In 2016, Tallinn City Theatre celebrated its 50th anniversary. Starting out in Soviet times as Estonian Youth Theatre, a state-owned touring company, made up of an entire class of fresh drama school graduates and a small number of big names, it has transformed during five decades into an established, yet vibrant and dynamic repertory theatre, operating in one of the most remarkable theatre buildings in the world.
Although the present resident company, led by artistic director Elmo Nüganen, includes thirty one actors, ranking Tallinn City Theatre among the biggest theatres in Estonia, it has always differed by being able to enjoy more artistic freedom with fewer official expectations to the repertory than the large national theatres. Nüganen’s guiding principle to invite directors whom he trusts or is intrigued by, and then give them free hands, has made Tallinn City Theatre a blend of traditional and contemporary. The company of actors, many among whom have worked together for many years, even decades, form an ensemble, where emphasis is on collaboration, not individual glory. Great acting is one of the theatre’s celebrated strong points.
ELMO NÜGANEN, who was invited to be Tallinn City Theatre’s artistic director in 1992 by the newly hired young general manager Raivo Põldmaa, had an effect of a breath of fresh air in the struggling theatrical landscape of the post-occupation Estonia. He 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). In the new century he rediscovered the works of A. H. Tammsaare, adapting three novels by the grand old man of Estonian literature for the stage and thus probably perpetuating his own image as a director of classics, although he has also put on a number of contemporary plays (for example Lagarce’s Us, the Heroes, Ivaškevičius’ Kant or Rukov and Vinterberg’s Commune). 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 birth place (in cooperation with Endla and Rakvere Theatre). The massive open-air theatre project was called Vargamäe Revisited and it attracted sixteen thousand people.
Director and playwright DIANA LEESALU made her début in Tallinn City Theatre in 2010 by directing a one-man play when she was still in drama school. 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 open air adventure play Prince Gabriel or the Last Days of Pirita Monastery.
During the last decades Tallinn City Theatre has also featured productions by Adolf Shapiro (Turgenev’s Fathers and Children, Pirandello’s Right You Are (If You Think You Are), Kõiv’s Return to the Father), Jaanus Rohumaa (Stoppard’s Arcadia, One and Eternal Life that he co-wrote with Mari Tuuling, several devised plays called Impro 1, 2 and 3), Mladen Kiselov (Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Hare’s Amy’s View), Mart Koldits (Orwell’s Animal Farm, Pelevin’s Chapayev and Void), Madis Kalmet (Carr’s By the Bog of Cats) and other renowned directors. There have also been several devised plays, directed by actors or actresses of Tallinn City Theatre, for example Priit Võigemast’s For Hecuba or Anu Lamp’s Midnight Sun, two very different productions, but both focusing on different aspects of the art of theatre and the acting profession. Also, nearly all of Jaan Tätte’s plays have had their world premieres in Tallinn City Theatre, as Tätte worked here for fifteen years, first as an actor and later as resident playwright.
Artistic Directors over the years
Voldemar Panso (from 1965 to 1970)
Mikk Mikiver (from 1970 to 1974)
Kalju Komissarov (from 1974 to 1986)
Rudolf Allabert (from 1986 to 1992)
Elmo Nüganen (from 1992 to present)
A unique theatre building in the Old Town of Tallinn
What definitely distinguishes Tallinn City Theatre is its unique building – a complex of sixteen interconnected medieval houses in the Old Town of Tallinn. They contain four regularly used venues, the smallest for an audience of seventy and the largest for two hundred people, but plays have also been staged in several other halls, such as the archaic-looking Diele that is normally used as a lobby and wardrobe. The history of the oldest buildings can be traced back to the fifteenth century, and originally the houses were owned by different city aldermen. In addition, the theatre has set up a large Open-Air Stage in the courtyard, and also uses a nearby historical building – the Horse Mill – as theatre venue.
Of course, creating this theatre complex has taken a lot of time and effort. The theatre started out without a building of its own and a struggle to get one has characterised Tallinn City Theatre during most of its existence. During the first decades most performances were given at the Jaan Tombi Palace of Culture (the present Salme Cultural Centre). The oldest venue in the present theatre complex is the Small Stage that was opened in 1975 on the first floor of the narrow old house at 23 Lai Street that the theatre used as office and rehearsal space. The adjacent houses were joined with the initial small theatre building only in the 1980ies, and finally renovated in the 1990ies. In 1994 the assets of the Estonian Youth Theatre were transferred from the state to the City of Tallinn and the theatre was renamed Tallinn City Theatre. In 1995 Elmo Nüganen decided to stage Dumas’ The Three Musketeers in the buildings’ decayed courtyard that transformed into the Open-Air Stage. In 1997 a large empty space in the basement was proposed to the Moscow-based director Adolf Shapiro, for his production of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera – the new stage was named the Hell Theatre and today it is the City Theatre’s biggest venue. In 1999 the Heaven Theatre on the top floor of the newly renovated wing was opened with Elmo Nüganen’s production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
However, there is one thing missing even now – an indoor venue that would seat more than two hundred. There have been two attempts to initiate building a big stage into the courtyard – first in the end of 1980ies and then again in 2006 – but both failed for funding reasons. In 2017, the City Theatre made an appeal to the Prime Minister to relaunch the idea of building a new theatre hall into the present courtyard, and the Government and the City of Tallinn decided to join forces to make it come true. 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 in a way that it would include an indoor venue for 350 spectators, as well maintain an open-air stage. The winner of the contest was Salto AB and the construction is scheduled to begin in the end of 2020 and end by 2023. The rest of the complex will also go under renovation and during that period Tallinn City Theatre will operate at the Salme Cultural Centre.