Belarus Free Theatre
Belarus Free Theatre is a Minsk and London-based award-winning theatre company dedicated to free speech and artistic expression. Through their inventive approach to addressing pressing issues such as social justice, taboo content and the violation of human rights, Belarus Free Theatre works to defend artistic freedom under Belarus’ autocratic government. According to founder Natalia Kaliada, BFT’s mission “is to be the world’s leading campaigning theatre company, delivering high-standard innovative theatre that inspires people, communities, and whole societies to take action to defend human rights and freedom of expression and to bring about systemic change.”
Founded in March 2005, Belarus Free Theatre has no official designation, running like an underground theatre group in locations chosen before the event, from private apartments to warehouses to outdoor venues to railway tunnels. Since their plays showcase the crushing censorship and human rights violations that take place in Belarus, spectators are asked to bring passports due to the risk of harassment, police raids, and arbitrary arrest. Audience members are typically contacted via text message and escorted to the location in question.
Belarus, dubbed “the last dictatorship in Europe”, functions no differently than a modern autocracy. Under the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, free speech is heavily constrained. Forced confessions and falsehoods are still commonplace—an especially chilling belief considering Belarus is the last country in Europe to retain the death penalty.
Yet even in the midst of such a repressive environment, the show must go on. Productions organized by Belarus Free Theatre range wildly in subject matter, but consistently center the harsh reality of living under a dictatorship. At the moment, BFT directors are working with Ukrainian pop musician Andriy Khlyvnyuk of Boombox Band to direct and produce a documentary dedicated to Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who is currently imprisoned in Siberia. In another bold recent work, “Burning Doors”, BFT teamed up with Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot, using performance as a medium to share the stories of persecuted artists living under dictatorships whose voices will not be silenced.
Due to the artistic directors’ current refugee status, Belarus Free Theatre has been based in London since 2011 as an Associate Company of the Young Vic Theatre. As a result, BFT currently operates—in Kaliada’s words—as a “two-headed beast”, or two separate branches under the same name. In Minsk, the original branch thrives despite potential prosecution. Actors, students, and managers continue rehearsals via Skype with the London branch, striving to bring the plight of the Belarusian people into the public consciousness.
In 2018, BFT students participating in LGBT+ events and installations were arrested on two separate occasions. In June 2018, three students staged an artistic stunt in front of a statue of a policeman, decorating the area with rainbow footprints and flowers. After being detained overnight, they were informed that would be fined for “disobeying police”. Five months later, another three students participated in Belarus Free Theatre’s Studio Fortinbras LGBT+ performance in Minsk, dressing as officers with rainbow epaulets to make a statement against homophobia. Shortly after, they were fined, arrested, and detained under inhumane conditions for holding what authorities described as an “unauthorized mass event”. “These arrests are completely disproportionate to the supposed offense and an indication of the Belarusian authorities’ determination to clamp down on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly,” Belarus Free Theatre said in a statement to Freemuse.
Undeterred by recent setbacks, directors Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada continue tackling new projects. Counting Sheep, originally conceived by Mark and Marichka Marczyk as a recreation of the Kiev uprising of 2014, was expanded and redirected under Khalezin and Koliada to create a performance full of resolve and vigor. In England, the line-up for 2019’s Greenbelt Festival includes the Belarus Free Theatre as a recent addition to the ensemble.
Belarus Free Theatre, despite the efforts of their home government to undermine their work, continues the valiant resistance to restore faith in the arts.
"Since 2015 we have witnessed the emergence of a contagious form of ‘postmodern totalitarianism’ across the globe aided by dark money and viral technology. Dictators are now armed with new tools of social control not only to shore up authoritarian rule at home but to cause disruption abroad, reaching into the very heart of liberal societies to undermine them from within. The Mueller inquiry and Cambridge Analytica scandals have revealed the extent of Russian interference in both the 2016 UK referendum on leaving the European Union and the 2017 US Presidential election, through the abuse of personal data and political micro-targeting. Ukraine was Russia’s testing-ground for the global launch of its ‘fake news’ factories and support of disrupting influences, first on the Maidan, then in the Donbass.
As artists from Belarus and now being political refugees in the UK we have an acute sensitivity to any form of control and what we are observing is mass disenfranchisement of people in liberal democracies, giving up their freedom by unreservedly embracing the social media tools of manipulation which are turning them into the agents of their own oppression. Technology is converting us into automata, our consciousness re-programmed. Only the power of art can disturb the sleep of conscience and return to us our humanity. Disruptive art – not the ‘safe’ kind we are spoon-fed to keep us ‘content’ with our situation."
—Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, founding Co-Artistic Directors of Belarus Free Theatre and political refugees in the UK since 2011
By Bageot Dia, May 2019. Bageot was a journalism major, creative writing minor at SUNY Oswego. A recent graduate, he is extremely passionate about geopolitics, philosophy and the sciences.