New Artistic Underground in Belarus Is Theater Group


MOSCOW, Feb. 7 - The Free Theater of Belarus, not yet a year old, has no home, no permanent troupe and, for now, only three short plays in its repertory. It staged them for a while in a cramped bar called Graffiti in an industrial neighborhood of Minsk, the Belarussian capital, but the authorities warned the bar's owner to stop.

The theater now performs in private apartments and in places that are not openly advertised - and, increasingly, abroad, where it is drawing international attention and support from prominent playwrights, including Tom Stoppard and Vaclav Havel.

"Hello, we came from Minsk," one of the theater's producers, Nikolai Khalezin, said in late January, introducing the company at its Russian debut, two nights of performances at the Meyerhold Center here. Mr. Khalezin's opening remark drew knowing laughter and applause, because even in Russia, where the Kremlin under President Vladimir V. Putin has tightened political control, Belarus is ridiculed as an oppressive, backward place.

That country's president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, has stifled not only politics and private business, but also the arts. The cultural authorities have increasingly treated unconventional, let alone experimental, theater as a form of subversion.

More than 14 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its rigid system of imposing ideological conformity across Central and Eastern Europe, the Free Theater has emerged as a new artistic underground, not unlike the Russian artists who displayed their paintings in private apartments in the 1960's and 70's, or the playwrights, like Mr. Havel, who worked furtively in Communist Czechoslovakia.

"Our main focus is theater that reacts to today's events," Vladimir Shcherban, a director of the Free Theater, said in an interview in Minsk in January. "It speaks the language of our time." Mr. Shcherban's productions have been banned at the state-controlled theater where he works.

The plays are not overtly political. The company's first production was a Russian translation of "4:48 Psychosis," a wrenching internal dialogue of depression and suicide by the British playwright Sarah Kane. The second, "Breathing Techniques" by the Russian writer Natalya Moshina, is a tragicomic story of a young woman dying in a cancer ward.

The subtexts, though, are unmistakable in Belarus, a place where public debate - in newspapers, on television - is practically nonexistent. The third play, "We. Self-Identification," by three Belarussian playwrights, weaves episodes exploring death, marriage and freedom with sections of profane dialogue recorded at the construction site of the new National Library in Minsk, a project that has been criticized as a grandiose Lukashenko folly.

"What the hell do I need this library for?" one actor says during a rapid-fire exchange of workplace banter. "I don't remember the last time I read a book."

The Free Theater took root last year as a drama competition organized by Mr. Khalezin and his wife, Nataliya Koliada, both playwrights, who hoped to cultivate Belarussian writers. It evolved into a workshop and then a production company, though, given the circumstances, a loosely organized one.

"The Belarussian renaissance lasted from 1991 to 1994," Mr. Khalezin said in an interview in Minsk, in the bar where the troupe first staged its plays. "It was a very powerful discharge of energy. Belarus today is a boiler, with the lid screwed tightly shut."

Mr. Stoppard, who traveled to Czechoslovakia during Communist times, went to Belarus last year and conducted his own workshop in a village outside of Minsk. He wrote about the experience in The Guardian of London and has since become the Free Theater's patron.

"On the one hand, it makes life very difficult for them," Mr. Stoppard said in a telephone interview, referring to the government's repressive control, which has included warnings from state theater managers and the secret police. "On the other hand - and this isn't a recommendation for being a suppressed writer - in their situation now, as with Havel and his friends in the 70's and 80's, the consolation is that your work matters."

The theater's productions include actors moonlighting from jobs at the state theaters, all controlled by councils that answer to the Ministry of Culture and, at least indirectly, to the administration of Mr. Lukashenko. Among them is Oleg Chidorchik, 44, of the Belarussian Army Theater. The plays in the state theaters, he said, are deeply conservative. Experimentation, even with traditional roles, is unacceptable.

At one performance - being taped for broadcast on state television - he recited a famous Soviet war poem, "Remember, Alyosha, the Roads of Smolenshchina," by Konstantin Simonov, not as a patriotic call to arms but as a rumination on those abandoned as Soviet troops retreated after the Nazi invasion in 1941. His performance was edited out of the television show.

For Mr. Chidorchik, the Free Theater is a creative outlet.

"A writer can write a manuscript and put it in the desk, like Bulgakov," he said after performing here in "We. Self-Identification," , referring to Mikhail Bulgakov, the Soviet-era author whose works were banned. "A composer can do it. But theater is here, now. In the state theaters we are doomed to be insincere."

Yana Rusakevich, a playwright who acts in all three of the theater's plays, entered a play in an official competition organized by the state theater where she worked. The play - about a girl whose boyfriend died of a heroin overdose - won and was performed in 2003 and 2004, until she began acting with the Free Theater. At that point, performances of her play were canceled, and the scenery was destroyed.

At the Meyerhold Center, named for the theater director and impresario Vsevolod Meyerhold, who struggled to work under Stalin, Ms. Rusakevich cried at the end of "Breathing Techniques," which was, like the other productions, warmly received by an audience of 150 people. "It was a realization that people want what I am doing," she explained later. "For too long I have been told it is not needed."

The Free Theater is planning performances later this year in Lithuania, Finland and Germany, as well as at home, in the apartments of those willing to risk punishment from the authorities.

With a new presidential election scheduled for March 19, a vote widely expected to end with a dubious victory for Mr. Lukashenko, its productions are becoming more political.

Ms. Koliada is completing a play called "They Saw Dreams," in which six women have lost their husbands. The parallel to the fate of the government's most prominent opponents - some disappeared in 1999 and 2000, others were jailed - is explicit. It will have a first reading, at an undisclosed location, with the actresses' faces covered, on Feb. 16. (The 16th is a date now used each month to commemorate the missing, because two political critics disappeared on Sept. 16, 1999.)

The theater's actors and playwrights have also begun work on a project called "Zone of Silence," which focuses on subjects that are taboo in Belarus today. At one seminar they counted 16 of them, from sex and drugs to religion and World War II.

After the Moscow performances, Mr. Khalezin noted a difference in the audience reactions. Russia, despite the autocratic trend in Mr. Putin's politics, remains immeasurably freer in the arts, and so the works seem less provocative.

"The best audiences are when we travel around Belarus," he said. "For Belarussians it is like a shock. Their reaction is like that of children, 'Aaaggghhh!' "