Belarus Free Theatre - History

History

The group was established in March 2005 by human rights activists Nikolai Khalezin, playwright and journalist, and Natalia Koliada, a theatre producer and Khalezin's wife. The theatre was meant to be an artistic form of resisting the pressure and censorship of the authoritarian regime of president Alexander Lukashenka in Belarus.

In May 2005 the team was joined by stage director Vladimir Scherban, who has produced the majority of Free Theatre performances. Currently the theatre’s staff consists of ten professional actors, one professional dramatist, four managers and two technical assistants.

The troupe's first production was 4.48 Psychosis, by the late British playwright Sarah Kane (1971–1999), which deals with "depression and suicide –– two themes that are taboo in state-controlled Belarusian art."

The premiere took place on May 28, 2005 in one of Minsk clubs.

According to the website of the European Theatre Convention, "Since May 2005 the Free Theatre has produced seven performances based on thirteen plays. About 5,000 people attended performances of the Free Theatre in Belarus and more than 4,000 abroad during the first two years of existence. Free Theatre attracts other representatives of Belarusian underground culture in the variety of fields, such as independent music, art, photography, cinematography."

On 8 February 2006, Steven Lee Myers reported in The New York Times that "The theater ... performs in private apartments and in places that are not openly advertised –– and, increasingly, abroad, where it is drawing international attention and support from prominent playwrights, including Tom Stoppard and Václav Havel."

The Free Theatre performed its original theatrical work Being Harold Pinter at the mid-April 2007 conference "Artist and Citizen: 50 Years of Performing Pinter, in Leeds, England, during which British playwright and 2005 Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter participated in the after-performance discussion. During the conference, there were scheduled screenings for conferees of the video of Square (Ploshcha), a documentary film about the situation in Belarus. Michael Billington — Pinter's official biographer and theatre critic of The Guardian — wrote a laudatory account of the performance of Being Harold Pinter and the Free Theatre in his Guardian Online "Theatre Blog" on 16 April 2007, from the conference, observing that "A new production by the Belarus Free Theatre reinforces the global resonance of the British playwright's political works."

Afterward, the Free Theatre went on to the European Theatre Convention (ETC) in Thessaloniki, Greece, site of the 11th Europe Theatre Prize conference (26–29 April 2007), and, the ETC invited the Free Theatre to join it, waiving membership fees: "In April 2007, Belarus Free Theatre became a full member of the European Theatre Convention," according to the ETC website, and in May 2007 "a member of international network Trans European Halls."

Fewer than three weeks after meeting with former Czech President Václav Havel on 4 August 2007, at his country cottage in the Czech Republic on 22 August 2007, during the Free Theatre's première of Edward Bond's theatrical piece Eleven Vests, "special forces from the Belarusian police stormed the performance by the Belarus 'Free Theatre' in a private apartment in Minsk," and "Actors, directors, and audience members," including its director Khalezin, "were arrested"; though subsequently released, "the theatre's founder Nikolai Khalezin is still pretty shaken up," having stated: "'Police used to burst into our performances with machine guns but they disappeared just as fast. A mass arrest like this is a first.'" According to Petz, "Khalezin thinks that this is a concerted effort on the part of the police, the special forces OMON and the secret service KGB 'to exert pressure'." Though Khalezin himself "is used to" such harassment in the past, he stated (as qtd. by Petz), "'But now it's affecting those who have never been arrested before. I'm afraid that some of them won't come back.'" Regardless of all the intentions of special forces to stop the premiere, the performance took place the next day in one of the private houses outside of Minsk. Police were taking video of the event from the forest.

On December 19, 2010, fifty thousand people went into the streets to protest what they believed to be the rigged election of Alexander Lukashenko. More than a thousand of those were beaten and arrested, including Artistic Director Natalia Koliada, other members of the theatre, and prominent artists and poets. At the Belarus Embassy in London, dozens of leaders from the artistic community, including Ian McKellen, protested the arrests, bringing international attention. Natalia Koliada was released, while Nikolai Khalezin went into hiding, where he remains.

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