In Belarus, Theater as Activism


MINSK, BELARUS - Three male actors enter a stark, white room in a ramshackle house on the outskirts of this former Soviet city and place a large suitcase on the black, lacquered floor.

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Each picks up an instrument, and they launch into a lively Belarussian folk tune. From the suitcase springs a woman in a traditional costume, a flowered garland on her head. Yipping and chirping, she kicks into a sprightly dance. On the wall a message in Belarussian is projected: "About 20,000 young women in Belarus need employment."

Still dancing, she strips to her underwear, and the message changes. "Thirteen modeling agencies, in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture, sold young Belarussian women into sexual slavery," the projection says. And then: "2,842 criminal cases were initiated in Belarus in 2007 for human trafficking."

Welcome to the world of the Volny Teatr, or the Belarus Free Theater, the only unregistered - and therefore independent - dramatic collective in this nation of 10 million on Europe's edge, which President Aleksandr Lukashenko has ruled since 1994.

In this piece - a third act called "Numbers" that is part of a larger production, "Zone of Silence" - the troupe tries to bring to life, through mime, dance and metaphor, statistics that it presumes the authoritarian government would like to ignore or suppress.

Because it is unregistered, the Free Theater is also illegal.

Since its founding four years ago, the troupe has led a vagabond, underground existence, jumping from bar to restaurant to private apartment. Shows are announced a day or two in advance on the Internet, and those who wish to attend must send an e-mail. As many as 2,000 people sometimes try for the 50-odd places usually available, according to the group's manager, Maryia Vavokhina.

Those who get a spot are told to appear at a particular time and place in downtown Minsk, and a theater worker shepherds them to the location. (Recently, the venue has more or less settled to the once-condemned house in Minsk's suburbs.)

The precautions are not in vain. Two years ago, according to news reports, Belarus police stormed one of the theater's plays and arrested everyone present - actors and spectators alike, including visitors from France and the Netherlands. All were released about six hours later, Ms. Vavokhina said, except the activist Pavel Yukhnevich, who was released later that night and then arrested again a few days later in connection with the incident.

The Free Theater's defiant stand has earned it fame and acclaim abroad. Supporters include Tom Stoppard, Vaclav Havel, Mick Jagger and the late Harold Pinter. Press coverage has been extensive. Al Jazeera television visited the group in August to film a 20-minute documentary, and the British playwright and journalist Mark Ravenhill wrote a piece in the British newspaper The Guardian entitled, "My highlight of 2008? Hooking up with the scary and unstoppable Free Theatre of Belarus."

Part of the draw seems to be the frisson of the forbidden that the performances elicit, a throwback to the Soviet Union, when people gathered in grimy apartments and cafes to lend support to dissident voices.

A question needs to be asked, however, about all art born from political dissent and heralded in more liberal countries for its courage: Would the works seem as good if they had been produced under more open circumstances?

Many were the artists who struggled under Communist regimes - and achieved fame abroad in part due to their suffering - only to find themselves forgotten after the breakup of the Soviet Union and political changes in its satellites. One reason is that many of the works seemed pretty mediocre seen in a different light.

But the Free Theater would stand on its own merits, many supporters believe. "They're polemical, but in a poetical way," said Mr. Stoppard in a telephone interview from London.

"There is always a background of apprehension," he added. "And a constant state of needing to draw on reserves of courage that we really don't know about and can't really imagine."

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Nikolai Khalezin, an actor, playwright and former journalist, founded the group in 2005 with his wife Natalia Kolyada, a playwright and human rights activist. The playwright Vladimir Shcherban joined them as director soon after, and the troupe's seven actors (including Mr. Khalezin) now perform about 10 shows a month, with five plays in their repertoire.

Mr. Khalezin clearly revels in the notoriety the group has achieved in the West. He mentioned Mr. Stoppard and favorable reviews a few times during a 20-minute interview before a recent performance. To be sure, he said, politics have helped raise the theater's profile, and it functions today thanks to the money earned in tours abroad.

In the end, however, the repression is now much more of a hindrance than help, Mr. Khalezin said. The founders and Mr. Stoppard said that all of the troupe's actors have been fired from their regular state-approved jobs, foreign collaborators have been stopped at the border, and they risk being arrested.

If the group were official, the state would dictate the content of their performances, said Mr. Khalezin - even those that were not political but simply dealt with controversial or sensitive material, like that of the late British playwright Sarah Kane's "4:48 Psychosis," a disturbing depiction of depression and suicide.

"This is not political theater - political theater looks different," Mr. Khalezin said. "This is 'relevant theater,' which deals with issues that people are used to keeping silent about."

Politics nevertheless play a significant role in the group's mission. The troupe's Web site says that the theater project will end when "Belarus will be changed from dictatorial regime to democracy." Mr. Khalezin calls himself a "freedom fighter" and performs his own one-man show called "Generation Jeans," describing his experiences during a 15-day jail detention after being arrested at an antigovernment demonstration.

Another piece, "Discover Love," which was written by Mr. Khalezin with Ms. Kolyada, deals indirectly with the disappearance 10 years ago of Anatoly Krasovsky, an opponent of Mr. Lukashenko's regime and one of four individuals to have gone missing under suspicious circumstances.

For the moment, the Free Theater seems to have achieved an unsteady truce with the government - perhaps as part of a loosening of restrictions as Mr. Lukashenko tries to draw closer to the West.

And for the moment the group is allowed to travel freely, including shows in Washington, Los Angeles and San Diego this month and in France and Britain over the last year. Still, Mr. Khalezin said he doubts the government's motives, despite steps last year like registering an opposition party and freeing political prisoners.

"It will all end in the traditional way," he said. "With repression."



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