Theater shines spotlight on problems in Belarus

"The Price of Money" at Falmouth University in September 2014. (Facebook)

“The Price of Money” at The Albany Theater in London in September 2014. (Facebook)

When it comes to elections in Belarus, they aren’t that different than theater. In fact, international monitors have never rated any election as fair.

The upcoming presidential election in November 2015 will determine whether Alexander Lukashenko’s 21-year rule will be extended. A proponent of stability, Lukashenko wants to maintain the status quo. The streets are clean, statue of Lenin still stands proudly at Independence Avenue, in Minsk; the KGB is still called KGB; and due to the devaluation of its currency, you are a millionaire, in rubles, with only $67 in your pocket. Privacy is compromised — with incoming emails delayed by several hours and envelopes delivered re-taped — all ostensibly to ensure your safety.

However, not everyone agrees with this “stability.” Before the parliamentary elections in 2012, two main opposition parties urged voters to boycott the elections altogether and go “fishing or mushroom picking” — anything to not give legitimacy to the new parliament because of the alleged fraud.

This year, on March 25, about 2,000 showed their national pride — with state-sanctioned, historical white-red-white flags — celebrated freedom and protested the authorities during a demonstration in Minsk. It was Dzień Voli, or Freedom Day, an unofficial holiday in Europe’s last dictatorship that commemorates the Belarusian People’s Republic created in 1918. This holiday celebrates the cultural and linguistic distinctiveness of Belarus. Since the Russian language is used at the official level, as well as Soviet state symbols, the government has not adopted the holiday due to its anti-Communist and anti-Russian undertones.

One way that civil society in Belarus expresses volia, or freedom, is through art and theater. These have not been easy tactics to use, due to state censorship and repression.

“Dictators do not trust independent artists, so every independent artist is a potential threat,” explained Andrei Sannikov, an exiled member of the opposition, in an interview with Huffington Post. “All artists have to be approved by the regime. There is a union of writers, a union of artists, a union of musicians, composers, and only those members are permitted to function.”

One group of independent artists — the Belarus Free Theater, or BFT — officially does not exist in Belarus, but its actors have managed to perform underground and even start global campaigns. Founded in 2005, the group brings attention to critical problems that many in Belarus are silent about, such as alcoholism, domestic abuse, the death penalty and suicide. The KGB have raided their performances many times and even arrested actors together with audience members.

A public reading of the play "Ugly" in Minsk, Belarus on May 2. (Facebook)

A public reading of the play “Ugly” in Minsk, Belarus on May 2. (Facebook/Pyotr Schitnikov)

The group still manages to perform in clubs away from Minsk’s city center, in outdoor spaces and in abandoned houses. Dramatizing societal issues is a form of expression, an outlet for reflection and communication. It is a powerful way to inform the public in Belarus, international audiences and diaspora groups. The BFT uses the “verbatim technique” — a form of documentary theater — in performances, which incorporates real interviews collected or recorded by actors. For this, the group was declared a public enemy on national television in 2010 and any profits made from their performances are regarded as an “illegal economic activity.”

The BFT aims to explore the current state of affairs and fears that Belarusian society is facing or avoiding. Vladimir Shcherban, one of the founders of BFT, told to the Daily Beast that he is “very interested in what a viewer is silent about, what he doesn’t want to talk about.” For instance, the play “Im Snilis’ Sny,” or “They Were Seeing Dreams,” is based on the interviews with the wives of political prisoners in Belarus, who were kidnapped for their activism.

“In our country, there is a war, where people are murdered, wounded and held in prisons,” BFT’s artistic director Natalia Kaliada told the independent online publication Charter’97. “In this play, I tried to explain to people that the horror of violence can affect any person living in our country.”

A pivotal moment for the group came in 2010 when about a thousand people were arrested and beaten by police on the main square in Minsk during massive protests against election fraud. After this brutal crackdown, Kaliada and her husband Nikolai Khalezin, a journalist and playwright, were forced to leave the country because of threats to their lives, while other BFT members stayed in Minsk.

Freedom in exile

In the 1980s, during Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts to democratize the political system, independent professional and amateur theater groups were allowed to emerge. The ban was lifted on performances that were previously labeled nationalistic, such as the play “Tuteyshyya,” or “The Locals,” written by Yanka Kupala, a poet, political activist and one of the founders of the Belarusian language, which is spoken by a minority today. It was one of the first times artistic directors could openly engage in a public discussion of national consciousness.

