(The following article was compiled and written after listening to an interview with artistic collaborators from Belarus Free Theatre, 3/22; by Bob Shuman, Stage Voices. )
An old saying: “When the guns are singing, the muses are silent.” The original may actually have been: “When the guns are singing the laws are silent.” We are those muses who hope not to stay silent when the guns are singing; who do not stay silent when the guns are silent, also. We don’t have the right to another way. We have to be the back-up, to help those who are fighting, because there is no one else who will do this; because there are those, from the arts and elsewhere, who are actually fighting on the streets.–Nicolai Khalezin, Belarus Free Theatre
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, silently, as they screamed, from behind a deflating transparent plastic globe, Belarus Free Theatre, in Being Harold Pinter (2011), warned the west of the price of dictatorship in Eastern Europe. Their works for the stage, often short and urgent, left audiences feeling that little could change for them—in their country, so remote geographically, linguistically, and politically—but we did not think it could become worse, and so our response was largely acquiescent. Now, eleven years later, the company, along with approximately 3.7 million refugees from Ukraine (and uncounted numbers from neighboring countries, have been in flight (France24; updated to 4 million on 3/30/22), uprooted, running, homeless, and given paperwork, while rushed escape plans are made for the U.S., the United Kingdom, the EU or other points where there is, hopefully, no war—something the actress and director Liv Ullmann has stated needs to be addressed immediately and legally: “I get very shocked. . . . To be honest, I know that the same thing will happen in Norway. But at least I can fight it more easily because I belong to that country. I don’t belong to the US. But I can say what I mean.”
New work from Belarus Free Theatre remains prescient, as if from Cassandras at the Trojan War. Dogs of Europe, based on dystopian fiction –which feels like a current documentary novel, although it was written in 2018/2019 and is “one of the best pieces of literature written in Belarus in the last thirty years,” according to Nicolai Khalezin, co-founder of Belarus Free Theatre, along with Natalia Kaliada. Alhierd Bacharevic, its author, presents life in a future Russia, where their own land has “disappeared,” along with literature and the European Union, replaced by authoritarianism and indifference. Frank Hentschker, interviewing two company members, Svetlana Sugako and Khalezin, for Segal Talks (Daniella Kaliada provides English translation), on Wednesday, 3/23/22, led the discussion, concerning what is on their minds, what is on everyone’s minds: the war in Ukraine, during its twenty-eighth day, a day that: sees the continued devastation of Mariupol, the destruction of a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile launcher, strikes on Ukrainian military infrastructure, and Putin’s announcement that payment for Russian natural gas must be made in rubles, among other critical issues.
Livestreaming on the global, commons-based, peer produced HowlRound TV network, Khalezin, who is also an award-winning director, playwright, designer, educator, political campaigner, journalist, and who was put in prison for his activism, begins bluntly, “Thinking people tried to scream and shout of dangers awaiting, but ultimately, we failed in our mission; we all share collective blame for allowing Putin to exist—but artists must use the historical moment.” Sugako, an activist, musician, and actor who is leading on a new campaign for LGBTQI rights for the company, was also jailed, before she left the country, for protesting Lukashenko’s seizure of a sixth term as president, in 2020. On Zoom, she looks boyish and thoughtful (both of those interviewed wore their hair in bouffant styles), and, since 2011, she had been running the entire operation for the Minsk theatre, before taking refuge in Poland and England (she is, currently, in the process of taking props from Warsaw to London for a new show called How Man Had a Speaking Sparrow; the Artistic Directors of the Belarus Free Theatre, at the time, were forced into exile in London. She once built a wooden raft and sailed down one of the rivers in Belarus, it is explained, to talk to people in small villages, to bring theatre to them. Comparisons to a Huckleberry Finn are not warranted, however, as even performing and speaking in Belarusian, her native language (or wearing a t-shirt or placing a decal on a car window with the flag of the country), carries an arrest sentence; looking for work in the state theatre, was prohibited and unsafe, as well, because of associations with the underground stage.
