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Theatrical Landscape of Finland

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Theatrical Landscape of Finland
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Pastime for a whole nation

by Jukka-Pekka Pajunen

Finland, a country in the northern corner of Europe, is a hot spot for theatre fanatics. A considerable amount of the 5,3 Mio citizens claim theatre to be their pastime. About 4 Mio tickets for theatre, dance and opera performances are sold per year. There are 60 performances to choose from in the area around Helsinki alone during a busy season every week, which displays just how many performances there are.

The theatre network is spread across the whole country and enables all inhabitants of the sparsely populated country to enjoy professional theatre in their home province. Theatre belongs along with libraries, orchestras and museums to the cultural services offered by the local communities. The strongest focus on theatre lies in the southern cities: Helsinki has 15 theatres, the largest of which have at least two stages, in Tampere there are six and in Turku five. Both the local and the national theatres have a permanent staff. The artistic part of it consists of an ensemble, bound stage directors, stage and costume designers as well as dramaturges. Freelance groups also strive to employ small ensembles, which are made up of guest actors. The ensembles allow a repertoire system, whilst a large part of the freelance scene perform en suite.

Statutory subsidisation
The financing of the theatre network has been the same for centuries: the commune pays 40 per cent of the costs, the state covers 30 per cent and the theatres cover the remaining 30 per cent with the profits of tickets. This division affects 45 theatres, six of which perform for the Swedish speaking minority of the population. The state subsidisation is statutory, a peculiarity in Finland, which has had a law that has supported theatres and orchestras since 1993. The subsidisation of the national theatre is dealt with separately: The 51 professional groups of the freelance scene are excluded from the regular government subsidisation. They have to bring in over 50 per cent of their budget and have to get the rest of the money from the government, communes and other sponsors. Solely commercial theatres that manage completely without government money hardly exist in Finland. They almost only produce music theatre and simple comedies.

In addition to the broad theatre network, countless festivals take place in Finland. The largest one is the Tampere Theatre Festival, which shows the latest foreign productions and a range of the season’s best Finish productions. The Tampere Festival, as well as the Stage festival organised by Helsinki festival and the more traditional Baltic Circle Festival are meeting points for those who are interested in the new directions of contemporary theatre. The so-called "lawless", the freelance roups that weren't included in the law on support for theatres have their own festival in Pori. There are also several festivals for amateur groups, Mikkeli and Seinäjoki are the largest ones.

The repertoire of  Finish theatre goes from hit musicals and comedies to classics, new native and foreign plays. In the season of 2006/2007 there were 203 Finish plays in repertoire, 38 per cent of which were world premieres. From the 154 foreign plays 26 per cent were Finish premieres. The largest amounts of foreign plays come from England and America. The amount of contemporary Finish plays has grown noticeably the last 15 years.

Young language that takes on an important role
The impulse for the flourishing of Finish drama derives from the dramaturge training at the theatre colleges, which put particular emphasis on writing. Every year talented young authors complete these studies (for example Maria Peura, Marjo, Niemi, Anna Krogerus, Tuomas Timonen, Heini Junkkaala, Okko Leo, Otso, Huopaniemi, Maria Kilpi). Many of them have not only received prizes for their dramas, but also approval and good reviews for their prose. Almost half of the world premieres are produced by the authors themselves, which displays the versatility of Finish playwrights.

In order to understand Finish theatre of today a quick overview of its development is required. Compared to the other great powers of European theatre, Finish theatre is very young. The first Finish performances only managed to get into the limelight in the first half of the 19th century. The actual calendar of Finish theatre began with Aleksis Kivi, whose plays "Die Heideschuster" (1864) and the novel that was partly written in drama "Seven Brothers" (1870), were a guide to the development of Finish drama and literature. The sparse audience of the 19th century didn't only watch Finish plays in the newly founded theatres - the Finish language had only just found its final written form - , but also especially German and Scandinavian innovations.

Shaped by everyday experiences and problems
Even though Finnish theatre had to start from scratch and was dependent on the work of amateurs, it was clear from the beginning that it would follow the development of its neighbouring countries and attempt to keep up with new directions. At the same time theatre was a pastime for the entire nation and was shaped by everyday experiences and problems. This realistic attitude was put on the same level as the audience and still remains today.

Now more than ever is being written for theatre and native plays are a definite guarantee for tickets to find buyers. The theatres react as quickly as possible to social changes and problems. There will most certainly be plays in the repertoire of autumn 2009 season concerning the newly developed crisis and growing unemployment. In Finnish theatre a popular character does not take on the role of a prankster but conveys points of view which the audience are able to relate to. Humans are usually shown as individuals, which creates a more extensive image of the relations between the individual and society.

Although the topics are accessible to a regular audience - cleaning ladies, plumbers, teacher or lawyers - the theatrical forms of plays do vary considerably. The traditional well-made-plays are still the majority in repertoire, but experimental and conceptual approaches are also finding their place. Especially Freelance groups gather theatre trends from across the globe and give the Finish theatre audience a taste of brand new directions. Because the theatres are part of the commune's cultural program, they play a supportive role in society. Local topics like local history, local characters or even local nature are a never-ending source of themes for local theatres.

Sixties building boom of too large stages
As  in other places in Europe, the commercialisation of Finish theatre is noticeable. Creativity is propelled by the ideology of productivity. The cultural awareness that was kicked off at the end of the sixties lead to a building boom of new theatres. The large stages of local theatres were built too big in relation to the segmented audience of today. The result of this was that the large theatres were commercialised and it was left to small theatres to produce so-called 'art'.

The situation has meanwhile been recognised and the battle to bring art back to large stages has begun. The national theatre is one of the only large theatres to have managed to only produce straight theatre and doesn't put the all so popular Anglo-American plays in their repertoire. New generations of theatre makers (like Heidi Räsänen, Saana Lavaste, Emilia Pöyhönen) have bravely accepted the economic challenge and worked outside of local and established theatres. Apart from new groups and theatres, many of the young creators (Miko Jaakkola, Riku Innamaa, Samuli Reunanen) have taken root in the large, publically financed theatres and the more optimistic ones amongst us already foresee the last hours of the worst commercialisation.

(Translated from Finish into German by Martina Marti)

Back to the beginning

Read more about the finish stage director and dramatist Kristian Smeds.

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