By Adelyn Biedenbach
Although Belarus has a constitution guaranteeing free speech, unapproved theater, literature and art will grant one a ticket to prison.
"Imagine theater being illegal. There are a lot of students who would be arrested," said Point Park University acting professor Mark Staley.
This is exactly the situation 13 members of the Belarus Free Theater (BFT) found themselves in a few weeks ago, when allegations that the country's Dec. 19, 2010 elections were fixed prompted a crackdown and numerous arrests, which led to BFT's 14-hour imprisonment without food or water. After escaping to America, BFT presented an adaptation of a play depicting Belarusian oppression.
Readings of their production "Being Harold Pinter" are scheduled around the country to raise U.S. awareness of the totalitarian regime toppling free speech and human expression in Belarus. Bricolage, The World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh and Mark Staley are working to bring the topic to the Pittsburgh area, presenting a Jan. 31 reading at the Bricolage Theater at 937 Liberty Ave.
Belarus borders Russia, Lithuania, Latvia and the Ukraine and hosts the last remaining totalitarian regime in Europe. Previously part of the U.S.S.R, Belarus has served as a buffer between Russia and the Western powers.
Belarus still has a version of the KGB, who enforces the rule that it is illegal to perform or partake in any unauthorized theater. The artists in that country were forced underground to continue their craft.
"I can't imagine not being able to speak my mind, and when my brothers and sisters in Belarus are forced to perform their work in secret locations I take great offense. It was a no-brainer to make this happen," said Tami Dixon, producing artistic director of the Bricolage Production Company, in an e-mail interview.
The reading in Pittsburgh resulted from the cooperation of several individuals, who hoped to contribute to the cause. Over the holiday vacation, Rich Venezia, a senior acting major at Point Park, attended the BFT's work in New York City and was deeply moved by it. Determined to help in some way, he discovered Skewed Visions, a Minneapolis theater company that placed a call to theaters across America. Skewed Visions asked for multiple companies to hold readings of "Being Harold Pinter," posting a list of upcoming performances at fbnow.wordpress.com.
"I do theater because I feel [that] as a theater artist, in a small way, I have the power to change the world," Venezia said. For him, socially conscious theater and theater of the oppressed is valuable, and this passion prompted him to contact Dixon at Bricolage.
Bricolage has a history of working with meaningful theater and was interested in the opportunity.
"Later that day, I saw a Facebook posting [from Mark Staley] asking if anyone was interested in doing a reading of Caryl Churchill's 'Mad Forest' in honor of what was going on in Belarus," Dixon said. "When the universe speaks, I listen. It wasn't a coincidence that everything converged at once in reference to this project."
The reading will take place at the Bricolage Theater. and will feature many theater professionals from across the city and a few Point Park students. There will be a speaker from City of Asylum who will discuss what it is like to live under a dictatorship. City of Asylum, according to the Pittsburgh organization's website, "provides sanctuary to writers exiled under threat of : persecution in their native countries."
The show "Being Harold Pinter" was adapted by Vladmir Scherban of BFT and combines excerpts from six or seven plays by famous playwright Harold Pinter with Belarusian political speeches and Pinter's Nobel Peace Prize-winning lecture.
"For him, it is a connection to the dignity of man," Staley said. "It is a medley of reality and fiction."
The oppression in Belarus has continued since the country gained its independence in August 1991. Although the country formally adopted a president and separation of powers, Soviet rules unofficially remained in place. President Alexander Lukashenko assumed office in 1994, and after much dispute in the corrupt recent elections, still holds the position. The Dec. 19 elections granted him a continuation of power with 79.6% of the vote.
"Being Harold Pinter" conveys hopes to raise awareness of the oppression and terror of the regime.
"Belarus has hardly reached headlines, at least in Pittsburgh, and to think that there is such heavy oppression in what we consider to be a civilized nation," Venezia said.
Tickets to the reading are free, but with limited space. Reservations can be made at the Bricolage Theater's website, www.webbricolage.org.
Staley said individuals looking to help can follow the BFT on Facebook and hopes that "Being Harold Pinter" will "renew passion and appreciation for theater."
"It is so inspiring to me," Venezia said. "As a nationwide theatrical community, we are bonding together to give a voice to those who don't have one."