Khalezin explains, from Washington, D.C., that actually Belarus Free Theatre did not start politically. Instead, at its inception, the company was incorporating and reconfiguring, theatrically, a philosophy based on the principles of Total Football (Soccer), as conceptualized and implemented, during the ‘70s, by Rinus Michels, of the Netherlands National Football team. The ensemble is still trained in total immersion: quick transitions (from offense to defense), forced spread throughout the field, as well as sincerity and actuality (the Belarus Free Theatre School, Fortinbras, which came into existence twelve years ago, incorporates the method, along with physical theater, actor perception, and other techniques). At the time, those in the company were also questioned about what mattered to them—“what gave us strength and what bothered us.” In turn, audiences would begin thinking about what bothered them. Today, Khalezin, moustached, with a chin strip goatee and earring, is still asking about the problem of us—which now includes a war in Europe, the largest since World War II.
Hearing from artists, who are stuck and do not know how to react, Sugako discusses the issues and solutions with Natalia Kaliada (who is currently in Washington, D.C., speaking to representatives in Congress, the Senate, White House, Pentagon, and foreign ministry, about the Ukraine invasion). Part of a response, the theatremakers believe, is to “continue to do” and be active: “express, show, and shout!” (“You have to do it, you are artists.”)—even in a time “when we can do nothing and even as art can not change the situation.” Václav Havel, Czech president, dissident, and playwright, who spent almost eight years in prison, said,“fight, no matter where you are. Just continue to fight.” Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Mick Jagger, and Steven Spielberg, may not talk much, but they are “engaged socially and politically,” and have discussed major issues concerning Eastern Europe with Khalezin. Part of our solutions may be to question; “looking at the world as questions.” Face problems. “Ask,” even as “it is not the goal of the arts to look for answers.” Learning is crucial, of course, “but learning in dialogue.” This technique is “more important than a master class.” Khalezin also believes we must continue on our paths: “When you realize your resilience, you start enjoying it more, but be patient, because you may want to take the road of least resistance, which might not sustain you, as an individual.”
Khalezin does not actually believe that most people want to talk about My Fair Lady and Book of Mormon—the same “jolly” shows that had filled houses before the emergence of COVID, more than two years ago. He believes the theatrical community wants to talk about “the poignant topics,” what’s going on in real life. He even finds the positive reception of the Belarus Free Theatre production of Dogs of Europe, in the U.K., suspect (the play recently closed, on 2/22, at London’s Barbican), in lockstep, critically, with other 4-star reviews (only the Financial Times gave the work 5-stars (below). This may suggest a lack of critical thinking in the art world, with rote determination on the part of reviewers. Perhaps they are simply playing it safe during such a dangerous time. Khalezin, nevertheless, notes that the lack of strong positions did not stop the production from being sold-out during its run, meaning that ticket buyers wanted to see and talk about the work, no matter what mainstream sources wrote.
He knows also that those involved with, and working in theatre, want to respond to arts leadership, because those in institutions, are, in fact, marginalizing artists, and are not letting them speak freely–or taking them seriously. Khalezin maintains: “I really do think it is up to institutions to provide and provoke artists to allow them to express their real thoughts and feelings. Then, through discussion, both can finally discover a world where the things seen onstage are relevant.”
Khalezin is speaking about “every single one of us,” no matter our circumstances: Belarus, war, Europe–they are “stories about me”—and Khalezin maintains that art must talk about me (“I am not Hamlet; I am not Hamilton; I am a Belarusian, I’m an émigré, my country is involved in a war, I’m a European . . . my friends are currently dying”). He thinks of those who have lost their jobs, singers whose livelihoods have been destroyed in Belarus and the Donbas region of Ukraine. He wants to write an opera for them called, The Wild Hunt of the King’s Stag. The story concerns a group of wealthy people who dress up and pretend to be ghosts. They go on a wild hunt, marauding. The project is employment for those fired in Belarus and those from now bombed-out theatres in Ukraine; for the singers of Kharkiv Opera Theatre; the singers from the Belarusian Opera Theatre who, fired for political motives, were also forced to leave. Also the proposal is for actors of the Belarusian theatre who can’t be found, are gone, and are now literally homeless. He wants to involve a big European theatre, and allow creators, who have lost everything, to work close together with other artists, after so much suffering. The world needs to understand how close we are to each other and how we all suffer.