In Belarus today, state censorship has returned. For instance, the rock band Lyapis Trubetskoy has been unofficially blacklisted — meaning that they have not been allowed to give concerts or appear on the radio in Belarus — since 2011 because of the protest sentiments in their songs. A video for their song “Ne Byts Skotam,” or “Don’t Be Cattle,” depicts symbols of “free” Belarus that have been banned by the state since 1995, including the historic white-red-white flag and the coat of arms of the Belarusian Democratic Republic. Lyapis has gained a large fan base in Ukraine and Russia, as well as in other countries.

Similarly, Belarusian artists who are visibly and vocally critical of the status quo are becoming cultural ambassadors in exile. From London, the BFT actors organize rehearsals with actors who stayed in Belarus via Skype and inform international audiences about social issues inside the country. Khalezin told me that BFT is the only theater in the world that has a campaign manager on staff.

The "Give a Body Back" at Foley Square in New York City on May 5. (Facebook)

The “Give a Body Back” at Foley Square in New York City on May 5. (Facebook)

One issue that the theater focuses on is the death penalty, since Belarus is the last country in Europe to still use capital punishment. Amnesty International reported that the death penalty in Belarus is administered by a gunshot in the back of the head. There is no appeal and the body is never returned to the victim’s family.

In response, the group launched its “Give a Body Back” campaign in 2013, which involved organizing flash mobs in several countries and staging demonstrations with protesters inside multiple body bags representing the fallen victims. The BFT also produced “Trash Cuisine,” a play based on the testimony gathered from death row inmates and executioners. On August 22, 2013, the play was live-streamed from the Edinburgh Festival and viewed by 6,000 people, 85 percent of whom were from Belarus.

In recent years, the BFT has gained significant international attention. Vaclav Havel, the playwright and one of the leaders of the Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic, supported BFT’s work. When a few BFT members were forced to move to London in 2010, Kevin Spacey provided a platform for rehearsals in his theater and helped to organize a demonstration against political prisoners. Jude Law became an advocate for the release of detained members of the opposition and journalists. He also starred in the BFT play “Generation Jeans,” which was shown in the British Parliament.

Local campaign with global scope

With the financial support of Russia, Belarus’s government is building a nuclear power plant in Ostrovets, which is on the border with Lithuania. Construction continues without public discussion and despite concerns and appeals from environmental groups. In response, the BFT launched its most recent campaign and play, called “Red Forest,” in June 2014, which supports environmental activists and campaigners in Belarus and the United Kingdom who oppose unsafe forms of energy production.

Belarus Free Theater's 'red line' against dirty energy on London's Millennium Bridge. (WNV/Nicolai Khalezin)

Belarus Free Theater’s ‘red line’ against dirty energy on London’s Millennium Bridge. (WNV/Nicolai Khalezin)

During the launch of the Red Forest campaign in London, a team of runners dressed in red ran in front of the headquarters of IGas, one of the United Kingdom’s most controversial fracking companies. The color red symbolizes the explosion of a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl in 1986, after which the forest turned red. On the same day, 15 actors carried a 1,100-foot red ribbon across the Millennium Bridge in London, passing in front of the Stock Exchange. The day ended with a performance outside the Tate Modern museum of an excerpt from the play “Red Forest,” which not only describes environmental struggle in Belarus, but also shares experiences based on research expeditions by BFT members to Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Morocco, Nigeria and the United States.

This year, in April and May, BFT is perfmorning “Trash Cuisine” in New York City’s La Mama Experimental Theater Club. On May 5, along with other performing artists, BFT organized a demonstration near City Hall, in order to call attention to the cruelties of capital punishment worldwide.

According to Khalezin, BFT is not a political theater, and their role is to portray reality as they know it. Societal taboos in Belarus are political by default, he said, and there is no need to give much significance to one man. In fact, Lukashenko has not been mentioned once in BFT plays.

Khalezin said that contemporary issues portrayed through art and theater provoke more public discussion than traditional media reporting. The BFT’s creative methods bring out emotion and critical thinking from their audiences, which in Belarus and abroad are typically between the ages of 18 and 35. It is often these bright young people who leave Belarus in search for better opportunities. Although some BFT members have been forced to leave their country, they continue to remain active in their creative capacity.

November’s election may prove to bring little change to Belarus, particularly if civil society remains weak in the face of state repression and heavy censorship. But, as long as there is still time, artists and actors will remain engaged in creative action, holding firm to a belief in its ability to unite and build the necessary power for change.

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