Interview with Tiit Ojasoo

Tell me why you work in theatre. Your theatre obviously isn’t just for entertainment.
Actually we’ve had some lighter plays in our repertoire as well.

But still, why? For what reason?
I haven’t thought about that enough to be able to phrase it neatly and simply…

I’d put it this way: what takes place in the rehearsal room between people, how beautiful and intense people and human relations are there – that’s all something so unique, so lucid that several lives fit into one life.

I’ll put the question another way. Why do you invite people into the theatre hall? What do you offer?
I offer condensed or rarefied life to people who are prepared for it. I offer something that forces people to look anew directly at their own life and the world.

Theatre always faces the problem that it’s so easy to start admiring yourself. Like everything we do here is so terribly interesting. That’s also one reason why we have a lot of stage productions that talk about putting on stage productions and about the lives of actors. And we can’t deny it, we ourselves have repeatedly committed that sin. But the average stage production of Chekhov is also self-admiring theatre: it’s so THEATRE, such terrific ROLES, RELATIONSHIPS, SET DESIGN…Depressing hypocrisy in terms of today.

The audience is always the litmus test for theatre: are we relevant at all, can we be significant for people and address them?

And ultimately, the audience makes a theatre. Now if you ask in the context of Filth why I invite people to observe my own feelings and thoughts and those of my co-artists that aren’t exactly the silkiest and rosiest, then…

That’s exactly what I wanted to arrive at.
It’s a somewhat banal comparison, but the task of theatre, especially one like NO99 that operates on public funds, is to reflect society.

Whereas we can’t choose what we see in the mirror. Sure, we can do something a bit lighter for a change, but if we want to be honest in our doings, this kind of filth really does come out when you think of contemporary Estonia and the world of today.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s important to show that filth and passions exist, wretchedness exists, and if I dare to admit it and share it with others, and I see that there are also other people who think about the same things, then we aren’t so alone anymore. Catharsis is attained at the moment we admit our powerlessness and overcome our isolation.

What is filth? A state of being or material or what?
Filth is residue, the burden of existence, a kind of layer of sediment that collects. And that layer can at some point turn very thick. A parallel concept here is human filth. Filth is what gradually forms in every one of us. A kind of sediment.

You talk about that filth in the play?
Yes, and about how miserable it is to be a human being facing your own filth and that of fellow members of your species.

Actors that go on stage aren’t marionettes. They’re artists who know why they do what they do. At the moment that they know what they’re doing, they themselves choose the means that they want to, know how to, and dare to use and are capable of using.

But where did you get the idea for the production?
I guess stage productions ripen over long periods of time. Fyodor Sologub’s novel The Petty Demon, which in some sense was one of the production’s source materials, bided its time on our table, so to speak, for several years.

I guess I should start from further back. Back when we started up this theatre, we vowed to do social theatre. Without exactly realising what that kind of theatre actually is. Then we got to know that social theatre is most likely political theatre.

But after Unified Estonia (NO99 Theatre’s stage production Unified Estonia’s Party Convention in 2010)…Where can you proceed from there with political theatre?

OK, so you do a few more one-off readings on some current political topics.

OK, with Savisaar we got to where we raised an actual character to mythological status. But at some point it’s all nevertheless exhausted.

At some point you realise that when you start talking about something, verbalising, then you constrain, constrain, constrain…yourself and the theme.
You realise that if you want to talk more broadly about Estonian society, about Europe, maybe about the whole world, then you have to in some sense do away with words. You have to somehow go even deeper. You have to ask about the person himself and his motives. And then there have to be even fewer words. So that there would be an even freer chain of associations…

And so you arrive at the point where the actors are in mud and a glass wall stands between them and the public...
Like a museum on the one hand: the action takes place behind a glass barrier. On the other hand like a zoo. A gladiators’ arena. Or a claustrophobic situation: in this space where the actors operate, there is not a single door. There’s no exit. And at the same time, when they crawl about there in that muck and become very intimate and intense as they brush up against each other, then ultimately there should be some sort of catharsis. There could be…

Of course, if thereupon the critic says, Good Lord, I’d like some wine now and to eat something tasty, then that’s his choice. But maybe you could now go without eating and drinking altogether and think about where you live and why you live in this way, or then at least: why did the production affect you the way it did?

