Coming of age: how the Belarus Free Theatre is still fighting on after 15 years on the edge

For 15 years, the Belarus Free Theatre has stood its ground against totalitarianism and censorship, while other art activism groups have faded away. The Calvert Journal traces its tumultuous journey so far — and looks at what could still lie ahead.

20 April 2020

The Belarus Free Theatre was blacklisted by the authorities almost as soon as the curtain closed on its inaugural performance in 2005: Sarah Kane’s fragmented and brutally uncompromising 4.48 Psychosis. The punishment was linked to the play’s discussion of homosexuality, identity and suicide, all things that the state hoped to suppress. Since then, the theatre has operated from a secret location, its presence all the more visible thanks to the government’s attempts to quash it. Fifteen years on, the group has become one of the country’s most celebrated cultural exports, producing play after play on themes ranging from trans sex to the death penalty.

Formed by Natalia Kaliada, Nikolai Khalezin and Vladimir Shcherban, it is no surprise that the Belarus Free Theatre captivated audiences. Belarus’ human rights record remains famously checkered. After being elected president in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko muzzled most of the media and clamped down hard on freedom of expression, with many political opponents, outspoken journalists. and artists “disappearing” in questionable circumstances. Lukashenko remains in power today, where his regime represses both opposition and minority voices.

On stage for Dogs of Europe. Image: Kolya Kuprich

The Belarus Free Theatre meanwhile, has positioned itself as a bastion of cultural resistance, fighting artistic censorship not just in Belarus, but everywhere, including, they say, in people’s own minds. It has a young following among artists in Minsk, as well as an older audience seeking an outlet from the repressions that have now become the norm. The theatre has become, in the words of the company’s filmmaker Kolya Kruprich, a form of “soft power” where the arts are used to tackle the dictatorship from within.

The Belarus Free Theatre has positioned itself as a bastion of cultural resistance, fighting artistic censorship not just in Belarus, they say, but in people’s own minds

In many ways, it is the Belarus Free Theatre’s longevity that sets it apart from other art-activists in the region. To stay relevant, the group is constantly reinventing its working structures through a three-pronged attack: performances, campaigns, and its student programme, Fortinbras (named after the Norwegian Crown Prince in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, whose final lines end the bloody play and represent a hopeful future for the Danish monarchy. Khalezin says the group is so called because it is meant to clear up the dead bodies produced by the government state theatre.) Fortinbras was formed because the theatre’s directors realised that Belarus’ acting academies could not provide them with the kinds of actors they needed. It ensures there is always new blood running through the troupe.

Its latest show, Dogs of Europe, an adaptation of the award-winning novel by Alhierd Bacharevič, is a dystopian political thriller on the dangers of looking away when authoritarianism takes root. But its style —heavily influenced by musicals and recognisable for its colour, rawness, and honesty — affects audiences just as much as the not-so-subtle digs at the ruling elite. The company explores new, divergent styles and methodologies with a fittingly youthful intensity in a bid to communicate many-layered theatrical messages. Currently, the team is exploring the Total Football techniques invented by Rinus Michels, the coach of the Netherlands National Football Team in 1974 in the hopes of creating a more artistically-focused “Total Theatre”. Much like the sporting version, it will focus on ensemble passing and team members being able to take on each other’s roles.

In order to consistently reach the masses, the actors’ artistic skill is just as important as its activist vigour. Both actors and managers are paid (not a given in the art world) and try to live, as stage manager Sveta Sugako testifies, in a different parallel country within Belarus itself.

Preparation for each show is rigorous, with actors having to come up with études— improvised scenes are based around the show’s themes — on day one. “For Dogs of Europe, we did 250 études,” says Khalezin, “but we might only take a little gesture here, or a movement there to use in our final performance . It can be very hard on the actors.” Actors are also supposed to be able to cover each other’s roles, while also acting as prop masters and makeup artists and technicians.

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For those desperate to join the Belarus Free Theatre, Fortinbras is the only path. There, students undergo intense training six days a week for a year in acting, voice work, or physical skills, which some students find difficult. “There were 14 of us [in our Fortinbras class],” recalls now-cast member Andrei, “and [our teacher] just silently walked in, put on some music, and worked out for 90 minutes without a break. Those 14 guys and girls were like fallen trees.”

But Fortinbras is also unique in the way in which it arms Belarusians with skills to counter the oppression through art-activism. Fortinbras students also learn how to run campaigns, performance protests, and engage in civic journalism. “I wanted to be an active citizen to fight with all this stuff, but I had no idea how,” says one student, Olya. She took part in an LGBT action in 2018 which saw her arrested. But she believes that Fortinbras has shown her how to be effective in opposition: “For me, Fortinbras showed me what is wrong with this country — it is the only place in Belarus where you can teach modern theatre and art-activism without censorship. It gave me inner freedom and I became stronger.”

But ultimately, in order to survive, the Belarus Free Theatre has had to adapt their work to fight from abroad. In 2010, Khalezin, Kaliada, and Scherban fled Belarus for the UK after they were tortured by security forces during opposition protests that descended into violence. (The year also marked when the Belarus Free Theatre was officially outlawed for good.) Shcherban, left the company in 2018, and now runs his own company, HUNCH Theatre, in London. Khalezin and Kaliada, meanwhile, direct operations via Skype from their new base at the Young Vic theatre in London, they with a small team of support staff. The company also tours extensively.

