Mikola Khalezin: «The authorities claim writers, actors and musicians their bitterest enemies»
- Mikola, what was the beginning of the new theatrical season for the Free Theater?
- I believe we are the only Belarusian theatrical troupe that doesn’t adhere to the seasonal schedule. We have few opportunities for staging our plays, so it would be unreasonable to have vacations. But as for the conventional start of the season, it began with the arrest of the first night of English playwright Edward Bond’s play “Eleven Vests” staged by French producer Christian Benedetti. What has actuaaly happened was something we didn’t want to see. We wanted the autumn to start for the viewers of the Free Theater with two first nights that we had prepared in summer – “Eleven Vests” and “Legends of Childhood” staged by Uladzimir Scherban. The first night of “Legends of Childhood” is to be staged this autumn in Helsinki. But we got another script. I can’t say if that detention was more police officers’ desire to curry favour with their chiefs or the chiefs’ fear of obscurity, but we’ve got what we’ve got: Belarus is the first country in the world where actors and viewers were arrested.
- As far as we know the Theater’s actors are to be dismissed from state theaters…
- Well, I guess there is no one to be dismissed. Nearly all the actors and the producer of the Theater were either discharged from state theaters or forced to retire. State theaters administrations dismiss their personnel right after they hear of detentions or cooperation with the Free Theater. Administrators of the theaters with actors engaged into Free Theater plays were reprimanded twice in the Ministry of Culture. Even our actor Aleg Sidorchyk’s brother, an actor of the Young People’s Theater, was pressed. And the artistic director felt a sense of great relief when he found out it wasn’t him who works in the Free Theater. Moreover, two playwrights whose plays were staged in our Theater were expelled from the script- and playwriting department of a university. Even despite they have been awarded international drama awards and their plays are published and staged in Europe and Russia. Curiously, none of the plays contains politics. A presence of a talent has become a reason for arrest in our country.
- Your viewers are now visited by KGB officers. How would you comment on that?
- We have a principle in our theater: we never stage pathology. It means that an actor cannot pretend “insane”; actors must know why the character is crazy and what his ambitions are. I cannot comment on the situation when boys who wanted to view a play for teens are summoned to the KGB, because then I would have to try the KGB’s shoes and invent a motive. Of course it is nice to get huge salary and have the ID which allows you to stay without the law. It’s easier to press school kids than to chase criminals. Unfortunately we’re moving away from a healthy civil society. If we had had a democracy any would have been able to ask the authorities why our taxes are wasted on loafers who eat the money away and push the country’s reputation to the destination of no return.
- Do you feel a permanent control carried out by the police?
- Yes, nearly all the time. For example, the police refuse to give new passports to two our colleagues, and when they ask “Why?” they get “Ask Dzerzhinsky” in reply (F.Dzerzhinsky – founder of the Extraordinary Committee an agency notorious for large-scale human rights abuses, including torture and mass summary executions. Charter’97)
All we have left is the right for announcing the names of the officials and police authorities who infringe citizens’ constitutional right for an ID.
- How can viewers see your plays today after the OMON officers burst into the theater and arrested the entire audience and the actors?
- When searching for premises to hold a play, we apply to various places. Once we even asked for permission to stage a play in a car wash station. We get a polite refusal mostly often. Fear and self-censorship have reached the ultimate line; those who once were gifted and vigorous, who aspired for recognition and creation, but who gave up and surrendered for a glass of cheap wine and a piece of fried salo – our modern life values – those are buried behind this line. We certainly could leave for Europe and work there with neither poverty nor persecution. And we receive many proposals from European impresarios. I have no definite answer to your question today. Perhaps it will appear soon – but not now. I can only say that we will keep on looking for an access to Belarusian viewers… and we will find it.
- World famous people spoke in support of the Free Theater – playwright Tom Stoppard, Nobel Prize laureate Harold Pinter, former President Vaclav Havel. In your view, will it bring the Belarusian authorities to common sense?
- It is common to think that the term “authorities” means a unified solid group ready to give a helping hand to each other in case of trouble… But things are not like that. Our present authorities are spread among smaller and bigger groups competing for a chance to climb higher; they are pushing and elbowing each other, kicking on the sly… Sometimes they demonstrate enthusiasm and arrest a group of 60 people. But then they are told off by their administration since it was just a theatrical performance. And their administration, being told off by a higher management, is blushing and trying to explain this feat of arms. Further development of the situation fully depends on how strong the key authority will kick his subordinate who was in charge of the operation. If the wave gets to the lowest levels, we can say that the authorities have found common sense. But in case the hit is weak, there always will be another volunteer ready to put both his feet into a trap.
- Are there more international actions of solidarity with the Belarusian theatrical society to be held?
- We are not fully aware of our colleagues’ plans. Mostly often the results of their actions reach us after they hold another solidarity action. For example, on the day of the arrest well known British playwright Mark Ravenhill came out to the main stage of the Edinburgh festival – Traverse Theater – and made a statement about the arrests. The audience received his words stamping, the way European viewers express their indignation. We received a letter from one of the Scottish parliament deputies right after the performance. In the letter the deputy asked if the case could be considered at a plenary session of the parliament as a blatant infringement of human rights. It is not enough to talk about solidarity with the Free Theater today; we must talk about the grave situation in the country.
- Speaking on behalf of the European Union, temporal charge d’affaires of Slovakia in Belarus Lubomir Rehak pointed out that the relations between Belarus and the EU can improve only after repressions against the oppositions are ceased. He cited the arrests of the actors and viewers of the Free Theater as an example of these repressions. What must the authorities do today for your theater and the Belarusian nation so that Europe embarks on a dialogue?
- 30 people arrested at a presentation of the book of Paval Siaverynets, 50 people arrested at a bard music festival, 60 people arrested at a play of the Free Theater… And the fact that KGB officers visit the young people arrested on August 22 and then released, cancels the police’s statements made for the press where they call it a misunderstanding. It looks like a thoroughly elaborated plan.
And if we speak about the attempts of the authorities to substitute specific actions with empty words… Imagine that your neighbor who beats up his family every night comes to you in the morning and asks to lend him 100 Euro. Would you like to give the money? There is a term “unpredictable partner” in a civilized relation. And here the situation is absolutely abnormal: can you name any other country where the authorities claim writers, actors and musicians their bitterest enemies? We do not ask the authorities anything for ourselves – we have learned to be independent. And as for the country, all the demands are clearly stated in the “12 Demands of the EU.” We agree with that completely.
- As we recall, nearly the entire troupe of the Free Theater joined the mass protest against the forged results held at Kastrychnitskaya Square in Minsk after the presidential election. The European March is to be held on October 14 in Minsk. What is your attitude towards this initiative?
- We are a European theater and we can’t see any other alternatives to the European route of Belarus. Of course the entire troupe of the Free Theater will come to the European March to stand with those who share our views. We will be granted Europe’s major theatrical award – “Europe’s Award” – in April 2008 in Salonika. And there we want to tell our European colleagues, “there is no more underground culture in our country, no more dictatorship in Europe.”