16 January 2018, Tuesday, 14:07

Uładzimir Śćerbań: «Art without extremes»

After the events of December 2010 Belarus Free Theatre was forced to exist not only outside Belarus culture but outside of Belarus itself.

This year Belarusian audiences in need of alternative, inconvenient, provocative art had to go without this form of theatre. As for the theatre company itself, this year also became a landmark for them: they toured Europe and the U.S., and in August won the main Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2011 prize for the play ‘A Letter to Kathy Acker: Minsk 2011’. Says founder and director of the theatre, Uładzimir Śćerbań.

- Why do you think your work interested the jury and the public in Edinburgh? Could it be due to the fact that you are a product of Belarus?

- I can not answer for the jury. Whatever the reason is, it is a misconception that Belarus is under the special attention of European countries. The performances and themes we are working with are natural for the world’s theatrical processes. For example, British theatre is politically active. This is not a debate about whether art and politics are intertwined or not. This is a natural part of the audience’s everyday life. People are used to voting and so they are also used to actively speaking about politics. If it was a purely political gesture, to support Belarus Free Theatre, there would’ve been other nominations, and in that case it would have been right to give us a prize from the international human rights organization Amnesty International. But we got the main prize — ‘For innovation and excellent new drama.’ Generally, at such festivals consolation prizes are not handed out. This is a serious theatrical fair. I hope that we still deserve this award, especially as a creative project.

- What is the ‘innovation’ of your performance?

- It’s in our method. Actually, this is what we did for six years: we worked with documentary material, personal experiences, artistic generalizations and reflections on what was happening. It does not interest me to take someone else, already written, dramatic design and deliver it up as a performance. Even if it is a very good play it won’t have enough grounding to represent an actual topic — I do not see the point. We should first learn from ourselves, to see what’s going on. Our country is itself like a very good play.

Why Kathy Acker?

- Six or seven years ago in Moscow, I went to the bookstore, opened the book, and I was very impressed by the power of the phrases that I read. To me, it was more than just a monologue about an ‘old actress — old pussy.’ It fitted with my feelings about the old style of theatre, I immediately bought the book. Also, what a great writer Kathy Acker is, like Burroughs in a skirt; she addresses a topic that is basically taboo in Belarusian art, perhaps even more so than politics — sexuality. We still have no culture of nudity. A naked artist on stage is something very strange indeed. I know very well how Belarusian actors relate to a body: for them it is separate from the profession. So — Kathy Acker, because it is good literature, a very important topic and an excellent opportunity to talk about ourselves. If it were only amorous and sexual stories, it would not be so interesting. But she has her own, rather unexpected, look at the socio-political events in the country and in the city. We took her principle (call it the principle of sexual analysis) to destroy certain stereotypes about our city and our country. With this move our socio-political realities acquired an unexpected color. Acker was a turning point for 1979: her mother died, she was diagnosed with cancer. For us, 2011 also became a significant year.

In Europe, you get awards, critics give you five star reviews, but at home you are accused of profiteering at the lowest artistic level. Does it matter to you how your work is being perceived in Belarus?

- Actually, back at home, there are more supporters of our theatre than there are accusers. Just look at the faces of our audience — young, smart, talented — and you will understand that they are absolutely a unique audience that you won’t find at other local theatres for one simple reason: it is not interesting to them. The most paradoxical thing is that, as a rule, those who accuse us have never been to our theatre, and I’m sure they will not come, even though we are open to all. . Though I understand such painful reactions to our activities. These are the consequences of the Soviet era, when there was a watershed: the arts — so holy, that under no circumstances should engage in politics. This attitude still exists today. For example, we do not have theatres that take a political stance, and it is unfortunate, not only for Belarus, but for the entire post-Soviet areas. Because we do not have a civil society. Unfortunately, in Belarus today, there is virtually nowhere to go — neither from a creative nor from a civil perspective.

Years will go by and all this will be history. At least, I will not be ashamed, because I was not silent. Therefore, returning to the question of criticism — it is important to me, especially the reaction of the audience, can we make contact with the audience or not? Viewers who yawn — they are the worst critics, though sometimes people yawn not from boredom but from a lack of oxygen.

- The fact that Belarusian theatres avoid current issues still raises the question of artistic values of new writing. Theatre managers and directors justify it on the grounds that, well, the audience is not ready for this kind of perception on these topics and ideas.

