Anneli Saro*

Abstract: This article gives an overview of recent institutional and aesthetic developments in Estonian theatre, exposing their historical context where necessary. Estonia has preserved its network of professional theatres, but many independent theatres and groups have broadened the notion of theatre. State support to performing arts has increased considerably year-by-year. The exploration of Estonian cultural history has become a fashionable subject. The younger generation of theatre makers is interested in documentary theatre, but the most prominent new forms of theatre are stand-up and mono comedies.

Keywords: Estonian theatre, theatre system, documentary drama, stand-up, NO99

Theatre Institutions

Estonia has, in general terms, preserved its network of professional theatres as it was established during the first period of national independence (1918-40) and modified during the Soviet era. In a broader international context, this is quite exceptional, as quite a few theatres were closed down in many European countries during the economic recession.

Today, there are eight professional state theatres (state-established foundations) in Estonia; namely, the National Opera Estonia, the Estonian Drama Theatre, the Russian Theatre, and the Estonian Puppet and Youth Theatre, all in the capital city of Tallinn; and the Vanemuine, the Ugala, the Endla and the Rakvere Theatre in other towns. With the exception of the National Opera Estonia and the Vanemuine, all others are drama theatres; the Vanemuine produces drama, music and dance performances.

The internationally acclaimed Estonian theatre NO99 closed down at the end of 2018 by the decision of the troupe. However, an open call has been announced to find a new group or theatre maker to use their building. There are also two municipal theatres: the Tallinn City Theatre and the Kuressaare City Theatre. Local municipalities have limited resources and do not show much enthusiasm in supporting the local cultural institutions in comparison with the Nordic countries. All the institutions are repertory theatres with their own buildings and permanent troupes. These theatres currently stage an average of eight to ten productions per year.

Performing places in Estonia 2017. Estonian Theatre Agency

Many troupes operating outside of Tallinn find themselves “trapped” within huge buildings, most of them constructed during the Soviet era. On the one hand, the maintenance of buildings specifically built as theatres has proven highly expensive; on the other hand, large 500-seat halls in cities with populations of 20,000 to 40,000 (for example, Rakvere Viljandi and Pärnu) are no longer needed.

Nevertheless, there is a reluctance to give up theatre houses that have acquired symbolic significance. By the early twenty-first century, almost all theatre buildings in Estonia were freshly renovated; theatres in smaller cities also operate as cultural centres, organising film screenings, concerts, seminars, and so on. Few new venues for performing arts have been built in independent Estonia; the most significant among them is the Open Space in Tallinn (2014) and in the border city Narva (2018). There is a constant discussion going on as to what/whom the state should finance: is it professional theatre activities, troupes or building maintenance?

Vaba Lava, Open Space in Tallinn. Photo: Aron Urb

A significant change in the post-Soviet period occurred with the appearance of private theatres and freelance groups. Among the oldest and most influential private theatres are the VAT Theatre (1987), the Von Krahl Theatre (1992), the Theatrum (1994), and the Kanuti Gildi SAAL (2001). These independent groups initially opposed, organisationally and aesthetically, both institutional theatres and established theatre makers, emphasising their own advantages, such as flexibility, liberal views and an orientation towards (post)modernisation.

A few years later, when they started receiving state support, these artists more or less merged with the mainstream, whilst, at the same time, widening the concept of theatre. The number of theatre institutions has grown steadily ever since, and the trend did not change even during the recession of 2008, when several new interesting companies, such as the Tartu New Theatre (2008) or the Cabaret Rhizome (2009), were established. Most private theatres have permanent production spaces and management consisting of two or three people in permanent post (as opposed to actors, who are usually hired for single projects).

There are no traditional commercial theatres in Estonia, but many theatre projects, especially comedies and stand-up comedies, have mainly commercial objectives. The situation in the entertainment market is tense, as both state-supported repertory theatres and project-based private enterprisers struggle to survive in a small theatre market, often using similar production and marketing strategies and, sometimes, even the same staff.

The Financing of Theatres

In 2017, 49 institutions declared theatre production as either their main or side activity. Out of them, 26 (11 state and municipal theatres and 15 private companies) received state support of 53.5 million euro. State support to performing arts (including investments in infrastructure) increased by more than 100 percent over the past five years (from 24 million in 2012). During the last two decades, state subsidies for institutional theatres have covered 50-85 percent of their expenses, depending on the genre (music and dance theatres being at the upper end of the scale) and on the theatres’ own potential for generating revenue (theatres in bigger cities are found at the lower end of the scale). This means that the well-being of theatres has become increasingly dependent on their audiences.

