LONDON: They performed in a warehouse, an old prison, a railway tunnel, and a parking lot, among other unexpected locations. Everywhere you turned in November, it seemed, London was alive with the spirit of the bravest theatre company in the world.
Against all conceivable odds, the tiny but mighty Belarus Free Theatre celebrated their 10th anniversary with a two-week festival of their unique works. Appropriately titled “Staging a Revolution,” the series sought to simulate for London audiences the experience of seeing theatre in their repressive homeland, where they must perform in remote venues away from the authorities’ scrutiny.
If you made a reservation to attend one of the 10 productions staged all over London, the location was kept a tight secret. You received a text message on the morning of the performance, saying, for example (as we were instructed one Saturday): “Meet under the BP petrol sign near the Tottenham Hale tube station at 6:20 pm. Bring your passports” (a necessity in Belarus, in case of arrest). There we joined a small group and were led to an abandoned ambulance garage, where an over-capacity crowd of 200 watched a passionate performance of Zone of Silence, a devised text about life in a totalitarian state.
This brilliant and bold festival format—featuring 10 productions and 14 performances in 8 locations—was conceived and flawlessly executed by BFT’s co-artistic directors, Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin, who founded the company in 2005 under the last remaining dictatorship in Europe. Though the troupe was immediately banned because of their criticism of Aleksandr Lukashenko’s cruel regime, they managed to thrive underground, performing in apartments, basements, cafés, and forests, despite continued arrests, brutal interrogations, and other harrassments by the KGB (Belarus’s is one of the few intelligence services to keep that sinister Cold War name). Undeterred, BFT even arranged to tour abroad. But in 2011, while the founders were traveling, they learned that they could not return without being imprisoned.
Exiled from their homeland, the couple sought asylum in the U.K. Though homeless, they were fiercely determined to survive. David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic, generously offered them a home base from which to operate.
“They bring urgent messages from the front line,” Lan explained. “They want to make something happen.” Joined by another exiled Belarusian director, Vladimir Shcherban, the artistic triumvirate continued to operate and expand their theatre in exile with remarkable resourcefulness and ingenuity.
Now, from their office in London, they conceive new projects and direct their actors via Skype in Minsk, where the company performs them underground despite the watchful eye of the KGB. Meanwhile, Kaliada’s father (who lost his position at Belarus’s Academy of Arts because of his daughter’s activities) runs Studio Fortinbras, a theatre school in Minsk, which has already graduated 150 acting students. A David among theatre companies, BFT is facing Goliath—and triumphing.
Art, Food, Discussion
To celebrate 10 years of existence, they brought to London 10 plays from their repertoire. Somehow they managed to bring 20 company members to London from Minsk, including 11 actors, a musician, a production staff, and a cook, supplemented by a few U.K. actors. This highly skilled, disciplined young team accomplished the amazing feat of mounting a new production every evening in a different location during the festival’s first week (Nov. 2–8), and three productions during the second week (Nov. 9–15) at the Young Vic. Indeed, they seemed to thrive on the challenge.
Still, there were some surprises.
“I left Belarus to escape the police, so I was surprised to encounter them here,” said Kaliada about an unexpected (and ironic) occurrence during the first week. BFT’s resourceful location manager had boldly scheduled the show Generation Jeans to be performed in the car park underneath the Houses of Parliament on Guy Fawkes Night. The company obtained a legal permit, cleared space for a makeshift performance area, and proceeded to gather an audience who was waiting at the car park entrance.
“Suddenly, we were surrounded by 40 mounted Met Police Force,” Natalia reported. As it turns out, the police were there to quell a protest group called Million Mask March and mistakenly targeted the peaceful BFT audience. Exonerated, Khalezin went on to perform his moving monologue about growing up in Belarus.
Every night of the festival, the ritual was the same. Kaliada would welcome the audience in fluent English and brandish a laptop, from which the Fortinbras acting students in Minsk would wave to the London audiences via Skype. She would then extend an invitation to the entire audience (averaging 150–200) to remain after the performance to partake in Belarusian cuisine and a panel discussion on a theme related to the play. “Art, food, discussion—that is our tradition,” she explained.
