Belarus Free Theatre

Belarus Free Theatre is an underground theatre project that began on March 2005, during the second term (2001–2006) of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka, as an artistic means of resisting Belarusian government pressure and censorship. Was founded by playwrights Nikolai Khalezin and his wife, the theatre producer Natalia Koliada, human rights activists. In May 2005 the team was joined by stage director Vladimir Scherban, who has produced the majority of Free Theatre performances. Currently the theatre’s staff consists of ten professional actors, one professional dramatist, four managers and two technical assistants. Under the current political system the Free Theatre has no official registration, no premises, nor any other facilities. Rehearsals and performances (always free of charge for the public) are normally held secretly in small private apartments, which, due to security and the risk of persecution, must constantly be changed. On several occasions, performances were given in street cafes and in the countryside, in the woods. Staffs members have been repeatedly harassed by the authorities for their participation in the Free Theatre activities and the stage director together with other people were sacked from their jobs at state-run theatres. On 22 August 2007, during a Free Theatre performance in a private apartment in Minsk, Special Forces from the Belarusian police stormed the performance and actors, directors, and audience members, including its director Khalezin, were arrested. During the last four years the company has performed in 15 countries of the world, including Australia, USA and almost all over Europe. Since May 2005 the Free Theatre has produced eleven performances based on seventeen plays. About 5,000 people attended performances of the Free Theatre in Belarus and more than 4,000 abroad during the first two years of existence. In April 2007, Free Theatre became a full member of the European Theatre Convention, a member of the international network Informal European Theatre Meeting and in May 2007 a member of the international network, Trans European Halls. In December 2007, Free Theatre received the French Republic Human Rights Prize. It was the first time in the history of the Prize that it was given to a cultural institution. In April 2008 Belarus Free Theatre was awarded with the most prestigious European Theatre Prize “Europe to Theatre” receiving a special recognition of the jury after had been nominated for it by the world’s famous dramatists Nobel Prize Laureate Harold Pinter, Sir Tom Stoppard and ex-President of Czech Republic Vaclav Havel. Khalezin, observes that all theatres in Belarus are state-owned, the directors and creative directors are appointed by the Ministry of Culture. The performances are censored and the programs are old. The Free Theatre wants to offer a modern alternative that discusses social problems with a degree of creative freedom. The prize that members of the Free Theatre have to pay for what they are trying to do is considerable; almost all the members of the ensemble have served time behind bars. The main aim of the performances of the Free Theatre is to break through stereotypes of the Belarusian population that are imposed by the ideological system of Belarusian dictatorial regime. In the face of such repression, famous playwrights have supported the Free Theatre, not only bringing glamour to the company, but also affording protection against even more drastic repressive measures from the Belarusian authorities.