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From Istanbul to Saas-Fee – Improvising Freedom

Updated: May 16, 2021

by Stephen K. Levine

Neutral Mask #2
Lecture #1
Clown #4
Clown #3
Clown #1

In the beginning of June, Ellen Levine and I traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, to teach and to meet with students and colleagues from the European Graduate School’s programs in Expressive Arts. Turkey has been experiencing an intense conflict between an authoritarian Islamic government and those, especially younger and more urban people, who wish to keep the secular republic that Kemal Ataturk put into place almost a hundred years ago. This conflict came to a head last year in the battle over Gezi Park in Istanbul, when the government tried to turn a popular gathering place, one of the few spots that offered a respite from the intense flow of traffic and noise in the city, into a shopping mall designed in the shape of a barracks from the Ottoman period. A popular protest was harshly suppressed, and “Gezi” became the symbol for an upsurge of popular revolt that galvanized the country.

After the crushing of the movement, many of our students and friends felt dispirited and were losing hope in the possibility of change in their country. When they invited us to visit, we felt we needed to go and support them – if nothing else, to make them feel that they were not alone. It didn’t hurt that Turkish food was one of our favourite cuisines, and that the hospitality of the people there was legendary. Indeed, they wined us and dined us, not letting us pay for meals, and treating us with great care and love.

In return, we tried to use our skills as Expressive Arts trainers and teachers to help them find creative ways to respond to their situation. Our teaching began on a Friday afternoon at Bosphorus University, where Aylin Vartanyan, a student in the doctoral program at EGS (and now faculty member in the Conflict-transformation program) was teaching. Aylin particularly wanted us to speak to those of her students who were planning to go to Soma, the site of the recent mining disaster, where over three hundred men had lost their lives. The students wanted to work with the children who had lost their fathers and to help them to find a way to go on. I gave a lecture called “Improvising Freedom,” in which I talked about the necessity of letting go of an agenda when working with distressed communities and, instead, of listening to their stories and improvising ways to respond.

Before the rest of the audience came for the lecture, Ellen and I talked with the students and listened to their hopes and fears about the future. Ellen in particular spoke about working with children and their families, since she has devoted her professional life to this. During the lecture itself, she engaged in improvisational art-making, something we have often done, though usually she paints while I talk. Since she was recovering from hand surgery for torn tendons on her right hand, she couldn’t paint but instead used images that we had asked the students to bring. She fashioned a box out of cardboard and then invited them to come up and attach their images to the box. When the lecture was finished, we asked the students for titles for the piece and whether this process of working had any message to give them about their plans to go to Soma. What stands out in our memory was the message of hope. Somehow working in this improvisational way had helped to restore their hope in their capacity to help – and also in the ability of the Soma community to find its own way of responding to the tragedy.

The lecture itself was improvisational. I had written words on index cards that came to me when I thought about the theme and had distributed the cards to the audience. There were also several blank cards which could be used to bring up any word or concept that seemed appropriate. I then asked them to say the words on the cards when they wanted me to speak about them. In order to do this, they had to be sensitive to the flow of the discussion – and I had to be ready to respond to whatever was asked at that moment. By lecturing and making art in this way, we hoped to illustrate the possibility of finding an appropriate aesthetic response to whatever was given – something that we call in Expressive Arts our “aesthetic responsibility.” The protesters in Gezi Park and the nearby Taksim square had demonstrated this capacity in their own responses to the repression of the government. In particular, I remember the “Standing Man” – after the square had been violently cleared and all demonstrations banned, a lone individual came and stood there without moving. He was soon joined by others, and ultimately many came to join this silent and motionless display – something more moving than anything else that could have happened at that time.

The day after the lecture, Ellen and I taught a workshop in Neutral Mask and Clown, two forms of improvisatory physical theatre, to a group many of whom had been active in the Gezi protests. Our friends who had invited us joined in as well. It was wonderful to see the pleasure that the participants experienced in these challenging forms of physical theatre. Ellen and I like to say that the bases for this work are play, complicity and pleasure. Perhaps that can be a foundation for a way of life as well.

We ended our visit with a marvelous Armenian dinner cooked by Aylin’s mother, at which all the EGS people were present. We talked about the future of Expressive Arts in Turkey and the need to stay in touch with each other and with the wider community. Subsequently I received an email from a creative arts therapy trainer in Istanbul who had not heard of our visit and who wanted to invite us to teach. I found out that she didn’t know any of our friends there, I took the opportunity to copy my email response to her to everyone, suggesting that they form a wider network of support. I do believe that in community there is strength.

After Istanbul, we traveled to the European Graduate School to teach in the Expressive Arts Therapy Masters and Doctoral programs – our nineteenth year! Saas Fee, a small mountain village in the Alps that is car-free, is the opposite of Istanbul, but the same kind of creative community is working there. Students and faculty from all over the world are hoping to find the capacity for using their resources creatively to meet the challenges that face them in their work and in their lives. Of course, we also come across obstacles in this attempt – and some of the greatest ones come from ourselves. But to be in a creative learning environment encourages us to discover new ways of responding to difficulties and to take these responses back to our own communities.

I see Expressive Arts as part of a wider movement in which freedom is understood not as something given but as something we make together by improvising responses to challenging situations. The impulse to freedom can never be completely extinguished. We are like brushfire – we can be stomped out but we will rise again. I hope we will continue to find new ways of responding to the restrictions that we face, ways that rely on our capacity to improvise freely and to live fully. And I hope we can use this capacity to help others make the same discovery. If we can play together, have complicity in our actions, and discover the pleasure that comes from spontaneity, we will always find a way.

Thanks to Ezgi Icoz, Bihter Yasemin Kaya, Beliz Demircioglu Cihandide, and especially to Zeynep Evgin, Mada Ustaomeroglu, and Aylin Vartanyan who organized our visit and made us as happy as possible everyday!

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