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In 2019, during the last “regular“ year, slightly fewer people visited theatres than the total population of Estonia – 1.2 million spectators (1 273 303) at seven thousand performances (7 047). 222 out of the total 610 stage productions were new, which was the highest number of new productions compared to the previous two years (2017 and 2018). Now we know that March 13, 2020, marks the moment when the organisation of (cultural)life as we knew it suddenly changed.

More specifically: On March 12, 2020, the Government of the Republic of Estonia declared an emergency situation due to the global Covid-19 pandemic and spread of the virus in Estonia. Even though the emergency situation ended in May, the strict restrictions for public events remained in force. This meant that performances in a physical room and with an attending audience only continued after July 01, when  50% seating capacity was allowed for up to 500 people indoors and 1000 people outdoors.  

After the first full lock-down of the country in March 2020, Estonian theatres responded quickly and after a few weeks, many theatres offered an online programme, which spectators from across Estonia could enjoy. During the emergency situation, theatres offered recordings of previous stage productions, reading out books, video meetings with actors and directors etc. for online viewing. The Estonian Theatre Agency’s weekly newsletter collected information about all online theatre events. Interest in the newsletter was high during the first month of Covid-19, which showed that people were yearning to experience art events also at home and wanted cultural life to continue in extreme circumstances as well.

The sudden loss of income that accompanied the emergency situation was a challenge for both freelance artists and theatre institutions.  The Ministry of Culture and the Cultural Endowment of Estonia’s  support schemes were worked out by the end of April 2020. The Ministry of Culture offered partial compensation to both public and private sector institutions for activities that had been cancelled due to the pandemic or halted in the area of culture or sports. The sum of support for theatres was over 4 million euros, which included partial support to cover unavoidable costs to the institutions that had to close their doors. The Government added 4.2 million euros to provide creative activity support to freelancers. In cooperation of artistic associations and the Ministry, support was provided to 1372 freelancers from different areas of activity in the extent of approximately 5.8 million euros (beneficiaries received support to the extent of the minimum wage over a 6-month period). The Cultural Endowment of Estonia initiated a measure, which gave different foundations and county expert groups the right to issue one-time special grants to people in creative work or sports to continue their activities. The Dramatic Art Endowment issued 107 grants in the sum of 500 to 1000 euros per person. Organisations received additional alleviation from the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund’s wage subsidy. The Estonian Association of Performing Arts Institutions (EETEAL) made sure that all crisis aid measures would be available to theatres with as little bureaucracy as possible.  

One of the most noteworthy “new era“ theatre events was the international “Festival of Spooky Action” which took place at the beginning of April 2020 and was organised by eˉlektron. The festival that was supposed to take place under regular circumstances and in a physical space, was turned into Estonia’s first virtual theatre festival in just a couple of weeks, and it was accessible through the elektron.live environment. The performers and audience could see and hear each other in that environment: the “stage“ for the performer was on the left side of the screen and on the right, a wall was formed of the spectators’ web camera shots, and there was also a comment section available. Such a solution made the experience more intimate than a regular broadcast and emphasized that this is a live performance taking place here and now, and it is unique like a theatre performance when experienced by an audience sharing a physical space. The activities of the group eˉlektron in developing stream theatre, a genre almost unknown in the Estonian cultural field until now, has been very important during the pandemic.   

A theatre event worth mentioning from the first Covid-spring is Tallinn City Theatre’s production “The Human Voice” (author Jean Cocteau), which premiered in June 2020 and was directed at a much wider audience than the  Kristjan Suits. The virtual audience of the three performances was remarkable, close to 1500 people (the cost of the online ticket was 12.50 euros). Due to the restrictions in force, few spectators (168) could be invited to watch the play on-site, at the City Theatre’s outdoor venue Lavaauk. Predictions were made that such a format would become a part of the Covid-period and post-Covid theatre, but in hindsight, it seems that this was premature – until now at least, projects that merge virtual and physical audience experience have remained single cases.  

Despite the initial popularity of stream theatre and theatre recordings, both the spectators and theatre people grew tired and overwhelmed with creating and watching online culture by the end of the spring. The first breath of fresh air came in the first week of July 2020 at the performing arts festival Baltoscandal in Rakvere. Baltoscandal is usually an international performing arts festival, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organisers were forced to turn an international festival into a domestic one in the space of just a few months. Performers from across the world were exchanged for nine Estonian performing arts productions, which had to cancel their opening nights in spring. Only three international films and one installation from the initial programme stayed in the final programme. Baltoscandal was one of the first events, where the audience once again had the opportunity to convene in a theatre hall. After a cultural standstill of more than three months the festival tickets sold out fast.

