Tallinn City Theatre was founded in 1965 under the name of the Estonian Youth Theatre. Its first artistic director was Voldemar Panso, a legendary Estonian theatre director who graduated from GITIS as a student of Andrei Popov and Maria Knebel. Panso was also the founder of the present Drama School of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, so the initial Youth Theatre was formed from a whole class of fresh graduates, joined by a number of well-known stars of the Estonian stage. Jaan Saul, Mikk Mikiver and Rein Olmaru were employed as resident directors. Panso was promised his own theatre building by the Ministry of Culture, however, it didn’t work out that way. The Youth Theatre was given a small house at 23 Lai Street for rehearsals and office work, and a possibility to give performances at the Salme Cultural Centre (then called Jaan Tombi Palace of Culture) three days a week. In defiance of the poor working conditions, energy was directed towards creating fresh ideas, and even the very first Youth Theatre productions gained a good reputation for bringing novelty to the Estonian theatrical landscape. Panso himself directed in different genres and styles, from grand-scale comedies and dramas based on classical plays or novels (Shakespeare, Ibsen, Tammsaare), to contemporary productions in small spaces not originally designed for theatre-making that was a completely new approach in Estonia at the time (Shaw’s Back to Metuselah at the House of Writers, Kilty’s Dear Liar at the Kadriorg Castle).
In 1970, Voldemar Panso left for the Estonian Drama Theatre and his student Mikk Mikiver became the Youth Theatre’s new artistic director. Mikiver’s first production during that period was Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. In 1971, he invited Adolf Shapiro as the first guest director from outside Estonia to stage Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. In 1973, Kaarel Kilvet put on his humorous play Oh Love, You Darling Sweet Honey that ran for the amazing 251 times, a number outdone only by Mladen Kiselov’s production of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 2010.
In 1974, after Mikiver followed Voldemar Panso to the Estonian Drama Theatre, Kalju Komissarov took the lead at the Youth Theatre. Komissarov was especially interested in the social impact of theatre and his handwriting as a director was expressive and sharp. His first production here was Process, a spectacular version of Judgement at Nuremberg by Abby Mann, that also featured the popular Estonian rock band Ruja. He also staged the Youth Theatre’s first open-air production, directing Molière’s Les Précieuses ridicules in the courtyard of the Dominican Monastery in Tallinn Old Town. During Komissarov’s time the Youth Theatre’s team included several talented resident directors, for example Merle Karusoo, Mati Unt and Lembit Peterson, but the theatre also collaborated with other directors from Estonia (Kaarin Raid, Eero Spriit) and other Soviet republics (Vyacheslav Gvozdkov, Venyamin Smekhov). Several plays were also staged by resident actors Kalju Orro and Rudolf Allabert.
In 1975, the Youth Theatre opened its Small Stage on the first floor of 23 Lai Street, but the fact that the theatre didn’t have a proper theatre building of its own was still an issue. The Ministry of Culture tried to look for a good location in the entire Old Town, but, little by little, the advisors and architects started to consider the neighbouring buildings of 23 Lai Street – several medieval houses in very poor condition, used mainly as dormitories and office spaces – and the big courtyard. In 1983, the Tallinn Executive Committee made the decision to build the Youth Theatre’s new building into that courtyard. According to the political tendencies of the time, it was to be called the Interclub, an establishment to promote cultural contacts with other Soviet republics.
In 1986, Rudolf Allabert took over as the artistic director, after Kalju Komissarov became the head of the Drama School. His first production was Day of Four Kings by Jaan Kaplinski.
By 1987, architect Kalle Rõõmus had completed the project of the Interclub and the preliminary works had started – an archaeological dig on the site, groundwork, building the power and water system, renovating the existing buildings etc. The cornerstone of the new building was laid in 1990. But the process was directed and financed from Moscow and the times were changing. Estonia regained its independence, and the Soviet financing was cancelled. When the builders abandoned the construction site in 1991, the Youth Theatre was left with a 6 meters deep foundation hole in the courtyard and some partly renovated ancient houses next to the small functioning theatre building at 23 Lai Street.
