Once in a while you come across a piece of art that speaks the truth to such a level that you need to reconsider the assumptions you’ve been operating under so far in your life. That’s the case for Trash Cuisine, the New York run of Belarus Free Theatre. Belarus Free Theatre are more than just eccentric theater makers, they are creative freedom fighters. For 10 years, this group from Minsk has been fighting a battle that goes beyond the scope of revolutionizing theater, they have taken on the task of giving back a voice to the people. Theater, for them, is not a sacred cow: it’s an archaic structure they feed with something different. That something different is “letting your voice be heard”.
In light of the complex racial and social injustices happening across the United States, Belarus Free Theatre teaches us something about responding to violence in a persistent and artful way, because real art comes from real need — the need to speak up and create conversation, the need for words. The Creators Project sat with Nikolai Khalezin, human rights activist, journalist, playwright and co-founder of Belarus Free Theatre.
The Creators Project: Belarus Free Theatre has been around since March 2005. Can talk about how you came together and under what circumstances?
Nikolai Khalezin: It happened in 2004 when my play was bought by the Moscow Arts Theater, one of the biggest theaters in Moscow, and the theater paid a record-high price for my play. So we decided to invest all of that in the creation of theater. It’s probably still the most that anyone has paid for a play in Russia from Belarus, so those funds went right back into theater. Financial survival was a major question. But we took our first step as Belarus Free Theatre and we also created the International Contest of Contemporary Drama, which will soon be holding it's eighth competition. In under a decade, it has become a big drama contest in Central Europe.
When we announced BFT’s existence in March of 2005, we didn’t have any space but we had an idea: to create a theater where you could say what you think and make art out of that. A few months later, we met Vladimir Shcherban who at that time was working on 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane; after the meeting it was clear that we would start to work together because in our country it’s quite unique to meet a person who speaks your same aesthetic language. Everything we were doing on stage was automatically banned and restricted. After the first production, the government decided that nothing good was going to come from our initiative and they started restricting and making even more problems for us. There was and still remains a prohibition not only on what we do but also on who we are.
Before BFT, the State allowed theaters that were in line with the government, and when our independent theater company appeared they realized that that would lead to public conversations that the government had to put a stop to.
How did that affect the vision of BFT?
Nikolai Khalezin: During our first months, Natalia and I would go to universities and put “samizdat” flyers in our alternative education system; at that time we were conducting workshops on arts and theater and social justice in different locations where students gathered: we would put the flyers in the universities’ bathrooms where we knew only students would go and teachers would never find out. We would also leave flyers with owners of independent cafes. Then I started a LiveJournal blog that helped a lot. Education was a priority from the very beginning because it’s clear that a society that doesn’t permit critical thinking and prohibits contemporary art is dead. We developed our whole system based on guerrilla marketing related to examples of youth resistance in Serbia, Ukraine, Belarus. We had to communicate with our audience directly and bring them to unusual places and into places they never went to watch a play. We started calling the audience and letting people know that the play was happening in a forest, a cafe, a bar, a public square; anywhere and everywhere we could put up a performance. And, even though audiences were traveling out of the city for the play, the police still came. Once, we did a production disguised as a wedding where the groom and bride met just 15 minutes before the performance! A few years before that, at a performance, the company was arrested along with the entire audience of 70 people. The reason for the arrest was that we had recorded and showed a video with Mick Jagger in support of the people of Belarus. We had an amazing friend and teacher named Vaclav Havel who was very close to us and he often used to tell us “the way to do it is to do the work openly, then you won’t care if there are spies in the crowd.”
So you were inviting people to the shows and inviting people to take a risk by being part of your audience. How did that change your relationship to them?
Nikolai Khalezin: People in our audience take their passport when they come see our plays because they know they could be detained and they need to take precautions. There’s a different level of trust between the theater and the audience. In London, they held a sociological survey and it showed that we have an audience demographic that ranges in age from 18 to 35. That kind of audience is willing to go with risk and experimentation and be 'OK' with it and that is a very intimate relationship that comes with great responsibility.
