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To find the “pen-ness” of the pen 0

An interview with Vahur Keller, artistic director of the international visual theatre festival Tallinn Treff

Mara Gange

Tallinn Treff is an international visual theatre festival that this year, from June 2 to June 5, will take place for the 10th time, and it is very much worth a visit since there are very few festivals focusing on visual theatre and puppetry within the Baltic States. It may seem like a small festival at first, but actually, it contains a very rich and varied selection of contemporary visual theatre, as well as many puppet theatre performances for children. As most of the theatres are located around Tallinn’s old town, you can feel the vibe of Treff everywhere you go, and the city has a very special atmosphere during the festival. In the middle of everything there is also a special festival club hosted by Von Krahl Bar, featuring discussions with artists during the day, and concerts and informal gatherings in the evenings. Consequently, Treff is not only a festival at which one can enjoy performances, but also very conducive to the exchange of ideas and gaining inspiration for one’s own work. It is organized by NUKU theatre - Estonian State Puppet, which itself hosts some of the children’s program, whilst the adult program is spread out between city theatres and other performance spaces, some of which are not usually dedicated to theatre. Last year’s festival-goers had the opportunity to visit a prison, which is where the glow-puppet performance of Kafka’s “Process” was performed by a Slovenian company. This year one of the venues is Katariina Church, where Dutch artist Nick Steur will be performing a minimalist piece involving the building of balancing sculptures of stones; as Steur explains: “the works change at every new location because a location also communicates”. And of course, communication is a great part of Tallinn Treff.

FREEZE! Nick Steur / The Netherlands

Performances for the festival were selected by Vahur Keller, the festival’s artistic director for many years now. Keller was open to answering some questions we had about the festival, as well as about visual theatre as such.

How did it all start? How did Tallinn Treff evolve from a puppetry festival into what is now being called a “visual theatre festival”?

This is part of a greater development in our theatre that started back in 2000, which is when the company came under new management and a new artistic director. To have a festival in addition to the theatre was part of the new concept. Puppet theatre and visual theatre are more international in nature compared to ordinary dramatic theatre, and since there are not many groups in Estonia that work in these categories (especially with puppet theatre – we are the only professional theatre in this field), it was really necessary to build up a festival – just to see what others do, to have contacts internationally, and to have a larger context for what it is that we do here.

And, I think it has been a kind of festival of visual theatre from the very start, from 2007, which is when the very first festival took place. Yes, a lot of the performances featured puppets, but it was a very current theatre at that time, too, and already looking at puppet and visual theatre in a larger theatrical context.

Including, for example, something like dance?

Yes, the use of very different means on stage. Puppetry is one means, and dance can be another. I see it everywhere now – somehow these things fuse, and you cannot divide the genres so cleanly anymore. Visual theatre is just a name; it is really difficult to define what visual theatre actually is. Everyone has his or her own definition for it. You could say it is theatre that tells stories through visual images.  

Hôtel de Rive – Giacometti’s horizontal time Figurentheater Tübingen, Compagnie Bagages de Sable, Theater Stadelhofen

So the stories do matter? Do you mean stories as narrative?

I mean “story” in the larger meaning – even if it’s abstract, even if it is made as a collage, or put together in a kind of dream-like way, which visual theatre very often is. It is more like subconscious pictures, and not so rational. But still, there has to be some story. It is some kind of thing that makes sense. If these pictures or scenes do not come together at all, then, I guess, it is not good theatre. You just don’t get it; you’re left thinking “What was that?...” It has to make sense in some way. And that is already a story. That is what I mean – not the outline of the story.

A very visible part of this year’s festival is the inclusion of music in the performances. Could you comment on the relationship between visual theatre and music?

If I think of all of the professionals in the visual theatre field, then a lot of them have had earlier connections to music. They are very musical in their thinking, or they have dealt with music professionally – some as singers, some as instrumentalists, etc. Somehow, the thinking in visual theatre and music is quite similar – in the same abstract way. Music communicates in more of a straight line to your feelings, to your senses – more so than to your mind – and the same applies to visual theatre. So they are linked. In visual theatre, it is very important to have the right rhythm – a rhythm to how the pictures move, and how it develops; and very often, the dramaturgy comes out of the rhythm. So the music is always there, but is was not a conscious choice for this year’s festival.