Theatre attendance has been fairly stable during the last 20 years, with signs of a slight increase. In 2017, there were 1.2 million theatre visits in the country (which has a population of 1.3 million[1]). This is comparable with the theatre attendance in Iceland and Finland, which has given Estonian theatre reason for boasting. However, the number of theatres, productions (487 in 2012, 626 in 2017) and performances (5,678 in 2012, 7,100 in 2017) is constantly increasing, so that the number of visits is being divided among an increasing number of theatrical events. This development has resulted in smaller revenues per production and performance, which is making the financial situation of the theatres more difficult.

The Ministry of Culture finances performing arts institutions which regularly give public performances, hire artists and have an artistic director and an advisory board. State subsidies are calculated based on audience numbers to cover the difference between the ticket price (traditionally expected not to exceed 1 percent of the average monthly salary, yet the aim is usually not met) and real expenses. By this method, a certain number of new productions are commissioned by theatre institutions in advance.

Subsidies of municipal and private theatres depend on their importance for national culture as well as for the region. In principle, this means that donations to private theatres/groups are based, primarily, on their artistic quality. The subsidization of private theatres has been increasing slightly annually.

Since the end of the twentieth century, private theatres have been receiving 5-6 percent of the total subsidies for theatre. In recent years, roughly 50-85 percent of the budget of state institutions and 40-70 per cent of the budget of private theatres has been covered by state subsidies.

An important role in supporting the artistic and social output of private theatres and individuals is played by the Estonian Cultural Endowment (1925-40, 1994-), which is financed from alcohol, tobacco and gambling taxes and from investment dividends. The Cultural Endowment distributes its funds through specialised committees consisting of professionals in the particular fields.

Employers and their Status

By the turn of the century, the size of troupes had diminished considerably and has remained stable. Increasingly, theatres have started to employ guest actors and stage directors, who may have contractual obligations to a different theatre or may be freelancers. In general, Estonian actors and directors have demonstrated considerable loyalty to their profession, even though their salaries have remained modest.

Since the beginning of 2019, the minimum salary of a theatre practitioner,  educated to university level and working in a state institution, is 1,300 euros, while the average salary in Estonia is currently 1,455 euros. However, as noted by many financial directors, the regulations have left very little room for the differentiation of salaries among newcomers, experienced and star actors.

The unemployment rate of actors is not known, but there seems to be an overproduction of actors and underproduction of technical staff. Since theatre practitioners have traditionally been highly respected and admired in Estonia, many of them have the advantage of earning extra income from advertising, film and the entertainment industry more generally.

“History is in the air … it is always like that in Estonia because the collective identity is brittle and needs continuous redefining, but history is an important part of identity; its very backbone; for every person and family as well as for society.”[2] So says dramaturg Ene Paaver regarding the exploration of Estonian cultural history (which has become a trendy topic in the country’s theatre of late). She accentuates a common narrative of historical dramaturgy, where the so-called grand history of influential political events is reflected through everyday life, intimate relations and the personal experiences of a narrow life circle (that is, through a small history). The personal is political, yet the personal also deflects or undermines grand national narratives.

Andrus Kivirähk’s comedy Estonian Funeral (directed by Priit Pedajas) has been on the repertoire of the Estonian Drama Theatre since 2002. Iida (Ester Pajusoo), Maret (Kersti Kreismann) and Karla (Tõnu Kark). Photo: Harri Rospu

The most popular Estonian dramatist of the last twenty years has been Andrus Kivirähk. He is a very productive author and has ensured himself a firm position in the Estonian literary and theatre canon with his extravagant reconstructions of national myths and identities, and his rich arsenal of comic devices. In his rather loose dramaturgical form, he depicts either the so-called simple people or local cultural heroes (characters from literature or folklore). Kivirähk’s works are sometimes considered too specific and localised for audiences abroad.

Andrus Kivirähk, the most popular Estonian dramatist of the last twenty years. Photo: Wikipedia

The tradition of documentary drama has been present in Estonia since 1980, when the stage director Merle Karusoo started to produce theatre based on sociological research (predominantly on interviews with people from marginalised and silenced social groups). Several theatre makers (Paavo Piik, Mari-Liis Lill, Andra Teede, Maria Lee Liivak) from the younger generation have decided to carry on this tradition and have staged verbatim productions about people suffering from depression, Estonian emigrants, people who are intolerant of otherness, and so on. Documentary theatre certainly broadens the canon of national identity, highlighting, for example, the Estonian diaspora and underrepresented social groups.

