When will the new "new theatre" come?

Why does this article focus on a previous era of "theatre innovation"? For the simple reason that the majority of today's outstanding practitioners have been in contact - whether directly or indirectly — with the innovators of the past. The productions of Jaan Tooming and Evald Hermaküla have "awakened" to the theatre almost all of today's middle-aged practitioners, and it is their productions that have motivated a new generation of young people to take up theatre studies. In short, there is no director or production in modern Estonia that has not been associated with the "new" theatre, either by relying on it or through developing it.

It has been said that the Sixties paradigm is still being pursued in modern Estonian poetry, and I think it applies even more so to Estonian theatre. "There was no difference between stylised and other types of theatre, innovative techniques were employed throughout, in free combination with the old," wrote theatre critic Jaak Rähesoo of the early 1980s, but this is also true of the late 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century.

Theatre innovators contributed to the shaping of preferences, strategies and appreciation in today's audiences. Those who watched Tooming's and Hermaküla's productions began to understand the content and limitations of stage metaphor. They understood that 'holy theatre' was the utmost, but they sometimes cast an ironic sideways glance at the noble and uplifting art of theatre and were able to place theatre in the kaleidoscope of other media. The latter is becoming ever more important — directing is increasingly seen as the art of composing a virtual world, even if the models to be emulated are Quentin Tarantino or David Lynch rather than Carlos Castaneda or Carl Gustav Jung.

Over the past decade more and more has been said about the need for and our expectations of theatre innovation. This has been further encouraged by the transformation of Estonian society in the 1990s, that is, the restoration of Estonia's independence, which brought with it changes on the theatrical scene. At the institutional level, alternative and privately-managed theatres made their appearance. Of those, the most influential are VAT Theatre (artistic director Aare Toikka, 1965), largely catering for children (and lately young people as well), the experimental and multimedia-oriented Von Krahl Theatre (Peeter Jalakas, 1961), and the minimalist, serious and in-depth Theatrum (Lembit Peterson) which grew out of the Estonian Institute of Humanities. "Alternative" should here be defined mainly in the institutional context, not as opposition to or a denial of "state-run theatre" (the closest to the latter is probably Von Krahl Theatre). There is no radical difference between the quality of productions in the capital city and in provincial theatres (a difference was very apparent until the 1960s). Today it is much the same whether a performance takes place in Rakvere, Tallinn or Tartu.

Naturally, there has been talk about breaking the conventions of theatre aesthetics, about a need to crush the barriers of audience expectations. There has been a search for new spaces, at pragmatic and mental levels, new theatrical locations have been invented (over the past decade the tradition of summer productions has developed, where river valleys, farmyards, manorial or industrial buildings have become "stages"), and there have been attempts at widening the horizon (the abstraction of historical events in Estonia's near past, the doing away with sexual taboos). New theatrical thinking has drawn on sociology (Karusoo), or on new media, and on the use of hi-tech equipment in the performance process (Von Krahl Theatre, Tartu Laboratory Theatre). There have been attempts to crossbreed theatre with modern performance art and dance theatre. There have also been some shy experiments with a new type of social theatre designed to have an effect on social life. There have been accusations of self-centredness and of suffering from the "Stranger" complex —and a return to foreign forms and cultures has been proposed as a way out of this.

There are some, predominantly young, practitioners who believe in the vitality and continuity of "old-fashioned" realistic theatre, the 'primacy of the word' and its ancient magic (e.g. Theatrum under Lembit Peterson's direction). But there is no consolidating platform for the whole theatrical scene which would permit us to speak of a change of paradigm. The first wave of innovators has no successors — Estonian theatre is dominated by individualists. We could illustrate this by comparing our three leading directors (if we take into account the awards conferred upon them by the Theatre Association): Mati Unt (1944), Priit Pedajas (1954) and Elmo Nüganen (1962). The signatures of these men are far too individualistic to reduce them to a common denominator or a theoretical concept.

A welcome change at the institutional level is the emergence of theatre festivals. We should mention two: the Drama Festival in Tartu which concentrates on the best of Estonian theatre, and Baltoscandal in Rakvere which attempts to present a variety of international theatres (both take place every other year).

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