Even without all that, it was a difficult time for the Youth Theatre. Estonia had gone through the Singing Revolution and become a free country again. It meant that the spirits were high and amazing new opportunities were opening up, but, overall, there was very little money. Also, everything that happened on the streets had been so much more interesting than what happened on the stage, and the theatre had lost its loyal audience. Rudolf Allabert had decided to resign his position.
In 1992, Raivo Põldmaa, who had started as a stagehand and worked his way up in the Youth Theatre, was appointed the new general manager. He had one condition, when accepting the job – the talented young actor-director Elmo Nüganen, then working in the Ugala Theatre, must become the artistic director. The two ambitious thirty-year-olds made some radical changes and turned the Youth Theatre around. Firstly, Nüganen let go a part of the old resident company and started to put together his own ensemble. Secondly, it was decided to stop renting the theatre hall at the Salme Cultural Centre and focus all the attention on developing the theatre complex at Lai Street. In 1994, the assets of the Youth Theatre were transferred from the state to the city of Tallinn and the theatre was renamed Tallinn City Theatre.
The beginning of this new era had the effect of a breath of fresh air in the struggling theatrical landscape of the post-occupation Estonia. Elmo Nüganen put on plays in unexpected venues, playing with space, and used in-depth character analysis to create fresh, bright, captivating interpretations of classics that were accessible and identifiable, reverberated in surprising ways with the modern times, and became enormously popular (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Chekhov’s An Unfinished Piece for Player Piano, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment).
The theatre also employed two resident directors: Jaanus Rohumaa and Madis Kalmet. Jaanus Rohumaa, who worked here from 1992 to 2009, received a lot of acclaim for his production of Stoppard’s Arcadia and his poetic account of Estonian theatre history, One and Eternal Life that he co-wrote with Mari Tuuling. He was also recognised for creating several devised plays based on fairy tales, myths and literary classics. Madis Kalmet, resident director from 1992 to 1999, was known for his adaptations of Scandinavian authors such as Strindberg, Mankell and Enquist, but also Fassbinder, Dostoevsky etc. For his adaptation of Mankell’s The Prince of Fools, Kalmet was the first to use the attic of 21 Lai Street that later became the Heaven Theatre. Tallinn City Theatre also collaborated with many guest directors, for example Adolf Shapiro from Moscow, whose productions (Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, Turgenev’s Fathers and Children) stood out in festivals both in Estonia and abroad.
Põldmaa and Nüganen dedicated a lot of the energy into developing the theatre complex. In 1995, the Open-Air Stage (in Estonian ‘Lavaauk’ that literally translates as the ‘Stage Pit’) was set up in the theatre courtyard for Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, staged by Elmo Nüganen. The production was a massive hit and unleashed a new wave of open-air productions all over Estonia. In 1997, a large empty underground space, also a remnant of the cancelled construction project, was proposed as the venue for Brecht’s Threepenny Opera to Adolf Shapiro who gladly accepted the idea. The space was named Hell Theatre and it soon became one of Tallinn City Theatre’s main venues. In 1999, Tallinn City Theatre finished renovating the houses at 19 and 21 Lai Street and opened a new wing with the Heaven Theatre – inaugurated with Nüganen’s version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet – on the top floor and the small Chamber Theatre on the ground floor. A few years later the city of Tallinn trusted the ancient Horse Mill at the end of Lai Street to the hands of the City Theatre to be used as a venue.
Jaan Tätte, having begun his career as an actor in Tallinn City Theatre in 1990, made his début here as a playwright with Highway Crossing that he directed himself in 1998. Thereinafter, Highway Crossing became the most popular Estonian play of all times and was translated and produced all over Europe. Altogether seven plays by Jaan Tätte had their world premieres in Tallinn City Theatre and from 2004 to 2007 he worked here as resident playwright.
From 1998 to 2002, Nüganen led his first class of students at the Drama School of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. Six of the graduates became actors of the City Theatre and soon developed into a defining force in the ensemble. From 2007 to 2015 they were also joined by Priit Võigemast who created, among other things, the enormously popular devised play For Hecuba, trying to define the acting profession in a tragicomical way.
