By Randy Gener
La lutte pour un théâtre libre | Ou « Vive le Bélarus libre ! »
« Il nous faut trouver un moyen de retourner au Bélarus pour soutenir nos enfants là-bas. Il faut aussi tenir compte des choix personnels des acteurs. Le principal, c’est que nous ayons reçu ce soutien exceptionnel de la part de la communauté théâtrale de New York, ce qui nous a maintenus en vie sur le plan artistique et nous a aidés en tant que personnes. En ce qui concerne nos activités et notre campagne en faveur du Bélarus, si nous savons que nous avons du travail — que nous pouvons faire du théâtre et donc que cette part de notre vie demeure active —, bien sûr que cela nous inspire et nous encourage à continuer pour le Bélarus, pour les gens qui sont en prison aujourd’hui et pour ceux qui attendent leur procès à Minsk. » Citation de Natalya Kolyada, fondatrice du Belarus Free Theatre.
верш на свабоду (a poem for freedom)
жыцьцё на свабоду (a life for freedom)
лёс на свабоду (a fate for freedom)
я рыхтуюся мацую ў сабе (I prepare I make strong in myself)
сёньня я буду свабоднай (today I shall be free)
я адпачну ад самотных думак (I shall rest from solitary thoughts )
словы на свабоду (words for freedom)
думкі на свабоду (thoughts for freedom)
мары на свабоду (visions for freedom)
я вырвуся і будзе ўсё надзвычайна (I break out and all will be extraordinary)
я буду моцнай і пасьлядоўнай (I shall be strong and constant)
— from a poem of liberty by Iryna Vołach (Ірына Волах)
1 The Struggle for a Free Theatre
“A renaissance of new writing happens every four years in Minsk,” Vladimir Shcherban says, dryly. A sardonic grin flashes on his fair-skinned, wrinkly-eyed face. “When elections for president take place, Belarusians are gripped by a strong desire to write. They write about the time they spent in jail, the violence in the streets and the human-rights violations of K.G.B. secret police. Otherwise Minsk is a very calm and undisturbed city.”
Speaking in Russian through Tioma Zhaliaznia, a Belarus Free Theatre cohort who was asked to act as interpreter, Shcherban is sitting onstage beside Natalya Kolyada, a founder of the Minsk-based troupe. The occasion is a post-performance public discussion, which I moderated this past January in New York City. Several weeks ago, 10 members of the Free Theatre snuck out of Minsk to meet a La MaMa E.T.C. engagement as part of the Public Theater’s annual Under the Radar Festival.
A gifted theatre director whose characteristically emblematic and Eastern European–style productions are banned from the Belarus state-theatre repertory, Shcherban adapted and directed Being Harold Pinter, which first premiered in London in February 2008 — a couple of years after Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected to a third term. It has only now arrived in New York City — less than a month after Lukashenko was re-elected to a fourth presidential term.
The resurgence of new writing that Shcherban caustically alludes to, in our public conversation, are the letters from political prisoners in Belarus — real accounts of policy brutality, state-approved violence and political disappearances which he stitched into the latter section of Being Harold Pinter. The Belarus Free Theatre’s signature work, Being Harold Pinter theatrically collates six of Harold Pinter’s plays and uses his Nobel Prize speech as a spine.
These firsthand stories — of ordinary citizens who were arbitrarily arrested and jailed for exercising their right to speak at a public assembly, as well as of writers, students artists and political activists who experienced assorted K.G.B. police mistreatments (Belarus state police is still called by that Soviet name) — are the most potent moments of Shcherban’s play. They transform Pinter’s political one-act plays into a Belarusian cri de coeur in which the horrific nightmares of Pinter’s fiction are finally demonstrated to have become abject reality in present-day Minsk.
Similar literary outpourings, Shcherban remarks, also greeted the December 2010 presidential elections in Belarus. “Belarus is completely isolated from the rest of the world,” Shcherban continues. “Promoting our productions and inserting them into the European context are both necessary and indispensable. Our tours abroad are a means of overcoming the censorship that we are victims of at home.”
