Although the tradition of theatre in Koper goes back to the times of the Venetian Republic in the 15th century, Koper Theatre is the second youngest professional theatre in Slovenia. Established in 2001 as one of the two theatres in the coastal region of Slovenia, the theatre is praised for its staging’s of comedies as well as performances for children.
Theatrical life in Koper has a long tradition. In the late Middle Ages, under the influence of the nearby Venetia, the local aristocracy enjoyed a diverse cultural life. According to oral tradition, which has as yet been neither confirmed nor denied by historical research, there was a theatre stage in the town as early as in the 15th century. It is thought that it was initially in a building situated near the former main port, the square named after Carpaccio and the salt warehouse of St Mark, on the location of the present-day Hotel Koper. The building was even in the 19th century still known as Teatro Vecchio, i.e. The Old Theatre. In 1941, it had to be demolished as a new hotel complex was being constructed on the site. The old building can be seen in a drawing published in the book by Giuseppe Caprina L’Istria nobilissima from 1907; it was a corner building with a late Gothic mullioned window on the upper floor. Most likely the interior of a typical medieval residential building had been adapted for the staging of theatre performances. During demolition, the most interesting sections of the late Gothic windows and door frames were transferred to the Koper Museum.
The development of theatrical activities in Koper was connected with the growth of the literary academies. These enabled intellectuals, those involved in culture and aristocrats to socialise and gave them the opportunity to carry out various knightly and literary activities. The first academy of this kind in Koper was founded in 1478 and was called Compagnia della Calza. In 1553 it dropped its knightly character and turned into a true literary academy, changing its name into Accademia d’Desisosi. In 1557 it was reorganised once more and renamed as Accademia Palladiana. It staged theatre performances and cultivated philological discussions. In 1646 it changed its name yet again, this time to Accademia de` Risorti. In 1647 a public academic theatre appeared in the building named Grison on Belvedere, in the northern end of the present-day Verdijeva ulica (Verdi Street). Koper thus acquired the first theatre building on the territory of what is now the Republic of Slovenia, which is documented in written sources.
Around the mid-18th century the theatre was moved to its present location, into an adapted older medieval building south of the former theatre. The theatre acquired a fixed set and curtain, whilst lighting was provided by oil lamps. In 1779, Matteo Furlanetto painted the stage curtain and this remained in the building until after the Second World War, when it was supposedly moved to the Koper Museum, but later all traces of it were lost. The new theatre hosted guest appearances of theatre groups from the former Venetian Republic. The Koper theatre and events connected with it were until the late 18th century under the strong influence of Venice, which is understandable as the town was between 1279 and 1797 within the territory of the Venetian Republic. After Napoleon’s occupation of Venice the academy was abolished, but theatrical activities in Koper did not cease entirely. Later, the theatre’s name changed from Societa del Teatro (Theatrical Society) into Teatro Sociale (Social Theatre). Performances were staged in Italian and were aimed particularly at the nobility. Town people were able to watch performances only from the gallery, which was accessed via a special staircase, separated from the entrance for the aristocracy. In 1876, with the foundation of a Slovene reading society, began the development of theatre in the Slovene language. In 1907, under the auspices of the Slovene loan society, a few intellectuals founded the Dramski skup Istra (Istria Dramatic Group). The repertoire consisted of national awareness-raising plays and the group appeared wherever reading and educational societies sprang up. After the outbreak of the First World War the group ceased its activities and with the annexation of the area to Italy after the war all public cultural life in Slovene was extinguished.
Around 1908 the theatre building on Verdijeva ulica was closed down due to its bad state of repair. As there was not enough money for an extensive renovation, a temporary space within the complex of the former monastery of St Klara was turned into a theatre. This was used even after the First World War, when the building on Verdijeva ulica was at least provisionally renovated and again used for theatre performances. In 1935 the building changed hands: the ownership was transferred from the Koper municipality to the Italian Venetian loan institution from Verona (Instituti odi Credito delle Venezie di Verona), and in 1940 to an organisation called Dopolavora. The theatre remained active until Italy’s capitulation during the Second World War in September 1943. Then the building was occupied by German soldiers and turned into a weapons warehouse. Directly after the war, the building once more began to be used for theatre performances. In 1947, it was nationalised by the new Yugoslav authorities and in 1948 the management of the building was transferred to the film and photography company Globus. Between 1948 and 1949 it was renovated and on 22 April 1949 festively re-opened. The event was marked by a mixed programme in Slovene, Italian and Croatian, whilst a day later the Slovene National Theatre from Ljubljana made a guest appearance with a performance of Hlapci (Serfs) by Ivan Cankar. At that time, the theatre had 370 seats in the main auditorium and 200 in the small one. The latter was located parallel to the main auditorium and had its own street entrance. The stage in the main hall was 12 metres wide and 8 metres deep. As a result of the renovation, the building acquired six modern changing rooms, an ironing room and two bathrooms. However, a few basic shortcomings remained: the building had no heating or ventilation system, no side stage or warehouse for sets, whilst the space for the orchestra below the stage was damp and uncomfortable.
In 1951 the Koper District People’s Committee, within the process of the creation of cultural establishments and institutions in Koper founded two semi-professional theatres: the Slovene People’s Theatre and Teatro del Popola Capodistria, which shared the premises in the theatre building on Verdijeva ulica. Because of the exodus of the Italian population after the annexation of Zone B of the Free Territory of Trieste to Yugoslavia in October 1954, the Italian theatre ceased to function. At the same time the Slovene People’s Theatre united with the Theatre for the Slovene Primorje Region, founded in 1950 in Postojna. The combined professional travelling theatre known under the name the Koper Theatre of Slovene Primorje, due to the altered importance of the Slovene coast after the annexation of Zone B to Yugoslavia, was given a base in the theatre building next to Verdijeva ulica in Koper, which for the first time in its history became the home of a professional theatre. This, however, did not last long: after three seasons, in 1957, the theatre group was on account of financial difficulties and for other reasons closed down. After this, the building was used for increasingly less frequent guest appearances. It was managed by an organisation involved in the staging of events in the Primorje region. After a thorough renovation between 1985 and 1987, the management was taken over by the Association of Cultural Organisations, which had its base there and was involved in the organisation of theatre guest appearances and the encouragement of amateur theatre.