Estonian Theatre Festival 2014. The Art of Presence.

The art of arriving
Tõnu Õnnepalu

Drama and poetry are essentially utterances - witchcraft which can be written down but which predominantly and ultimately still exists as a sound of the human voice. That is why their economics are similar – both poetry and drama are ascetic genres which are scarce with words. In a poem, every word carries weight and has an assigned place and the same should apply for the stage. Every single word, every sentence uttered on the stage should be an act on its own not just uttered in vain. The art of presence of the word is something that theatre can and always has learned from poetry.

Because where would Estonian theatre be without Juhan Viiding’s, Anne Maasik’s or Tõnu Tepandi’s voices reciting poetry? And of course, this list is by no means exhaustive. In the meantime, poetry has retreated from theatre a little but it never completely disappeared from the stages (let us take, for example, Tiina Mälberg’s poetry productions in Rakvere). Nevertheless, when I gave a few lectures about poetry for the theatre students at Viljandi Cultural Academy during the winter, I was truly afraid that my lectures might seem as if from another universe to these young minds. To my surprise, that was not the case. Or well, maybe I should not have been surprised after all. No new generation is less poetic than the one before, only the ways of talking about poetry and reciting it change. They disappear and come again only to disappear soon after.

The idea for Teatro Poetico was born during these meetings and lectures. I realised that as I am given this unique opportunity to have a say in compiling the programme of a theatre festival then why not add something to it which is very close to my heart. It seemed miraculously possible all of the sudden and the festival team supported my idea. It helped that poetry theatre has an attractive property – it is generally poor, simple and cheap theatre.

This kind of simplicity is of course deceiving. Creating a poetry production is a winding road as are all productions. Be as it may, it is a genre of theatre which can be performed around the corner and “shot from the hip”. The only thing is that you have to want to do it. All the famous and beloved poetry productions of our youth were all born out of great desire and love which arose in spite of the surrounding conditions.

This how Teatro Poetico came to be. In my head, I compiled a short list of directors and actors who I thought would maybe be interested in bringing poetry onto the stage. To my great pleasure, most of them agreed. Our poetry theatre programme leans towards the younger generation which was partly a coincidence and partly the plan all along. Teatro Poetico is a theatre which lives only for a week but it is created with the hope that it will leave a mark on the Estonian theatre scene. The aim is to bring poetry back to the theatre not only in the form of reading poems or singing but also on a wider and deeper scale through promoting a more sensitive and poetic attitude towards the word. If the word is alive, then there is poetry even in the most commonplace of productions. This is something that Teatro Poetico wants to remind people and whisper into their ears in the midst of the festival hustle and bustle.

But besides all that, it is a theatre like any other. Six premieres, six different new productions several of which will be performed only on that one evening in Tartu. Different poets from different eras. People from different present-day Estonian theatres…

The theatre even has its own building! My initial idea was that Teatro Poetico which exists only for a brief moment in time should be based somewhere in the middle of Tartu to create a poetic, ephemeral and illusive theatre house. To be honest with you, I instantly thought of the former church of the University of Tartu. Once upon a time during the eighties when it was used as a university library and known among students as the Tuubikum (“Crammicum”, derived from the verb “tuupima” in Estonian which means “to cram”), poetry reciting nights were held under its low arched ceilings. All this happened a long time ago and I doubt many people remember these evenings but the house itself in its classicist desolation is now more poetic than even before. Stairs lead to the first floor hall. I have always been opposed to the idea that poetry should be read in cellars and crypts. Why? Poetry sounds better higher up, closer to the sky and light, in an attic instead of a cellar! Despite that, it still holds true that poetry is a sovereign which turns the cave it cares to enter into a cathedral (and sometimes vice versa according to its mood). This time around, it can transform this desacralized church – in six different ways but no one knows exactly how.

Finding a nest for a poetry theatre was an odyssey on its own. The former church of the University of Tartu was not an option at first because Tallinn City Theatre was supposed to perform its “Utopia” there. It is what it is. . Birds have nests and foxes have burrows but poetry has never had a place where to rest its head. The head rests where it can… But lo and behold! Life had another trick up its sleeve. In the end, it was decided that “Utopia” is not shown there for technical reasons and all of a sudden Teatro Poetico had a house of its own. The same building which I had envisioned in my earliest fantasies. It does not matter that the building will only be a theatre for a short autumn week because even if poetry has a place where to rest its head, the head remains restless.

Was this building once a theatre? Was this the place where poetry was recited? Maybe. Those who saw and heard can tell about it. Those who did not see nor hear.. well they just did not see nor hear. The sign on the door is gone. What did it say? Something in Spanish I guess? Oh yes, an erudite from Tartu tells you that it is a reference to Lorca of course, his teatro poético, quotation, postmodernism, as you do! Quotations here and there…

But sometimes even the learned men can be wrong. This time around, he missed an obvious and important detail, namely the lack of an acute accent on the e in poetico which points at the Italian language instead. But wouldn’t the Italian language be a better choice when talking about poetry and theatre and the slightly renaissance subtenant of this blushing pink building?

A Greek name on the sign would have of course been even more stylish but one should use snobbery in moderation, even in poetry and theatre. It is, however, true that both the words for “theatre” and “poetry” originate from Greek. The latter is not derived from the word “to lie” as in contemporary Estonian (they used to call it “singing” in the olden days) but from the verb ποιεω which denotes doing and creating.

In poetry, a word is already an act but in theatre, it has to become an act. Otherwise you will not “get it” as they say. The way you “get” the word is a secret no one knows. Poetry is a secret art and Teatro Poetrico is like a secret theatre. Before the premiere (and Teatro only shows premieres!), only a few insiders know what will happen on the stage. Everything what takes place in there, takes place in that very moment. It is a theatre which appears and disappears soon after. You only have to master the art of arriving at the right time. That is all there is to it.