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The Art of Change with Belarus Free Theatre

Nothing Concrete text
29 Apr 2020
24 min listen

Chris Gunness heads into rehearsal with underground political theatre company, Belarus Free Theatre, to speak to Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin to learn more about making theatre in exile and the challenges of creation in isolation.

The main thing for us is to make our audience think. But we must think together. 

The Art of Change is a series of episodes where we meet artists and performers who are passionate about changing the world. 

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CG: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Chris Gunness and this is the Art of Change, a series in which we feature artists and performers who are passionate about changing the world. 

In this episode, the Belarus Free Theatre - in which politics, theatre and life combine with rare edginess. I've come to an anonymous house in central London to meet its co founders and artistic directors, Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezi. I say anonymous house because this is underground political theatre, campaigning openly against the repressive policies of President Alexander Lukashenko. They were banned in Belarus in 2005, from the company's very inception. And in 2011, Natalia and Nikolai fled their homeland and became political refugees in Britain. I'm here to attend a rehearsal, but a rehearsal with a difference.
Natalia and Nikolai are directing via Skype with the actors at an undisclosed location in Belarus. 

Natalia, it's a fascinating way to direct, being forced to direct - what sorts of problems, practical and artistic, do you face?

NK: I think you choose a very right word to say 'forced' to direct that fascinating way on Skype. Of course, the major challenge that you don't have a physical presence of each other. And it is a major challenge because when you work with actors, it is based on that human connection. It's one of those particular forms as theatre and performing arts that audience loves because people could see actor's live on stage. And this is exactly what they appreciate. And this is exactly what we're missing, that physical presence of each other. Besides when we worked together in the past, we felt that we could resolve problems and protect them. Over the last 10 years while we are in the UK and the future, unfortunately, it will be continued like that. But we have the most incredible team on the ground in Belarus. It is run by our managing directors, an amazing couple. But unfortunately, you only could use secret locations now.

CG: Natalia, take me back to 2005. Why did you start the company?

NK: It actually started in 2004, the official moment happened in 2005 when we had the press conference, the whole conversation started in 2004 when we had a group of like minded people discussing an issue, what does it mean to have a free Belarus? How to have European Belarus, that meant to have free music, free theatre, meaning that it doesn't have censorship because everything is under severe censorship over the propaganda machine that exists for 25 years in Belarus. And that was that idea that got developed from very global, big political thinking about the European place of Belarus in the world into a very practical thing as Belarus Free Theatre.

CG: How did you go about setting up the company?

NK: It was very easy. 

CG: Really?

NK: Yes. It was! We just had a day, it coincides with my husband's birthday. But it's really just an accident. But because he was a former journalist and he was editor in chief of three major newspapers that got closed down by authorities, he got in touch with his friends, independent journalists and asked what is the best day for all of them to get together when we want to make an announcement and they chose that date. It was 30 March 2005, we got together with two other people and it was a press conference, and we announced that Belarus Free Theatre starts its existence. We didn't have, like anything, like we didn't have a building. We didn't have any actors at that time. But we said that Belarus Free Theatre started its existence, will will produce shows, we will organise an international competition of contemporary drama, as we think that contemporary playwrights are the best X-ray machines of society. And we will start training young people in order for them to get rid of the brainwashed system of education that is built up on the Soviet Union system of education.

CG: But you were banned immediately. So you went on the ground immediately?

NK: Before that announcement, we try to check again because of my husband's investigative journalism skills - and you know how it works! So you have networks everywhere. And he checked whether it's possible for us to get registered. And straight away we got an answer - no. And it was an answer that was a very interesting one because he was told that it's not even about whatever you want to register. It's about your names that are prohibited. If we decided to build up a rocket space machine that will be prohibited to us because of our names. And when we got the information we decided, that's done. We just announced our existence. And straightaway, we announced that we will exist underground. And when they understood that underground space is much, much bigger because you could dig, like inside and...

CG: And outwards - in all directions!

NK: Yeah, absolutely. And we thought like, hmm, you don't like us on the surface? Okay. Then we will go below. What will be even worse for you because we will be more danger for you from that part, from underground.

CG: Natalia has just given the middle finger I think to the President. Anyway, let me ask you, is this political theatre, is it campaigning theatre? Is it activism? Is it physical theatre? Is it narrative theatre? How do you define yourselves?

NK: We say we're more than a theatre. Because it's first of all, the main idea for us to reject the idea of the narrow role of theatre. That you need to come on stage and entertain the audience. The main thing for us is to make our audience think. But we must think together. And when the audience leaves our shows and they tell us, you made me think, this is the main thing for us. That means the major danger for any dictator. We say that when you put morality and creativity together, this is what brings dictators into panic mode. Because they understand that if people start to think and stop accepting every thing the system is telling you to do this is the major change.

