Piret Jaaks is a freelance playwright and dramaturge who, in addition to writing plays, has also penned short prose, children’s books, film scripts, reviews, and articles, and has worked as a literary editor. Four of her theater works have placed in the Estonian Theater Agency’s annual playwriting competition. Jaaks has likewise excelled in prose – in 2015, her first novel Urban Legend won the Betti Alver Award for Debut Literature. An alumnus of the University of Tartu, Drakadeemia, and the Estonian Academy of Music and Theater, she addresses topics such as women’s position in society, mental health, and social norms. Jaaks’s plays manifest a powerful, gripping umwelt that arrives at universalities that touch one on a personal level.

Rites of Passage, which is the 14th play you’ve written, won the 2019 Estonian Theater Agency’s Playwriting Competition. Your 2011 play, To See a Pink Elephant, had the same fortune. What has changed since then?

A great deal has changed for me, personally. With To See a Pink Elephant, my goal was to write an intense story about a married couple plagued by a secret, and to keep the dialogue as concise as I could. I dealt with my “favorite” topics like women’s position in society, loneliness, and mental illness. Back then I didn’t have the skills I do now, so I wrote the play in a plainly classical style. It has since been read and performed in several countries other than Estonia. You get an incredible boost of confidence to stay active in the field when your debut does as well as mine did. With Rites of Passage, my aim was to combine common mythology and folklore into an entirely different style. I wanted to write a contemporary play that is in communion with ancient stories, and to use various techniques in doing so. That’s the challenge I set myself, and it appears to have worked.

You’ve been a dramaturge and have also directed plays. What kinds of opportunities or points of progress have you encountered?

In the autumn of 2019, I directed my play Beautiful People at the Tartu New Theater, which was an extraordinary learning opportunity. Only now do I fully comprehend the incredible responsibility shouldered by a dramaturge and how they can be the director’s right-hand person in all their sundry roles: as a mirror of the play as a whole, in creating dynamics, as a dramaturge, etc. Many directors probably don’t feel they need a dramaturge simply because they are unaware of the opportunities such cooperation can provide. The role isn’t very well-established in the Estonian theater tradition just yet, but luckily, it’s moving in that direction.

How do you see your role as a playwright in the staging process? Or do you view yourself more as a dramaturge?

I feel more like a playwright. During read-throughs, I would approach the directing process from the position of the author, making sure the world encoded in the script was preserved. At some point though, following the concept of the director, it’s better to leave the position of author and rise to the next level; to seek a new idea – and here is where the dramaturge’s role became crucial. I feel the author must remain the most autonomous of the trio. The director is responsible for the concept and the dramaturge must support it flexibly, but the author must be independent from their script. Once they hand it over to the director, it is the director’s script. It’s hard, but I believe the author shouldn’t make too many compromises for theater, because otherwise no new value will take shape. I’m more of a hardheaded author myself. You do have to abide by the rules of theater, but it doesn’t have to be a condition, because conformity can obstruct innovation.

You’ve written books, articles, and plays. What do you see as the most important inspiration for an author to write for theater?

A desire to write for theater is probably the same as what inspires people to act or to direct – a love for the art. It’s as simple as that. Estonians are fed large portions of theater starting from childhood, and looking at national theater statistics, you can tell it’s an important part of our culture – Estonia has a population of 1.3 million and in 2008, there were over 1.2 million theater tickets sold. I can remember my mother taking me to the puppet theater at every opportunity when I was a kid, even though we lived out in the countryside. I also remember how a theater troupe from Tallinn performed at the Kohila Gymnasium and the emotions it gave me. So, I’d say what’s most important is having a love for theater and an understanding of how alive it is – of how the relationships on paper bring it to life. There’s always incredible poetry and enchantment in seeing how the acting on stage materializes so powerfully and perceptibly in people; in the audience. It’s enough for me to attend a premiere and just feel the energy in the auditorium. With books, it’s great when fans write to you every now and then, or when people stop you on the street to tell you how powerful something was and how much they enjoyed it, but the great beauty of theater lies in its collective energy.

What else has influenced you when writing for theater?

Many things. Doing Live Action Role Play (LARP) in the early 2000s, for instance. The stories were usually pretty flexible and participants could develop their own characters. I can remember we made our own characters for everyone participating and developed story lines, sometimes even giving them costume recommendations. I reckon it gave me a good foundation for building sound characters, because the ones we created were incredibly individual and had different goals, inclinations, and backgrounds. It’s probably also where I got the desire and the ability to weave secrets into scripts, because many LARP plotlines are hidden – they have to be discovered and unwound.

A writer may have a well-honed imagination, but it won’t show if they lack the skills necessary for writing a good play. In 2010, I came across the Drakadeemia creative writing school’s open call to enroll in a base playwriting course. We went through the basics of playwriting and learned what a writer’s “toolbox” should be, as well as how to further sharpen our skills. I mastered advanced writing techniques during the course, which opened up a gigantic world of possibilities. I certainly can’t leave out the fact that I also studied theater at the University of Tartu. We were required to attend many, many performances, because much of our four-year program was centered around what goes on in the theater – i.e. how to interpret and analyze, which has had an incredible effect on me.

Do you read plays as well?

I do, especially for inspiration. Every time I read a play, I discover something novel in how someone else has created that space, which leads to new possibilities for writing my own plays. It’s a very enriching world. I taught a practical course in dramaturgy at the University of Tartu and selected a hefty stack of reading for the students. It’s my conviction that if you don’t read plays, then you won’t be able to write them, either. A play is a different world entirely, with its own set of rules and methods. I tried to make the selection as broad as I could, including Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine, Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, and Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon. Some great works of Estonian theater I picked were Siim Nurklik’s Am I Alive Now, Andra Teede’s Estoplast, and Madis Kõiv’s Return to Father. Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane was a well-made play I included to provide as rich of an understanding as possible. The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Hamletmachine are two wonderfully dissimilar scripts when juxtaposed. The former is particularly significant to me, personally. It is structurally classical, but absolutely amazing insomuch that it manages to tell a fantastic story with very few devices.

