‘The Seriousness Loses its Value’

Richard Pettifer

An interview with Estonian performing artist and text creator Kadri Noormets


This interview is based on a conversation with the Estonian performing artist and text creator Kadri Noormets in a café at her home town of Viljandi, following her performance in the Estonian theatre festival DRAAMA, September 2018.

Noormets works with movement and text to create solo and collaborative aesthetic provocations on autonomy, mobility, and decision-making. Combining relational aesthetics and speculations on thought and action, the artist develops ‘organised spaces of concentration’ which frame the relationship between audience and spectacle, occurring around agreement of the art event. Through works such as INTOURISM (2014), Procedure of Beauty  (2015), and Promised Land (2017), Noormets articulates a challenge to theatre is to move away from entertainment and to become aware of the ‘goodnews’, which is defined as a ‘positive error’ or ‘unexpected surprise’ within the image, and may be loosely explained as the contradictory elements which reveal both its essence and potential. Noormets also co-organises the contemporary dance festival Notafe, occurring yearly in Viljandi since 1993, and has been nominated for Estonian Theatre Awards in 2015 and 2016. Her texts have been published with Tallinn-based Temuki avaveerg and independent publishing initiative Lugemik.

The performance Tõotatud maa (‘Promised Land’) takes as its background the 1920s emigration of Estonians to Brazil. The performance itself doesnt deal directly with its subject material, instead undertaking a kind of live decision-making event with the audience, and loosely following a theme of journeys, with the performer acting as agent for transformation through sharing vulnerability with the audience.

The conversation takes place as Noormets prepares a kind of sequel to Promised Land, entitled Maandatud Tõotus (Landed Promise), which re-uses the same set materials as its predecessor and explores themes of decision-making and togetherness.

Text from the artist normally appears in lower-case only.


RICHARD: In Promised Land, the intuition and strategy come together in your live decision-making on stage.

KADRI: perhaps yes. but i increasingly try to let the unknown enter the moment i cannot foresee and only encounter for the first time during the performance. my aim is to meet the audience on an equal basis. i dont have set rules, even though i have created the structure, the invitation. im also super-vulnerable: i can lose, i can start blushing and failing. Promised Land, especially, depends on audience. thats what makes it so delicious to me i never know how it will work out. 

RICHARD: How do you decide which unknown you want to explore?

KADRI:. basically you can do whatever and it can be considered as abstract art. but how to keep yourself grounded, so that it still makes sense – so there is a reason for doing this or that? there is a thin line, that’s the unknown, basically. but you know yourself inside this – your trigger is something that you can trust, or what you know, or your curiosity. what you know is the process: that i go every day to the same studio, and im working on something. and in the spine, there is this topic. so if my will or wish is connected to this spine, then i can basically trust whatever comes out. but it has to be real work! otherwise, it remains abstract. from my earliest pieces, i really wanted the courage to produce abstract work. although this piece wasnt totally abstract it could be so much worse.

“DARKS IN BLUES” (2014) with Diego Agulló. Photo: Maarja Viiding.

RICHARD: The audience still seemed pretty uncomfortable with its abstraction.

KADRI: i cannot feel too friendly with the audience. i very much expect although you shouldnt go with expectations independence from an audience. even if youre not saying out loud what youre thinking, i can read it from your presence, somehow. im not saying that you have to act but you have to be present, and that presence can be read. so we cannot get lazy – both sides.

RICHARD: Today its a bit popular not to be serious, to use irony or lightness. How does this exist in your work?

KADRI: i have never not taken my work seriously. its a question of how we perform seriousness. i think i can be totally serious, deadly serious, and at the same time, remaining light, and putting some humorous spice in it. i think its super-healthy. i think things should be balanced, you know? we should start laughing and crying at the same time simultaneously. whistling and singing. one should never take him or herself, or them or itself, too seriously.


KADRI: because the seriousness loses its value then.

RICHARD: Sometimes you speak about the organised space of concentration, where the spectator should be relaxed and concentrate. But what if this is not possible? A lot of people are distracted by crises – personal crisis, political crisis, environmental crisis.

KADRI: i think that one should be able to zoom out and see the bigger picture. so not only the personal crisis, whatever crisis. this bigger picture is so much more flexible, more connected to trust as a quality. in the theatre, Im interested in the format itself. people gather, they sit together, very often they are looking in the same direction, taking time, and there is a concentration happening. im interested in this much more than narratives or stories, and the situation is connected to concentration. there is a need to put it into action, from both sides, audience and performer. of course, distraction is happening, and in contemporary societies or life in cities, we are running; not able to sit down or meet our own thoughts. we are constantly entertained. we are entertaining ourselves. silence is non-existent. im looking at how we can produce these qualities which are missing so much in our daily lives, how the performance can be charging us. 

RICHARD: Is it ok to be bad at something, instead of attempting to impress during a performance? 

