Art matters. And it’s hard to think of a theatre company that has proved that more than Belarus Free Theatre (BFT). Now about to celebrate their tenth anniversary, BFT has persisted against the most extraordinary odds to not just confront oppression, but to create challenging and vital theatre.
Belarus Free Theatre was created as a response to the crushing of creative freedoms by dictator-President Lukashenko. Sadly Lukashenko is still with us – but so is BFT. So, ahead of their anniversary festival, Staging a Revolution, I set down with founding member Natalia Kaliada.
“We wanted to talk about subjects that are taboos in Belarus,” Natalia explained, on how BFT got started. “Gay rights, depression, suicide… These are all taboo. They don’t exist in Belarus. People are always told, these things don’t happen. But of course they do.”
It is no surprise that freedom of speech evaporates in dictatorships, but I was curious as to what made theatre generally, and BFT specifically, such an effective and formidable form of protest. “Artists are like scanners” Natalia explains. “They scan society quicker than journalists and politicians. Artists are sensitive to predicting what happens to societies.”
And certainly BFT productions have been very sensitive to themes in society, such as Minsk, 2011 on sexuality and 4.48 Psychosis on mental illness in young people. As Natalia explains, “we always ask ourselves, what is the call to action that will empower all of us and live in every single show?”
BFT is theatre on the front foot – never shying away, never pulling punches. But these are also shows with human stories at their heart, their emotional punch as profound as their political one. But they are not the only Belarusian artists currently in the spotlight. Earlier this year, writer Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet she too is not exempt from censorship. “None of her work is part of the curriculum in Belarus” Natalia adds.
With such censorship, raising finance for their shows remains nigh-on impossible for BFT. Possible domestic supporters run the risk of being blacklisted.
“We will have meeting with them (the possible patrons)” Natalia explains. “These will go well and they will say, I will see what I can do. But when we call them back at their offices, they call their staff into their office and put the call on speakerphone and then tell us they won’t be supporting us. So they have witnesses. So when the KGB calls, these people have staff who can say, yes, he turned the Belarus Free Theatre down. The Soviet Union is still with us; it’s just shifted shape.”
And it’s not just financial patrons who are in danger. Supporters of BFT live in fear for their lives – many have been kidnapped and killed. But the aim remains to get the message out as wide as possible. “To do this,” Natalia says “our shows are free in Belarus. We do not charge people to see our shows.”
Enticement, yes, but balance that with the fact that just attending a show in Belarus is riddled with danger. Venues are never revealed in advance. Instead, audiences give their phone numbers to certain contacts and then, on the day of the show, they are told where to meet to see the performance.
Natalia adds, rather matter-of-factly “Our audiences must always take their passports, just in case of a raid.” A sobering reminder that what is an evening’s entertainment in the UK is a political act in Belarus.
Staging a Revolution will include recreation of these underground shows, as well as a more orthodox string of shows at the Young Vic. For the underground shows, the London audience will have their name down on a list and on the day of the show, they’ll be contacted to confirm where the show will be performed.
But London isn’t Belarus and Natalia acknowledges this difference. “You cannot recreate that tension, that fear, that the show will be raided.”
It would be a mistake though to think there’s nothing we can learn from BFT. Not only does their subject matter resonate but also there is a lesson on self-censorship. “We always believe it can’t happen to us” Natalia adds. And indeed she is right, as the recent cancellation of the NYT play, Homegrown, on radicalisation proves.
It is therefore no surprise that BFT has a significant and loyal following, including stars such as Kevin Spacey, Tom Stoppard and Ai Weiwei.
“This is crucial for the people in Belarus in that they do not feel abandoned or forgotten” Natalia explains, but she is adamant that the non-celebrities are just as important. Referring to the BFT’s current Twitter campaign, #ImWithTheBanned, Natalia added “If an artist is prohibited, it is an urgency for us to stand up and say, I’m with the Banned.”
But BFT is always looking forward. I asked Natalia what she was off to do next. I meant it more in the, which mountain are you off to climb next kind of way yet her answer revealed how important grassroots theatre remains to her.
“I’m doing a theatre class on Skype” she said. “A class in Belarus on small scale art projects, on disability.” Adding wryly, “we don’t have disabled people in Belarus, you see. Just like we don’t have dissidents, gay people or Nobel Prize winners for literature. They are invisible. They don’t exist.”
- Belarus Free Theatre perform Minsk 2011 © Nikolai Khalezin
- Natalia Kaliada co-founder of Belarus Free Theatre
- Belarus Free Theatre perform Trash Cuisine. Photo by Simon Annand
- Belarus Free Theatre perform Trash Cuisine. Photo credit Simon Annand