Fomenting a Denim Revolution

The guerilla artists of Belarus Free Theatre perform underground while arguing openly for regime change

by Randy Gener

72 percent of Belarusians find it difficult to define the word "democracy."
Belarus holds 186th place out of 195 countries in the degree of freedom of the press.
And is on the list of 13 countries—enemies of the Internet.

—from Numbers, the third part of Zone of Silence
by Belarus Free Theatre

Belarusians today live in a Russified independent state called Belarus. If your GPS brain-unit simply draws a blank or if you feign recognition but dismiss the place as yet another inconsequential, archaic, East-European Slavonic post-Soviet satellite, then you have just demonstrated that Communism is having the last laugh.

You have also unintentionally suggested that the West lacks a clear-cut ethical stance vis-à-vis the repression of young people, avant-garde artists, conscientious liberals and independent intellectuals struggling to survive in the undemocratic regimes of the post—Cold War world. The question has been asked too many times before: Why should the government of a modern European nation-state be afraid of a play, a performance, an audience—or of a small theatre collective?

Step inside the cold oblivion into which Belarus condescendingly gets assigned. Americans and Western Europeans picture Belarus as a black hole, a negative space hermetically sealed from the rest of the continent, ruled by an authoritarian who has clung firmly to power since 1994. The country's economy and information technology, especially its media, is almost entirely under state control. Its state-owned artistic institutions, we are told, remain frozen in the Soviet past. Anecdotal proof: Its security service is still called the KGB. Lenin's monument still stands proudly in central Minsk in front of the House of Government.

Unlike its European kin, many of whom have emerged as feisty democracies, Belarus failed to develop independently from Russia after formally becoming a republic in 1991. Because of its recent Soviet past and its complicated earlier history (World War II laid Minsk to waste), Belarus never made a sharp break with the past. The removal of the Communist Party from its political scene may have deprived the country of its driving force, but instead of building new state institutions based on the rule of law and adopting democratic procedures and a market economy, Belarus (along with Moldova and Ukraine, after a brief perestroika) inherited the dysfunctional essence, the corrupt practices (only mildly reformed) and ideological resilience of the Leninist mindset. (In Belarus, that flowering of openness and competition lasted from 1991 to 1994.) Although its 9.9 million inhabitants have attained the basic prerequisites to pursue their own destiny, in the understanding of those who advocate for political and social change, Belarusians remain meek and obedient and, from a Western standpoint, delegitimized—stuck in a Communist-era time warp. Orphaned by the collapse of the U.S.S.R, the country has actually lobbied for state reintegration with Russia in some form. The Belarusian language and specifically Belarusian aspects of history are shunted aside and discredited in public life. Under the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko, the country also bends to the will of what the international media likes to call "the last dictatorship in Europe."

This epithet (foisted first by the former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) is sadly true. On the map of Europe, Lukashenko's Belarus remains of the last few places where free speech and assembly are considered criminal acts. Opposition activities and counterculture forces are frequently harassed and repressed. There have also been instances of politically motivated killings, kidnappings and disappearances. With a few exceptions, the names of relevant artists and cultural producers both at home and abroad have more or less been eliminated from the public discourse—in a figurative sense, they have disappeared. Given this distorted state of affairs—which includes a policy of limited contact even with Europe's other so-called pariah states—the small amount of information we do get to hear about Belarus is mostly dismal and negative. For Westerners, particularly bleeding-heart liberals and hardened free-speech activists, the cries for help are heartbreaking and alarming.

"It is awful," Nikolai Khalezin and his wife Natalia Koliada, co-founders of the renegade ensemble Belarus Free Theatre, wrote to Brooklyn-based writer and actor Aaron Landsman in the first of many e-mails seeking international support. "More than 500 people are arrested for the last five days in Minsk, 300 more in the regions. During the night, the camp was destroyed. People are arrested. They stayed in different jails along the walls, and nobody allowed them to go the toilet. We stayed there every night. Yesterday, when we were stayed for already eight hours and got absolutely freezed, we went home and in one hour I got a call that the camp is destroyed and all people are arrested. I cannot read news anymore because it is just awful."

Landsman received this e-missive, dated March 24, 2006, soon after several days of large-scale protests in downtown Minsk's Oktyabrskaya Square (October Square) were quelled. On March 19, Lukashenko had been voted back to office in a landslide re-election widely criticized in the West as marred by fraud. Subsequently, almost 40,000 protesters gathered around the clock in the square and set up tents despite subzero temperatures at night. Among the activists arrested at the square were the 60-year-old Belarusian theatre director Valeri Mazinski; Pavel Harlanchuk, an actor/director of the National Academic Drama Theater (the national Russian theatre, named after Maxim Gorky); and Svetlana Sugako, a 19-year-old musician and assistant director, who was detained for attempting to bring warm clothes to her Free Theatre colleagues.