Shcherban tells me that he would have wanted to update Being Harold Pinter with newer letters and fresher accounts of the violent demonstrations that took place between December 19 and 20. Those were the fateful days when tens of thousands of people converged on Independence Square in the Minsk capital. Chanting “Out!”, “Long Live Belarus!” and other anti-Lukashenko slogans, these protesters were angered over what appeared to be fraud in the elections. According to the state electoral commission, Lukashenko had won 79.7 percent with 100 percent of voces counted in the former Soviety republic. It put voter turnout in sub-zero temperatures at more than 90 percent.
Up to 10,000 people demonstrated in the streets of the country’s snow-bound capital, Minsk. Opposition sources say hundreds of protestors were apprehended by the police and security services. According to one estimate, more than 700 people were arrested that night, crammed into police vans and thrown into dank and often crowded prison cells. That number included member of the Belarus Free Theatre. Lukashenko, under fire from international election monitors for flawed vote countring and police heavy-handedness, accused demonstrators of banditry. “There will be no revolution or criminality in Belarus,” he said, adding that security forces had stood firm against “barbarism and destruction” by militants.
Later, after the public conversation, as Shcherban and I were hanging out at the lobby of La MaMa E.T.C., Shcherban tells me that unfortunately there just was not any time to spare. Before Shcherban could have the chance to re-jigger his powerful production of Being Harold Pinter, the Free Theatre members were either in jail or in hiding, the targets of a crackdown by Belarus’s government. From around Christmas to the New Year, the great fear was that the company would not be able to make it to New York. At one point, it had appeared that the future of the company itself might be in jeopardy. Shcherban adds that as soon as he can grab some free time, he will most definitely update Being Harold Pinter to reflect the political situation.
Owing to the post-election crackdowns led by the K.G.B., Free Theatre members had to be smuggled out of Belarus. They left in small groups and changed vehicles regularly to elude government forces and keep them off the trails. Adds Mark Russell, producer of the Under the Radar Festival, “We spent a lot of time trying to re-jigger the airplane tickets. The Free Theatre actors did most of the inventive stuff themselves. We finally got them here just in time.”
Now that the Belarus writers, actors and crew are safely in New York (they are bunking in the apartment of an American patron), the troupe’s greatest dilemma is that they are unable to return to their native country without repercussions from the government. Grave questions hang in the air. Is the Free Theatre seeking political asylum in the United States? If not, where will it go? How will its members live? Where will they be able to find permanent shelter so that they can continue to create brand-new productions, as opposed to merely touring Being Harold Pinter and other established hits?
Correlatively, if the Free Theatre does manage to find permanent refuge abroad, if it becomes cut off from its native country, how can this troupe maintain the Belarusian integrity of its dual artistic mission — to perform politically engaged productions that bring international attention to the authoritarian regime of Lukashenko as well as to foment a sort of denim revolution through theatre? If the Free Theatre were to remain abroad for an indefinite period of time, could a company in exile truly remain a free theatre from Belarus?
These are difficult questions. And they are compounded by a grueling performance schedule internationally as well as the necessity to continue to stoke the anti-Lukashenko flames through various political actions and publicity efforts.
Until the Under the Radar Festival premiere of Being Harold Pinter following the 2010 presidential elections, the Free Theatre has largely been an obscure entity in American terms. Since 2005, when it was founded, this theatre company has successfully used the Internet to bypass the official blacklist of the Belarusian Ministry of Culture. For the most part, the Free Theatre has garnered allies in Europe, specifically the United Kingdom, Poland, Czech Republic and Sweden. An impressive roster of celebrity artists — Tom Stoppard, Vaclav Havel, Mick Jagger and Ian McKellen — has championed the company. Pinter, before his death, allowed the company to perform his plays anywhere without paying him royalties.
