Oppressed Belarus actors headed, in an emergency action, directly to Chicago

In a remarkable piece of fast action by many facets of the Chicago cultural community in support of fellow artists, the persecuted actors of the Belarus Free Theatre and their critically acclaimed production of "Being Harold Pinter" are headed directly from New York to Chicago.

The move was conceived by a group of Chicago arts and educational institutions, led by the Goodman Theatre, including the League of Chicago Theatres and Northwestern University, as a way of keeping safe these dissident actors and artists, who face the possibility of being arrested and imprisoned in Belarus, where the arts are harshly censored and sometimes suppressed by the government.

"They have said that if we go back, we have to face the KGB and it will be five to fifteen years in prison," said Natalia Kolyada, a co-founder of the Belarus Free Theatre, speaking from New York. "So we are coming to Chicago. It is fantastic. It will give us time."

The decision to head directly to Chicago (where "Being Harold Pinter" is scheduled to open Feb. 1 and play through Feb. 27; venues are still being considered) was announced in New York on Monday night, where the show is completing its run at the Under the Radar Festival, produced by the Public Theatre.

According to festival director Mark Russell, a slew of celebrity actors, including Olympia Dukakis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Laurie Anderson and Mandy Patinkin, showed up Monday night to take part in a benefit performance for the actors. Kolyada said after the New York show that many of these celebrities had told her they would be taken care of in Chicago.

"They said it is a city where the people love theater," Kolyada said. "We want to perform for them and give voice to the people back home."

"We are hoping people will step up and help us support these artists," said Roche Schulfer, the executive director of the Goodman, noting that the board of the Goodman Theatre pledged the financial guarantees on Martin Luther King Day to make this happen.

"This is a real-life situation of artists fighting for their freedom of expression," Schulfer said. "I think this speaks volumes about Chicago."

The hope is that the month in Chicago will allow the Belarus artists to consider their options, including requesting political asylum in the United States. The plight of the theater company, founded in 2005, has attracted high-profile defenders including the playwrights Tony Kushner and Tom Stoppard, an outspoken friend of the company.

The Belarus Free Theatre is based in Minsk in the Republic of Belarus, a nation that has been described by U.S. officials as tyrannical. Two members of the theater company were arrested in December, according to a report by the Index on Censorship, a British organization promoting freedom of expression. They were among the many arrests made in the aftermath of the disputed election of Alexander G. Lukashenko, the leader of the country for the last 16 years. In an interview with CNN in 2005, then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Belarus "truly still the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe."

According to published reports, the Belarus theater artists had to leave the country in a clandestine manner, breaking into small groups in order to elude government security forces and allow the theater to fulfill its engagement in New York.

It has not yet been announced where in Chicago (and/or Evanston) the show will play. Schulfer said it was likely that the production would play in more than one theater during that month (the Goodman's own spaces already are booked with shows).

"Being Harold Pinter" combines the writings of Pinter, the late English playwright and political agitator, with the words of Belarusian political prisoners. It has been rapturously received in New York, where audiences and critics have noted the power of political theater courageously created at such personal cost.


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