The Republic of Estonia (Estonian: Eesti Vabariik) is located in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, and is one of the three Baltic States along with Latvia and Lithuania. Tallinn is the nation’s capital city. The official language of the country, Estonian, is a Finno-Ugric language.

Little is known of the origins of puppetry in Estonia. The first shows were limited to the fairs, and to travelling puppeteers from Europe mentioned in certain 17th century sources. In the 19th century, there were mechanical theatres offering a traditional repertoire (The Seven Wonders of the World, 36 Sad Stories from the Life of Pierrot, The Battle of Magenta in 1859) and comic pieces featuring Petrushka were performed in the streets.

The First Companies

The history of Estonian puppetry did not really begin until the 1930s, when August Liblik (1888-1937), a shoemaker, circus artist and dance teacher, founded the first semi-professional group which produced three shows with quite elaborate small animated figures.
The first contact with professional puppet theatre took place in the summer of 1935, when the Czech Josef Skupa and his company undertook a tour of Estonia. The following year two companies were created: Pillerkaar (Revel, 1936-1940), directed by Sam Siirak (one of Liblik’s actors), and by Taavet Poska, photographer, music teacher and instrument-maker. They performed both chamber and open-air shows, with a focus on grotesque and unrealistic string puppets (sometimes alternating with glove puppets). Like all the other national private enterprises, the theatre closed its doors in 1940, when Estonia became a republic of the Soviet Union.

The second company was the product of a group of enthusiasts and was founded in 1936 as a subsidiary of the classical theatre Studio, headed by Leo Kalmet. In 1936, it gave its premiere as a two-part performance: Möldri mälestusi (The Memories of a Miller) by Taavet Poska, and Nukitsamees (Bumpy), based on a story by Estonian author and playwright Oskar Luts (1887-1953). To improve their professional skills, Leo Kalmet with his designer Päären Raudvee travelled to Prague to get inspiration from the work of Josef Skupa, whose marionettes were considered exemplary in Estonia at the time.

The Soviet Era

During the 1930s and 40s, Estonian puppeteers were forced to merge with the traditional drama companies of Viljandi, Kuressaare and Tartu. The same actors performed children’s puppet shows in the mornings and adult dramas in the evenings. In Tallinn, a group of puppeteers divided its time between the Estonian Drama Theatre (Eesti Draamateater) and the Estonian Youth Theatre (Eesti Riiklik Noorsooteater). An important figure of that period was Alice Kaktus-Mägi who invited young artists to work with the puppeteers, arranged professional training for them, helping the young recruits to maintain the artistic level of their productions. The company of Sergei Obraztsov, which toured in Estonia in 1947-1948, also inspired the local puppeteers by their use of rod puppets and glove puppets along with the black theatre technique.

The Eesti Riiklik Nukuteater (Estonian State Puppet Theatre) was established in 1952 on the basis of various puppet companies from several cities. Ferdinand Veike was its first artistic director and Raivo Laidre the chief designer. The initial productions were based on the “instructional” fairy tales of Soviet children’s classics by Samuil Marshak and Sergey Mikhalkov. This, however, was not the only trend: the 1953 production of Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald’s Vaeslapse käsikivi (The Orphan’s Hand-Mill, Estonian fairy tales), for example, combined actors with manipulated puppets, thus advancing the artistic language in a way that the Soviet material did not allow. Nevertheless, the company’s work, addressed primarily to children, leaned towards the pure puppet technique and did so vividly and inventively. In the 1960s, the company successfully competed at international festivals with Kaval-Ants ja Vanapagan (Tricky Ants and Old Devil), Hunt ja seitse kitsetalle (The Wolf and Seven Kids), The Inquisitive Baby Elephant and others directed by Veike and designed by Laidre who remained with the company for twenty years (1952-1972).
In 1962, Rein Agur came on board after graduating from the Leningrad State Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinematography. As a productive young director in the theatre, he contributed fresh ideas into Eesti Riiklik Nukuteater from both the new European and Russian anti-Obraztsov/pro-Korolev trends, which resulted in the company becoming more innovative and experimental. (See Sergei Obraztsov, Mikhail Korolev.)      