In 2004, Nüganen invited two young directors, Mart Koldits and Eva Klemets, to work in Tallinn City Theatre. Eva Klemets directed for example Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuinness that ran 147 times in the Köismäe Tower, the theatre’s temporary venue in Tallinn’s city wall, and Mindless by Jaan Tätte. Klemets left for Vanemuine in 2006. Mart Koldits who worked here until 2008, introduced a more modern style of directing, putting on plays by Pelevin, Kafka and Presnyakov brothers etc, but also grand-scale open air productions based on Orwell and Molnar.
At the same time, Nüganen rediscovered the works of A. H. Tammsaare, adapting four novels by the grand old man of Estonian literature for the stage. His perhaps craziest project was to move the entire company to the open fields of Vargamäe in Central Estonia for the summer of 2008, in order to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Estonian Republic and the 130th anniversary of A. H. Tammsaare with stage versions of Tammsaare’s entire 5-volume epic novel Truth and Justice in the author’s birthplace (in cooperation with Endla and Rakvere Theatre). The massive open-air theatre project was called Vargamäe Revisited and attracted sixteen thousand people in total.
Another major attempt to rejuvenate the theatre’s creative team took place in 2012, with the arrival of another bunch of fresh graduates, Nüganen’s students from the Drama School, including actors, a director and two dramaturges.
Director and playwright Diana Leesalu made her début in Tallinn City Theatre already as a student, directing a one-man play in 2010. In several of her works she has approached social issues of the contemporary society, for example in Offline that she wrote and directed, dealing with the dangers of mixing up virtual and actual reality, but also in Horowitz’s Mindgame and Macmillan’s People, Places and Things. She has staged plays in many different genres, from an imaginative adaptation of Preussler’s Krabat to Greenberg’s poetic love story Three Days of Rain and Mark Hayhursts impressive political drama Taken at Midnight.
Paavo Piik, the theatre’s dramaturge and director from 2012 to 2017, has written several plays for the City Theatre (End of the Chain, Million Dollar View). Together with Mari-Liis Lill from the Estonian Drama Theatre they created two devised projects, the documentary drama Let the Magpie Take Your Illness that takes a look on depression and mental illness, and From the Second Glance that discusses relations between Estonians and the local Russian minority. Paavo Piik was also the curator of Midwinter Night’s Dream festivals 2014 and 2016.
During the first two decades of the 20th Century, Tallinn City Theatre worked with a multitude of talented directors from Estonia and abroad. We’ve had the privilege of cooperating twice with the Bulgarian director Mladen Kiselov who put on Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and David Hare’s Amy’s View. The Finnish director Antti Mikkola created his modern humorous version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Russia’s grand old man Adolf Shapiro tried his hand for the first time with an Estonian play, The Return to Father by Madis Kõiv. There have also been plays directed by our own resident actors, for example Anu Lamp with her experimental play Midnight Sun about Estonian theatre history. Alo Kõrve made his début with Wesker’s Four Seasons and Priit Pius with Kelly’s The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas. Our music director Riina Roose has created several productions focusing on music and history (Songs of Estonian Theatre, Songs of Estonian Film and Osnap, dedicated to 100th anniversary of Voldemar Panso). We’ve also had the pleasure of working with Māra Ķimele from Latvia, with Pascal Rambert from France, with Uku Uusberg, Madis Kalmet, Priit Pedajas, Hendrik Toompere and Hendrik Toompere Jr, Martti Helde, Alexander Pepelyaev, Sander Pukk, Andrus Kivirähk and many others.
In December 2017, Tallinn Property Department, Tallinn City Theatre and the Union of Estonian Architects announced an architectural contest to find the best architectural solution to rebuild and expand the existing complex of Tallinn City Theatre. The project by Salto AB was declared the winner. During the season 2020/2021, the theatre temporarily moved out from its building in Lai Street, so that the reconstruction could begin. Performances were given at the Salme Cultural Centre and Hobuveski.
At the same time, Elmo Nüganen announced that he will resign his position, to give the younger generation a chance to fill the new building with new ideas, and Raivo Põldmaa decided to follow his lead. Since June 2021, Tallinn City Theatre is led by artistic director Uku Uusberg and general manager Mihkel Kübar.