I deliberately do not have these kinds of themes for the festivals. I had, for example, some years ago a green theme about nature. But it is not as if I choose performances because of the theme. Never.

La Caputxeta Galàctica Insectotròpics / Spain

But do you have an artistic vision for each festival? How do you select the performances? At last year’s festival there were, for example, more performances that made use of foam puppets. They were completely different, but they presented diverse perceptions of the same material.

Yes, and this year there actually is a lot of object theatre in the program. If you look at it as a whole, most of the program is somehow connected with playing with objects, or focused on objects; however, this is not deliberate. What I keep in mind when assembling the program is only that these performances should be somehow surprising, emotionally involving, and that there must be mastery. I think that there has to be some craft in art. But it can also be that you see a performance that is striking, but you cannot really understand if it is good or bad. Sometimes I even set up a program in which the audience can choose and decide. This has happened a few times, and the discussion that comes out of it can be very interesting. 

Don’t people in the audience just get up and leave?

Yes, some of the audience members sometimes leave. But of those who stay, they have very interesting discussions afterwards. The discussion can be more interesting even than watching the performance itself. But I agree, it is extreme.

If you think about these themes... I think it was last year, when there were many performances that considered the life of women. Solo performances in which women reflected their loneliness or other aspects. But I never thought about it! It is a beautiful thing, I’ve noticed, that happens in culture and the arts, and even on a broader scale – that there are certain themes, even visual concepts and forms, that are in the so-called “air”. Artists who have never met each other – one in Great Britain, one in Estonia, one in China – they are on the same vibration at some point. I think it is also a part of social progress or tendencies in society.

Through this selection you can see not only what I am thinking or what I have deliberately chosen, but also some of the tendencies that are in this theatre form – and it comes together. This year it is object theatre. And I have noticed that a lot of artists have begun to use more objects in their works, and to use objects in more interesting ways. Object theatre was established or started in the 1980s, when there were more mass-produced things that became very cheap. That was an important part of it, so it is not such a new thing; it is already 30, 40 years old, but what I’m seeing now is greater variety in the use of objects.

Some years ago it was quite popular to animate everyday objects, often in a humorous way, to make every object into a character. But Agnes Limbos, for example, uses this metaphorical level of the object more than the animation of them. Do you feel that object theatre is also changing?

Yes, it is! There are two main branches of it. It used to be more along the lines of making creatures out of the objects, thinking about the form of the thing, or sometimes of the material – for example, is it soft or is it hard. To humanize it or to animalize it. There were some performances even earlier that dealt with, how could one call it... the “pen-ness” of the pen – the essence of the object or the essence of the form, and not making it into real characters. But it is a very difficult thing to do because we always perceive the world around us through the human perspective; it is our experience that makes the objects that we take in the theatre go in the human direction. But now it is more interesting, and sometimes it is also combined – objects can be animated, yet there still is more of the objects’ own context in it.

How does this humanizing work in constructed puppets if they are, for example, very abstract forms?

Even in abstract objects we look for the eyes. That is what is inside the human being – we search for figures or images that are connected to ourselves and to the living world. I think this is one of the basics of visual theatre. It comes from looking at clouds, or even more so, from looking at the branches of a tree – and finding a face in them. I think this is one of the roots of visual theatre. It comes very much from the recipient. Of course, there has to be something being shown on the stage, and some signals have to be sent, but the recipient is just as important in the making of this connection – in reading what is happening – as the performer is.

How would you describe the recipient at Tallinn Treff? There are shows for children, there are very conceptual performances, and this year there are also street performances. What is the intended audience of the festival?

I do try to keep the picture broad, and not go too much into one direction – into one kind of thinking – so as to show the variety of forms. One of the purposes of this festival is to be a contact point for our own theatre – to get new ideas, to exchange ideas; but the other, and no less important purpose, is to give our audience a chance to have a look at (I don’t like the word “educate”) what has been done in this field, and what this field allows us to do. I think our audience are the so-called “theatre-goers”.