As the next artistic director of the Estonian State Puppet Theatre in 1981-1992, Agur was Veike’s exact opposite. Veike developed the traditional children’s rod and glove puppet performances based on the Estonian fairy-tale tradition. Extremely visual and volatile, he invested every production (of which The Little Stork and the Scarecrow was arguably the best) with a sense of irrational poetry. Agur, on the contrary, operated mainly through conceptual thinking. He always used both live actors and puppets on stage and perceived a production as a text all of whose signs were to be visually manipulated. Agur worked with the company from 1963 to 1992 and directed his best productions with different designers: Romeo and Juliet (with Rein Lauks), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (with Riina Vanhanen). The greatest contribution he received from designer Jaak Vaus; their collaboration from 1970 to 1980 could be credited with revitalizing the Estonian State Puppet Theatre. Both great directors and leaders, Ferdinand Veike and Rein Agur left no successors. Many contenders attempted the Artistic Director position during the 1990s, but to no remarkable result.

Contemporary Estonian Puppet Theatre

Estonian artists use the full range of contemporary means of expression. Much attention is paid to acting and national literature has been adapted with success on stage: Little Illimar of Friedebert Tuglas (1975), In the Footsteps of a Man by Anton Tammsaare (1978), for example. In the late 1980s, actress and theatre director Helle Laas produced three shows for children inspired by Finno-Ugric fairy tales: Tales of the Vespa (1986), Tales of the Setu (1988) and Tales of the Saami (1990).

Since 2000, the General Manager of the Eesti Riiklik Nukuteater has been Meelis Pai. Andres Dvinjaninov was Artistic Director of the theatre in 2000–2011. They brought about a noticeable renewal and important changes to the theatre. Within just a few seasons, the theatre acquired an entirely new look: the whole building was renovated, new people joined the team, more and more people were attracted to the shows, and more attention was paid to young audiences.

Andres Dvinjaninov became a key figure of Estonian puppetry. From 2002-2006, he was the President of UNIMA Estonia. As Artistic Director of Eesti Riiklik Nukuteater since 2000, he helped to renovate and revitalize the theatre: the repertoire was expanded, including more experimental productions, musical plays, and the production of the works of young artists. The tradition of summer tours was established in which shows are performed at various open-air stages throughout Estonia. In 2000, the Youth Drama Studio was created within the company. Since 2004, the Young Playwrights` Competition has been held. The Puppet Master Class, the first-ever higher education puppetry courses, was established at the Higher Theatre School of the Estonian Academy of Music in cooperation with the State Puppet Theatre in 2002. In 2002, a biennial international puppetry festival, “The Young Century”, has partnered with the Puppetry Festival of the Baltic Countries held every other year since 1992.

Also, a second phase of change for the Eesti Riiklik Nukuteater began in 2006 that has endured up to the present (2012). To the Estonian (State) Puppet Theatre’s name the designation of Youth Theatre was added in order to regularly produce plays aimed for youth as well as adults: today it is called Estonian State Puppet and Youth Theatre, Eesti Nuku- ja Noorsooteater. The courtyard of the theatre was covered with a roof and thus a large new hall was created. Co-operation with foreign directors and international relations have gained ground. The international theatre festival Treff was established and, in 2010, the NUKU Museum and Centre for Puppet Arts was opened in a neighbouring building, uniting the museum, research centre, puppet-making workshops and the Estonian Puppet and Youth Theatre (see Eesti Riiklik Nukuteater, Estonian State Puppet and Youth Theatre). The goal of the Puppet Museum is to introduce all the aspects of puppet theatre and exhibit theatre puppets in an interactive and innovative way. From 2010, the organization regrouped all its activities under the title NUKU (“puppet” in Estonian) in order to find a common name for the complex of theatre, museum and puppetry research facilities. Since 2011, the Artistic Director of the theatre has been Vahur Keller. By 2012, the theatre had grown even further with two buildings in the Old Town of the Estonian capital Tallinn.