KADRI: what is critically important is to remain honest. im not acting. im not an actress, im a dancer, so im communicating through my body. im very much working on how i can remain authentic, and how i can relate to people whilst remaining who i am. but at the same time, i like this touch of not being brilliantly skilful. in each performance of Promised Land, i give myself a chance to reach the top of the hill structure on the stage. its a very honest moment, because im not able to do it, but during the process of performing it ive improved. im still very bad at it, therefore i can also reach some equal communication. at the same time, i dont want to show perfect solutions, but to reach the content. sometimes, i have to swallow that im not the best.

“Tõotatud maa” (“Promised Land”), part of Estonian Theatre festival DRAAMA. Photo: Sohvi Viik

RICHARD: Are there points in performance where we must lie to get a particular outcome? Do you provoke or manipulate in any way?

KADRI: i do, but at the same time, im just trying to activate the audience, to reach this moment where the audience member really takes the responsibility. im not talking about interactive theatre, but how can we exit from the theatre-as-entertainment. how can we really take theatre as an art. what i was saying about the physical structure of theatre how we go to theatre i think there is so much potential, and we very often use it for entertainment only. im not interested in lazy audiences. im interested in meeting people during the piece. so im not lying. i just want to see people in the audience. i dont want to see these lazy consumers, or users. 

RICHARD: What about when it comes to making the kind of change that you want, bigger change?

KADRI: i dont have a mission. im actually just a very lively species. i like meeting people in those situations we can consider as theatre performances. in my early interviews, my works were considered organised spaces of concentration. but some years later, i started to understand that this is not the work ive created, but actually the space which we create in the middle between the audience and the performer, or between the audience and the performance. actually, the performance is just an excuse for this space to appear. in the big performances, where you get totally lost as an individual in the audience, this space in between also appears, but at the same time, we can be lazy in it. so our input doesnt have to be necessarily visible, and we dont have to put any effort. we dont have to be aware. we can just be in a group, participating in a very passive way. im not interested in that. and thats exactly what this passive participation creates what makes entertainment possible, and what makes the lazy theatre happen. i guess its a matter of how sensitive you are, or whats important in life. i feel that people are just not taking maximum out of it, just surfing on the surface. the space of concentration, it doesnt happen only in theatre, right? it happens when we are reading a book, between the book and the readerits kind of a state. when we are looking at the painting, we createsomething that can feed us. we are not just spending time.

RICHARD: What about group agency? The connections between audience they become kind of a group, separate from you, in this process?

KADRI: i always consider this very important, but im not working on it particularly, myself. because im always an outsider to it. i try to be very attentive to whats happening, i dont know if somebodys connected to somebody else i actually try to be part of it somehow. but the new piece, which is premiering in october, will show to maximum 7 people at once. its like a regular theatre piece, but the audience number is smaller. i am working with this idea that before entering the space we are getting to know each other, that i am saying hi, im kadri, that you are who you are, but then i also introduce those people to each other. so we cannot ignore that we are group just by chance, but there are also no co-incidences. what do we do with this fact, that im spending this one hour and a half with those 7 people? not to stay anonymous, but also taking the maximum out of it. and not talking about some abstract stories, or fantasies, or theatre when youre going to visit a performance, its part of your life. if im showing you a piece, its part of my world. im not this character, its kadri noormets, who i am, and im creating the frame of game, which i really expect you also to participate in as yourself.

RICHARD: Vulnerability is not popular today, and things are going in the other direction like preservation, or anti-death – a type of closing off. Can performance really return people to that vulnerable state, and why is this important?

KADRI: i dont have any mission as such, but one could call this a mission: how can we, during the performance, let go of roles. both on the stage and in the audience. it makes us engage this vulnerability, whether we want it or not. but one needs to be ready to accept that. im not saying what has to happen. im very flexible and respecting of peoples variety. i just know my own personal curiosities. i recognise some people in the audience who are on the same page, and i know that they will have a better journey than others, but who cares? others will get what they want. i consider vulnerability very important. and i think that one needs to be courageous, to present him or herself, vulnerably. 

RICHARD: But to stay relaxed and concentrate at the same time. Have good strategy.

KADRI: well, if you need it. if you dont need it, then dont.

“Formlessly Yours” (2015) with Diego Agulló. Image: Maarja Viiding.

RICHARD: Is it better to act or to wait for something to happen? How do we know when to act, and when to wait?

KADRI: you need to trust. there are no fixed rules. you have to remain honest with yourself, and what you are curious about. its just to be aware that you are making decisions. your senses, your antennas, need to be sent out. thats the intuition. either to wait, or to teacher Ruth Zaporah would say ‘never remain waiting. make sure that you are not just waiting. even in the act of waiting, youre actually listening to the silence’. if the passive option is lazy, scared, and not daring, i would always choose acting. not only witnessing, but also witnessing yourself acting. there are no wrong decisions. its just, not to die in boredom, you know?


Maandatud Tõotus (Landed Promises) opens October 22nd at Kanuti Gildi Saal, Tallinn, as part of Nu Performance Festival.