Street performances came back this year; they were in our program in a very vast amount some years ago. We also used to have a school program – dance and theatre studios from high schools did performances on the streets. At that point in time the crowd was important. But at some point, it dried out.

Ramkoers Musical theatre company BOT / The Netherlands

Why so?

Maybe my interests changed; I became more interested in the artistic part. It was always there, but I found that it remains interesting. These kind of youth activities, they are a very great thing – they give a great energy; but in terms of the program for the festival, they do not change much from year to year. And I wanted to get a more culturally conscious audience coming to the festival.

Regarding the street program, now we have it again, but it consists of just a few things that are very interesting. I think street theatre is a bit underrated. It is not that we did not have a hall, and that’s why we had to do it on the street. What I’m trying to bring in is a special form of theatre. For example, there will be Ariel Doron from Israel, who has his “Pinhas” – a Pulchinella-faced puppet who in the Israeli version is called Pinhas. The aim of Doron’s work is to regain the original sharpness of this figure. Because originally, starting from the 17th century, this character was satirical, very raff, and sexually- and otherwise-abusing. Over the centuries, it became a children’s figure – especially as Punch in Great Britain, where he still amuses small children even now. Which is a really weird thing because originally, there were certain serious elements to him – there was death, there was heavy beating, some stealing, etc. And now he has become a children’s amusement! And what Ariel Doron does is bring him back to this sharpness, a social sharpness. For example, one character is Adolf Hitler, as well as other characters who are very current. Doron always wants to know the political context of the place where he’s performing in order to use it somehow. He will be performing in front of our House of Parliament – I think this is the most beautiful thing about a democracy: that you can do this!

Street performance has a certain function by way of the fact that it takes place outside; Pulchinella/Punch is originally fair theatre, it has to be outside – like a speaker that is in the town square announcing things. And, for example, another performance will be “La Route” from France, which will be performed in the back of a van – it is about getting loose and driving on the roads, getting away like a criminal animal. So it has to be outside!

Could you mention some more highlights of this year’s festival?

There are more social themes being covered this year. Ariel has made another performance, “Plastic Heroes”, about war and the army. And there will be Company “à”, from France, who will be presenting “Goat Song”; it’s about immigration – a very tragic and very funny story.

What about Estonian performances? Last year there were very many interesting Estonian performances. For example, “Faustus”, by VAT Theatre. Is there what one could call an Estonian visual-theatre scene, or is it still very small compared to dramatic theatre? And the second part of my question – do you think that Tallinn Treff has influenced Estonian dramatic theatre in any way?

Of course, I am sure that Tallinn Treff has influenced it; but I am not sure if others see that as well. But, yes, we have for very many years brought to Tallinn interesting, different kinds of theatre – of the sorts that have not been done in Estonia before. And, consciously or subconsciously, artists take from it. But I do not want to brag that it is solely because of Treff that the theatre scene is changing. Five or six years ago, I’d say it would have been quite impossible to pick from other Estonian professional theatres something for the Treff program. But now it is completely possible! But now there is another problem – often times, this kind of visual theatre is made as a project that takes place only for a certain period of time, and if this does not coincide with the timing of Treff, it is very difficult to show them. So, unfortunately, there are actually more things happening on the Estonian visual theatre scene than we can show.

I certainly recommend one go see “Field of Burned Persimmons”, the director and artist of which is Renate Keerd; it is a co-production of the Tartu New Theatre and Kompanii NII from Estonia. It is simply amazing, what Keerd does! She has her own group of six people who are trained by herself; they do not have a background in dramatic theatre or dance. It is a very physical performance, also with masks, and it uses some very simple visual elements – but in a very strong way. There are a few shows from our own theatre; I’d like to especially point out Sandra Lange’s solo performance, “Gelsomina’s Circus”. This year there are not as many Estonian performances – I would have liked to have more. I know of some performances that came out last year in Estonia, and which I really would have liked to have, but it was not possible due to the theatres’ schedules. I know how important it is to always have a local program. Since I travel a around a lot, I see these travelling performances anyway. Some of them I’ve seen three times already, but what I am waiting for is – what has been done here. It is always very important, so I try hard to have something from Estonia in the program. And it is getting increasingly easier to do so with every year.