Director Peeter Jalakas is interviewed by Edgaras Klivis, Artistic Director of Kaunas National Drama Theatre
– I am familiar with your work, so I would like to start by checking some of my opinions. Let’s do it this way: I’ll make statements and you answer whether you agree or not. So, first of all, I would say that you are an avant-garde artist. Do you consider yourself to be one?
– People like to put labels on things, and that is one of the labels that comes with me. The problem is,
that I don’t really know what the avant-garde is today. Many years ago I felt that postmodernism was sort of over and we were living in a kind of post-postmodern world where it was important to return to harmony, which is a kind of new avant-garde, but today I’m no longer sure about that. If we understand the avant-gardists literally as the forward-looking army scouts who are investigating the sites of the battles to come, then we are doing something like that in the Von Krahl theatre, however unconsciously, you could say that. However, as I said, it is not easy to clearly identify where these scouts should go today and what they should do.
When I say “avant-garde” I also mean the “avant-garde consciousness” that some artists have, where they decide “I will never repeat what others have already done, and I will not repeat myself”, that is to say, I will create something completely new from scratch each time.
– I think that wanting to create something new cannot be a goal. It’s much more important when creating a performance is to find yourself in the subject matter, something that interests and touches you personally. The goal is not novelty, but the uniqueness of what is important to you. On the other hand, I have the problem that since childhood I have hated being told how to do something. I have always felt the need to rebel against such instructions, and if it turns out later that they were right, the rebellion still makes sense, because in that way you experience things for yourself, in your own way.
Artistic director Edgaras Klivis and director Peeter Jalakas
To be an avant-gardist, on the other hand, is to be passionately opposed to tradition, to traditional established models. Could I say that you don’t like, if not hate, the traditional psychological model of representational theatre?
– Hate is not a word I would use. Let’s see, what is traditional theatre in these days? I’ve been working in the field of theatre for thirty, maybe almost forty years, and in that time I and my colleagues have done everything you can imagine. Everything you see in contemporary theatre has been tried out in our rehearsals at one time or another. Let’s also not forget that in that time a new generation has grown up, to whom we and our experiments may seem like traditional theatre. On the other hand, if you go to any repertory theatre in Estonia, you will see that they are doing similar things that we have tried, such as layering themes, intensive use of music, mixing different styles, high and low cultures, combining different arts and media. This has become a common thing in theatre these days. If we call psychological drama traditional theatre, then I would say that in its pure form, this kind of theatre is increasingly rare. And when I see it, I can watch it and cry, and I am touched that someone is still doing it. I have nothing against this kind of theatre. It’s not my cup of tea, but if it’s done well, I’m happy to see it. The most important thing is that the artist believes in what he or she is doing, but also talent and a bit of luck – then the result will be there. Success is not determined by style, all styles of performance can be lame. In fact, most of the theatre (and art in general) produced around the world is rubbish, and only a very small percentage of it succeeds. But that’s what we’re aiming for, isn’t it?
– Looking at your background, is it possible to conclude that you have no problem combining artistic and commercial goals? You were the founder of the first private theatre in Estonia, run a chain of bars and restaurants, etc…
– Obviously, I have a big problem in combining these goals. But I admit that I realised very early on in my career that I would have to sell myself in some way. And that there are two options here: one is to sell your soul as an artist, i.e. to do something that you don’t really want to do in order to survive. Or: find other ways to sell yourself, so that you can make money to make the art you want to make, without worrying about its commercial success. Sometimes, if your art is e.g. pop music, maybe you can enjoy free creation and make money at the same time. But in my case it was different, because in the theatre I wanted to do things that obviously couldn’t be financially successful and sustain themselves. So I was forced to invent something else. I went into the bar and restaurant business, which became a source of funding for productions. But you know how time-consuming it is to run your own business, don’t you? Especially when you’re doing well, your business is expanding, and you’re constantly under pressure to take advantage of every opportunity, as if everything around you is saying “just look here, look at all the opportunities, take it all, suck it up, use it”. It is so easy to lose your way. And I experienced it just before the pandemic. The quarantine gave me a chance to stop and distance myself from the business a bit. Now some restaurants have been sold, and some have closed. I had the feeling that enough was enough. However, through the business, I have accumulated the capital to create art, which is the most important thing, isn’t it?
“The tempest”. S. Batura photo
I know that in your spare time when you’re not doing plays, you build motorcycles. Could we say that these are two related activities and that you are a director-engineer?