The Free Theatre has also picked up support from a number of American individuals, arts organizations, colleges and universities — in particular, the New York–based theatre artist Aaron Landsman, producer Catherine Coray of the hotINK international festival of play readings, Theatre Without Borders, Georgetown University, the exchange, playwright Erik Ehn’s annual Arts in One World conferences — all of which hosted readings, seminars, performances, presentations, networking and residencies in various cities across the country. And yet, although the Free Theatre has visited the United States many times in the past, it has not enjoyed a critical mass of artistic praise and concentrated media hoopla in American shores. Until now.
2 Thinking About the Long Standing Problem of Democracy in Belarus
On December 20, 2010, the KGB arrested Natalya Kolyada in Minsk. She was made to lie, face down, in a prison van and was verbally abused by the guards.
She remembers: “The guard said, ‘My only dream is to kill you. If you so much as move, you’ll feel my baton all over your body, you animal.’ Then he threatened to rape me.”
When asked for life’s basic necessities such as a drink of water, the guards replied, Kolyada says: “Drink from the toilet.” She adds, “Threats and insults rained incessantly on us. That evening one of the guards told us: ‘Nazis will look like a fairy tale for you.’ Knowing that every third Belarusian was killed during World War II by the Nazis, it was not possible to even absorb such an expression. It was unbearably difficult to stand the insults, beatings and humiliation for the young people.”
Kolyada was lucky though. Spending one night in jail, she was released the next day due to a bureaucratic misidentification. (A judge called out someone else’s name.) Before she was detained, Kolyada did manage to compile a list of Belarusian prisoners, which she sent her brother, who then passed it on to me via Facebook:
Meanwhile KGB broke into the apartment Kolyada shares with the playwright Nikolai Khalezin — her husband and a founder of the Free Theatre. “When Nikolai and I were separated at Independence Square, he managed to escape,” she says. “Nikolai picked up our youngest daughter, who was with friends, and got home. Early in the morning KGB officers tried to infiltrate into our house, but my husband, parents and daughter stayed silent and gave no sign that anyone was there. KGB officers returned several times during the morning, but my husband managed to escape from the house.”
Artiom Zhelezniak, a Free Theatre manager originally from Ukraine, was not so lucky. KGB raided the offices of Charter97.org, a news site that was launched in 1998. Zhelezniak and the site editor Natalya Radzina were both working in the room when, in a pre-dawn raid (while Zhelezniak was translating accounts of the election crackdowns into English), they were both jailed and sentenced to 11 to 15 days in prison for participation in what the government termed as “mass riots.”
“Natalia was beaten so badly in the Square she got a concussion,” Kolyada says in a speech she gave at a U.S. Senate committee hearing on foreign relations. “That night, the entire editorial staff, including Artiom, was arrested. As he confessed to me, he had never experienced anything like that during his entire life. For almost three days he was either in a paddy wagon, or in ‘a glass’ — a tiny concrete cell about 80 centimeters square; less than one square meter. And, above all, he was stuffed in with two other detainees in that tiny cell. He was allowed to use a bathroom once within first three days of his arrest.”
Charter97’s computers were confiscated, their offices closed down. The site’s editors and volunteers had no choice but to flee to nearby Vilnius in Lithuania where they re-located and set up a new shop.
On a cold and rainy Wednesday, in the morning of January 19, 2011 — exactly a month after Lukashenko’s crackdown on freedom of expression — Kolyada and Khalezin, along with Shcherban and the others, found themselves in the midst of different protest action. This time, they were demonstrating in the streets of New York City, and not Minsk.
On that Wednesday, the Public Theater and Amnesty International USA gathered about 300 to 400 New Yorkers in a street corner in front of the permanent Belarus Mission to the United States in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, associate producer Maria Goyanes, playwright Tony Kushner and Kolyada spoke to a crowd that chanted “Long Live Belarus” and carried signs with images of political prisoners currently in Belarus. Since the New York Police Department refused to grant an amplified sound permit, the protestors shouted at the top of their lungs as opposed to using bullhorns or microphones.
