Children are always a welcome audience in a theatre, whatever its size, because their honest reactions is the best feedback to everyone involved. This is why there are plays for children in the annual programme of almost every theatre. This is particularly the case before Christmas, when there are many plays, based either on witty Estonian stories or on some famous materials (e.g., Alice in Wonderland, Lotta on Troublemaker Street, to think of a couple from 2016), to choose from. Surely this success should want every theatre to add to their repertoire regular self-written plays for younger theatre-goers.
At the same time, Estonia is known for the plurality and high level of school drama groups, whereas in 2016 national student theatre festival turned 35. The general history of school theatres or drama groups in the country dates back to the Middle Ages, to the 16th century. Sources speak of a Latin comedy played by the students of Tallinn Town School in the Town Hall. It is the school drama group that gives every child the opportunity to create a play, to participate in the complex process of staging, to develop their courage of public performance, realise ideas, and work with their voice and posture. Of course, amateur theatre ignites interest in theatre in general and teaches the later audience to find their favourites from the versatile theatre scene. Many children hold cherished school-time memories from participating in the Betti Alver poetry days Tähetund (from 1993 onwards) or in one of the many student theatre festivals; or even the activities of the school dance festival Koolitants.
Estonian National Puppet Theatre was founded in the middle of the 20th century (in 1952) and up to today it could be considered the only professional national theatre in Estonia directed to children and youngsters. The theatre was formed by puppet actor and stage director Ferdinand Veike who managed the artistic side of the theatre for nearly thirty years. Today the theatre is known as NUKU, whereas recently, in November 2016, a new large theatre room called Ferdinand was opened. For the past ten years NUKU has organised the Tallinn Treff festival, which will take a new form in 2017. One of Estonia’s oldest free theatre troupes, VAT Theatre (established 1987), must also be credited with a considerable contribution to the plays available for a younger audience. The characteristic genre of circus is introduced to local children by a pair of clowns known as Piip and Tuut. Out of newcomers in the theatre scene, Teater Must Kast that plays in schools all over Estonia, has become best visible for their many projects for the youth.
In addition to the named, there are various smaller drama groups on the theatre scene, who come together in two bigger organisations – UNIMA Estonia Centre and ASSITEJ Estonia Centre. UNIMA Centre dates back to 1999 when the members were puppet theatres active in Estonia and people engaged in puppetry, both amateurs and professionals. ASSITEJ Centre was created in 1992 on the initiative of VAT Theatre and their then director Hiie Fluss. The mission of the ASSITEJ Estonia Centre is to ensure high-end theatre experiences to every child in Estonia, to raise the awareness of theatre for children and youngsters within the society, and the development of the field on an international level. Both centres organise festivals that are open also to all teachers as well as specialists at schools responsible for extracurricular studies.
Theatre productions in Estonia are directed to various age groups and performed in many languages. In addition to verbal theatre, children can also participate in circus schools or in dance classes covering various dance styles. The educational programmes of various show institutions have been developing since the 1990s. Workshops and roundtables are organised for discussing a particular play, to learn the preparation of theatre costumes, stage design or masks, to find out more about the era covered in a play, or to gain knowledge about movement on stage.
To ensure that the theatre bug would get to each child, there are several splendid support programmes, many of which are lead by Children Charity Foundation Aitan Lapsi. The foundation helps children from least privileged backgrounds to experience plays and other show programmes. Also, through participating in the cooperation project Theatre to Kindergarten, they help to take professional environmental-themed plays to each Estonian kindergarten for free. There’s hoping that in the future as well as now, nobody will be derived of the art of theatre and the theatre experience, whatever their age or status.
Read more: Rait Avestik, 2003 „Eesti lasteteatrid“; Eike Värk, 2004 „65 aastat Eesti kutselist nukuteatrit. Ajalugu ja kroonikad”; Rait Avestik, 2011 „Eesti kooliteatrite 30 aastat festivale“ (Book recommendations in Estonian)
Text by: Katre Väli, Theatre Adviser at the Arts Department of the Ministry of Culture