Estonian theatre - a venerable centenarian

But let us take as our start the beginning of Estonian professional theatre: in August 1906. It was then that the Vanemuine Music and Theatre Society in Tartu was transformed into a professional theatre under the direction of Karl Menning (1874–1941) and (only a couple of weeks later) the Estonia Music and Theatre Society in Tallinn, the predecessor of Estonian national opera, went professional on the initiative of Theodor Altermann (1885–1915) and Paul Pinna (1884–1949). This was the point at which the principles of professional theatre were laid down. And some of these are still applicable today: such as the primacy of the director, the emphasis on original, non-imitative stage directing, and the actor's special status — resulting not in poor emulation but the creation of a totally new being. Menning also stressed the principle of ensemble art, which was adopted gradually in Tallinn as well.

By shifting the birth of Estonian theatre to this later date, I do not want to belittle the contribution of its predecessors. It is clear that nothing comes out of nothing, and nothing is born in a void, but it is fascinating to realise that the history of Estonian theatre can be measured within a single century. There are still a few people alive who witnessed the performance of the first Estonian tragic actor Theodor Altermann, who met an early death. And even as recently as the 1980s, the Vanemuine Theatre employed some actors who had been active in the pre-Menning Vanemuine Music and Theatre Society.

As well as the fact of its short history, the scale of Estonian theatre feels human and easy to grasp, and therefore very accessible to the theatre lover. There are currently eight state-funded repertory theatres, one national opera, three municipally-funded theatres and about ten privately-managed theatres in five cities. There is also a network of amateur and school theatres; but even so, one need not over-exert oneself in order to map the main tendencies of Estonian theatre, that is, to go and see all the productions of importance. However, its size does not imply that the tendencies and modes of Estonian theatre have always been boringly uniform; but not all periods are alike and some have barely left a mark on the fabric of cultural history.

Within the space of one century of Estonian theatre, I would like to point out three landmark events: firstly, the emergence of professional theatre in 1906; secondly, the rise of professionalism in the 1950s and 1960s and with it the beginning of academic theatre education, which was linked to Voldemar Panso's name (1920-1977); and thirdly, the theatre innovations of the late 1960s and early 1970s when choice of expressive means was revolutionised and the theoretical basis of theatre art was reformed — the impact of which is still felt today.

In 2006 Estonian theatre will celebrate its first centenary. 'And how can that be?' our cultural analysts might well ask in annoyance; because it is a commonly known fact that Estonian national theatre was born in Tartu, on Midsummer's Day in 1870, with the production of The Cousin from Saaremaa by Lydia Koidula (1843–1886). And also before the 20th century, the first Molière (1886) and the first Shakespeare (1888) had been staged. Nor can we ignore the performance element of Estonian folklore and ritual, which existed long before the beginning of official theatre history, and which nourished and encouraged later theatre practitioners. Historical documents record performances on Biblical subjects, fast day plays and carnivals on Estonian soil in the 16th century. Later, in the 17th century, the paths of theatre and the church diverged, and Latin text was replaced by German.

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