Several New York protestors wore gags on their mouths to symbolize the oppression of free speech and expression in that country. In sum, more than 30 theatre companies, both large and small, were represented at the protest. These included the Manhattan Theatre Club, Culture Project, HERE Arts Center, La MaMa E.T.C., Movement Theatre Company and Amerinda. News of the demonstration was disseminated by various U.S. media outlets (including WNYC and the New York Times) and by Belarusian opposition websites and journals published by local Belarusian–American associations.
Without question, the Free Theatre’s New York performances had gone beyond being merely a routine festival engagement — a major news event that never stopped from unfolding before our very eyes.
On January 6, for instance — two days after KGB burst into Kolyada’s and Khalezin’s apartment in Minsk (the police was looking for the couple and the whereabouts of their two daughters, and inquiring how they were able to leave the country unnoticed) — Koliada joined other representatives of Belarusian civil society at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., for a private meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Soon after, Clinton condemned the Belarusian government’s crackdown on political opponents, stressing her concern for detainees and for their family members. Clinton also told the activists that “we are watching the government’s actions closely and considering our response to those actions.”
On January 17, a host of U.S. celebrities, including Tony Kushner, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Olympia Dukakis, Laurie Anderson, Mandy Patinkin and Lily Rabe, lent their names and talents for a Public Theater benefit in New York. Some even took part in the reading, spoke lines that were drawn from the words of Belarusian political prisoners, and agreed to be filmed for a “Long Live Belarus” video campaign, intended for the Internet.
On the evening of January 19, the PEN American Center organized a benefit at Le Poisson Rouge in downtown New York, hosted by Tom Stoppard. The British playwright of Arcadia and The Coast of Utopiaasked Hollywood and Broadway actors Margaret Colin and Billy Crudup read Stoppard’s contribution to an omnibus play The Laws of War, which he had originally co-written with other British playwrights for a 2010 celebration of the work of Human Rights Watch. The novelists E.L. Doctorow and Don DeLillo gave readings at the PEN American Center benefit from City of God and Mao II, respectively.
“World leaders need to answer to artists,” Kolyada said at the benefit at Le Poisson Rouge’s downstairs space. “Politicians do not have steps; they have just words.”
In fact, the day-long events of January 19 took an unexpectedly poignant turn when in the midst of the morning protests Yana Rusakevich, a dark-haired Free Theatre actor, received a text message from Minsk which informed her that her husband had been arrested. Rusakveich was disconsolate throughout most of that morning’s protest. During the PEN American Center’s evening benefit, which culminated with a stirring performance of “Numbers” (one of the three parts of Zone of Silence, another signature Free Theatre production), Rusakevich broke down in tears while performing onstage.
On February 1 — the same day that the New York Timesreported that the U.S. and Europe have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Lukashenko who has been prohibited from entering the U.S. and the European Union, and that any of his assets held in those territories have been frozen — the Free Theatre transferred Being Harold Pinterfrom New York to Chicago, where it performed in a limited engagement through Feb. 27.
Many facets of the Chicago cultural community worked together to step into the breach and arranged to bring Being Harold Pinter to Chicago. The move was conceived by a group of Chicago arts and educational institutions, led by the Goodman Theatre, including the League of Chicago Theatres and Northwestern University. “This is a real-life situation of artists fighting for their freedom of expression, Roche Schulfer, the executive director of the Goodman, reportedly said, noting that the board of the Goodman Theatre pledged the financial guarantees on Martin Luther King Day to make the transfer happen.
The Chicago engagement was also a delaying tactic. As the January gig in New York wound down and the company’s future prospects looked even more grim and uncertain, the month-long Chicago stay allowed the Belarus artists to consider their options, including requesting political asylum in the United States.