In the e-mail, Khalezin and Koliada continue: "But E.U. [European Union] and the States [U.S.] make just statement, but no real sanctions. I think, the sanctions will come into force only if we are killed right in the street. It is absolutely terrible. Two our assistants to director of the Free Theatre are arrested. People are severely beaten up. Your support really help us to continue our fight, but we are not sure for how long time we will have our strengths."

Let it be noted, for the sake of analyzing the deep paradoxes and strange peculiarities confronted on a daily basis by artists in Belarus, that Lukashenko has been elected into office three times—and that however harsh or repugnant his regime may be to his multiple opponents, he seems to enjoy an extraordinarily high level of support among ordinary Belarusians, who have mainly been concerned with their stability and economic well-being. Lukashenko's brand of materialist populism, shot through with patriarchal folksiness, has successfully defeated the recent attempt to incite a "colored revolution," styled after the Velvet one in the Czech Republic in the late 1980s and bearing idealistic similarities to the recent revolutions in Georgia (Rose in 2003), the Ukraine (Orange in 2004) and the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan (Tulip in 2005).

The Belarusian opposition dyed its protest blue—a Denim Revolution. The label was coined after a militia officer, in September '05, seized the forbidden national flag (a white-red-white banner) in a public demonstration in the central square of Minsk. As Khalezin memorializes the event in his solo play Generation Jeans—the only Belarus Free Theatre production that has so far been presented in the U.S., by the Under the Radar festival at the Public Theater in January '08—a member of the youth resistance movement Zubr "took his jeans shirt off and fixed it to a stick. As soon as the jeans shirt rose over the crowd, it was already not a shirt but a flag: the flag of the jeans generation, the generation of free people."

In 2006, at the height of the protest actions of the Belarusian democratic opposition, Landsman became one of the first American artists to extend a helping hand to Free Theatre. (In the same year of Generation Jeans's New York arrival, Free Theatre participated in the Arts in One World gathering at California Institute of the Arts, thanks to the Trust for Mutual Understanding's support. The hotINK international play reading festival, curated by New York University professor Catherine Coray, also presented Khalezin's earlier effort Here I Am.) Landsman says he found "the broken English" in that above-quoted e-mail "really affecting, strangely," explaining: "When I got the original e-mail from them, my heart went out to them in a way that I can't rationally make sense of. It put everything in focus. I wanted to help these people."

"My thought," Landsman wrote back to Khalezin and Koliada, "is that a reading of your work would raise awareness here about what you do and perhaps galvanize some of the New York theatre community to get off their asses and help their fellow artists in a country where things are obviously much more difficult than they are here." Soon Landsman was engineering an October '06 reading of four new Belarusian dramas with the help of director Paul Willis and artists from the LAByrinth Theater Company, Naked Angels and Tinderbox Theater, as part of the Culture Project's Impact Festival in New York. This international day of solidarity was presided over by the British playwright Tom Stoppard, who made a personal appearance.

In addition to Generation Jeans, the scripts presented at Impact were We.Belliwood, a collage of short works and verbatim dialogues based on real life by young Belarusian playwrights Pavel Priazhko, Konstantin Steshik and Pavel Vassilievich Rassolko, all of which elaborate on the theme of young people struggling for Belarusian self-identification; Koliada's They Saw Dreams, about women whose husbands were forcibly disappeared; and Andrei Kureichik's The Sky, about six friends who decide to win back a degree of personal freedom by opening a nightclub in Minsk, but whose efforts are stymied by the intimidation and blackmail of Belarusian officials. A playwright, novelist and screenwriter, Kureichik is not a Free Theatre member, but he was the first Belarus dramatist to break through internationally after the fall of Communism. At the time, though, his Sky was published in Poland under the pseudonym "Nikita Mitskevich." Today Kureichik is considered a leading literary figure, with a commission from the state's Russian theatre.