– I was involved in motorsport as a child and what fascinates me most about it is the speed. I feel that when you go very fast, it becomes in a way a Zen experience. So when you start going faster than 200 km/h (or maybe it starts from 190) you feel like you’re in a computer game. Suddenly you realise that the thought process has stopped, that there is no more analysis, no more “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah”, no more unnecessary nonsensical talking. What’s going on in your head at that moment is a kind of Zen moment, because all your instincts are very sharp at that moment, you are here and now, in this moment. This is what you look for in meditation, in various practices, to be in the moment as long as possible. Speed is like lazy man’s zen, because it’s much easier to get the result than through meditation practices. And the same thing happens when driving long distances. Reality becomes distant, the perception of time disappears, you are just present and react. That’s what I find absolutely fascinating. Well, the other thing is that I had a lot of free time during the years of Covid, so I used to build one motorcycle at a time in the winter. But this is more of a hobby.
“The tempest”. S. Batura photo
– In Lithuania, many theatre people adore live theatre and are suspicious of the use of new technologies and media in theatrical creation as a threat to this liveliness. Based on your work, I feel that you are not a technophobe and would agree that theatre should embrace technological progress.
– Well, the theatre wouldn’t exist, nor would it be alive. It has to be, of course. The same is true, by the way, of restaurants and bars, where lots of people gather and then something happens. It’s impossible to somehow magically send emotions over the Internet. It is impossible. So, in that sense, theatre has to stay alive. The other thing is that I don’t understand why technologies are perceived as a threat to that aliveness. On the contrary, technolgies can help to make emotions even more alive. You could say that lamps are unnecessary because they are also technology, right? But I still want to have better and better lighting options. The same can be said for heating or air conditioning systems. All these technologies only help us to create that miracle of live theatre. And at the same time, technology helps to open up new layers of reality. Like XR (Extended Reality) technology, which is similar to shamanism in that it opens up completely new doors or new perspectives that you didn’t know before. So I really like technology. I like to try out its possibilities and especially now, when so many innovations are born every day. I cannot wait to try out Apple’s augmented reality glasses and other artificial intelligence innovations. So our goal is to create a theatre that is a true technology paradise. But, let’s not forget, the goal is still for people to come together and experience this moment here and now.
– As a theatre artist, you are obviously a creator of high culture. But I have noticed that genre culture is also important to you. For example, your multi-series work JAIK, which we showed at the National Kaunas Drama Theatre, is close to science fiction series. So what is your relationship to this popular, genre, serial culture?
– I was very fond of the first contemporary series when they came out, like Lost. Then I thought, what the hell, there are so many possibilities here, almost like novels. A film is only a few hours long anyway, whereas in a series you have many hours to tell your story. So it looked really fantastic. And since then I’ve watched a lot of different series. I don’t do it anymore, though – maybe I don’t find something that interests me anymore. But obviously the series have opened up new possibilities, because unlike the film industry, there are no exact rules, no canons. Films are so standardised that it’s very difficult to do anything unusual or new in them, whereas the format of a TV series is much freer. But I have to say that lately I have been more interested in the video games industry, and specifically in platforms like Unity or Unreal, which are game engines that you can use to create your own reality. I must confess that I do not play computer games myself – I cannot get over the feeling that it is a waste of time and that I would rather read a book. But even though I don’t play games myself, I am interested in the structure of games and how it can be applied to theatre. At the moment, it is this part of technology and popular culture that interests me most.
“The tempest”. S. Batura photo
– You have created performances in which you have linked computer games to Estonian folk games, discovering their similar logic. Could I say that in addition to all your interest in technological progress and its creative possibilities, you are also influenced by ethnic and folk culture?
– Indeed, I have used folkloric and ethnographic motifs in various of my performances. But I am most interested in one sphere of that culture, which is shamanism. I have taken part in hundreds of different ceremonies, for example, ceremonies of ayahuasca and other substances in the rainforest or in my summer house by the sea in Estonia. It is a long experience and a part of my life, as well as a part of me as an artist and author. And what I do in the theatre is very often directly related to the experiences I have had in those ceremonies. In Estonian folk music, folklore, there is that element of magic. For the same reason I am fascinated by Butoh dance, I recognise the same connection to the earth, the fundamentals. In shamanic experiences, you can go back to those basics and at the same time remain free, when everything is flying around and you can choose what you want. These things are important to me in my everyday life, so I can’t say that it fascinates me, it just exists. I have been doing this practice for twenty years. I do it regularly, four times a year. I have a friend who is a shaman from Ecuador, and he comes to me and does the ceremony. It is like a zealous Catholic going to church every Sunday. I have learned to be humble and to cleanse myself of all the sins I have committed during that time.