That’s been done now. You don’t deal with the unbearable lightness of being human anymore? Looking for something else?
You know, every time we finish with some stage production that is somehow noteworthy and epoch-making for us – there aren’t many of them, some four or five – the result is always the same: you’re awfully tired, a bit downcast, the theatre’s fund is empty…But the thought hammers in your head: how do we proceed from here and what should we do now?

Hasn’t the thought ever crossed your mind that you need to put on a play to fill the theatre hall just to earn money?
I’ve already said that we’ve also done comedies. Oil!, our first popular production, so to speak, was intentionally staged as a play to attract audiences.

We did a kind of cabaret show with fun and dancing. But the theme we talked about there was relatively serious. But we declared right at the start that now we’re going to start talking about the end of the oil age, but we’re going to do it half-jokingly and with dancing so that it wouldn’t be so awful.

That approach is still very much your style.
I guess the life of an artistic director is a relatively complicated case of steering a middle course. I’m responsible for seeing to it that the theatre hall is full. It brings in that little money that we need for doing theatre.

You never really know exactly what you have to do to be successful. To get the chance to do the next production even better…

The usual repertoire theatre logic is that
…so let’s go ahead and do that comedy! Let’s do it! Let’s grin and bear it, surely we’ll have the chance to do something real artistic later on then.

After that comes the line that let’s actually do two comedies, or even three and then…The result ultimately is that those artistic projects never come along.

From production to production, I’ve admired your actors, both their physical and spiritual willingness. That they’re prepared to be in the production. How do you get them to buy into what you’re doing? How do you explain yourself to them?
Believe me, for some reason I think that wallowing about there in the muck – there’s all sorts of problems with that, of course, it’s cold, awfully slippery, it gets in your nose and ears and you can’t get it out of your hair – isn’t the most difficult thing about this stage production.

If you say so.
The way to distil stage reality out of literary material and ideas is substantially more complicated.

But to be honest, I can’t really say what the exact recipe is for how we do it. I guess you’d have to ask the actors about that.

You said you go abroad frequently. Does the theatre that you do resemble what is being done elsewhere in Europe?
We’re different in one important way: we have an ensemble, we have a troupe. That hardly exists anywhere else. We all know how to act and everyone acts together in an ensemble.
That’s not at all easy to achieve – it requires blood and sweat, and a lot of work. When you’re on stage together with the nine people that form this troupe, and everyone very precisely senses what someone else is doing at the same time...
Everyone is willing and prepared for when it isn’t their turn to come to the front, then they simply play the background.

I agree. But concerning the rest I do often have the question: why is something being done?
Minister Lang began his storied term of office in the Ministry of Culture with the slogan that we need more managers. People who know how to put all this insanity properly into budgets and rein in the bridle at the right time and the right place, and finally sell off all the resulting art with a nice profit. Bringing managers into the foreground inevitably creates a situation where there isn’t any art and insanity at all anymore. The theatre’s managing director-producer-business director-manager is a very important person, but he can’t do anything without an artistic director.
The exceptional happens in art through the unconventional. It happens when something that expresses our time and eternity simultaneously is put together, something that has always existed and what has never existed before. And then, when the objective has been set and phrased, a strong manager is very much needed to create the necessary conditions and keep the whole apparatus operating. If you have good art, no doubt it will eventually be “managed”. We should rather prepare more bold and responsible creative directors, artists! The boldness of artists is what society as a whole needs to become a bold society.

Many Estonian theatres have searched for an artistic director for a long time and haven’t found one, or have found one only after searching for one for years.

I get the feeling that this is also a generational problem: the work of a theatre director is isn’t that appealing as a job. Even though it comes with a certain amount of glory, you’re basically a punching bag.
You have to have a very clear idea and objective for what you do. You have to have ambition. It seems that young stage directors and dramaturgists don’t have enough balls to undertake this business.

You can probably make more money with a pleasant little stand-up routine than you can as the artistic director of a large theatre. And the work is definitely freer and more fun.

Interview with Tiit Ojasoo by Raul Ranne, EPL
October 2015