“Yanna’s husband was later released by the KGB, and he flew to Chicago to visit Yanna,” Kolyada says. “His plane ticket was covered by one of our patrons. Later, after we went to perform in Hong Kong on March 8, some of our actors returned to Minsk. Obviously they went back illegally. They did not go through the official Belarusian borders. The KGB police visited Yanna’s apartment. She was interrogated the next day. Last week we learned that her husband could be drafted forcefully to the army. In Belarus, army service is compulsory; there is no chance to avoid it. We do hope that he can leave Belarus and go study in Poland. We will do whatever is possible on our side. In addition to being Yanna’s husband, he is a student in our underground acting studio. We wish for him to develop artistically so that he can perform in our company.”
As for Kolyada and Khalezin, unlike some of the other Free Theatre actors, the couple has not yet returned to Minsk. Fortunately their oldest daughter, Danielle, has been traveling with them abroad. Their youngest daughter, however, still remains in Belarus. “She was wanted by KGB in an apartment of remote relatives,” Kolyada says. “So it’s an ongoing process in terms of hunting us down. Our parents are under psychological pressure from the police and KGB who come to our apartments once a week within the last three weeks.”
The KGB gave their Minsk neighbors instructions on how to contact the secret police in case Kolyada and Khalezin are spotted returning to their homes. “We talk to our family and our friends everyday,” she says. “It’s a nightmare there. The day before yesterday a friend said, ‘The whole country is like a concentration camp now.’ ”
In early April, a bomb exploded at the busiest station of the Minsk subway, killing 200 innocent people. The explosion, labeled a terrorist act even though Belarus is waging no wars and has no unsettled territorial disputes, is considered the most tragic bombing Belarus has seen since the end of World War II. “When you understand,” Kolyada remarks, in a voice that verges on conjecture, “that Belarus authorities are ready to organize an underground explosion and to kill its own people in order to withdraw attention from the country’s economic problems, the situation is becoming very scary.”
Whatever personal troubles both Kolyada and Khalezin may be experiencing right now while in exile, Kolyada says, “it’s not possible to compare the pain of our parents whose children are free but not physically with them, to the pain of those other Belarusians whose relatives are right now sitting in KGB jail. Our situation is complicated because we are homeless, but in their situation it’s very horrible. Everything that happens in Belarus now reminds us of only Stalinist times.”
3 “Long Live Belarus”
The American efforts to support the Belarus Free Theatre eventually came full circle in the United Kingdom, where the political sympathy has remained consistent and steadfast and longstanding and unwavering. On March 28, the London theatres Almeida, Old Vic and New Vic; the British human rights organization Index on Censorshop; and the Free Theatre conducted a joint action and demonstration that were different in purpose from the New York and Chicago actions.
In London, members of the British parliament were regaled with an actual Free Theatre performance within its chambers. In the Second Chamber of the British Parliament, Khalezin and the Hollywood actor Jude Law alternated speaking the lines of the solo play Generation Jeans, Khalezin’s semi-autobiographical account of the opposition party’s attempts during the 2006 presidential elections to foment a Jeans Revolution in Minsk.
“Our numerous British friends learned of the New York and Chicago events,” says Khalezin, “and suggested organizing a similar action in London.” The aim of the London political action was not directed at the Lukashenko government, as it was in New York. This time, the Free Theatre’s goal was to press Grayling Company — the world’s third largest independent public relations, public affairs and investor relations consultancy in Central and Eastern Europe, South Eastern Europe and Eurasia — to halt its operations in Belarus.
The political action in London was put together quickly. “We were absolutely running out of time,” Khalezin remembers. “In 10 days we are supposed to start another New York tour.” After the Chicago performances, the Free Theatre returned to La MaMa E.T.C. in New York City to perform in repertory, from April 18 to May 15, its productions of Being Harold Pinter, Discover Love and Zone of Silence.
Says Khalezin: “Our goals [in London] were to attract attention to British businesses which are actively cooperating with the Lukashenko regime and to initiate hearings in the British Parliament. That’s why the venue we spotted for the pickets was the street in front of Grayling Offices and for the performance The Houses of Parliament.”