CG: But what are your goals? I mean, do you want to overthrow Lukashenko?

NK: Our goal is to create mind blowing theatre of the best artistic quality. When we share that quality with our audience, then we could make the next step already together with our audience and try to change society. Either to try to change a life of one individual or a group of individuals, society of the country. As an example, we campaign on disabled rights in Belarus for two years, we produced the first ever show with the participation of disabled people. We organised a number of artistic stance with our actors and members of society who have different disabilities. They blocked roads in Minsk in wheelchairs, they were queuing in wheelchairs, 20 people into public toilets with a very simple placard that you will very well understand that was written. 'We also want to pee'. 
CG: A very powerful message!

NK: It was very special force! And it was a incredible moment because in a year's time we got public toilets for disabled people

CG: Wow. That's quite an achievement in a strange kind of way.

NK: It's incredible and for example, just imagine that it was a Santa Claus parade - in our part of the world we call Father Frost - parade before Christmas and New Year. And we together with our disabled colleagues were not allowed to be part of that parade. And the special division of the police said, but you Belarus Free Theatre will not be specifically allowed to be there. In a year's time, our colleagues who are part of our show, they've been leading that parade. And besides major change, before disabled people who have vision impaired issues, they were not allowed for auditions at any high institution in Belarus. We brought a piano, we brought music instruments and put it in front of the music academy and invited those people who were not allowed for auditions, organised the concert. And in a few years time the law was changed and now they are allowed.

CG: That is extraordinary. 

NK: So we are living our life together with people and we're interested in human beings.

CG: You've also seen the release campaign for the release of Oleg Sentsov. Tell me about him and the campaign to have him released.

NK: We produced a show that is called Burning Doors and it's connected to artists in Russian jails. We had Maria Alyokhina from Pussy Riot performing together with our actors. It was the story of Petr Pavlensky, the contemporary Russian artist who nailed his scrotum to Red Square

CG: He nailed his scrotum to Red Square...? To the ground?

NK: Yes. Just use your imagination, guys. What was that?

CG: Indeed, eye-watering stuff. 

NK: And also was arrested for that. He also put on fire the door of the FSB. And after that he got arrested. Later he was released after several campaigns for him. And the last part of the show was dedicated to Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian filmmaker who was arrested in Crimea that is annexed by Russia, and he was sent to Russian jail and he got 20 years in jail. And we dedicated that show, Burning Doors to Oleg Sentsov and his release and became part of the global campaign to release Oleg Sentsov. And Oleg was released last September, and we went to see him in the week after he was released. And only in December 2019, I presented him to the British public at the Front Line Club together with the PEN Centre. 

CG: Now Natalia, hold on a second, I want to drop back into the rehearsal and hear Nikolai with the actors. Just for a little bit more to get a sense of what's actually going on and how you work. 
I'm standing in front of the computer screen with Natalia, Natalia, tell me what's happening in this scene. 

NK: It has contemporary body movement. It includes choreography, it includes like very serious psychological theatre. It includes the job of two composers who are specifically on purpose by the director prohibited to exchange files in order to create an absolutely unexpected, beautiful, impressive score only based on the video that they see. But same time, you are not able to come and touch an actor when they need you. You're not able to be with them, they're so exhausted and they simply want probably to cry. But sometimes we're so exhausted, like we're fighting with a computer and internet that we want to cry, and nobody could give us a hug as well! So there are kind of those obstacles as well. And it's happening for the last 10 years when we became refugees, Skype rehearsals, and it's challenging, very challenging. An interesting moment that we have composers balaklava blues, they're located in Canada. We have our video animator who is located in Ukraine and Kiev. We have Minsk actors, Belarusian, we have composers in Germany. So you could imagine in terms of timeline and time zones, how we rehearse. At 6am, Nikolai works with Canadian composers because it's 1am in Canada. So they work late! Then at 9am here, he starts to work with Kiev, and then he moves to rehearsals in Minsk, when he's finished in Minsk, he starts to work with Germany.

CG: Do you ever all come together and how does it work in the final performance?

NK: We're now working on bringing actors for two weeks before the Barbican in order to make adaptation for, not even adaptation, but polishing for the Barbican. Because it Minsk conditions doesn't allow us to have a rigging that we will have the Barbican in terms of light, video, sound systems, because just imagine it is a very old warehouse from the Soviet Union time that was discovered by our assistant director and at some point they have stones coming down from ceiling because the place is very old. So just to give you like, try to imagine those conditions that when you're rehearsing, some bits and bobs are coming from the ceiling of the place!

