Freeing Theater in Belarus

When Belarussian police crashed the latest premiere at the Free
Theater three weeks ago, company founder Nikolai Khalezin didn’t,
at first, consider the raid out of the ordinary; the police had
disrupted the company’s performances before. This time, though, 50
people present, including the actors and audience members, were
taken into custody. ‘Police used to burst into our performances
with machine guns but they disappeared just as fast, ‘Khalezin told
Ingo Petz of Germany’s Sddeutche
Zeitung
. ‘A mass arrest like this is a first.’

The Free Theater remains an anomaly for many Belarussians, who
have yet to experience the kind of constitutional freedoms enjoyed
in neighboring post-Soviet states. Khalezin founded the company
with his wife Nataliya Koliyada in 2005 as a response to the
state-owned theaters that are common in Belarus. ‘We want to offer
an alternative,’ says Khalezin, ‘a modern theatre that discusses
social problems with a degree of creative freedom.’

Performances, discretely announced by text messages, are held
secretly in cafes, private residences, and even forests. Still,
Khalezin’s greatest foe might be his fellow citizens. ‘Belarussians
are not used to this kind of contemporary relevance in their
theater,’ he tells Petz, ‘many respond like children. They’re
shocked.’

Outside Belarus, the theater’s work has drawn international
acclaim. British playwright Tom Stoppard and Rolling Stones front
man Mick Jagger count themselves among Khalezin’s supporters.
Playwright and former Czech president Vaclav Havel, whose work was
considered integral in Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, is
another.

Unfortunately,
as the British newspaper the Guardian
reports
, the high-profile attention angered the Belarusian
regime in the lead-up to the arrests. ‘One had hoped that the
days when artists were arrested for free expression were buried
with totalitarian states,’ said playwright Tom Stoppard. ‘But
Belarus is as close to a totalitarian state as you can get in
Europe.’

Go there >>
Arrests After the Second Act

Go there, too >>
50 Arrested as Police Storm Play in
Belarus

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