Absurdism, not Agitprop
The theme uniting the 10 disparate productions was taboos—universal topics related to the human condition that cannot be discussed in her country of origin. In Zone of Silence, for example, which I saw in a cold garage with rain dripping down through the cracked roof, huddled under a blanket provided by a helpful stage manager, actors told moving stories from their youth—tales of humiliation, isolation, and loneliness. Bullying teachers, suicides in the family, and child abuse in Belarus orphanages were among the experiences recounted. Part II (“Diversity”) featured stories of Belarusians on the margins of society who are isolated and ignored—including the disabled, mentally ill, gay, and black. Part III (“Numbers”) revealed alarming statistics you won’t from the Belarus government: 27 percent of pregnancies end in abortion, 13 percent of the population suffers from mental disorders, 80 percent of the population suffers from chronic disease, 10,000 emigrate annually. The composite portrait that emerged was of a dying state, diseased and corrupted from within.
Though this may sound like anti-regime agitprop, it was far from it. Like all BFT productions, Zone of Silence was an electrifying theatrical experience, a unique combination of verbatim and vivid physical theatre, with a razor-sharp absurdist tone. In the passage about abortion, for example, an actress danced around the stage with a huge red balloon under her dress, then perforated it, cut the balloon to shreds, and buried it. At another moment, frantic actors stripped and fought each other for a plastic fish dangling from a fishing rod held by a man in a black suit—an image meant to connote the desperation of the Belarus population.
“When you are oppressed, you have to learn how to make your art,” explained Khalezin, whose company operates on a barebones production budget. “We’re more interested in fighting self-censorship than censorship. Censorship is banal.”
Storytelling—powerful, human, and moving—is at the heart of BFT productions. Discover Love, another verbatim theatre piece, told the heartbreaking story of a Belarus woman whose husband, a successful businessman who spoke out against the regime, disappeared 15 years ago. (His body has never been found). In Time of Women, two Belarusian journalists and a human rights activist told stories of unjust arrest and imprisonment in 2010.
“They wanted nothing more than to kill the woman in you,” said one, recounting the acute humiliation she endured at the hands of a sadistic male interrogator. Packed together into a squalid cell, the women dream of Christmas, while a fantasy scene on the other side of the stage beckoned achingly, with a tree, gifts, and dozens of bright oranges strewn across the stage floor.
Forever in Blue Jeans
The company’s signature verbatim peace is Generation Jeans, Nikolai’s deeply moving monologue about growing up in Soviet-era Belarus and selling blue jeans on the black market. It’s a bittersweet, heartwarming coming of age story laced with humor and irony—one that turns dark.
“Jeans were a symbol of freedom—a little piece of America and Britain otherwise inaccessible to us,” Khalezin explained. “We didn’t know it was possible to want anything else.” Wearing jeans and buying LP records of rock music soon led to participation in protests against an oppressive regime. “You cannot grow up in slavery if you have experienced freedom once in your life.”
Khalezin’s account of his arrests, detention, and brutal treatment at the hands of the Belarus police was one of the most moving personal narratives I’ve heard anywhere. (To this day, he said, he suffers from claustrophobia and panic attacks.) Invoking heroes—Mother Theresa, Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II—whose examples helped him survive, Khalezin told how the image of a denim shirt hoisted on a flagpole became the symbol of freedom for an entire generation. (He himself wore jeans throughout the monologue and sported a long gray ponytail emblematic of the era). “Sooner or later, all prison sentences end. So does a dictatorship,” Khalezin concluded, as he shredded a denim shirt and handed out pieces to his audience, while a DJ behind him blasted James Brown in celebration of freedom and the triumphant human spirit.
BFT does more than verbatim works, though; they also frequently draw upon other works to create pastiche texts of their own. In Price of Money, their scathing satire of economic inequality and shameless excess, Shcherban and his company use the framework of Aristophanes’s Plutus, while Being Harold Pinter combines passages from Pinter’s plays, his Nobel Prize speech, and BFT’s narrative to create a collage-like study on torture and suppression of the creative process.
For me, the company’s most powerful adaptation remains their version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, commissioned by the Globe Theatre in 2012. From the moment Lear entered in a grotesque white fright wig (designed to shock his court), you knew this was going to be a Lear unlike any other. Actor Aleh Sidorchyk offered a brash, crude patriarch/tyrant determined to keep his power, while Gloucester spun around in a wheelchair and a trumpet-playing Fool led the procession of obscene knights. Goneril and Regan, wearing ostentatious fur coats, ripped out Gloucester’s eyes with their teeth. This terrifying, ultra-violent rendition of the “bond cracked twixt son and father” signified the unbridgeable gap between a nationalistic older generation in Belarus and a desperate new generation longing for freedom.
One of the most astonishing images created by this brilliant ensemble was that of Lear on the heath. A giant blue plastic tarpaulin, the size of the entire stage, was produced, held by the 13-member ensemble, as Lear recited the famous, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” while the company doused him with water. The tarpaulin undulated with a deafening sound and a force so fearful that it felt as if the storm was blowing straight from Belarus to British shores.
