Natalia Koliada, Belarus Free Theater, was a guest of BBC talk-show "HARDtalk”.
Charter97.org website offers the verbatim record of the TV show with translation.
Presenting the guest of the programme, Stephen Sackur, the anchorman said: “My guest today has spent her life committed to the theater. And I use this phrase advisedly, because in Natalia Kaliada’s case her determination to push the creative potential of the dramatic art has seen her threatened, arrested and exiled from her home country.
Almost a decade ago she co-founded the Belarus Free Theater in Minsk – as artistic project set up to provide an oasis of free expression in the fear-filled dictatorship ruled by Aliaksandr Lukashenka. From the outset Lukashenka’s security operators saw this radical theater group as a threat: directors, actors, even members of the audience were routinely arrested. After popular protest greeted Lukashenka’s dubious reelection in 2010, Natalia Kaliada was declared an enemy of the state and took refuge in London. From there she and her husband continue to advise and direct the Free Theater back in Belarus, which continues to put on underground shows in venues ranging from forests to empty warehouses. It has become the theater of resistance and would-be liberation. But can it make a difference in the real world?”
“HardTalk” of Stephen Sackur with the director of the BST concerned not only censorship and theatre, but the political situation in Belarus as well.
- Today we are going to talk about the Belarus Free Theater, which you co-founded almost ten years ago. Now you live in exile, are you still committed to the Belarus Free Theater?
- Absolutely, it is my life, and not just my life – this is the life of my husband Nikolai Khalezin and our partner Uladzimir Shcherban, and the life of twenty nine people, who are still underground in Belarus, who perform every week.
- But how can you maintain that commitment, that link wherein, as I say, in the last three or so years you have been forced to live in exile.
- Skype, you know, that unique thing that exists today. We go on Skype, we talk to our students, and Uladzimir directs shows on Skype, my husband will direct another show very soon about the wives and sisters and mothers of those, whose sons are still in jail in Belarus.
- Sorry, I need to get my head around this: how on Earth can tour husband, who is an established theater director, how can he direct at the distance of a thousand miles and more?
- It is about connection. Actors, with whom we have been working for almost ten years, they understand us right away and they are so dedicated, because for us it is so much easier as we are here in London, even though we were smuggled and we are in exile, but they are back there, and it is an absolutely different situation for them, and their commitment is absolutely unique, and the commitment of two directors – my husband and Uladzimir – is absolutely unique too.
- But in the most literal sense, you say you use Skype, but the actors hold up some sort of tablet, don’t they? And your husband can actually see a rehearsal from London happening in Minsk, and he can offer instruction and advise based on what he sees?
- Yeah, it is pretty funny, I should say, how it looks. But it is not funny in the reality, because, first of all, Belarus is one of the countries that is an enemy of the internet, I believe you know about that…
- In fact they have most sophisticated means of trying to block those parts of the internet they do not like…
- Absolutely. The government bought Chinese filters before the latest presidential elections to block it, and there are special hacker attacks. The KGB, this is what we still have – the only country of the former Soviet Union that still bears the name…
- The secret police is known as KGB, isn’t it?
- Yeah. They have a special unit there with their hackers that hack all those web-sites that broadcast information that goes against the activities of the regime in Belarus. So when we rehearse, you need to have a computer on both sides – in London and in Belarus – and then funny moments start. For example, when Uladzimir Shcherban directed two previous shows on Skype, he would just said “Take me to that corner”, so his head would move around that particular tiny room, and sometimes it very good for actors to say “You know what? It is a very weak internet connection, we cannot hear what you are saying”, when both of them get angry with what the actors do.
- Let us go back to the origins. I think 2005 was the year you set it up. It has been called, and I quite like this phrase, “Guerrilla Theater”. Does this make sense to you, do you see it as that sort of radical, politicized “Guerrilla Theater”?
- We are radical, politicized people. I believe, this relates to what we do. In order to understand Belarus, it is necessary to understand that whatever you say is prohibited by the authorities. So whatever topic you choose, for example suicide, sexual minorities, those are prohibited.