The 50% seating capacity rule which took effect at the beginning of July got the theatre summer rolling until August 19. There were 40 premieres in the summer months (In summer of 2019, there were 49 opening nights and in 2021 – jumping ahead – about 70), nine of them thanks to the Baltoscandal festival. The topics that stood out more than before were the concept of loneliness, amplified by the time spent in isolation, but as theatres’ summer seasons are planned long in advance, then it was not yet possible to draw conclusions regarding the impact of the emergency situation on the ways and reasons of doing theatre.

At the end of summer 2020 and during the first autumn months, the seating capacity of theatres was 100% again and theatres worked the same as before the emergency situation, but as COVID-19 infection rates were on the rise again from September (and the increase accelerated in October), then the societal situation was unnerving. As a result of close cooperation between the Ministry of Culture and theatres, it was possible to make sure that in Estonia, unlike in many other European countries, theatres and other cultural institutions were not closed prematurely and rashly.

By then, the pandemic had left its mark on the audience’s behavioural patterns. People no longer purchased theatre tickets long in advance, which was a new situation for theatres’ sales departments.  At the end of November, wearing a mask in public spaces became mandatory, which of course also applied to theatres halls. Despite fewer and fewer spectators in theatre halls as the autumn progressed and the infection rate hiked up, the fear of the virus did not affect audiences in the same way with regard to all productions. Two true audience favourites stood out: The Estonian Drama Theatre’s “Lehman Brothers” (directed by Hendrik Toompere jr) and Von Krahl Theatre’s “Rather no” (“Pigem ei” directed by Juhan Ulfsak), sold out as soon as the tickets came out (including the additional dates). People, who under other circumstances, practiced extreme caution in the vicinity of other people like in the shop for example, or in public transportation or the office, were willing to sit next to others for hours in a theatre hall to experience art. Paradoxicality had become an integral part of the age of the pandemic.

In December, theatres were closed in Ida-Virumaa and Harjumaa, including Tallinn theatres, in the space of a couple of weeks. Elsewhere in Estonia, performance and other cultural institutions remained open and even 100% seating capacity was allowed in case of fixed seating. Theatres in Ida-Virumaa and Tallinn were opened again in February 2020 with a seating capacity of 50%. At the same time, the 50% limit was applied to the audience in other counties. By the beginning of March, the virus indicators had grown exponentially and the country closed down again, repeating the pattern of spring 2020. By now, summer of 2021, close to 50% of Estonian people are vaccinated and life is open again, but what comes next? Nobody knows.

Summing up the year in numbers, we must consider that due to the national emergency situation, there were 256 days in total when it was possible to give performances. The busiest time for performances was from the end of August until the end of November. The number of performances per day, which was 7 performances a day on average in July, grew to 15–25 by September and up to 30 by October. But also during the most intense period, many performances were cancelled, because a theatre employee had been exposed to the virus. When necessary, theatres were also closed for a week or two.  Briefly put, over seven hundred thousand people (727 316) managed the watch Estonian theatre in 2020, theatres gave 4785 performances and there were a total of 539 productions in the programmes, 166 of which were premiered. 

According to a recent survey from Statistics Estonia (30.06.2021) regarding participation in cultural life, 398 500 people went to the theatre in 2020, which means that according to theatre statistics, every person who visited the theatre went around 2 times per year (more exactly, 1.8 times). The decrease is clear compared to 2017, when according to the previous survey, the average was 2.6 times per year. This shows that the complications of the year are reflected in the average figures.  

As in 2019, 65 theatres participated in the statistics with their figures in 2020. 26 theatres received the national activity support, 2 of them – Ilmarine and Tuuleveski – received support from the regional programme. Municipal support in different amounts was provided to e.g. Emajõe Suveteater, Ilmarine, Kanuti Gildi SAAL, Must Kast, Tartu Uus Teater, Tuuleveski, Vana Baskini Teater and some national theatres.

The number of new productions by theatres with city or state participation dropped from 92 to 65. But the ratio of government-funded and privately-funded theatres remained the same: 283  productions out of the total 539 belonged to government-funded theatres, which is 52.7 % and this has remained the same compared to earlier – in 2019, it was 51.5%.

The most popular theatres continued to be Estonia (81 675), Vanemuine (80 006) and Estonian Drama Theatre (63 771). When it comes to privately-funded performing institutions, then stand-up theatre POINT (22 317), Thors Production (20 000) and VAT Theatre (16 548) were most popular and the Old Baskin Theatre had close to fifteen thousand visitors. NB! The visitation numbers do not include online spectators. 8 theatres with 25 productions provided broadcasts from performances or played streaming pieces, and altogether they had 45 310 spectators.  

The contribution of Estonian theatres to cultural life more broadly was noteworthy also in 2020. 16 planned festivals took place, albeit with altered programmes, and 9 festivals were cancelled or postponed. If we add the festivals, concerts, balls, film evenings, lecture series and workshops organised in addition to the theatres’ productions, then altogether, theatres organised 7 062 cultural events for 882 850 visitors.