“Too thin-skinned to become an actor, too slow to become a director and too impatient to tolerate the endless race for funding to become a researcher”, Mikko Kanninen sums up his answer when asked about his professional role where he has felt most comfortable.
In his case, being thin-skinned actually means thin and sensitive skin. While Kanninen worked as an actor, the constant application and removal of stage make-up irritated his skin.
“And unless both the director and the play were brilliant, I had to force myself to attend the rehearsals for six months, all the while thinking that I could do this better myself,” Kanninen says with a grin.
Being a visionary with oodles of self-confidence – which he can back up with a track record of achievements – Kanninen has not only acted but also directed and produced plays, taught acting and conducted research into acting. He has been showered with praise and won international awards.
It also takes self-confidence to let others shine. Now Kanninen has a role where the focus is on everyone else except himself.
Studying to become an actor was hard work in the 1990s, both at the Theatre Academy in Helsinki and at the Department of Acting in the then University of Tampere, where Kanninen studied from 1995 to 1999. He remembers that students were pushed near breaking point, both emotionally and physically, and there was a great deal of shouting, competing and violence towards self and others.
“The teaching style suited me fine but was too much for some of my fellow students. The whole mentality was different back then. Students had to endure emotional abuse from teachers who tried to push them to their limits and beyond,” he describes.
“The big question is, how can we push art students past their limits today, but safely and nondiscriminately?”
Exceeding one’s limits is what one needs to do to become an artist, Kanninen finds.
Before starting acting school, Kanninen had already been praised for his work as an amateur director. Still, teachers at the Department of Acting said: “That is very nice but not enough”.
“One time Lecturer Hanno Eskola gave me ten plays to choose from, each of them damned difficult,” Kanninen reminisces. He ended up directing the production of Danton’s Death at Tampereen Ylioppilasteatteri, a local amateur youth theatre – and it was, in his own words, “a goddamn success”.
“I still have a vivid memory of the moment when I understood that it is possible to do things you cannot do.”
But why theatre?
“The purpose of theatre is for us all to become better people,” Mikko Kanninen says.
“Theatre was invented in the Western world at the same time as democracy. It is no coincidence that city squares are flanked by a town hall on one side and a theatre on the other. Theatre is an institution that sustains and monitors democracy, which is why theatres are the first to be shut down when a dictator comes to power.”
It is no coincidence that city squares are flanked by a town hall on one side and a theatre on the other.
Kanninen is a firm believer that truth can only ever be realised on stage. As theatres are like laboratories for the exploration of our humanity that mirror truth and challenge established ideas, it is important to carry out academic research into theatre, drama and performance. Tampere Theatre is currently involved in two major research projects, and Kanninen is committed to maintaining close ties with the research community.
In addition, he wants to develop new ways of making theatre. For this purpose, Tampere Theatre has, among other things, launched the New Stages project that brings theatre to those who cannot attend the theatre themselves.
Mikko Kanninen has been leading Tampere Theatre for about a year. He took up his appointment as CEO in March 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic broke loose.
Before the ultimate leadership test presented by the pandemic, Kanninen underwent psychological testing as part of the recruitment process. The results demonstrated that he is able to respond effectively to a crisis.
“I understand that when a crisis occurs, I am not the one experiencing the crisis. A crisis is something you deal with.”
Professor Yrjö Juhani Renvall set an excellent example in crisis management; he headed the Department of Acting when its building, which was located west of the Tampere city centre at the time, caught fire. Kanninen remembers that Renvall came to work in the morning and calmly said something along the lines of “Well now, the house is on fire. Let’s all say calm. Take turns speaking.”
A theatre is a place where the hustle and bustle continues from eight in the morning until late at night, so it is not the easiest workplace to keep organised. Still, Kanninen is convinced that the CEO is the most useless person among theatre staff.
“I suppose my experience of acting, writing, directing and producing is what makes me a good leader. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, I know how to manage money. And I don’t have a problem interacting with others,” Kanninen muses.
“Being a leader can be difficult for an overly ambitious person because leadership is about focusing on other people. If one does not realise this, the organisation is heading for trouble.”