Meanwhile, the next step for the Free Theatre had begun to slowly sort itself out. Kevin Spacey, the American actor who artistically leads the Old Vic Theatre in London, had seen a performance of Being Harold Pinter at La MaMa E.T.C. He has now offered the Free Theatre rehearsal space so it can work on a future production. Other famous names who took part in the London protests include Almeida Theatre’s artistic director Michael Attenborough, actors Sam West and Adjoah Andoh, and playwrights Alexandra Wood and Laura Wade. Attenborough, too, extended a helping hand to the Free Theatre. In the month of July 2011, Attenborough invited the company to perform at the Almeida Theatre in London. In August 2011, the company will be in residence in Edinburgh where Shcherban will work with the Free Theatre actors on a new production, entitled Minsk 2011.
“The key to their involvement in Belarusian issues,” adds Khalezin, “is probably that both the country and its problems have been personified for them. Belarus for them is not just an encyclopedia article but the Free Theatre troupe — real people. Today British journalists are already calling Tom Stoppard, Kevin Spacey and Jude Law ‘the voices of democratic Belarus.’ “
On May 16, the Belarus Free Theatre won a special Ross Wetzsteon Memorial Obie Award, which came with a $1,000 cash grant. (The company was also nominated for a Drama Desk Award in the category of Unique Theatrical Experience.) Soon after the Free Theatre left the United States. The next sojourn in their exile: London.
“Our dream is to start to work again,” Kolyada says. “We want to create new performances and to continue to present the performances that we have now. It’s absolutely vital and important for us that we exist artistically in order to survive. We are now re-building our artistic life. Performing is an essential part of our lives — to make performances, to perform them and to have a communication with the audience. Otherwise the company doesn’t exist.”
Director Vladimir Shcherban has been having an intimate relationship with Skype. Through Skype, he has been conducting workshops and communicating with the Belarus actors and students who have remained in Minsk. Says Kolyada: “They know that working with us is dangerous, and yet they continue. We are just so proud of them.”
Belarus actors Pavel Gorodnitski, Denis Tarasenko and Oleg Sidorchik lead parallel lives as musicians, and they have issued a new album of music that was recently presented in Minsk.
Before leaving for London, Kolyada tells me that it is too complicated to seek political asylum in the U.S. “You are talking about people’s lives,” she says. “We need to find a way to go back to Belarus and support our children back home. The actors’ personal choices need to be considered. The main thing for us is that we have received this unique support in terms of the New York theatre community keeping us alive artistically and helping us as people. In terms of our activities and our campaign for Belarus, when we know we’ve got work — when we know we are able to produce theatre, when this part of our life is active — of course we have more inspiration and more encouragement to continue for Belarus — and for the people in jail today and for the people who stand in trials in Minsk.”
Besides, the Belarus Free Theatre is a theatre project whose existence hinges on the hope that this former Soviet country will shift politically from dictatorship to democracy. So long as Lukashenko remains in power, the Free Theatre will remain.
Kolyada reserves a special message for critics. “We really do not want audiences and theatre specialists to observe our complicated lives and be regarded as victims. The only thing that matters for us is when we are accepted based on our performances and our artistic value. If our work is seen as having aesthetic worth, our theatre work would be valuable no matter what conditions we live in and where we come from.”
America has finally woken up to the plight of Europe’s last dictatorship. With a sardonic laugh, Shcherban remarks. “Our conditions in Belarus are getting worse, so creatively we can expect things to get better.”
 Randy Gener is a writer, editor, critic, playwright and visual artist in New York City. He recently debuted a photographic installation-art exhibition, “In the Garden of One World,” at New York’s La MaMa La Galleria and is the author of “Love Seats for Virginia Woolf” and other Off-Broadway plays. He is the 2009 winner of the George Jean Nathan Award, the highest accolade for dramatic criticism in the United States for his essays in American Theatre magazine, published by Theatre Communications Group. He won a 2010 Deadline Club Award given by the Society of Professional Journalists for “Fomenting a Denim Revolution” (www.tcg.org/publications/at/mayjune09/belarus.cf), the first major critical essay published in the U.S. on the Belarus Free Theatre based on his travels in Minsk.