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Theatre Accumulating Cultural Instinct. Correspondence between Kuno Otsus and Vaino Vahing

The correspondence between Vaino Vahing (1941–2008) and Kuno Otsus (1943–2014) deposited in Estonia’s Cultural History Archive (EKLA) derives from Vahing’s personal archive, which has been recently deposited at EKLA and bears the registry number 2012/178. Most of the letters that are to be published were written in the 1970’s, which was an extraordinarily exciting period in Estonian theatre that has in retrospect been referred to as an era of theatre renewal. By that time, the possibilities of psychological realism were starting to become exhausted and had become boring for young people. Estonia’s young theatre people, primarily the directors Jaan Tooming and Evald Hermaküla, started creating stage productions with a different kind of theatrical language that immediately attracted attention and did not leave anyone unmoved — there were both fervent supporters and opponents. Grotowski was one of the important examples from abroad, experimentation was undertaken in synthesising Artaud and Brecht, etc. Psychoanalysis also had an important place in the achievement of a feeling of self-awareness on stage. A great deal of theory on this topic was read, especially Jung. The Vanemuine Theatre in Tartu became the centre of this renewal in theatre.

Both parties in this correspondence are closely associated with theatre renewal. They were involved in it from the very beginning and belonged to the same circle of friends, consisting of kindred spirits. Otsus had graduated from the Vanemuine Studio theatre school and worked all his life at the Vanemuine Theatre as an actor and director, but also at various times as the theatre’s librarian, archivist, curator of the theatre’s sheet music collection, etc. Vahing worked as a psychiatrist and as a docent at the University of Tartu (defending his candidate’s degree in psychopharmacology in 1971), yet was also at the same time a writer and a theatre critic. His role was to mediate the theoretical side for those involved in theatre and to reflect it for the public. Since the new kind of theatre also needed different kinds of texts, Vahing made his contribution with his literary creative work as well. Vahing also edited a self-published underground almanac entitled Thespis, which appeared in the 1970’s and focused primarily on theatre. It was also published in 1997 as a book.

The correspondence between Otsus and Vahing reflects the moods of that era, living for the theatre completely and without reservation, and the bohemian lifestyle of their circle of friends, which interweaved extremely intense work and the thirst for knowledge. In terms of their form, Vahing’s letters are remarkable since they are written on theatre playbills, which in its own way created a communion with his friends in sharing his theatre experiences. This correspondence helps to research an important aspect of the cultural life of that period.