On the twenty-eighth day of the Ukraine invasion, Sky News is reporting that the largest Kyiv fire since the beginning of the war is blazing, according to a female firefighter on video, coming from the scene; NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is calling for Putin to stop saber-rattling over concerns of a Russian nuclear attack. Sugako talks of bringing people together, those who are displaced and rootless, who have only a backpack and no choices. She calls those in Belarus Free Theatre part of her own family, whom she has grown up with, amid creation, smiling, crying, hugs and laughter (as well as well as political campaigns, actions, and activism). If and when she returns to her homeland, she talks about continuing her work on the river, bringing theatre to those who can not come to a city, reaching them on her raft.
The full interview:
About the Artists:
Svetlana Sugako studied graphic design then music & choreography at Belarusian National University. She has been involved with BFT Belarus Free Theatre in Minsk since its inception in 2005, and has been running the entire operation in Belarus since the Artistic Directors were forced into exile in 2011. Formally the production manager, Svetlana is an activist, musician, actor and is leading on a new campaign of BFT on LGBTQI rights. Sugar is featured in the book Two Women in Their Time, by photographer Misha Friedman and The New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen portraying Svetlana Sugako and Nadya Brodskaya as the power couple spearheading the day-to-day activities of the celebrated Belarus Free Theatre in Minsk. In August 2020 longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko won the vote to seize his sixth term, despite widespread evidence of vote-rigging. The result sparked the largest protests that Belarus had seen in decades—as well as an unprecedented level of police brutality. Sugako and Brodskaya both went to the protests, and were quickly arrested. The pair were placed with 34 others in a cell designed for only four. They were also not given water or food for three days. Before the protests, the Belarus Free Theatre had been one of the few dissenting voices in the country. Sugako believes that through its 16 years of activity, the theatre played an essential role in keeping Belarus’ critical spirit alive, in turn contributing to recent wave of protests.
Nicolai Khalezin is the co-founding Artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), an award-winning director, playwright, designer, educator, political campaigner and journalist.
Prior to co-founding BFT in 2005, Nicolai was Editor-in-Chief of the leading social-political weekly newspapers in Belarus – Name, News and Our Freedom – all of which were shut down by the regime. Khalezin was the owner of the only contemporary art gallery in Minsk, which was also closed down by the authorities. His works were exhibited at the Istanbul Biennale, Milan Expo, in Rome, Berlin and at the Moscow Centre of Contemporary Art.
Nicolai served time in prison in Belarus for his involvement in political campaigns and was recognised as a Prisoner of Consciousness by Amnesty International. This experience inspired one of BFT’s most celebrated shows, Generation Jeans, an autobiographical duologue about rock music and resistance. Written, directed and performed by Nicolai Khalezin, with live music by DJ Laurel, Generation Jeans has been performed more than 100 times around the world to date, including at the home of President Vaclav Havel upon his invitation in 2008 and at the UK’s House of Commons together with BFT Trustee Jude Law in 2012.
Further playwriting credits for BFT include Burning Doors, Master Had A Talking Sparrow, Discover Love, Trash Cuisine, Time of Women, all of which he also directed, and the adaptation of King Learwhich was staged at the Globe to Globe Festival, as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Nicolai is the co-founder of BFT’s theatre laboratory, Fortinbras, the only independent arts school in Belarus.
The Segal Talk will be hosted and moderated by Frank Hentschker, Executive Director of The Segal Center.
ABOUT THE SEGAL TALKS
The Segal Theatre Center’s online conversation series SEGAL TALKS was created in March of 2020 after the abrupt closing of the Graduate Center for any kind of public activities due to Corona and the cancellation of the entire spring season. The SEGAL TALKS during The Time of Corona offered conversations on theatre, performance and art during the pandemic featuring with more than 200 theater artists from over 50 countries. New York, US, and international theatre artists, curators, writers, and academics talked daily during the week for one hour with Segal Center’s director, Frank Hentschker, about life and art in the Time of Corona and speak about challenges, sorrows, and hopes for the new Weltzustand— the State of the World. In the summer of 2021 Segal Talks continued to focus on Theatre, Performance and The Political, the Segal Center’s 2023 New York International Festival of the Arts Project and the 2022 Center’s Public Park Project. During the pandemic The Segal Center was for a long period globally the only theatre institution creating new, original, daily content for the global field of theater and performance five days a week. Currently the Center is preparing the 4th edition of the Segal Center’s global Film Festival on Theatre and Performance.
