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“The theatre opens its doors again in August. Uncertainty still hangs over the future of the performing arts, but we are hopeful, and it seems the audience too is waiting to fill the theatres. The thematic thread running through this season’s programme is the contemporary individual – each one of us – as part of a wider unity: family, work, culture, the socio-economic system, the political body, the natural order. Herein lies perhaps the most important lesson I have personally learned during the Covid-19 pandemic: an individual is always part of a greater entity, whether by choice or not. Each one of us has the chance to widen our viewpoint, take in what is going on around us and be part of a more sustainable way of life. It’s time to join together for live art – welcome to the Finnish National Theatre!”

Mika Myllyaho, August 2021

NEW AFFILIATED WRITER

To launch the new season, director Mika Myllyaho has announced a new affiliated writer whose work will be presented by the Finnish National Theatre in the coming years. The writer is Ujuni Ahmed, human rights activist who was granted the Finnish pen award for freedom of speech in 2020. Herself of Somali background, Ahmed has specifically spoken out against female genital mutilation, a crime which is difficult to prevent when girls are sent abroad for the procedure. Finnish legislation pertinent to this crime has been improved as a result of her campaign work. She is currently writing a book together with Elina Hirvonen, entitled Letters to girls who think they are alone, due for publication in 2022.

CURRENT SEASON

Many of the shows opening this season have been waiting in the wings during the pandemic. Due to open on the Main Stage in 2020, a new play written and directed by Juha Jokela will see its premiere this autumn. Docents is a keen study of the power-play at work in a university environment. In this sharp psychological drama, Jokela scrutinizes the state of present-day academia and its capacity to pursue scientific independence in a climate of political tension and economic downturn. Likewise postponed from last spring and opening in September, Hours, Weeks and Months is a two-hander framed in music and song, based on Reko and Tina Lundan’s book chronicling their experience of Reko Lundan’s last months, living with the knowledge he would soon succumb to brain cancer.  The script is by Kati Kaartinen, music is by Jussi Tuurna and the piece is directed by Tuomas Rinta-Panttila.  Opening in October is Minna Leino’s adaptation of Miika Nousiainen’s popular novel Facelift. This is a comedy of mores for the contemporary age, in which lonely people are searching for love and everyone is worried about their image, the humour is poignant and the characters sympathetic. Fast-paced, plot-driven and visually dynamic, the play is directed by Irene Aho with music by Timo Hietala.

These new shows will be joined on the Main Stage by last year’s hit show, Hitler and Blondi, for a limited season in October. Written and directed by resident FNT dramaturg Michael Baran, this is a two-hander accompanied by a pianist, which traces Hitler’s rise and fall through the reflections and reminiscences of both Hitler and his faithful, all-seeing German Shepherd, Blondi. The play shows the man for what he was, in all his complexity, portrayed by one of Finland’s most beloved actresses, Seela Sella, who, just for the record, is Jewish. The show is a co-production with the TTT theatre of Tampere.

The Main Stage will also host a touring production in English this autumn. Punch up! – Resistance and Glitter is a fierce variety show filled with the best in drag, stand-up and burlesque. It was created by stand-up comedian and monologuist Juuso Kekkonen, stand-up comedian and performance artist James Loriàn MacDonald and queer drag artist and producer Mira Eskelinen. The show is available for one night only in October.

As announced last year, the 1950’s wing of the theatre building is undergoing a long overdue, major renovation for the next few years. The Small Stage and Willensauna Stage are therefore closed for the time being, and the FNT has taken on temporary premises in the Vallila district of Helsinki. Construction on this stage is finally complete, and the first show to be performed in this new venue is an international classic opening in August. Molière’s Miser, translated by Arto af Hällström and directed by Vesa Vierikko, is a classic study not only of avarice but also the generation gap. The eponymous Miser struggles to hang on to every penny of his fortune as he plots both his own and his children’s marriages. The younger generation, driven by love, must counter-scheme to fulfil their own romantic goals. The author is definitely on their side. In Vierikko’s interpretation the play is a glorious concoction of outrageous make-up, wigs and costumes, highlighting the ridiculous. The Vallila Stage’s repertoire will expand in October with a new Finnish docudrama by Susanna Kuparinen and Jari Hanska. Entitled Blindspot, the production examines the pressures of daily life during the pandemic, focusing on the grey areas in politics, media reporting and social reality. Kuparinen also directs, with music by Kerkko Koskinen. The Vallila Stage will also host the premiere of Mika Myllyaho’s latest play, written specifically for actors in the FNT’s company.  Hair Salon is a comedy about the challenges of small-scale entrepreneurship, as three women struggle to maintain their dignity, find happiness and simply defend their right to be. The play opens in December, directed by the author.

