Belarus’ Underground Theatre Scene

Belarus is Europe’s last dictatorship. 20 years ago, President Alexander Lukashenko rose to power after winning the election with a majority of 79% (and allegedly fixing the votes). Since then, the country has seen a major clamp down on free media. Belarus is also home to the last remaining KGB unit in Europe. They operate as hackers, and block any websites that broadcast information that is deemed inappropriate for Belarusian readers. And by that, I mean any website that isn’t completely in favour of an oppressive government.

The arts have been a major victim of the clamp down, especially in the realm of theatre. Many artists, actors and directors have been arrested or even exiled for attempting to express in their art any kind of disillusionment towards the government. Natalia Kaliada is one such person. Along with her husband Nicolai Khalazin and their friend Vladimir Shcherban, in March 2005 they founded the Free Belarus Theatre.

The Free Belarus Theatre is a theatre company seeking to make their experiences and the harshness of the Belarusian government known to the world. It is the only independent theatre company in Belarus not registered with the government and, with its 29 members, the company performs every week.

The company’s work has been described as “Guerilla Theatre”, and is radical and politicised. As they wish to deal with darker issues such as suicide and sexual minorities, they often face a great deal of resistance from official theatres. Their production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, for instance, was rejected by all 27 possible venues – because of this they were forced into performing their plays underground and in secret. All 29 of the company’s actors now live in hiding.

There is undoubtedly a very large risk in performing these plays, not only for the actors, but also for the audience. Great precautions are therefore taken to ensure their safety. Plays are performed deep in forests under the guises of parties, Christmas celebrations, or even weddings. Audience members do not go straight to the venues either; they get texted a rendezvous location and are taken from there to the performance area. The company continues to perform under such extreme pressure and risk because it’s their only means of free expression.

To raise awareness of the injustices of the Belarusian government, the company has travelled (or in reality, has smuggled itself) to other countries, especially ones that have similarly oppressive regimes, and have performed their plays there. They have performed in refugee camps in Morocco, Bangladesh and India.

In 2010, however, the company was invited to perform at The Young Vic in London, in an event organised by campaigning organisation Index on Censorship. They performed two plays, firstly Numbers, a play that explored modern Belarus through its statistics, such as: “13 model agencies, in collaborations with the Ministry of Culture sold Belarusian young women into sexual slavery”. Their second play was Discover Love, an emotionally driven piece about a couple torn apart by the regime. These performances were received with standing ovations, and were clearly effective in raising awareness.

Three years ago however, Natalia Kaliada was arrested with her husband, and was eventually exiled. She now lives in London. When asked earlier this month on BBC World News’ HARDtalk how she could still maintain a commitment to the cause when exiled, she simply replied with “Skype”. She explained that as the directors either she or her husband would simply video call the actors over the internet, and being able to see them, they could direct with ease.

Kaliada has highlighted what could become a key tool in her company’s mission to raise awareness –the internet. With it, the world can become a much more united place. The broadcasting of plays over the internet from venue to venue has become a common practice in certain theatres, and with this technology The Free Belarus Theatre may finally be able to achieve a rallying call for seismic political change.

The National Theatre in London regularly broadcasts their plays, in a live-streaming service called The National Theatre Live. After five years of live streaming since its launch in 2009, their broadcasts have been viewed by over 1.5 million people in 500 venues in 38 countries around the world.

Performances are filmed in front of a live audience, but cameras are placed all around the auditorium to ensure that the audience get “the best seat in the house”. The National Theatre Live acts as a convenient medium for those wanting to see top quality performances, but are unable to go to London to the actual theatre.

A collaboration therefore between The National Theatre Live and The Free Belarus Theatre could spark the wave of awareness and action the company has been waiting for. A partnership between the two could move in a multitude of ways: potentially, The Free Belarus Theatre could adopt the medium of live streaming and increase their audience hugely on a worldwide scale.

This would also mean a large portion of the audience would be in considerably less risky positions viewing plays. Alternatively, The National Theatre Live could start broadcasting to Belarus, and widen the scope of the theatre available to Belarusian audiences. A whole world of possibilities has opened up to The Free Belarus Theatre with today’s technology. It is now time for them to use it.

Of course, right now this all may be impossible. The National Theatre Live may not want to jeopardize their reputation as a service by taking part in something that could potentially have them blocked in a country by their government. Or The Belarus Free Theatre may never get the chance to broadcast anything as they could also be hacked and blocked by the KGB.

But what we should take from this is the promise of the future and the direction in which we are heading. With the help of the internet, the arts and the theatre can overcome regimes and rally political upsurges. The Free Belarus Theatre already has a partnership and residency with Falmouth University in Cornwall where they can safely perform, so their reach is growing by the day. And you can help too – from seeing their plays to ‘housing an actor’, a service they offer on their website. To quote Natalia Kaliada, to stop the injustice of the Belarusian government, we must “stop talking, and just act”.