Last Wednesday, Theatre NO99 announced that it would be closing its doors. It was unexpected news for everyone: the media, the Ministry of Culture and theatre fans alike. Quickly overshadowed as a result was the event of the day at another one of Estonia's most important avant-garde theatres: the 25th anniversary of Von Krahl Theatre, writes Valner Valme, managing editor of ERR's online culture portal.
On 31 October 1992, Von Krahl first opened its doors in Tallinn's Old Town, at Rataskaevu 10. Von Krahl was not just a theatre — it was also a cultural centre, complete with its own parties, concerts, festivals, exhibits and cross-format cultural events. It quickly became the most important bastion of new and stunning culture in Estonia's modern theatre and Tallinn's alternative nightlife in the 1990s and 2000s.
Last Wednesday, however, Von Krahl founder Peeter Jalakas was asked by the media to comment not on Von Krahl's landmark productions and the meaning of the theatre but rather on NO99's decision to close down.
"As it had been somewhat of a sister theatre to us, we ourselves were closely tied to its founding, and Von Krahl's people have been closely associated with NO99 throughout the years," Jalakas told daily Õhtuleht. "We did not feel any competition; rather, we felt that [NO99] was an addition to the ideology that we had started and disseminated."
And it was precisely on its sister theatre's big day, which Von Krahl had decided to celebrate in grand fashion, that Theatre NO99 decided to announce it was closing down. Critics understandably rushed to explain NO99's importance, but in the theatre world at least, 31 October 2018 should have been Von Krahl's day, whose mark should be at least as significant after 25 years as that of Theatre NO99, who shone for 13 and a half years.
The relationship between media coverage and reader-viewer interests that day can be summed up nicely by looking at the top ten most read articles as of the morning of 1 November:
1. Theatre O99 to close doors
2. Gallery: Moods at Theatre NO99 following closing announcement
3. Jaak Allik: Theatre NO99 persecuted for political, not formal reasons
4. Ojasoo: NO99's decision to close down artistic, not economic
5. Ministry on Theatre NO99: All options on table
6. NO99 supervisory board chair: We will begin solving practical issues Friday
7. Meelis Oidsalu: Theatre NO99 brought political theatre to mainstream
8. Mustonen: Everything is in best possible shape
9. Gallery: 25 years of Von Krahl
10. Theatre adviser: NO99 closing to leave huge hole in Estonia's theatre landscape
Von Krahl is in 9th place, eight of the top ten went to NO99-related articles, and one spot went to a touchy issue in connection with Eesti Kontsert. True, we were planning on seeking comment from Peeter Jalakas (regarding Von Krahl), but inevitably the emphasis ended up being on TheatreNO99 closing down.
Why did I refer to both theatres in the lead as avant-garde? Despite many observers stressing following NO99's news that NO99 wasn't so much avant-garde as it was social and political theatre that brought political theatre first to the live stage and then to the theatre and then societal mainstream, to summarise the assessments of Jaak Allik and Meelis Oidsalu, for example. And naturally that is the case.
But by "avant-garde" I meant the common ground that characterised both theatres during the best parts of their parallel activity: to be on the front lines. Both in art and in society. In its original French, avant-garde was a military term to denote the units that travelled ahead of a military's main body, encouraging the main body to move forward and preventing enemy attacks thereof. True, in art, in avant-garde, the term has applied primarily to groups or authors who break down boundaries, oppose norms, take risks in invading uncharted territory and create new by breaking the old.
Saint-Simonian Olide Rodrigues popularised the term in the first half of the 19th century, and its heyday in Europe was in the 1920s. It was Von Krahl Theatre, however, that really brought avant-garde back to Estonian theatre — more powerfully and as a wave. Back, as Jaan Tooming, Evald Hermaküla, Kalju Komissarov and others began introducing innovations in theatre in the late 1960s already; the ideas behind Von Krahl did not appear out of nowhere.
Both NO99 and Von Krahl have expanded the boundaries of theatre. But they have also played an important role in the comprehension of society and human life. There will always be backward powers that bash innovative theatre and rejoice over its ceasing, but by all rights we should consider the term's military side: "units that travelled ahead of a military's main body, encouraging the main body to move forward and preventing enemy attacks thereof." In the interests of the health of our society, we all need moving theatre on the front lines.
I'd like to congratulate Von Krahl Theatre and wish them luck moving forward, and for those behind Theatre NO99 success in new ventures as well. It's just a shame that one's funeral ended up on the same day as another's celebration. Surely Theatre NO99 did not mean to overshadow its colleague's birthday in announcing its news on the day of Von Krahl's birthday. But perhaps they should have focused on Von Krahl on their big day and waited to announce their news even just one more day.
Editor: Aili Vahtla