Most artists grapple with various challenges in their decision to pursue a career in the theater, from first-time audition jitters to long-term financial instability. But for the cast and crew of the Belarus Free Theatre, onstage success meant facing more serious risks: political persecution and even imprisonment in their homeland.
"We [perform] simply because we love our jobs in the theater," says the company's artistic director and co-founder Natalia Koliada. "It's a life that we choose to lead, to be able to say what we think."
In New York, where the Belarus Free Theatre is back in repertory for the next five weeks with a gripping triumvirate of productions -- "Being Harold Pinter," "Zone of Silence," and "Discover Love" -- it's easy to believe that their work has paid off. And in London, where members recently performed inside Britain's House of Commons and with the likes of Jude Law and Ian McKellen, the artistic accolades members receive are perhaps even greater.
But the ghosts of their authoritarian homeland continue to haunt the cast and crew both onstage and off. In their native Minsk, where media and artistic works are subject to heavy government censorship, members are forced to rehearse in secret and then hastily organize performances in makeshift venues with no publicity. The troupe's fortunes seemed to take a turn for the worse last December, when the capital was rattled by violent protests against the fourth term of President Alexander Lukashenko, mere weeks before they were set to depart for the 2011 Under The Radar Festival in New York. Held on Dec. 19, the elections were widely considered rigged, with the results manipulated in favor of Lukashenko, in power since 1994.
Two of the underground group's artists were arrested in the ensuing chaos, and though they performed to sold-out crowds at the festival in early January after secretly fleeing Minsk along with their cohorts, Belarus Free Theatre members remain unable to return to their homeland in any official capacity for fear of arrest. "We're on a wanted list -- we're public enemies," Koliada says, noting that family members and friends have continued to face interrogation and threats from the secret police since the troupe's departure. Much of the oppression Belarusians are subjected to, she says, is comparable to that in Egypt and Libya. "The only difference is that Belarus doesn't generate great geopolitical interest. We don't have gas or oil, we just have a lot of people."
For now, however, the Belarus Free Theatre is simply happy to be able to present its work safely and to an appreciative audience. "Being Harold Pinter" is an elaborate hybrid piece which intercuts transcribed dialogue by Belarusian political prisoners with scenes from some of Pinter's best-known plays, while "Zone of Silence" is a three-part show which tackles various Belarusian social taboos. Making its New York premiere is "Discover Love," based on one Belarusian woman's experiences after her husband was kidnapped and allegedly murdered by government forces. The choice of the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa, one of Manhattan's more intimate venues, lends each production an eerie, almost voyeuristic quality -- perfect for the subject matter at hand.
Though the Belarus Free Theatre's politically-tinged shows have consequently raised awareness of human rights violations taking place within the nation known as "Europe's last dictatorship" each time the troupe performs, Koliada insists her company values artistic integrity over simply being seen as a global advocacy campaign.
"We are not politicians," she says. "We believe it's necessary -- whether you're a businessman, a doctor, an actor or anything else -- to tell the truth. We are very interested in the lives of people...we speak about very, very personal issues, and everyone who attends should find a connection in our work to their own lives."
The Belarus Free Theatre performs at La MaMa in New York through May 15. For more information, click here.
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