This article explores the conflict spurred in the Estonian socio-political landscape by the small theatre company Theatre NO99, and their use of postdramatic theatre to test and blur the boundaries between ‘theatre’ and ‘political theatre’ via the creation of a ‘real’ populist political movement – Unified Estonia. This essay will use Hans-Thies Lehmann’s ideas for contextual grounding and argues that it was primarily through the use of experimental postdramatic theatre that NO99 achieved a sense of authenticity that surpassed mere populist rhetoric and transformed the simulated political event into a genuine anticipation for a new political power.
At the very start of the Unified Estonia project, the actors and theatre makers were unexpectantly met by equal measures of hope, dread, and anticipation that a new political power was beginning to emerge. The project began with a press conference ‘where the ideological platform of a fictitious political movement was introduced.’ (Epner, 2014, p. 171) The theatre group promised a culmination event in 44 days where they would showcase the radical populism and manipulation strategies that political parties use. In-between the 44 days would be performances, actions, and protests. During the press conference Tiit Ojasoo and Ene-Liis Semper, the artistic directors of the theatre, warned that “many movements and parties in Estonia have been started jokingly (based just on an idea and enthusiasm of a small group of people) but influential social-political powers have grown out of them.” (Saro, 2014, p. 15)
Lehmann describes the ‘dramatic’ in theatre:
An unfathomable experience of metamorphosis, in which there is no arresting of the utopian, anxiety-ridden whirl of transformations that the theatre manifests; in which there is only the feast and no fixing that could protect from the vertigo and dizziness of theatre. (Lehmann 2009: 48)
The Unified Estonia project started, similarly, as an ‘experience of metamorphosis’ and there was no desire from the theatre group to protect the audience from ‘vertigo’ or to fix the Estonian society by political means per se, only to explore how political parties accrue power and followers. Even though the theatre had been preparing the project for two years, the endgame was, akin to Lehmann’s idea of ‘dramatic,’ still unclear.
This way of working will not come as a surprise to anyone delving deeper into the theatre’s work as the group excelled at devising their work from interviews, research, and from texts found in media and culture. ‘Indeed, NO99 has been seeking for a kind of synthesis or symbiosis of theatre and performance art; their search manifests itself, for instance, in an interest in so-called abstract images, based on pure performance.’ (Epner, 2014, p. 169) The performances, and images, are formed through improvisation and experimentation which then unfold into Lehmann’s version of theatre – an experience of metamorphosis.
I would argue that this experience of metamorphosis is apparent in the forming of any new political power and since the Unified Estonia project never revealed their aims or desires to be anything other than a sincere exploration into how political campaigns are formed, we can observe this transformation in action. They were as ‘dramatic,’ in Lehmann’s sense of the word, as any new political power riding the wave of popularity would be.
Whilst how populism is defined still varies wildly and is being debated, for this essay I would simplify the term and include a certain identifying characteristic that can be found in almost all definitions of the word, with antagonism being chief among them. Populism, as explained by Fransisco Panizza, is ‘an anti-status quo discourse that simplifies the political space by symbolically dividing society between ‘the people’ and its ‘other’. (Panizza, 2005, p. 3)
Following these strategies, NO99 erected several campaign posters along the busiest streets in Tallinn and then, days later, defaced them with graffiti. Using populist political strategies from the very start of their campaign, their aim was to symbolically divide the society – there are those who are against and those who are for. The fact that they themselves were behind the deed, an idea floated by many at the time, did not matter since the public was still confused as to how exactly treat the group – a postdramatic theatre or a rising political force. Whilst the demonstrated populism strategy is no doubt a successful way to gather followers, it can be argued that it was the uniquely postdramatic (which is to also say: authentic) approach to populism that kept the Unified Estonia project at the centre of media attention for six weeks.
NO99 is clearly postdramatic with their more essential strategies being ‘recycling; intermediality; inter- and meta-discursivity; authentication (creating an effect of authenticity).’ (Epner, 2014, p. 170). If populism can emerge ‘when there can be no politics as usual’ and involves ‘redrawing of social borders along lines other than those that had previously structured society’ (Panizza, 2005, p. 8), then it can be argued that NO99’s postdramatic strategies fit into this rather clearly. If one starts to redraw social borders authentically, without an endgame and as a postdramatic experiment, then at some point one will encounter political opposition.
When observing the devising of the events, we can see how NO99’s early aim in the project was radicalization and fragmentation, both of which are also tools in postdramatic theatre at large. (Lehmann, 2009, pp. 124, 148) An early clip shows how they brought the audience members over an imagined line. Cultural theorist Tarmo Jüristo commented that what they created were “two ideologically empty categories” and that “neither the arena nor the stage [was] ideologically charged.” What NO99 did in this action was to give a meaningless action a moral deed – crossing the line and walking onto a stage was the ‘right’ thing to do. And the ones who failed to decide, failed to be moral. As Jüristo continues to explain that “they showed how [the] reason for viewing the world can be very simply constructed in five minutes.”  Through these postdramatic experiments, NO99 learned the full extent of how easy it can be to both fragment and radicalize your audience members.