The cumulative effect of these striking theatrical tableaux throughout the BFT oeuvre can be overpowering. Though some were wildly imaginative—like the Greek chorus in satin dresses and gold monkey masks standing around a grand piano, or a group of dark-suited actors holding dollar bills that flutter like birds, both in Price of Money—most were violent, reflecting the plays’ subject matter. I’ll never forget the images in Trash Cuisine, which depicts 13 different modes of capital punishment while gourmet cuisine is prepared onstage. (I wrote about it when it played in New York in May.) The piece retained its agonizing power on a second viewing at the festival.
So did Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, BFT’s portrait of sex life in the Belarus capital, which offered the horrifying image of a woman’s body smeared in black ink. So did Being Harold Pinter, with its signature motif of actors suffocating under a plastic sheet, unable to escape.
The miracle of BFT remains that it creates such powerful art with so few resources.
“We turn our adversities into artistic advantages,” Shcherban shrugs. “We don’t have stuff, so we just make it up.” A can of red spraypaint serves for blood; a bucket of water and a tarpaulin becomes a storm on a heath; a roll of brown paper serves as a woman’s shroud; a plastic sheet, writhing bodies trapped within, represents a womb of repression and death; a row of empty shoes signifies missing persons kidnapped by the regime.
There is an inherent, and touching, paradox in BFT’s presentations: As much as they cry out against the brutality and injustice of the Belarus regime, it’s clear how passionate they are about their national heritage. Almost every play includes the ensemble singing Belarusian folk songs, and the obligatory post-show buffet of borshch, black bread, and herring. “We lost our home, so we bring our home here,” is how Shcherban put it.
A further expression of national pride comes at the end of Zone of Silence, when the names of world-famous individuals of Belarusian descent are projected on an upstage screen: They include Menachem Begin, Irving Berlin, Chaim Weitzman, Ralph Lauren, David Sarnoff, Chaim Soutine, Harrison Ford, and Larry King. The audience on the night I attended gasped in recognition and surprise.
A word about the post-performance discussions: They took place after every single performance over the two-week festival, and each featured a different panel of experts on a topic related to the individual play. After Trash Cuisine, for example, came a discussion led by Clive Stafford, an international defense lawyer specializing in capital cases. He began by asking the audience: “Would you be willing to take the life of another person?” and proceeded to poll the audience, select 12 jurors to judge a murder case, and reenact a trial. “We want to continue to break the wall between audience and actors,” said Kaliada. “That’s how change happens.”
To that end, BFT has created “The Ministry of Counterculture,” a virtual online expansion of these post-performance discussions. This interactive website intends to serve as a platform for artists around the world who are being repressed, with videos, interviews, dialogues, and other resources for students. “We want to create a hub for artists like us to come together,” said Khalezin, “supported by new technologies and new forms of art and communication.”
Changing the World
The festival may have ended, but this unstoppable company continues to develop its work and resources. “We’ve already brought 27 productions to over 30 countries on five continents,” Kaliada said. And they show no sign of slowing down: Kaliada and Khalezin are next off to the Ukraine to conduct a theatre workshop, while other company members return to Minsk. In February they will reunite at Chicago Shakespeare Theater to perform King Lear. Already, Khalezin and Shcherban are at work on two new theatre pieces for the company, to be developed via Skype with the actors back in Minsk. And Falmouth University in England will continue to offer space where they can rehearse their devised theatre texts.
The core seven-member BFT staff will continue at their offices at the Young Vic, where plans are being developed to live-stream BFT productions to universities around the world for educational purposes. Meanwhile, a number of Western journalists—including Ben Brantley of The New York Times—have traveled to Minsk to see the company’s work, and plans are underway to bring more.
BFT’s work has been called “political theatre.” But I think there are broader ways to define the sense of global community and solidarity that this unique company is creating in art and human rights advocacy. Like Vaclav Havel and Athol Fugard before them, BFT’s leading artists are striving tirelessly and fearlessly for change in their homeland and beyond. They’re broadening their horizons worldwide to include all those who are fighting for freedom for expression. This remarkable company brings vision, courage, and fortitude to a 21st century that urgently needs them.
Given the miracles they’ve accomplished in their first decade, one can only imagine what they will in their second. Said Khalezin: “Theatre doesn’t have to have a narrow role in society. The theatre is more than the theatre.”
At one point during the festival, an audience member asked Kaliada, “Do you want theatre to change world?”
“We must have change, or what’s the point of living?” she replied.