The members of the company have all come in contact with violence and repression. How does that affect the performances?
Nikolai Khalezin: Our actors are very special people, they went through a very rigorous 10 years of training and work and not every actor would be able to work in our theater. Our method is a method that theaters around the world don’t use. It wears actors and the whole creative team out physically and emotionally. You need to know that you must continue to perform even if yesterday you had the KGB raiding your performance. Of course, this goes for our actors, our managers, and producing team.
Have you ever had personal experiences with governmental violence?
Nikolai Khalezin: Everyone has had this kind of experience in Belarus: people thrown out of university, lost their job, detained, beaten. For me, I had four arrests. I spent time in prison and there was a play dedicated to that experience. It was the first play we showed in NY. It covered my personal story about prison, but I wouldn’t say that it’s the saddest play in our repertory! There’s nothing heroic in that for people from Belarus; it’s something quite normal and usual. Thousands of people go to prison and are prosecuted every year.
Trash Cuisine is a very provocative and violent show. Can you talk about what inspired you to link food to social/political issues and how it landed in New York?
Nikolai Khalezin: There were two things that led us to food and violence. The first is the popularity of food channels and the second is the tradition of the last meal that you have before being sentenced to death. We combined things that were apparently incompatible. The audience had a very emotional response, lots of applause after every performance. But I want to perform this play in Texas or Georgia, where there is an active discussion about the death penalty.
How was the process of creating Trash Cuisine?
Nikolai Khalezin: I wasn’t close to this topic before working on this play. But when I started working on this production, I started becoming an active opponent of the death penalty. So this play firstly changed me, and that’s important. We had a moment, while researching the show, when we went to the prison of Bankwang in Thailand to visit some people on death row. We had a meeting with one of those prisoners, a Chinese citizen from Hong Kong who was sentenced to death for transporting drugs. So, in these meetings, there are two panes of glass with a space in between them separating you and the person you are talking to. You speak using a telephone receiver. They brought him in. He didn’t know us and before us he hasn’t had a single visit for two years. He came in very happy, with a huge smile, so happy that someone wanted to see him. He picked up the phone and we started talking in English and he didn’t understand a single word. In 30 seconds he turned from being incredibly happy to being puzzled and then he started crying. And then he was taken away. And, for me, that was the most terrifying thing we encountered exploring this play; in 30 seconds you see how a man dies. That’s very scary. Three years have passed and that scene is still in my head. And that’s a theatrical call that continues impel you into making theater.
Do you believe that Theater can be a media to foster change for a better future?
Nikolai Khalezin: It’s hard to say because political art becomes less and less appealing to those that can finance it. And we feel that in New York. One actor came to me and asked me, “Where should I go in New York?” Ten or 15 years ago no one would have asked that question; you could go anywhere. There’s less financing, less productions and if there’s no financing there’s no art. The state of art is in danger, particularly in the United States or even in Europe and the United Kingdom. If you look at theater, there’s only one country in the world where you could say that theater is well-organized and that’s Germany. That’s a country where theaters have a budget of 60M Euros per year and that makes a difference.
It’s an usual thing to say, but the state of the world right now is static: there’s no real desire for change anymore. The world is more targeted on the consumer and so are politics.
For me personally, it’s just more interesting to work with provocateurs, like Pussy Riot. That’s provocation that works because it creates public discussion and if that discussion continues, becomes ongoing, then things start changing.
Are you one of them?
Nikolai Khalezin: In a sense, yes. We brought Trash Cuisine to New York because of the powerful discussions that would follow a play on the topic of the death penalty. If people talk about it then there’s a greater chance of changing the situation.
But it’s very important not to give us any medals because that would categorize us with the people that do the same thing only for awards and recognition. That’s a difficult thing about world fame, you start getting all of these prizes given out by people that don’t really want change, and you feel very strange. That’s why we almost never go on stage to receive an award. If we keep some little distance from it, we feel it’s easier to keep walking on.
To follow performances by Belarus Free Theatre see the website here.