Once the project was in full swing, the media became increasingly confused as to how to understand or approach the project as it was being both (traditionally) populist and yet postdramatic. It is important to accentuate how closely this confusion parallels the approach media has to politics in general. In one of the interviews, we can observe a leading Estonian journalist inquire and demand yes/no answers regarding the theatre’s views and actions. The theatre responds with obfuscating and demagogy. The actors in this play had ‘acquired a position similar to that of characters on stage who are objects of identification and to whom spectators lend their agency, at least for a certain time and purpose.’ (Saro, 2014, p. 16)
NO99 furthermore cultivated a sense of authenticity by focusing on postdramatic strategies that enforce the actors’ viewpoint, taste and authorship. Whilst the actors in the project gave extremely populist speeches, they still shared some of their own thoughts and political views or conveyed the constructed truth convincingly enough that the audience bought it. NO99 also used professional journalists and politicians to manufacture scandals and invited plenty of non-party politicians to speak at the final event. This had an effect of blurring the lines between real politics and a political performance even more, as well as merging lies with truth. As Lehmann writes:
Enclosed within postdramatic theatre is obviously the demand for an open and fragmenting perception in place of a unifying and closed perception. On the one hand, the abundance of simultaneous signs in this way presents itself like a doubling of reality: it seemingly mimics the chaos of real everyday experience. (Lehmann, 2009. Pp. 82,83)
By playing both parts, by mimicking reality that holds both political falsehoods and political ideals, NO99 garnered yet more authenticity.
It must be noted that NO99 kept the developing project as ‘fragmented’ as possible – as soon as the Estonian society perceived the group as being a genuinely active force aiming to create a new political party, they switched gears and insisted on the project being a mere theatrical experiment, and vice versa. This chaotic and postdramatic approach to radical politics managed to create enough support that the Unified Estonia project would have been able to partake in the Estonian general elections.
As the project went on, the theatre makers found themselves increasingly disgusted by the fact that the populist strategies had worked and that they had garnered support. The projects dramaturg explained that it was incredibly tragic how easy it was “to really make people do what you want them to do.” It was more than just anger or general discontent directed at politics – the project had transformed into an unexpected exploration into ‘how easy it is to create a party in the classical old, obviously outdated political system’  that could easily accrue actual power.
What gave NO99 this needed bit of authenticity that the step to become a genuine political force became a reality? No small part was played by the audience: politicians and the media. Lehmann explains that ‘theatre likewise manifests itself only as the one half and awaits the presence and gesture of the unknown spectators who realize the edge of the fracture through their intuition, their way of understanding, and their imagination.’ (Lehmann, 2009, p. 61) It follows then, that postdramatic theatre leaves a large space for the audience and the public and that this surprising authenticity was, in large part, provided by them more so than the devising actors. NO99 was yet again so successful in the Unified Estonia project because they followed another principle laid out by postdramatic theatre:
If the new theatre wants to reach beyond a non-committal and entirely private engagement, it has to seek other ways to find transindividual points of contact. It finds them in the theatrical realization of freedom – freedom from subjection to hierarchies, freedom from the demand for coherency. (Lehmann, 2009, p. 83)
There is a parallel here between postdramatic and populist as both tout freedom as a priority. Both lack the demand for coherency and both are desperate for points of contact. Yet it is entirely arguable, that if NO99 had remained subject or inflexible to the political hierarchy imitated, they would have been less successful.
If we accept that theatre has a fictionalized power and authority, then authenticity can be easily created merely by breaking that border and entering the ‘real’ space. By doing just that, NO99 created for themselves a multitude of personas and identities. They could be, all at the same time, the cultural elite, the newcomers and underdogs in a political arena, concerned citizens with private lives, and a (seemingly) willing vessel for democratic power.
Another aspect of authenticity that was reached was from blurring the lines between real and illusory. Presenting facts, framing them or imitating them are all blended into one and then contrasted by social roles and representations. NO99 created an illusory reality and framed it before the presentation in the final event. They combined the illusory ‘play’ and reality and thusly pressured what ‘real’ could even mean in a political context. By picking out many different ‘realities’ and constantly mixing them with individual authenticity and authorship, the creators were less interested in displaying a manufactured reality and more interested in presenting an actual reality that is actually happening in the moment.
The project had, by this point, become an iridescent dance between ambivalence and reality – a perfect vessel for both fictional and non-fictional aims. Are we here for a theatrical production or are we promising/proposing a change to the current political culture via the creation of a new political party? These offerings were only possible thanks to the symbolic capital the actors had created throughout their campaign and their interactions with the public and media. They acted as (versions) of themselves as well as concerned citizens, and as actors and theatre makers.