By contrast, the Belarusian ministries of culture and education dole out no support to Free Theatre. The reason? Except for a website (www.dramaturg.org), this company does not exist in the official records. Inside Belarus, it exists in its own black hole. (Other Belarusian artists and cultural figures in the same boat include the documentary filmmaker Yuri Khaschevatsky ["Ploschcha"], oral-history author Svetlana Aleksievich [Voices of Chernobyl], the music groups Krama and Nejra Dziubel, the painter Alexander Rodzin and the singer Lyavon Volski.) In fact, Free Theatre, founded in March '05, was barely a year old when it became a cause célèbre. Since its first touring gig at Alvis Hermanis's New Riga Theatre in Latvia, the troupe has performed in more than 15 countries, including Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, Belgium, France, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Russia, Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.

Although Free Theatre runs the real risk of crackdowns and jail at home, it is the darling of prominent and respected playwrights such as Stoppard, the former president of the Czech Republic Václav Havel, Arthur Kopit (whose Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad is considered a landmark work there) and Mark Ravenhill. Later Harold Pinter and Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger became Free Theatre trustees and patrons. Pinter, in particular, was so enamored of Free Theatre's ferocious adaptation of his work, called Being Harold Pinter, that he gave the company permission to perform his plays anywhere in the world without paying royalties. "We met Pinter," remembers Khalezin, soon after the Nobel Prize—winning dramatist died this past December. "He told us that Britain was a dictatorship, too. We listened in respectful silence, and then we told him about our situation. He had to agree we had a far worse dictatorship."

Critics and international groups have followed suit—but not always to celebrate only Belarus Free Theatre's artistry. In April '07, the European Theatre Convention waived its dues and invited the company to become a full member. The double irony of this largesse: No other Belarusian company is a member of this network of 40 European theatres and Belarus is not a European Union member state.

In August '07, not long after the group met with Havel at his country cottage in the Czech Republic, special police forces burst into the private apartment in Minsk where Free Theatre was holding its premiere of a clandestine production of Edward Bond's Eleven Vests. Everyone, including the actors, director and audience members (among whom were theatre professionals from France and the Netherlands)—about 50 people—was hauled to a police station. All were released three hours later. "One had hoped that the days when artists were arrested for free expression were buried with totalitarian states, but Belarus is as close to a totalitarian state as you can get in Europe," Stoppard told the Guardian newspaper, accusing the authorities of a "grotesque" attack on human rights.

Such advocacy has galvanized European bodies into action. In December '07, the French republic awarded Free Theatre its Human Rights Prize—the first time this particular honor has gone to a cultural organization. In April '08, at the instigation of Stoppard, Havel and Pinter, the European Union recognized the Belarus troupe with a special mention during the 12th annual Europe Theatre Prize in Greece for the ensemble's "opposition against the oppression of the Belarusian government." In November '08, Free Theatre was recognized at ArtAction's inaugural Orient Global Freedom to Create event "for standing up to censorship and repression."

Free Theatre's general manager Natalia Koliada can't help but note the disparity in the significance of these accolades: "It's very sad that the Europe Theatre Prize's special mention was given not for artistic choice. It was given for our position against the Belarusian regime. It was very difficult because we have received great reviews in all the places where we go." The human-rights prize, signed by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, on the other hand, "was an honor for us," she continues. "In this case, the prize was for our artistic work—they totally supported our aesthetic choices." Nevertheless, Koliada remarks, "The most vitally important point for us is that Belarus is now on the artistic agenda of European theatre. We've made it so that the name of this country and the situation of our country are given voice at the highest level of European theatre."

The conundrum that Koliada notes in our conversation—the tension between the necessity to express political opposition to a dictatorship and the precarious role theatre plays to mirror the contemporary realities of a people—cuts to the very heart of the dissident's dilemma. For Landsman, Free Theatre's existence raised questions about "how much can one accomplish with art alone, about assumptions one makes when working at a remove from one's colleagues, about the ways aesthetics are affected by political strictures and freedoms." Having seen Free Theatre's productions of Generation Jeans, Zone of Silence and Being Harold Pinter on the international circuits, I was motivated to ask the same question in different form: In a post-Soviet space, what is the difference between creating new theatre for the sake of innovation versus creating new theatre for the sake of survival under extreme conditions?

You can't snap a photo of President Lukashenko's residence in central Minsk. Photography is not banned—but taking a photograph of this cube structure, built in the Stalinist Empire style, is simply forbidden, no questions asked. When I approach Lukashenko's residence with my camera, the guards who patrol all four sides of the building shoo me away. I try to get a shot of the residence from behind a metal fence in the leafy public park across the street, but a KGB officer spots me, his face evincing such fury, his fist taking empty stabs in the air, that my young Belarusian interpreter freaks out and advises me to briskly walk away.

