Monday, January 17, 2011

Being the Belarus Free Theatre



Hey Youngbloggers. This is going to get a little lengthy, and I hope you'll stick through it with me, but just in case you've got a scroll-happy finger, let me tell you this bit now: In support of and solidarity with Belarus Free Theatre, the Public Theater in partnership with Amnesty International will be holding a public demonstration on Wednesday, January 19th, at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Belarus to the United Nations, at 136th East 67th Street. The protest will be held from 12pm to 1pm. Text the word "PROTEST" to 27138 to receive information and updates on the exact meeting location. For more information: the Public's Facebook Event; the Amnesty International event page, and Amnesty International's statement regarding post-election protesters in Belarus.

Now we'll talk about why, and how, and what else.

So here's the truth. I didn't know much about Belarus until a couple of weeks ago when my roommate and I were discussing which Under the Radar shows we were most excited about. She rattled off her list, enthusiasm for her New Year's resolution ("Spend all my money on theater.") radiating. Then: "...and Belarus Free Theatre. If they make it here."

Wait hang on. If?

Belarus Free Theatre is a theatre company whose work puts them in danger. They write and perform plays that are often openly political, and they do so in a country whose government favors censorship and violence over open dialogues. As Laura Wade noted in The Guardian's Theatre Blog last month, Belarus Free Theatre is underground "...not because it's cool and edgy, but because Belarus is a dictatorship, and any opposition...can be swiftly and harshly silenced." They must perform in secret, and, according to The New York Times, the Belarusian government--and the KGB, still an active presence in the country--has threatened and intimidated the company and those associated with them.

On December 19th and 20th, protesters gathered in Minsk to protest the announced (and suspect) re-election of Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. The protest was violently broken up, and opposition candidates were arrested. Two members of Belarus Free Theatre were also arrested, while the rest went into hiding. The company escaped "in small groups, and not in an official fashion," arriving in New York on January 2nd. In this video, shot the day after her arrival in the United States, company co-founder Natalia Kolyada describes the dangers the troupe has faced--and what they still face--all for creating theater. Three days after their escape, The Belarus Free Theatre opened Being Harold Pinter at the Under the Radar festival.

My affection for Pinter and his smoking hot political activism have been well-documented here on the Youngblog. Being Harold Pinter combines pieces of that Nobel lecture with scenes from several Pinter plays and letters written by Belarusian political prisoners. Last Sunday--just one week after Belarus Free Theatre's arrival in the United States, just three weeks after they had been forced underground in their home country--I saw the company perform Pinter in a way I never thought I'd see Pinter performed. I thought I knew all sorts of things about The Homecoming--I've read or seen it dozens of times--but never before had the violence inside of it seemed so fresh and immediate. It wasn't just the story of a family violated, it was the story of minute-to-minute anger, fear, mistrust.

What Pinter does best is keep you in the present, at all times engaged in what's in the room at that moment. What the Belarus Free Theatre did was ratchet up the repercussions. Raise the stakes, but really. I was in the room with the play. I was in the room with the people performing the play. The play was real. Everything was happening, and the distance between me and them felt small, alarming, or nonexistent. The imagery was simply and strongly. The performances were passionate. By the time the play had moved on to Pinter's later, more overtly allegorical pieces, I felt engaged to a point of responsibility.

And that's so good. So rare, and so good. Remember up top when I told you a few weeks ago I didn't know much about Belarus? Well guess what. That's super-different, now. I've done my homework, and it's all thanks to a show I saw. Belarus Free Theatre makes art that seeks to inform within their country, but beyond it, as well. I know I'm preaching to the choir here when I say these things, but even the choir needs to hear it sometimes: theater can move people to action in a way that no other art form can. Theater can take place so near to you that you can have your hand stamped by it on the way in. So close that you can sit in the front row squinting at the faces of the actors in front of you, wondering about the provenance of their scratches and scrapes. So close that you can see the strength of it backed immediately by the fragility of it.

What can we do? As theater artists, patrons, just folks. Well, first, the good news is that what's gone on with Belarus Free Theatre has inspired action. In addition to Wednesday's protest, the Public Theater is holiding a benefit performance for the troupe, and accepting donations on their behalf. In her video statement, Natalia Kolyada puts bluntly the power that those of us in democratic states have. "Only when you speak, the governments could make changes to our country. Only when you speak to your governments, your governments could make a pressure on Belarusian government to release all people who are now in jail in Belarus. Just speak." So do that. Ever write to your Senators? It's super easy. Here's a-sortable-by-state contact list. For those of us in New York, you can contact Senator Gillibrand here, and you can contact Senator Schumer here. If you'd rather send it by post, here's how to do that. Read through the Amnesty International press release and ask your senators to lend their support to the Belarusian prisoners of conscience. 'Cause I know you theater folks, and I know there's one thing you do great, and that's talk. Now, let's make sure your talk gets heard.

Thanks, and thanks for listening.

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