Early in 2011 the national and international theatrical community rallied together behind the Belarus Free Theatre as they struggled to find a way to not only continue their powerful work in the theatre, but bring awareness to the truth of the situation in their country of Belarus.
Human rights infringements, horrors of torture, disappearances, and unjustified imprisonment were brought to light as a result of these brave artists fleeing their country and arriving in New York to perform at the Under the Radar Festival.
That act of courage brought many of us around the globe and throughout the United States to add our voices to their cause. ‘Free Belarus’ was video taped and chanted in places and by people who may never heard of or given much credence to this country prior. But it was the passion and commitment of Natalya Kolyada and her husband Nikolai Khalezin who awakened many of us. These founders of Belarus Free Theatre brazenly put not only their art into the world, but gave shape, feeling and articulation to the cries of their countrymen who otherwise would have been silenced to international ears.
In New York, London, Chicago, here in Los Angeles and many other cities throughout the US and Europe vigils were held, readings of ‘Being Harold Pinter’ (created by Nikolai and based on the work of their supporter Harold Pinter) were staged in solidarity.
But relatively quickly, the focus moved from Belarus to the Middle East. And the members of Belarus Free Theatre could not return home without risking grave personal danger. And nothing changed in Belarus. Except that more of their friends and colleagues were arrested and put in jail. As Natalya once shared with me, Belarus has no value. Only people. No oil, no resources. So who will come and help a country whose leader has been called ‘the last dictator of Europe?’
However, they tirelessly continue to bring focus to the abuses of power and human rights violations. They meet with diplomats and politicians with hope that they will apply pressure on the Belarusian government to release political prisoners and bring an end to enforced disappearances. And, they make their art. They must. Because as long as they make theatre and tell the truth of this story, it won’t be ignored utterly. It will not be forgotten. As they have stated on their website: The Belarus Free Theatre is a “project” which will be ended when the situation in Belarus changes from dictatorial regime to democracy. Within the current political and world climate, that does seem unlikely any time soon.
So what happens until then?
Unable to return home Natalya and Nikolai, as well as several company members applied for and won political asylum in the United Kingdom. They are also busy creating new pieces they hope will make a difference, one of which, A Reply to Kathy Acker: Minsk 2011 was presented at the Edinburgh Festival. It received a top award of the festival, “The Scotsman Fringe First 2011” Award for “Innovation and Outstanding New Writing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe”, as well as The Guardian’s “The Very Weighty Topics Award.”
And what can we, the international theatre community, do to help them now?
Natalya and Nikolai are in the process of officially registering “Belarus Free Theatre” for charitable status (not-for-profit) which will allow them to grow their organization at a more substantial level. The goal of the first leg of this campaign is £9,000 (approximately $14,000) and they are more than halfway towards that goal. The deadline is December 12th—if they don’t reach the goal by that time, they will be liable for a high penalty.
On #2amt we often have very weighty and interesting discussions of theatre and its relevance. And here we have one of the most relevant theatre companies in the world who need our help. Not only are they giving a voice to a country suppressed, they are artists of the highest caliber in our profession. I know that my association with them has opened my eyes and my heart to the true power of what place art and artists take within our world.
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