This grandiose building, surrounded by clean boulevards and shaded by the trees of a modest park, is supposed to be the most closely guarded place in the country, since all the roads leading to the area are sealed off to vehicular traffic. The nearby October Square bears no physical traces that a Denim Revolution was snuffed out here or that it sometimes morphs into a vast stage for organized protests and flash mobs. "Watch out for taking too many pictures of official-looking buildings" was the warning Landsman got when he traveled to Minsk in March '08 to attend workshops for his own writing contribution to Free Theatre's most recent international project, the three-hour Eurepica.Challenge, in which 14 playwrights from 14 countries wrote mini-plays about the challenges their countries are facing today. Koliada adds that according to the new rules, it is now forbidden to take a photo of the Minsk airport.

Unlike the White House, which is separated from the hoi polloi by a gated park and an immense garden, Lukashenko's residence sits right on the curb. It was so close that I entertained the notion of making a house call—until I realized that this proximity and pristine façade are designed to maintain the illusion of order and well-being. "The larger-than-life monuments cast shadows of secrecy over the territories of terror and the operations of power," states the writer Svetlana Boym in Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia.

At night, the lights soften the unearthly-looking building considerably. Night is also when the activities of young people and counterculture artists spring to eager life. Rock bands, for example, flirt with being both above-board and clandestine. If the musicians play too many government-sanctioned gigs, Landsman says, young people would view them as morally bankrupt and refuse to buy their records. But if they play too many underground gigs, the government cracks down. Persons who discreetly slide between the two cultures could easily be denounced as collaborators or infiltrators by either side.

Such polarization wreaks havoc on the artistic development of Belarus Free Theatre. The company's brave stand against the Lukashenko regime—based on the inherent belief that theatre can foment a Denim Revolution on the world stage—makes their cultural productions elite phenomena inside Minsk. With no place to rehearse, no permanent facilities to perform its shows, no administrative offices to call its own—indeed, no means of earning a ruble locally—Free Theatre has no choice but to perform in private apartments, and even then those locations frequently change because of the risk of exposure and persecution. "If we sell one ticket," Koliada says, "we would be sent to jail for two to six years."

Except for one, all the Free Theatre actors have been sacked from their jobs at state-run theatres. This past November, Koliada's father, Andrei, was dismissed from his position teaching acting at the Belarusian Arts Academy. Vladimir Scherban, who stages all Free Theatre shows, was fired from his position at the Yanka Kupala National Academic Drama Theatre—not only is he forbidden to direct at any state theatre in Belarus, but all of the productions he worked on before joining Free Theatre have been cancelled. "Belarus is completely isolated from the rest of the world," Scherban adds. "Promoting our productions and inserting them into the European context is both necessary and indispensable. Our tours abroad are a means of overcoming the censorship that we are victims of at home."

The few times Free Theatre has performed in clubs and street cafes, the owners of those establishments lost their business licenses. In the summer, this dynamic 18-member company (10 actors, 1 professional dramatist, 1 director, 4 managers and 2 technical assistants) performs in the woods. On the same October night that I was wasting time stealing photos of Lukashenko's residence, I was waiting for a return call from Free Theatre's stage manager—she was supposed to tell me where to meet a theatre representative, who would then direct me to the actual performance. Since signage in Minsk is in Cyrillic, it is a virtual necessity to know Russian or be accompanied by someone who does. Since I had no choice but to retrieve my passport from my hotel (in case of an arrest, it could be the difference between being held in a police cell for a few hours to a few days), I unfortunately missed that evening's performance. "It was good you didn't make it," Koliada says. "Five policemen with guns came to the performance. Thank God, Nikolai and Vladimir somehow managed to solve it. The performance was stopped for 40 minutes."

The performances Landsman saw in Minsk constitute the very essence of poor theatre. "We walked through a whole ton of muddy streets," he remembers. "We went into a backyard and into the back door. Someone lent them the house. There were 15 or 20 people outside smoking. There were cookies and coffee in a makeshift kitchen. The troupe used two main rooms, probably both 15 feet by 18 feet. An arched wall had been knocked out between them. The audience is on one side. Styrofoam white blocks were placed on three windows. The actors performed with one bare light bulb overhead and a small black curtain on the door."

Lately, Free Theatre members have taken to rehearsing more and more abroad, usually in other Eastern European countries. For a good part of the year, the troupe goes out on tour. Particularly now that it has received an array of international accolades, it would be a rare occurrence to see Belarus's most experimental ensemble on its own turf.

