Interview//Natalia Kaliada - Belarus Free Theatre
Ahead of the World Premiere of Burning Doors at Curve in Leicester, 23 - 27 August, Natalia Kaliada, co-founding Artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre, gave Journeys Festival International an insight into life in the dictatorial state of Belarus, and the incredible motivation behind their latest production.
Tell us about the birth of Belarus Free Theatre? How did it begin?
Belarus Free Theatre was established under the dictatorship on 30 March 2005. We picked a date and announced our existence to the world. We didn’t have a physical space but we had an idea: to create a theatre where you could say what you think and make art out of that. We didn't exist for the authorities of our country but existed for the people of our country and for the outside world.
We had the support of Sir Tom Stoppard and President Vaclav Havel. In our apartment in Minsk, we printed out flyers and put our phone numbers on them. We went to each and every university, and glued our flyers up in the toilet stalls so that every student would see them. This is how we first started to build our audience.
What were the main aims when Belarus Free Theatre was first conceived?
We had four central aims:
1. To help young people understand that the system fears educated young people who want to change society through their art. We wanted to help them reject the fear imposed on them by the authorities.
2. To get the artists who had been blacklisted in Belarus back to our country and to our people.
3. To create shows that address every single taboo that exists within us and within our society, and in doing so, to create a space where audiences understand that there is a place where people aren’t afraid to talk honestly about themselves and what is happening around them.
4. Lastly, and above all - to defend human rights - at all costs.
If we had thought that it was not our responsibility to push boundaries living under a dictatorship, there would be no Belarus Free Theatre today.
Under dictatorship, we can't talk about suicide, mental health issues - not to mention political kidnappings and murders, torture and imprisonment. The dictator who runs Belarus, and has done so for the past 21 years. He thinks it's better to be a dictator than to be gay. Is it worth pushing against these boundaries and being called 'Enemies of the State'?
Yes it is.
Tell us a little about Burning Doors...
Burning Doors illuminates the role of contemporary artists in dictatorial societies and examines what happens to people when they are declared enemies of the state simply for making art.
Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina, Russian Actionist and political artist Petr Pavlensky and Ukrainian film-maker, Oleg Sentsov, have shared their stories and experiences with us and given us the lens through which to look at this issue on the stage. Their personal stories and experiences are at the heart of the piece, as well as our experiences as political refugees in the UK.
Every single one of our actors together with Maria Alyokhina are performers, contributors and co-writers of the finished production. The first aim of the show is to attempt to immerse the audience into the underworld of now, and to show the real violence that is still part of the everyday in that part of the world. The second aim is to reveal a theme of the hypocritical attitudes of politicians (from both sides of the conflict: Russia and the West) to the destinies of contemporary artists.
What can audiences expect from Burning Doors?
During the first two years of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, almost every day for the first year we were asked the same question by our friends in the UK: What is happening there in reality?
In the first year, we answered with detailed information as we knew it. We were following daily events very closely as we have a large number of friends there, fighting for the freedom of Ukraine. Last year we realised that people in the UK had stopped asking the question, perhaps had become less interested, even though the war is still going on…
It was then that we knew we had to address the issue on stage, where our voices can be louder and reach more people. Around the same time we got news that the Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov and Russian artist Petr Pavlensky had been imprisoned… We knew then that we had to make Burning Doors.
Even this week, during our first week of rehearsals we received horrific news from Kiev, Ukraine, that our friend, Pavel Sheremet, a famous Belarusian journalist was killed by a car bomb. He was killed for looking for the truth about a real situation in a geopolitical knot that is not only dangerous for its own people, but for the wider world. Our show is not a simple theatre show, it is real life.
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