On the Omapohja Stage, a new play opens in September written and directed by Marja Salo and Hanna-Kaisa Tiainen, who explain that the play was created out of the authors’ need to understand the current ecological crisis. Entitled Hectare the show seeks to examine our relationship to our environment and come to terms with the emotional turmoil provoked by a constant sense of imminent catastrophe.

This season the FNT is collaborating with Espoo City Theatre on a new production of Maria Jotuni’s classic comedy The Golden Calf. This joint effort includes cast and designers from both theatres. Directed by Erik Söderblom, the play will open in September on Espoo City Theatre’s Revontuli Stage.  First produced in 1918, Jotuni’s play is an incisive, caustically humorous study of human greed and speculation in a period of chaos, when breaking the rules becomes not only commonplace but a necessity for survival.

A children’s show for the very young (upwards of age three) returns for the Christmas season: created by Ella Pyhältö and Helena Vierikko, this 2019 piece is based on the Finnish classic Hölmölä series, entitled Hölmölä at Christmas. The play is performed in the lobby of the Main Stage.

Other highlights of the season include several solo performances by leading stage artists. Two of Finland’s leading actors, Jukka Puotila and Esko Salminen, appear in their respective and very distinctive one-man shows. The Jukka Puotila -show is a regularly updated satirical review written together with journalist Taina West, while Esko Salminen performs his favourites poems from the works of Federico García Lorca, Eino Leino, Dylan Thomas, William Shakespeare and others.  The programme also includes two concerts: Timo Tuominen’s Encore, encore Brel and a solo concert entitled Alone by music legend Dave Lindholm. Tuominen, a long-standing member of the FNT’s own company, gives his interpretation of Jacques Brel’s songs on the Main Stage in October. Lindholm, who is known for his songs in both Finnish and English, plays the Main Stage in November.

An evening of journalism has also become a regular feature of the Main Stage in recent years. Black Box is an encounter with reporters from the national newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, who present previously unpublished material and reveal the stories that have touched them the most.  There are several Black Box evenings scheduled in November and December.

As usual the Theatre’s Touring Stage, run by Artistic Director Jussi Lehtonen, continues to provide a number of shows for touring to community care homes and prisons.  During the summer of 2020, the Touring Stage found new ways of reaching their public safely during the pandemic. It took its performances outdoors, into the yard areas of care homes, maintaining physical distance. This practice continued in the summer of 2021 with its latest production, which was commissioned to celebrate the Touring Stage’s tenth anniversary. Written and directed by Juha Mustanoja and entitled Diplomats, the show is a lively comedy, full of song and dance, about human perfection, or at least about those who believe they can find perfection in themselves.  This and several other shows are available for touring. For more details contact the producer roosa.vaverka@kansallisteatteri.fi.

Audience outreach work, co-ordinated by Pirjo Virtanen, pursues its long-term project involving residents of a given Helsinki suburb. In 2019, a fresh three-year period began, this time engaging with the area of Kaarela. This autumn the project culminates in a performance called Laundry, a combination of ritual, dance and music concerning the traditions of doing laundry. The performance will take place in the open air, premiering in Kannelmäki in September. The project includes multidisciplinary workshops and performances, as well as podcasts. The Outreach programme also organises a number of discussions, events and workshops related to the theatre’s main programme.

The FNT’s youth theatre group, Kantti, founded in 2019 under the leadership of director Satu Linnapuomi, also continues its activities. Last year, when performing live was made impossible by Covid-19, the group created a live-stream version of its production Anne F, based on the Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. This autumn the group are working on a new play Must Share, written by Eira Virekoski and directed by Satu Linnapuomi, due to open in December.