Sometimes, as in the works of Khalezin and Koliada, Free Theatre exposes the ugly side of life in Belarus under Lukashenko. Discover Love, for example, interweaves the real-life story of Irina Krasovskaya, whose husband Anatoly was kidnapped and murdered, with similar stories of political prisoners and forced disappearances from Asia and South America.

In the beginning, Khalezin's efforts (Here I Am and Thanksgiving Day) dealt with existential questions concerning family relationships, domestic life and immigrant struggles. But as Free Theatre's political struggles become more desperate, its stripped-down, rough-hewn, sometimes dated, in-your-face aesthetic has assumed more journalistic motives and autobiographical plots. The three-part Zone of Silence, dubbed "a modern Belarusian epic," was tortuous to sit through, if you're used to the accessible forms of Western dramaturgy, but it was riveting and insightful as an earnest attempt at documentary-theatre self-exposure. In the confessional first part (Childhood Legends), four actors air the pain and trauma of their own childhood losses: a suicide attempt due to an unfulfilled romance, the humiliations of kindergarten, the scars of twice witnessing the imprisonment of a father. Diverse, the video-infused second part, reveals the daily costs of existing in the shadow-life of Belarus: a black Belarusian gay man who is frequently harassed, an eccentric old woman for whom Stalin and Lenin remain romantic heroes, a homeless man with a passion for vulgar dancing in a city that prides itself of its spotless streets and hobo-free parks. Numbers, the almost wordless concluding section, examines statistical facts about Belarus (How many are unemployed? How many newborn babies are left in maternity homes?) with stunning physicalization; this meditation on the naked persistence of Belarusian bodies lifts the lethal sincerity of Zone of Silence into the realms of stage poetry.

Free Theatre is fortunate to have Vladimir Scherban at its disposal. He is a breathtakingly good director who knows that simply broadcasting taboo subjects is not enough counteract the official ideological mythology, as personified in the figure of a dictator. Nowhere is his originality more evident than in his prismatic Being Harold Pinter, which he skillfully assembled from excerpts of six Pinter plays, using Pinter's Nobel Prize speech as a spine and concluding with touching letters from Belarusian political prisoners. This 90-minute masterpiece of montage runs roughshod over those famous Pinter pauses yet mines the oblique, more intimate dramas for their global resonance and overt violence. Fierce and relentless, the Belarusian actors push the later, more political Pinter works to expressionistic intensity: A woman brandishes a flaming torch over a male victim's naked body in One for the Road. An actor transforms himself into a vicious guard dog in Mountain Language. At one point, the entire company is trapped inside a plastic sheet as if gasping to breathe the air of freedom.

In other words, Free Theatre took risks by turning Pinter's plays into a mirror of their underground life in Belarus. "When you have children at home," says Koliada (who has two of her own, ages 10 and 15), "and suddenly the doorbell rings and your daughter opens the door, and she sees the police there and she asks, 'Did you come to arrest my mum?', the situation becomes very complicated and painful."

Ironically, Free Theatre's righteous mission to be a potent voice of artistic dissent limits and marginalizes its very real ability to reach out to the Belarusian citizens who are the source of their creativity, even as its producers claim to have several thousands on its audience waiting list for every performance.

Says Koliada: "What Free Theatre does, first of all, is create. This has never been done before: a Belarusian theatre talking about Belarusian issues and written by Belarusian authors and performed by Belarusian artists. We are creating a new way of art in Belarus. We don't want people to think about Belarus only in political terms. We want people to know that there are contemporary artists in Belarus. This is a time of national revival."

In waging a subversive campaign through drama in the shadows of the official culture, Free Theatre suffers from and struggles with the impossibility of separating their artistic choices from their own political troubles. Because everything that is different is criminalized, true Belarusian renewal can take place only if the current regime is removed from power (an unlikely prospect).

"At the press conference after our reading," Landsman recalls, "a reporter asked me if there was anything one could do on stage in New York that would get you arrested. I said I didn't think so—that after the Patriot Act was passed, a few artists produced shows they claimed would lead to their arrest, but as far as I know no playwright, actor or audience members were incarcerated. I mentioned a friend's joke that if a dictator really wanted to neutralize the subversive effects of experimental theatre in Belarus, he should do what we do in the States: Ignore it."

To which Khalezin instantly said, "I think that is called democracy."

"The speed with which he came up with that remark"—suggesting that Free Theatre would love to be ignored like that—"illustrates one of the more profound moments I encountered in Belarus," Landsman avowed. To which I add that at this historical moment, questions about Free Theatre's aesthetic merits—even if they are not irrelevant—are beside the point. What matters is that in Belarus it exists at all.