Straw House for Summer in the Capital of Culture

Anna Iltnere

Anna Iltnere

This summer in Tallinn—the European capital of culture for 2011—the central spot for enjoying some shade will be Straw Theater, a project, art installation, and public space by the Estonian theater group NO99, erected in the Skoone Bastion in a neglected portside neighborhood. It’s already open to visitors.

In the fairy tale “The Three Little Pigs,” the straw house is the first building that the wolf blows away. Impermanence is also characteristic of Straw Theater (Põhuteater, in Estonian), which, as soon as summer is over, will become history. “Why temporary? It’s beautiful and poetic to create a huge object that will exist for just five months,” explains the playwright and art historian Eero Epner, who is involved in the project.

Straw Theater was unveiled on April 30 in the center of Tallinn, near the Old City, and will be dismantled after September 30. Though its title may invite ethnographically tinged associations, Straw Theater is a contemporary structure intended for theater productions and sound performances featuring such internationally renowned artists as Nature Theatre of Oklahoma (United States), Sebastian Nübling (Germany), Gob Squad (Great Britain, Germany), Christoph Schlingensief (Germany), Kristian Smeds (Finland), Siren (United States), and others. Performances and concerts will take place on warm summer evenings, while during the day the theater will belong to anyone who wishes to relax, idly read a book, play some Ping-Pong, or romp with their children.

The curators of Straw Theater are the Estonian set designer and artist Ene-Liis Semper and the Estonian director Tiit Ojasoo—the duo of theater directors from NO99 who have been working side by side onstage for eight years. The project is organized by the members of NO99, including Eero Epner, who is responsible for the program of events at Straw Theater. The project is being developed in close collaboration with the organizers of the Tallinn – European Capital of Culture 2010 program, who granted Straw Theater 5 % of the program’s total budget, one of the largest allotments of funding for the Tallinn 2011 events.

I met Eero Epner at the NO99 buffet around lunchtime, when he had freed up some time between theater rehearsals and his duties as editor of the Estonian art publication Estonian Art. “It’s killing me, how little time I have,” said Eero as has searched for a place to charge up his mobile phone. 

But when asked about Straw Theater, Eero began to speak with an undivided thrill, and his exhaustion dissipated for a moment.

Anna Iltnere: How did this idea come about, and how did it develop to its being actualized in the center of Tallinn, what is more, as one of the most extensive events of Tallinn – European Capital of Culture 2011?

Eero Epner: We’ve been working on the idea for two years, perhaps even longer. Our initial thought was to built an installation in the center of the city. Not a culture center, but a work of art. Ene-Liis is a video and installation artist, as well as the creator of the idea. We chose straw not just for ecological reason, but also on account of the popularity of the material, because more and more straw summer cottages are being built in Estonia today. It’s an inexpensive raw material, and it embodies various pleasant associations. Unlike rock, which is simply rock, straw has…I don’t want to say “soul,” because that sounds too romantic…but it radiates warmth. This original idea is still important, because it’s important for us that the structure isn’t simply a functional structure, but also an installation in the urban environment. The second stage in implementing Straw Theater was to find an actual, public space in the very center of Tallinn. Skoone Bastion, by the Old City with a view of the sea, was closed to the community during the Soviet period; that’s why it’s still a forgotten part of Tallinn. We struck upon the idea to reintroduce residents to this area and to implement a creative zone that was free of consumption. The third stage was to actually do something in the installation/house we had created; that’s why we invited theater troupes, musicians, and artists. Straw Theater consists of a central building—a closed black box—with a corridor and terrace. Special sites have been set up for various activities: Ping-Pong, a children’s playground, open-air chess with gigantic chess pieces, etc.

What can be viewed for free, and which events have an entrance fee?

During the day, Straw Theater is open and freely accessible to everyone. We will also feature film screenings and other outdoor projects. Tickets must be purchased for the evening events, concerts, and theater productions. These can be purchased online. 

What are the must-see events at Straw Theater this summer?

As the organizers, we want to emphasize each and every addition to the program. But the biggest project is definitely the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, from New York, which is incredibly popular in Europe right now. 

They integrate performances into the urban environment. I must remind readers that there won’t be any art exhibits at Straw Theater, only theater and musical performances. But there will be one exception: Ene-Liis’s straw installation In the Straw Theater (an installation within an installation). Ene-Liis’s work of art will be on view for two weeks in July or August. [At the time of this interview, in mid March, the program was still being finalized, because there were still six weeks left until the opening of Straw Theater –A.I.].

Ene-Liis Semper, creator and co-curator of Straw Theater, will have an extensive solo exhibit with an installation and new video works on the fifth floor of KUMU Museum from October 14, 2011, through January 31, 2012. Semper represented Estonian at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001.