Actors take direction from Nikolai Khalezin via Skype. Image: Verity Healey

Translating such political works for foreign audiences, however, is no easy task. Despite being just two hours plane ride from Minsk, the political realities in both countries are inescapably different.

Theatre director and former artistic director at the Almeida Theatre, Michael Attenborough, has worked with the Belarus Free Theatre extensively. He says that even watching a show in Minsk is a vastly different experience to seeing that production in London. “In Minsk, the show is hotter, edgier, and dangerous,” he says. One show he attended in Belarus was stormed by the security services.

But Attenborough believes that this slightly less-intense experience does also have its benefits. The calmer atmosphere allows British audiences to reflect on democracy a little easier and with more depth after the event itself. Oppression operates in a more subtle form in the UK he says, before pausing on the phone: “Well, we are at the start of an authoritarian regime now.”

Even watching a show in Minsk is a vastly different experience to seeing that production in London: “In Minsk, the show is hotter, edgier, and dangerous”

The Belarus Free Theatre, however, does sometimes try to ramp up the tension on their own. Their Staging a Revolution series in London in 2015 hoped to recreate the feeling of risk that the company experiences in Belarus by telling audience members to bring their passports (just in case the show was “shut down”). The troupe also sent texts detailing a secret meeting point (but not the actual location of the show) on the day of the performance.

The mock cloak and dagger antics could be seen as a gimmick. But for many in the audience, it was the closest they could have come to experiencing the extraordinary lengths that the theatre and its audiences in Minsk still go through in order to protect themselves. After all, in 2011, the Belarusian security forces stormed the company’s performance of Edward Bond’s Eleven Vests and arrested audience members and actors.

Staging a Revolution also used non-theatrical venues (a car park under the Houses of Parliament was one of them) and sought to engage audiences by holding debates and campaigns linked to the shows. “A high percentage of people stayed behind to discuss things,” says the show’s producer Fenella Dawnay, who was also the company’s general manager at the time . “And it is personal, they know the people in the prisons we write cards to, they know the people we are campaigning for who are in prison.”

The troupe’s directors try to keep pushing political causes despite their exile. Campaigns conducted from Western Europe include Give a Body Back, a movement calling on Belarus to return the bodies of two young men executed on what many considered questional terrorism charges. The company called on its members and fans to lie in body bags for 40 minutes on the streets of Amsterdam. In another, The Red Line, the group lobbied western governments to pressure Lukashenko into reneging on plans to build a new nuclear power station on Belarus’ border, asking Londoners to form their own red line across the city’s Millennium Bridge.

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For British thespians, the Belarus Free Theatre’s all-in approach can often feel strange or even extreme. Musing on Burning Doors, one play that the group created on artistic dissidence in Russia, alongside Pussy Riot’s Masha Alyokhina, theatre-maker and activist Javaad Alipoor recalls how it felt “radically foreign in the sense that it should enrich our vision of what is possible theatrically. I found the show foreign in form, foreign in style, and in the sense that in England people don’t start shows with Foucault quotes. But it is also foreign in its political commitments being something other to the work itself.”

Perhaps this is why, despite their impressive portfolio and high-profile supporters —the playwright Sir Tom Stoppard and the late Václav Havel and Harold Pinter are among them — the directors at the Belarus Free Theatre still feel as if they exist on the fringes of London’s theatre community. Recently, Khalezin said he was being forced to accept that, even 10 years on, he still feels like a guest in the UK, a man without a country.

Producer and playwright David Lan, who gave the fugitive directors refuge while he was the Young Vic’s artistic director, rejects the idea that this sense of being stranded on the periphery is because the company’s work doesn’t come from tradition commonly recognised as theatrical and British. “[The theatre community] is not collectively as narrow-focused as that,” he says.

Actors from the Belarus Free Theatre take a break. Image: Verity Healey

Others such as Dawnay believe that the Belarus Free Theatre’s tradition of working on projects collectively, as directors, cast, and crew — “where people create shows together, equally” — is something that the more established UK theatre scene has lost over the last few decades, and is now somewhat uncomfortable with. Khalezin himself says that creative equality is a notion some UK designers in particular are simply not used to.

For now, the Belarus Free Theatre is adamant that it won’t shake off such creative radicalism, even as it enters the heart of its teenage years.

For now, the Belarus Free Theatre is adamant that it won’t shake off such creative radicalism, even as it enters the heart of its teenage years. Instead, it is trying to channel its experience and growing status as more establishment than upstart in other ways. Young theatre companies in Ukraine are using the troupe as a model.

It is also continuing to build on what it has always done best: amplifying need. Don’t like the Belarusian state education system? Make a new kind of education with Fortinbras. Need people to understand the relationship between theatre, politics, and their own lives? Build campaigns around shows to push for human rights. It goes beyond the relationships between actors and theatre and even beyond activism and audiences. The world that the Belarus Free Theatre creates is something else, unprecedented. Company members talk about it often: as if it were a basic currency between themselves and their fellow actors and audiences all over the world. “It’s a driving force,” Sugako says, “but it’s also a way of life.”

Special thanks to translators Nastasya Korablina and Sophie Kayes.

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