CG: Are there not problems with security in getting the actors out of Belarus and bringing them to London? Don't they face problems with the authorities? Or do you do it in clandestine way? 

NK: We use the same old model that we've used for 15 years of our existence because this particular year, it's a major year for Belarus Free Theatre in the March of 2020 we become 15 years old. And we usually go through other countries. So the company doesn't fly as a company from Belarus. But I will not tell you details. Otherwise, we will not manage to do that.

CG: We're hearing the rehearsal, but we haven't talked about the audience. How do you get the people safely to your performances given the repression?

NK: It started of course, like 15 years ago and first step that had been done was Nikolai and me, we went around universities in Belarus and we printed out in our home an announcement and with our phone numbers saying that if you want to join in and come and see the show or join our training session, give us a call. And he went to male toilets, I went to female toilets and we put it inside every single cabin. In order for university administrators not to find it. Then slowly, with internet in Belarus, we started a live journal. We started through Nikolai's blog that had 2 million followers, started to spread that information and there were two places in Minsk like two coffee shops where we knew the owners and they will say to their visitors and clients, this particular theatre got opened, if you want, you could go and see it. So it was guerilla marketing and word of mouth. It continues a bit like that, of course we don't go into university toilets anymore, but it's necessary for you to find the number of our audience manager and then you will get the phone call or text message of a meeting point. You will be asked preferably to have your passport with you in case there might be a detention, and then you will be you will be mad at that meeting point. From the meeting point you will be taken to a place where we perform. In the past we had occasions when audience get arrested together with us. Recently because of that crazy fear of Lukashenko of Putin, he is trying to show to the West that he is kind of a liberal person and KGB didn't visit our shows to arrest people. I'm sure they visit to watch it.

CG: Have audience members been arrested? Have your performance has been raided?

NK: Performance has been raided. The first time it was in 2007 when we started our global campaign for Free Belarus in solidarity with Belarus and it was started together with Mick Jagger, frontman of Rolling Stones, Tom Stoppard and President Václav Havel. It was started very simply, three of them recorded very short video appeals to appeal to the people of Belarus and wish them freedom and freedom of assembly. And after that, our show with all our audience got arrested. Only because of the possibility for us to reach to Tom Stoppard who became our patron and who visited Belarus in August of 2005, it was possible to get in touch with him and he sent a message to journalists in the different parts of the world. The message got straightaway out and we get released in the morning. We just want to do theatre that will make all of us think together in order to live in very peaceful, safe society.

CG: But politically, what do you want to achieve? Do you want to be able to go back home and function as a free theatre? Without fear of repression?

NK: I think it's a very interesting question, because when we only established Belarus Free Theatre, we said that the Belarus Free Theatre will exist unti the dictatorship is over in Belarus. And when we started to travel the world, and especially with the last 10 years here in the UK, it became clear that Belarus Free Theatre is needed not only on the dictatorship, probably it's even more needed under democracy. Because under dictatorship, everything is so straightforward. Because it's very black and white, and there is no grey zone, and you just have the major idea for everyone to be safe. And nobody get arrested, beaten up or as four of our friends have been killed, and the democracy everything is heterogeneous, it's not possible exactly to catch and identify the problem. Especially within the last few years, it becomes more clear that first of all, dictatorship is contagious and democratically this, they want to use methods of dictatorship put it into democratic frame and sell it to the population of their countries. And we people who have like very high sensitivity to any form of control, feel it very badly. In the UK, in the United States, there is a very strong tendency and desire of democratic leaders to stay in power for good, as dictators are doing, but still to continue to call it democracy, but when rights of people are taken slowly from them.

CG: Through your experience with this company, what have you learned about the power of theatre to change and to sustain the human spirit and it's indomitability?

NK: I understood personally that there is no single chance to change a society with a show only. 

CG: What else do we need?

NK: It is necessary to go through the whole society and performance and great theatre show is the most incredible entrance point to much bigger steps. But it is that amazing space where all of us could dream. And when all of us could imagine what might happen to us or what already happened and how we could avoid that, and then we must leave the theatre space, the theatre building and start to act on changes within society.

CG: So theatre is only the starting point.

NK: It is.

CG: Natalia, thank you very much indeed for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to me.

NK: Thank you so much. It's great pleasure, and I'm really looking forward to our further conversation.

CG: It's my great pleasure. 

CG: And thanks to you for listening to this episode of The Art of Change on the Barbican's podcast, Nothing Concrete. And you can subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you download your podcasts. And do leave a message to help spread the word. 

Next week we start a four part series, where I'll be talking to the actor, writer and so much more Stephen Fry about Beethoven, bipolarity and how art and comedy can change our world. For now, from me, Chris Gunness - goodbye.

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