Documentary production Inside Smaller than Outside (2017; authors: Mari-Liis Lill and Maria Lee Liivak, Endla Theatre), based on interviews with “simple people.” Photo: Gabriela Liivamägi

The most prominent new feature in Estonian theatre over the last 10 years has been the emergence of stand-up and mono comedies. These two genres are intertwined. Often, a playwright or a director composes the text together with the performer, or the text is produced during rehearsals. This means that stand-up performances are carefully designed and rehearsed. The majority of Estonian stand-up comedians are trained as actors. The popularity of the stand-up has encouraged playwrights to compose mono comedies or comedies which consist of comic monologues. Unfortunately, these productions mostly tackle relations between the sexes or various social roles of the contemporary man, while social or political issues are tackled rarely. The narrow scope and the small number of the productions is leading to the exhaustion of the genre.     

Documentary production Murru 422/2 (2017; authors: Henrik Kalmet, Paavo Piik, Paul Piik, Priit Põldma, Illimar Vihmar, Revo Koplus, Raido Linkmann; Kinoteater), in the former Murru prison. Photo: Siim Vahur
The Rise and Fall of NO99

The “ambassadors” of Estonian theatre in Europe have been the stage director Tiit Ojasoo, the scenographer-director Ene-Liis Semper and their theatre NO99 (2004-18). Ojasoo and Semper produced three or four new productions each season, often in collaboration with the permanent troupe in the form of devised theatre. The NO99 was considered the first political theatre in Estonia. They constantly experimented with different styles and tools of expression. Their megaproject The Unified Estonia Assembly (2010), which entailed the establishment of a fake political party, was a powerful representation of political games that exemplified how performers can influence their audiences and society.

In 2018, when the Republic of Estonia celebrated its 100th anniversary, Ojasoo and Semper staged the artistic programme of the President’s reception. The first outburst of protest against this took place a couple of months prior the event, when a petition signed by 104 people was sent to the President protesting against the assigning of the symbolic role to Ojasoo who, two years earlier, had been accused of using physical violence against a female colleague while solving personal issues. After the disclosure of the incident, in 2016, Ojasoo apologised publicly and was compelled to withdraw from the position of the artistic director of the NO99. The petition, which was initiated by the #metoo campaign, clearly polarised society between supporters and critics of Ojasoo and influenced the reception of the artistic programme.

Instead of a traditional live concert, the NO99 presented at the President’s reception a video entitled A Journey,[3] in the style of a road-movie through Estonia. Ene-Liis Semper, who is also an internationally recognised video and performance artist, merged the video with the aesthetics of postdramatic theatre and performance art, balancing between the impression of immediacy and mediation, between a festive state celebration and social critique. The content and the style of the video definitely irritated many, yet, once again, it enabled artistic and moral issues to invade the public sphere.

The NO99 had planned to number their productions in a countdown from 99 to 1, which would stand for the end of their activities. The closure of the NO99 came as a shock to theatre lovers at home and abroad, but their work has changed dramatically the field of Estonian theatre.

A Journey (2018, Ene-Liis Semper, Tiit Ojasoo, NO99). Photo: Māris Pilāts


[1] Estonian Theatre Statisctics 2017 (Eesti teatristatistika 2017)

[2] Ene Paaver, Coffee should be drinked, not to drink up. – theatre I texts. 20 Years of Playwriting in Estonia. Tallinn: Estonian Theatre Agency, 2014, pp. 67 (Kohvi tuleb juua, mitte ära juua. – teater I tekstid. Eesti näitekirjanduse 20 aastat. Tallinn: Eesti Teatri Agentuur, 2014, pp. 67.)



*Anneli Saro is Professor of Theatre Research at the University of Tartu, Estonia. In 2010-14, she was Lecturer of Estonian Culture at the University of Helsinki. Saro has been a convener of the international working groups Project on European Theatre Systems (2004-08, 2017-) and Theatrical Event (2011-17). She has been active as the Editor-in-Chief of Nordic Theatre Studies (2013-15) and as a member of the executive committee of the International Federation for Theatre Research (2007-15). Saro has published articles and books on Estonian theatre history and theatre systems, performance theory and audience research. She has edited books and special numbers of journals.

Copyright © 2019 Anneli Saro
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