SEGAL TALKS are free, open access, without ads will be live-streamed in English from Wednesday to Friday on HowlRound Theatre Commons and on the Segal Center Facebook. This program is presented in collaboration with HowlRound Theatre Commons, based at Emerson College. All SEGAL TALKS are archived on HowlRound, and on the Segal Center YouTube Channel.
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Originally founded in 1979 as the Center for Advanced Studies in Theatre Arts (CASTA), The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center was renamed in March of 1999 to recognize Martin E. Segal, one of New York City’s outstanding leaders of the arts. The Segal Center curates over thirty events throughout the Spring and Fall academic seasons, all free and open to the public. Dedicated to bridging the gap between the professional and academic theatre communities, the Segal Center presents readings, performance, lectures, and artists and academics in conversation. In addition, the Segal Center presents three annual festivals (PRELUDE, PEN World Voices: International Pay Festival, and The Segal Center Film Festival on Theatre and Performance) and publishes and maintains three open access online journals (Arab Stages, European Stages, and The Journal of American Drama and Theatre). The Segal Center also publishes many volumes of plays in translation and is the leading publisher of plays from the Arab world. The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center (MESTC) is a vital component of the Theatre Program’s academic culture and creating in close collaboration a research nexus, focusing on dramaturgy, new media, and global theatre. The Segal Center provides an intimate platform where both artists and theatre professionals can actively participate with audiences to advance awareness and appreciation. www.TheSegalCenter.org
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Review of Dogs of Europe in the Financial Times:
MARCH 17 2022 0 Print this page Belarus Free Theatre’s ‘Dogs of Europe’ © Linda Nylind
Dogs of Europe
“You will not be relaxed,” warned co-director Natalia Kaliada during the pre-performance talk for the Belarus Free Theatre’s show Dogs of Europe. Placed on each seat in the auditorium was a placard bearing the face of a persecuted Belarusian activist; mine was baby-faced Dmitri Gopta, born 1999, jailed for throwing stones at police vehicles. Every member of the BFT troupe is a refugee, having been arrested, harassed or detained under the country’s dictatorship. This three-hour adaptation of Alhierd Bacharevic’s novel, about a Russian “New Reich” facing down the rest of Europe, sounded like a gruelling prospect.
What a surprise, then, to be constantly beguiled, amused and intrigued over the show’s entire running time by a joyous mix of acrobatics, dance, folk song, clowning, slapstick and absurdism. From underground performances in Minsk, it has been spectacularly opened up for the Barbican stage. (The show’s brief three-night run has now ended.) Images of vast fields and forests projected on a screen behind the actors fly us to the remote village of White Dews in the year 2049, with its riotously eccentric inhabitants.
Drink is quaffed, defiant songs sung and guns waved, sometimes to comic effect, sometimes not. A covert parachutist floats down while trees shuffle about, Birnam Wood-style. Four interlocking trolleys of varying heights on castors become steps, bookshelves and beds.
Periodically a naked man trudges across the rear of the stage, effortfully pushing a large globe made out of books. There’s always something fascinating or weird to gaze at.
Nylind Kaliada and her co-director Nicolai Khalezin privilege imagery over plot; even with the help of the surtitles projected over the actors’ heads, it’s hard to make out the story. Dogs of Europe is firmly in the east European tradition of satirical obliquity in the face of censorship.
The mockery of the preening military man might be overt, but why does one character always carry around a toy goose? A mysterious “agent” trawls the last bookstores in Europe in search of a poet who always carried a feather. Why a fire dance? Who’s the guy with the accordion? What’s the significance of the naked man running round in circles? With exceptional sound design (Ella Wahlström, the thrilling vocal and musical skills of Marichka and Mark Markzyc) and visual flair (Richard Williamson), it barely matters. ★★★★★ belarusfreetheatre.com
Photo credits: From top: Howl/Round; copyright: Linda Nylind; U.K. Guardian; U.K. Telegraph