It is difficult to deem whether presenting reality using artistic measures is merely creating another kind of illusion. What are the differences between creating the effect of authenticity versus actually creating authenticity? If one takes a closed fictional world and redrafts it to fit his/her own personal viewpoints and actions, then the effect will be one of authenticity for the observer. It could be that NO99’s use of postdramatic theatre was to merely, hopefully, encounter a reality, since this desire for contact is clear in their previous work, and to then find the points of contact that truly feel authentic to them. It is the meeting of two worlds where tension finds relief through artistic and chaotic, postdramatic signage.
The aftermath of Unified Estonia left the political world of Estonia shaken. Tiit Ojasoo was asked about how he felt about “giving power away” to which he replied that they “are a theatre.”  There was no ‘power’ to turn down because, to him, the two worlds are separate. What is clear, however, is that the two realities (theatre and politics) share many points of contact. NO99 is a theatre but also a morally sensitive institution that has a bias. The role of a theatre becomes increasingly complex as soon as the conventional framework is thrown aside, which is what postdramatic theatre aims to do. The moment this new, unconventional framework is ‘found’ then it is actively and directly relating to the actions happening within.
As NO99 was seen to be operating outside their conventional framework, another air of authenticity was found. What is the theatre doing in the realm of politics? What could happen? This activates a personal curiosity in any observer – their focus and engagement will be even higher since their goal now will be to find the art inside the real or, conversely, the real inside the art. ‘Using tactics of mimicry,’ and sampling ‘the most outrageous propaganda slogans of their competitors’ and remixing them into ‘a crude melange of xenophobic and neoliberalist catchphrases while constantly appealing to national unity as a common emotional denominator,’ (Römer, 2015, p. 173) would never have been enough to create true authenticity. It was the chaotic transformation of real-life media, fake imitations, actors with cultural capital and a time of political stagnation that thrust NO99 onto the political arena. And whilst the theatre hinted at their true aims (they are, after all, a theatre), they only revealed the true artistic character of the project only after the convention.
This brings up more questions of authenticity in political performances vs political theatre vs theatre. Tiit Ojasoo’s bafflement at being questioned about ‘power’ is in line with Lehmann’s ideas on political theatre. He argues that theatre is “deceptive as an action, and deceives even when the illusion is openly disturbed or destroyed.” He continues that theatre can only be “ambiguously real.” NO99 had no real ‘power’ to give away because, from the perspective of postdramatic theatre, theatre is in constant flux – permanently uncertain and “every work, every meaning” wavering with potential cancellation. (Lehmann, 2009, p. 179)
As explained, much of the authenticity was given to NO99 externally. Whilst the theatre acted ‘as if,’ it was the public, media, and politicians who provided the truest (re)actions. One could argue that if NO99 had treated the public as ‘just’ an audience, then they would have failed. As ‘the definition of the citizen as spectator is indispensable,’ (Lehmann, 2009, p. 183) NO99 had a choice to make – will we force the ‘spectator’ to act or not? Samuel Weber writes about the citizen as a spectator:
If we remain spectators/viewers, if we stay where we are – in front of the television – the catastrophes will always stay outside, will always be ‘objects’ for a ‘subject’ – this is the implicit promise of the medium. (Weber 1995, cited in Lehmann 2009, p. 184)
Yet postdramatic theatre places the audience into a new role. They are now induced ‘to watch themselves as subjects which perceive, acquire knowledge and partly create the objects of their cognition.’ (Sugiera 2004, cited in Lehmann 2009, p. 6) We return to the first experiment where NO99 fragmented the audience and forced them to act: to cross a line. They made the spectator an active participant and thusly destroyed the ‘radical distance for passive viewing.’ By following the principles of postdramatic theatre, by forcing the spectators (the media, the public, and the politicians) into a more active role, NO99’s Unified Estonia was destined to never be just ‘reproductions of “images”’. (Lehmann, 2009, p. 184)
Unified Estonia is an example of extreme manipulation: political (using slogans, press conferences, and a convention), authentic (via incorporating their own personal issues and ‘radicalizing’ spectators into a more active role), and strongly postdramatic (through fragmenting and mimicking a chaotic reality.) In effect, by use of postdramatic theatre, ‘NO99 stepped out of the paradigm of traditional theatre and created a new unprecedented performative reality.’ (Laurits, 2015, p. 275)
 Theatre NO99 (2016). NO55 Ash and Money.
Available at: https://vimeo.com/130752912#t=1350s [Accessed 13 Jan. 2019].
 Theatre NO99 (2016). NO55 Ash and Money. Available at: https://vimeo.com/130752912#t=1379s [Accessed 13 Jan. 2019].