Belarus Free Theatre: “Dictators are scared of a strong mutual position”

Belarus Free Theatre have been using their creative and subversive art to protest the dictatorial rule of Aleksandr Lukashenko for over a decade.

Facing pressure from authorities since their inception, the theatre company nonetheless thrived underground, performing in apartments, basements and forests despite continued arrests and brutal interrogations. In 2011, while on tour, they were told they were unable to return home. Refusing to be silenced, the group set up headquarters in London and continued to direct projects in Belarus. In 2016 the group was shortlisted for Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Arts Award.

Co-founder Natalia Koliada tells Index why the company is crowdfunding for its production of Burning Doors.

Why is it important to mount Burning Doors at this time?

Koliada: Freedom of expression in that geopolitical knot where we come from and where more than 200 million people live under severe pressures of authoritarian and dictatorial regimes. If we do not talk and alert people living in western, democratic countries to our stories, their countries will be infiltrated in different forms, initially unnoticeably, by people manipulating the authorities who say it’s all in the name of the law.

Where did the idea come from?

Koliada: The idea behind Burning Doors is at the heart of Belarus Free Theatre. Close your eyes, just for a moment, and imagine that a theatre company based here in the UK could be prohibited to perform shows by Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane, and needs to perform underground. Even operating underground, the actors and managers could be arrested by MI5, riot police or the Met, and audience members threatened and told that they could lose their jobs and education.

(Our audience is a very young one and, of course, they are not scared of the secret services, so what would happen in those cases is that their parents would be threatened with professional retribution.)

I’ll continue and ask you to imagine that all of it has happened and continues to happen to a UK based-theatre company, one that is known and performs across the world, and yet can only exist because its founding members are exiled from their homeland and they now have political asylum in the UK. This has been our story for the past 11 years.

It’s in our blood to feel all the symptoms of dictatorship. Last year when we mounted Staging A Revolution: I’m with Banned which brought international attention to banned artists in Belarus, Ukraine (Ukrainian artists who spoke out against the Russian military invasion of Ukraine and are now prohibited in Russia), and Russia, it was the first time anyone had mounted an artistic solidarity event with Eastern Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Around the same time that the Festival took place, filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and contemporary artist Petr Pavlensky were arrested. Masha Alekhina, a member of Pussy Riot who served two years in jail, got in contact with us and suggested we work together. We knew we had to do it. We were intrigued by the artistic possibilities of working with a real witness talking about her own personal experiences and bringing her into our Minsk-based ensemble of actors, the most talented and bravest in the world. We wanted to connect Masha’s story to those of other persecuted contemporary actors and through a prism of their personal stories to speak openly about the hypocrisy of politicians and to inspire our audiences to reflect on the reality that we as human beings need to stand up together against repressive regimes. It’s important for us to reemphasise that we are not heroes, we are not victims, we are contemporary artists.

Does BFT think that building cross-border alliances with artists will have an impact on the threats to freedom of expression?

Koliada: Any cross-borders alliances of artists expands audiences. It transforms all of us into a movement. Why do dictators put contemporary artists into jails? Because they want to show with a single example that it’s dangerous to resist systems through the arts. They become scared when we stand up together against them. It’s very simple in thought and action but this is what makes them go into panic mode. Ai Wei Wei was under a house arrest when he created the visual icon for our campaign, Staging A Revolution: I’m with Banned. More than 600,000 people across the world saw it online, and people from more than 37 countries supported our campaign. This kind of collective action makes dictators feel sick and it’s then that they start to make the mistakes that lead to their collapse.

It’s unprecedented for us as a theatre company making work for more than eleven years under dictatorship to collaborate with a woman who served a two-year term in a Russian jail. Within days of announcing this collaboration to the media in the UK, it spread across the world. Even this level of coverage is terrifying to people like Putin or Lukashenko because it demonstrates the tidal wave of support for non-violent resistance by creating art. Art is more powerful than political rhetoric. When Mick Jagger, Tom Stoppard and Vaclav Havel made a video supporting the people of Belarus, we were arrested by the KGB. They knew that it was instigated and created by members of BFT. We understood then that the support of artists across the world was more terrifying to them than statements from politicians.

I think it’s time for all of us to make steps forward and to start to act together with artists, human rights defenders, politicians and journalists, because dictators are scared of a strong mutual position.

How has BFT’s mission evolved since being founded a decade ago?

Koliada: From the very beginning we were only interested in people. Human life is the most interesting subject matter for us. We started with our own personal taboos, then society’s taboos, then moved onto a global dimension. The only thing that is unchanging is our fundamental interest in people. When we perform in different continents across the world, people tell us that they find our work so powerful because they always find themselves within us. And likewise, we find ourselves in our audiences.

How else can people support BFT and Burning Doors?

Koliada: Information is the key. If people know what we do, why and how, we have the chance to continue to exist. People knowing of our existence and our work helps on many different levels including our financial sustainability. Last week, President Obama extended sanctions in Belarus stating that Belarus is “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States of America and its foreign affairs”. Yet at the same time, the EU is playing a badly orchestrated geopolitical rebranding game to try to convince people that “Belarus is normal”. It’s not. It has been a dictatorship in Europe for 22 years, political opponents have been murdered and their bodies never found. Those who perpetrated those crimes are still in power. Even this week, there is a trial underway against Eduard Palchis, who is a blogger and journalist. It seems that Belarus might have seized another political prisoner if human rights organisations across the world do not intervene.

And for BFT more specifically, this month we launched our first-ever Kickstarter campaign. We need to raise £20,000 in the month of June to bring our tireless, extraordinarily brave troupe of actors to the UK to work with them on our new work, Burning Doors. Every pound will help us get there. Please consider finding out more and supporting us today.