Freeing Theater in Belarus

One company's current-day battle against authoritarianism

-By Eric Kelsey,

When Belarussian police crashed the latest premiere at the Free Theater three weeks ago, company founder Nikolai Khalezin didn't, at first, consider the raid out of the ordinary; the police had disrupted the company's performances before. This time, though, 50 people present, including the actors and audience members, were taken into custody. "Police used to burst into our performances with machine guns but they disappeared just as fast, "Khalezin told Ingo Petz of Germany's S ddeutche Zeitung. "A mass arrest like this is a first."

The Free Theater remains an anomaly for many Belarussians, who have yet to experience the kind of constitutional freedoms enjoyed in neighboring post-Soviet states. Khalezin founded the company with his wife Nataliya Koliyada in 2005 as a response to the state-owned theaters that are common in Belarus. "We want to offer an alternative," says Khalezin, "a modern theatre that discusses social problems with a degree of creative freedom."

Performances, discretely announced by text messages, are held secretly in cafes, private residences, and even forests. Still, Khalezin's greatest foe might be his fellow citizens. "Belarussians are not used to this kind of contemporary relevance in their theater," he tells Petz, "many respond like children. They're shocked."

Outside Belarus, the theater's work has drawn international acclaim. British playwright Tom Stoppard and Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger count themselves among Khalezin's supporters. Playwright and former Czech president Vaclav Havel, whose work was considered integral in Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, is another.

Unfortunately, as the British newspaper the Guardian reports, the high-profile attention angered the Belarusian regime in the lead-up to the arrests. "One had hoped that the days when artists were arrested for free expression were buried with totalitarian states," said playwright Tom Stoppard. "But Belarus is as close to a totalitarian state as you can get in Europe."