At Georgetown University, Belarus Free Theatre Basks in the Spotlight's Glare
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
The Belarus Free Theatre has no official audience in Belarus, because officially the Belarus Free Theatre does not exist. Only state-run theaters exist in Belarus, which has been described as Europe's last dictatorship. Only approved plays exist, by approved, non-revolutionary playwrights. There are no revolutionary playwrights in Belarus. Officially.
So in Minsk, the company's home city, actors perform in tiny apartments, texting their location at the last minute to avoid harassment by government officials. They perform in bars and tell the authorities the gathering is a holiday party; they perform in the woods and say it's a wedding. Many of the actors have lost their day jobs, some of the audience members have been arrested.
Tuesday, the Belarus Free Theatre will begin a two-day, two-play performance run at Georgetown University's Davis Performing Arts Center. This evening's production is "Generation Jeans," a monologue about growing up behind the Iron Curtain, where denim and rock music were prohibited. Wednesday brings the U.S. debut of "Discover Love," based on the 1999 Belarus kidnapping and murder of a Washington resident's husband.
For the company, the visit means a normal performing experience, free from threats of violence. For the audience, it is a reminder that there are still places where going to the theater is an act of treason.
"Even Chekhov is very rarely produced [in Belarus], because he makes people think," says Natalia Kolyada, co-founder of the Free Theatre. "And when he is, it goes through censorship." Other works, too: When Nilo Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Anna in the Tropics" was staged in Minsk, a line suggesting that a cigar chairman should be democratically elected was struck. The government no doubt found the language incendiary: During Belarusan President Alexander Lukashenko's 15-year-rule, he has rigged elections, disbanded parliament and abolished the constitutional two-term limit that should have ended his presidency in 2004. As secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice called his country an "outpost of tyranny."
This history, this censorship, this daily oppression inspired Kolyada and her husband, Nikolai Khalezin -- who began writing plays while imprisoned for editing an independent newspaper -- to found the Free Theatre in 2005 as a voice for playwrights whose work had been banned. Their first selection was "4.48 Psychosis" by British writer Sarah Kane. "We tried everywhere to stage it but received rejection after rejection," Kolyada says. "We were told, 'There is no psychosis in Belarus. There is no suicide in Belarus. There are no sexual minorities in Belarus.' It's not possible to talk about any of the issues that worry people."
Finally, the owner of a cafe offered his space. The company performed there until the KGB -- a name Belarus still uses for its intelligence agency 18 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union -- threatened to take away the restaurant's license. They moved on to a private residence; that owner was threatened with eviction.
The Free Theatre instituted evasive tactics. The text-messaging system began after the troupe's e-mailed announcements were infiltrated. Kolyada began inviting foreign journalists and dignitaries to the performances, knowing that the government would be less likely to interfere with those shows. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't: In 2006, the owner of a nightclub that had hosted the company lost his license. "But what was important is that he called us the next day," Kolyada says. "He said, 'Don't feel guilty, because I understand where we live. The next street action we have, I'll be out there again, still fighting.' "
"In a course I teach on political theater, we talk a lot about theater as nourishment," says Derek Goldman, the director of Georgetown's theater program, which partnered with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to bring Belarus Free Theatre to Washington. "But I think it's rare to see a circumstance, working in this illegal and underground situation, where that drive is as urgent and pure as it seems to be in this situation."
The theater company that does not exist in its home country has won support and acclaim from around the world. Tom Stoppard has written letters of support, the late Harold Pinter allowed his plays to be performed royalty-free, and the company has participated in theater festivals throughout Europe. To be judged on artistic merit, "we need to go outside of Belarus," Kolyada says. The audience back home is simply grateful that they perform at all. The waiting list to attend a show is 2,000 people long, and "everyone comes to our performances with their passports, because they know if they get arrested, they'll need them. The Belarusan audience is the bravest audience in the world."
No one knows that better than Irina Krasovskaya, whose story is the basis of "Discover Love," which will be performed Wednesday on the 10-year anniversary of her husband's death. Anatoly Krasovsky was a prominent pro-democracy businessman, and friends with one of Lukashenko's political rivals. The two had gone to a steam room -- a common location for anti-regime discussions, as the steam ruins recording devices -- just a few months after the disappearance of another Lukashenko foe. They were supposed to meet Krasovskaya later for drinks to celebrate her birthday. Neither ever came home. When Krasovskaya went looking for Krasovsky at the steam room, she found traces of blood, broken glass and tire marks, she says. But when she reported her husband's disappearance to the police, they searched her house and brought her in for interrogation, claiming she might have killed him herself. Krasovskaya later emigrated to Washington, remarried and became a civil rights activist. She worked with Kolyada and Khalezin for several years to help them develop "Discover Love," and saw it when it premiered in the Netherlands. Though she'll host a reception for the Washington performance, she doesn't know if she'll be able to sit through the play again. "I saw it and remembered all my life," Krasovskaya says. "I saw my husband, I saw myself and I cried."
But she is happy for the attention to her story -- a story she says is often met with incredulity. "When I tell this story in normal surroundings, nobody believes me," she says. "For this to happen in a modern city," in a country bordering the European Union? It seems impossible. The disbelief is why Kolyada and Khalezin continue, despite the arrests, despite the threats. "We want people to know what is happening. We have two children, 10 and 15 years old," Kolyada says. "That means there are two girls who have never lived in a democratic country. We want our children to live in a free country." And if that's not possible? "We want our children to understand what it means to think freely."