- I think an unprepared audience does not exist. The problem is rather that in our system, the Belarusian theatre system, or, as we call it, the tradition, is inseparable from that of the whole State, in which our country exists. Modern drama is dangerous, and there’s no getting away from it. It explores the rights of all social groups, in all its forms, and theatre should have no taboos. This is its humanism and its danger. And, of course, in our theatres there are still those people from the Soviet generation. I did not want to offend anyone, but it is true: for years, actors, directors developed some a kind of a stamp, as faceted glasses — ‘Made in the USSR.’

Does this mean that by working with themes and forms that are taboo in the Belarusian theatre, with documentary material, with the naked body in particular, you set yourself the task, through the theatre, of not stagnating in the mire?

- You can, of course, try to prove something. But at some point I realized that to struggle with this mire is meaningless. The most to be expected, when working in the public theatre, for example — is a compromise. I used to work in a state theatre, so I know the whole system. To be honest, I do not understand the desire to work in the theatre: the theatre — it’s not a backstage, it is the place where something important happens.

- Are there topics that can not be objects of your research?

- There are topics on which I may not be ready to talk about yet. More precisely, I do not know — how would I? But, actually, I will eventually do these topics. What I would not do is, oddly enough, the political theatre in its most basic sense. I do not want to, and can not, praise someone. I think art questions everything and asks questions. That is why, in my opinion, any topic should be investigated.

- What, in your opinion, is the difference between the Belarusian theatre and the theatre in Western Europe?

- If the world of art is trying to turn around to face life and work with actual characters and themes, Belarus, and it is also clear why, has turned away from life. They will talk about anything, but God forbid, to touch something current is unthinkable. It’s not about the art. Yes, there is a classical, traditional art. But for the quality of the academic theatre we have neither the means nor the acting techniques.

- But we love to boast about our good acting schools.

- These are Soviet stereotypes. What drama schools? School — is when an artist can work in different genres and techniques. Education is not a frozen process whereas those that have studied in the Soviet think that after four years they are professionals. In the rest of the world actors are trained for 2-3 years, then attend seminars, it is continual training process. I have worked with graduates of our Academy: technique — zero, knowledge of the material — zero. The only thing that saves us is youth, which passes quickly. Therefore, our education is a myth, like the fact that Moscow is the capital of the theatre. In fact, it has long been the province. And we are still looking back at Moscow.

Paradoxically, without government support and without a home or permanent base, Belarus Free Theatre is by far the most effective theatrical project. This is a bullet in the head to our theatres, which are supported by the Ministry of Culture. What do they do? They simply spend taxpayers money. So, once again, the theatrical situation in Belarus doesn’t exist . The theatre serves a decorative function: like a country club at the farm. Where are the laboratories at the theatres? Where is the work with modern drama? How can we talk about creative processes if fear is the dominant emotion in the country? ‘What if something happens’ — the credo of modern theatre in Belarus. For Belarus Free Theatre it has always been a matter of pride — if everything is against us, we have to do it anyway. Because we cannot accept that someone can stop us doing what we want.

I understand the reluctance to be ‘fighters», but, in our situation especially we don’t really have a choice. I have a lot of questions for the youth of today. Before, it was easy to justify their inactivity because, as they said, the older generation in the theatres did not do anything. But then that generation eventually fades away. And what? Where is the initiative? Where are the young people, who argue, destroy, fight, have something to prove? Entering the art world quietly is not going to work. 

- But in Western art, for example, we see the opposite extreme. It is difficult to surprise audiences. We can say it is fashionable to do anomalous art.

- Art, in principle, can not be without extremes, it is a clash of different artistic categories. Of course, the anomaly is very involved, and a bias in research is inevitable. But, anyway, the best examples of modern theatre do not speak about an anomaly, but about the common man. As for Belarusian art, we have not even discussed it. We did not take the steps that are needed. Our artists do not know how to speak on stage. So far, there is debate about the means: do we need swearing or is it not needed? Can we use the naked body or not? Of course, there are pitfalls everywhere. But it all depends on who takes it on.

- Which work has become a program for your creativity?

- Obviously, ‘4.48 Psychosis’. But the most important thing for me, oddly enough, was my last work in Kupala Theatre — ‘Enter a free man’ by Tom Stoppard. I was not happy with the result, the audience also did not take to it, and I pretty painfully failed. But I began to analyze it, and due to this experience ‘4.48 Psychosis’ came about. Though, It turns out that bad productions can actually become important: you actively start to seek the cause of the error, a powerful energy is released. ‘4.48 Psychosis’ was my cry of despair and a reaction to what I was doing doing, at myself and what surrounded me. But, basically, I do not rate my works in isolation from each other, for me it is one continuous line. Sometimes it may seem that some performances negate what I was doing before. But it’s a step. Now I think I am heading in the right direction. Maybe tomorrow I will turn the other way.