty, who is one of the festival’s guests this year.”

Festival venues: Akbank Sanat, French Cultural Center, Consulate General of the Netherlands, Caddebostan Culture Center, Yeldeğirmeni Cultural Center, St. Pulcherie, Italian Cultural Center, Bakırköy Küçük Salon, Bakırköy Büyük Salon, Torium Shopping Mall and Mall of Istanbul. See kuklafestivali.com for details. Oct 15-30. 20-30 TL (tickets available via Biletix)