 Where do you find the impulse to write?

Topics like isolation and loneliness in a community are especially dear to my heart. I also strive to create strong female characters because the Estonian theater tradition has been very male centric. The last time I felt like, “Now, I have to react as a writer!” was when I was working on my play Can Animals Count? (which received special mention in the 2019 Estonian Theater Agency’s Playwriting Competition). When women doctors were declared mass murderers in multiple places around the world overnight, I started to think that if it’s the women doctors today, then it’ll be the scientists next, and then women teachers will be declared unsuitable for their jobs, and that’s how human rights like access to knowledge and education are restricted. That’s when I felt without a shred of doubt that I had to write a dystopia about what would happen in a similar future scenario. Music is also an impulse for me. In To See a Pink Elephant, I tried to write a play about a romantic relationship in which the woman is boxed into the man’s world and can’t escape. The right tonality and rhythm came to me from Arvo Pärt’s music. Beethoven was playing in the background while I wrote Beautiful People. For Rites of Passage, on the other hand, it was a sentence that had just the right rhythm; one I later deleted. It stood alone on the first page of the play while I was writing: A chamber holds four rounds, but you only need one to shoot an elk. That leitmotif reminded me how I should move forward as I worked on the play. Once I determine a leitmotif, I can advance confidently from start to finish.

You’re currently working on a doctoral degree at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theater. Is it true that you wrote Beautiful People, which is also set against a backdrop of social issues, as a part of this process?

Yes, I was prompted by society. As a teenager in the 90s, I could sense that new values had formed in the winds of change. Everyone was similar under Soviet occupation – everyone wore the same clothes and had the same haircuts and enjoyed equally few opportunities. Afterward, you could just watch the social classes form. I realized something similar is happening with the spread of social media today. Some are more successful at showcasing their external side than others. An “influencer” culture has formed and moved onto the internet and social media. These two trends somehow clashed, and I tried to figure out what was behind it; to see if anything has changed. Underlying it, I found a really noteworthy dose of loneliness that people continually attempt to mask. So, I started writing the play as documentary theater. I interviewed people for whom appearances – anyone’s appearances – were important. At some point, I realized the documental verbatim technique wasn’t going to work, so I created a fantasy world based on the themes and impulses the interviewees gave me. My doctoral thesis focuses on community engagement practices in dramaturgy, in which I research how dramaturgy can take impulses from a community, and what writing strategies should be applied. I plan to broaden my field of experience and attend the Theater Academy in Helsinki as an exchange student for six months.

You’ve also written plays (The Mumbler, Elias from the Ground) and books (The Secret of the Lost Sock, Mommy’s Dragon) for children. Do you find that there’s a perceptional distinction?

Writing for children is completely different – it’s more demanding, in a sense; more gleeful. Anything is allowed in a fantasy world. On the other hand, it’s a challenge to hold a child’s attention – you have to be able to understand how their thought process might work. I didn’t get a hang of it before I became a mother myself. It’s the dear little things that thrill children – insignificant everyday phenomena can swell into a huge play-world. It’s been a fascinating journey to pursue and rediscover all these things. For example, my latest children’s book Mommy’s Dragon talks about how all kinds of different emotions can bubble inside of a mother, and how a child tries to make sense of them. Unsure of whether she is the cause of her mother’s emotions or vice versa, the protagonist decides there must be a dragon inside of mommy who doesn’t like it when, say, a hole is cut into her dress! Kids have been profoundly delighted by the book and the energy they radiate is profoundly positive.

Is fantasy also an alluring creative path?

My first short-story collection Urban Legend (winner of the 2015 Betti Alver Award for Debut Literature) had a few stories that could be classified as fantasy, and the genre certainly interests me. However, I also have great reverence for it. I feel like when we have trailblazers like Margaret Atwood and George Orwell, then where else is there to go?

To write fantasy, you have to have a tremendous imagination and also be capable of constructing that world in a way that speaks to people in our present day. In a way, a fantasy writer always forges a new reality by making predictions. I’m genuinely interested, I’ve tried my own hand at writing it, and I believe I’ll try again. It might lean closer towards fantasy than to sci-fi – I especially admire the latter, which has an even greater danger of getting stuck in clichés. I’d like to constantly reach a new level of quality and be able to achieve uniqueness in my themes and angles of approach.

Unique drama – how would you define it?

A play must be like deep water that is composed of multiple layers – somewhere at the very bottom, there’s an enigmatic mud. I have to sense that there’s a great secret hidden in that mud. That it conceals a treasure. Once I do, I’m like a fish on a hook – I wriggle and wait to pass through the other layers. At the surface, you have an initial and immediate thinner perception before starting to dive deeper; before probing what kinds of intertextual references, style, and undercurrents lie there. It’s exhilarating. In a good drama, much is hidden – you can read it and reread it several times and still discover something new. Listening to myself right now, I feel like it’s not just a quality of a good play (laughs). It’s a quality of any good piece of writing. And an element of surprise. Secrecy and an element of surprise.

Heidi Aadma is a drama researcher who graduated from the University of Tartu, and occasionally pens reviews. She has worked as a dramaturge at the Estonian Theater Agency since 2005. In addition to being responsible for the agency’s playwriting competitions, she has organized theater seminars, trainings, discussions, and conferences.