Andres Tennus

University of Tartu “Contribution to Estonian National Identity” award presented to stage director Merle Karusoo

Today, on 1 December, the University of Tartu celebrates the 104th anniversary of the opening of the Estonian-language university. At the anniversary ceremony, Rector Professor Toomas Asser announced this year’s recipient of the “Contribution to Estonian National Identity” award the acclaimed director, teacher and founder of modern dramaturgy Merle Karusoo.

“For 20 years already, the University of Tartu has awarded individuals whose creative work has promoted the national and state identity of Estonians and Estonia. This time, it is a great honour to recognise Merle Karusoo, who has dedicated her life to national memory and remembering. Throughout decades, she has been collecting the memory images of Estonian people, even when people were unwilling to talk about their life stories and even now, when people often prefer to avoid thinking of national identity. Her creative works can be regarded as shaping a completely independent idea of the nation,” said Rector Toomas Asser and added that giving the award to Merle Karusoo adds a new perspective to the interpretation of our national identity.

In his speech at the ceremony, a member of the committee issuing the “Contribution to Estonian National Identity” award, theatre researcher Madis Kolk said that Merle Karusoo has been the guiding force of the political theatre for many. “Karusoo has repeatedly emphasised that untold stories will ferment into poison. Her memory theatre has also followed this approach. It is often complained that there is too little political theatre in Estonia, and Karusoo has been a role model in this direction. Yet, her creative style has been unique and difficult to follow. Not only because she combines the seemingly incompatible – an art form that is considered entertaining with scientific research methods, psychological experience with detached witness stance – but also because her sensitive and provocative stage messages are not ideological,” said Kolk.

When accepting the award, Merle Karusoo said that her alma mater has elevated her twice – first by electing her as the professor of liberal arts and now with this recognition. “I know the previous recipients, and that’s why I know how prestigious it is. I truly wish that each of my actors and those I have interviewed, all the editors, students, and supporters, would feel that a fragment of this award is for them. I thank all my fellow travellers, I thank the university. It is an honour,” said Karusoo.

Merle Karusoo is a critical observer, researcher and chronicler of history and society. She is a conceptualiser and bearer of culture. Irrespective of the complex topics, the political situation, or specific historical events, Karusoo has delved into the stories, destinies and situations that people often struggle to admit even to themselves. The material she has collected has thus found its way into many hearts. The carefully systematised material, illustrated by photographs, videos and recordings, forms a breathtaking chronicle of the history of Estonians.

Merle Karusoo has dramatised life stories and events and directed many thought-provoking and captivating productions in Estonian theatres. Over decades, her form of documentary theatre, which uses the stories of real people, has helped find ways to explain Estonia’s many-layered and largely painful past. Karusoo’s keen social nerve and her ability to pose difficult questions through her productions have made us think and perhaps understand the background to the moral choices Estonians have been forced to make in the past three-quarters of a century.

Karusoo has been awarded the Cultural Award of the Republic of Estonia (1998), the Order of the White Star, 4th class (2001), and numerous theatre and playwriting awards. In 2022, she was elected an honorary member of the Estonian Directors’ and Dramaturgs’ Union.

The “Contribution to Estonian National Identity” award has been given since 2004. Merle Karusoo is the 20th laureate of the award. The award comes with a tapestry by textile artist Anu Raud and 50 volumes of the essay collection Eesti mõttelugu (The Story of Estonian Thought), published by Ilmamaa.

The 11-member committee issuing the award comprised the 2022 laureate of the “Contribution to Estonian National Identity” award, poet Viivi Luik; Rector of the University of Tartu, Professor Toomas Asser; Professor of Comparative Politics Piret Ehin; Professor emeritus Jaak Kikas; Professor of Estonian Literature Arne Merilai; Professor of Anaesthesiology and Intensive Care Joel Starkopf; TV Journalist and TV and Film Critic Joonas Hellermaa; Rector of the Estonian Academy of Arts Mart Kalm; museologist Sirje Karis; Editor-in-Chief of the Teater. Muusika. Kino magazine Madis Kolk; and textile artist and Member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences Anu Raud.

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