During the pandemic, when the theatre was forced to close its doors, the FNT used the opportunity to discover new ways of reaching its audience through digital means. It established a new Sound Channel providing free access to a range of conversations, podcasts, poetry readings and drama recordings. The FNT also video streamed a number of shows, two of which are still available for viewing: Kjell Westö’s Sulphur Sky, adapted by Michael Baran and directed by Juhana von Bagh, as well as Indignity, written and directed by Kirsi Porkka and Marina Meinander. Access to these can be purchased at lippu.fi.

HISTORICAL ROOTS OF THE FNT

The Finnish National Theatre, founded in 1872, is the oldest Finnish-language professional theatre in the country. The birth of the Finnish National Theatre was closely linked to the political ideology of the late nineteenth century. Finland was part of the Russian Empire, and the country’s intellectual elite was Swedish speaking. Finnish language and art, including theatre, became the cornerstones of a cultural movement which began in the 1860’s, gradually developed political ambitions by the turn of the century, and eventually led to national independence in 1917.

For the first thirty years of its existence, the theatre functioned primarily as a touring company. The theatre did not acquire a permanent home until 1902, when a purpose-built theatre was erected in the heart of Helsinki, adjacent to the city’s main railway station. The building design was by architect Onni Törnqvist-Tarjanne. This majestic neo-romantic edifice with its façade of Finnish granite and interiors of soapstone, marble and wood, is one of Finland’s most impressive national monuments. The theatre still operates in these premises today, and over the years the building has expanded from its original size to encompass another three permanent stages. In addition to the Main Stage (Suuri näyttämö), the theatre comprises the Small Stage (Pieni näyttämö) built in 1954, the Willensauna Stage built in 1976, and the Omapohja Studio built in 1987.

In 2010 the FNT’s governing board appointed the current director Mika Myllyaho, who has expanded the theatre’s activities. He has adopted a policy of associate writers to whom the theatre is committed on a long term basis. The theatre has also become a venue welcoming a variety of joint productions and guest performances.

A new production unit was established in 2010, under the name of Touring Stage. This unit, which has no fixed stage, aims to take small-scale touring performances to locations throughout the country which have little or no access to theatre, such as homes for the elderly, hospitals, welfare reception centres, prisons and so on. The Touring Stage’s programme focuses on socially engaged theatre, developed through community research and interaction. The unit’s goal is to reach out and give voice to marginalized sectors of society.

Over recent years, the theatre has also expanded its outreach activities in the realm of theatre in education and community work. Theatre Educator Pirjo Virtanen has initiated and developed many projects and themed events appealing to different sectors of the FNT’s audience base. The programme includes discussion groups, drama courses, literary study, backstage tours and more. The unit also provides educational background material related to the theatre’s productions for the benefit of teachers.

In January 2011 the theatre’s former restaurant reopened as the FNT Club, transformed into a late-evening entertainment spot. The space was given a new look, refurbished in a piano-bar stroke artist’s living-room style, and it offers a varied programme of music, drama and poetry performances, discussion evenings and artist soirées, put together by producer Hanna Reetta Majanen. Unfortunately, for the period of the renovation, the FNT Club venue is closed.

Throughout its history, the Finnish National Theatre has also maintained international links in various forms of partnership with foreign theatres and festivals. This continues today as the theatre co-operates with, among others, the Helsinki Festival to bring over cutting-edge examples of world drama. The theatre also participates in text-based cultural exchanges and workshops, and regularly invites guest directors or other artists from abroad, to bring new perspectives to Finnish theatre.

Today, the Finnish National Theatre is on the threshold of a new era. Over the next few years the theatre faces numerous changes as the modern section of the building, dating from 1954, undergoes major renovation. While the Main Stage and the Omapohja Studio continues to function normally, both the Small Stage and the Willensauna are temporarily closed. For the period of the renovation, the Finnish National Theatre will also be operating in a new space located in Helsinki’s Vallila district. “It is exciting for the FNT to find a new home in this growing and vibrant sector of the city,” Director Mika Myllyaho comments on this latest development.