We started with the production by Uladzimir of the “4.48 psychosis” by Sarah Cane, a British playwright. And it was prohibited. So it was necessary to go around 27 facilities to check with them, and two actresses together with the director went to all these places, and everyone said “No”. Why? Because we do not have suicide in Belarus, we do not have sexual minorities in Belarus. Yeah, we said, it is in the UK. “So if Belarusian people watch it, it will happen to them” – that was the answer.
- And no official theater would take on your work at all?
- No, it is not possible. We have only official theaters it is 27 official theaters. We are the only independent theater that is not registered with the government.
- So if you cannot use the official theater network, and you have been going for the best part of then years, what sort of venues have you been using?
- The underground ones. Forests, so we go into the woods, we go far away from Minsk. It was not that we invented the bicycle. It was Vaclav Havel, who was our patron, and the first president of independent Czech republic, who just shared his experience with us that it should be done under cover. So weddings, birthdays, Christmas parties…
- You mean these are a front for what is actually a show?
- Yeah, so we would have a kind of a real wedding, with real bride and groom, having a feast, going to villages. And then we perform there for our audience, even though we got arrested at a so-called wedding.
- It seems to me that everybody involved has run an extraordinary risk. I am talking about you as a sort of co-founder of the theater group, I am talking about the directors that you use, the actors and, perhaps most importantly of all, the audience. Everybody involved in every single one of your productions is running a risk.
- That is true. It has even become worse. Now as we are speaking, people get arrested all over the country, because we have the Ice Hockey World Championship coming to Belarus. That is why it is not possible for people even to express their thoughts. And the authorities organized preventive arrests of all people who are of potential danger to them. So yes, it is a choice that people need to make.
We started when there were two of us – me and my husband – then in two months we were joined by Uladzimir Shcherban, with whom we developed the company, and two actresses. There were five of us. Today there are 29 of us together with our students, whom we teach underground. All of them made their choice to stay with us, and we warned them “If you join the company, you’ll get arrested, beaten up, you will lose your education, your job”. But what I need to say is that it is only 29 people. It is not a lot for the whole country that people choose the theater in order to resist the dictatorship there.
- I am intrigued to know what is the mindset of the audience, because you have to accept some sort of responsibility, do you not, for their safety?
- As we say, our audience is the bravest audience in the whole world, because when they come to our performances, they do not go to the venue, so they do not go to absolutely wonderful venues as we perform at in London, they go underground. We have meeting points, from where they are taken to the places, where we perform, and they come with their IDs, because they are warned that they might be arrested as they come to see your shows. When we get on Skype to talk to them and ask how many new people there are, there are 40% of new people every time. Even for us it is difficult to comprehend that there are so many people, who are ready to get arrested.
- Well, they say it, but I just wonder whether you sometimes reflect to yourself that may be you are putting people in the position that is against their better interests. When you invite them to come to your plays, you tell them “You may be arrested”, they want to come, but in the end, when the police, the state security police come and they round people up, they put them in detention, do you even think “You know what? We have pushed this to far”?
- No, it is a choice. When you live under dictatorship, and this dictatorship has been there for twenty years, it is just not possible for people to live in such isolation, informational and cultural. Then you need to find this possible place, where you could come and see people, who think in the same way as you do.
- Do you think theater is a very important place to establish a sort of a creative space, a free expression space in a country, where, as you have said at the beginning of this interview, there is really no free expression, officially allowed free expression at all?
- I think it is connected to people, so it doesn’t matter what you do – whether you do theater or journalism, because we do not have independent media in Belarus also, and all articles of the Universal Human Rights declaration are violated in Belarus. It is really connected not to who you are, but what you do. In terms of arts and theater I think when specific topic is moved even from media area to the arts field, it means that this topic has even much bigger value because then journalist and politicians need to pay more attention to it.
- After 2010 and an election which roused a real wave of popular protest, anger at the way Lukashenka had, to many people’s eyes rigged the elections, there was a new brutal clampdown, and in this clampdown you and your husband were arrested yourselves. And this where it gets really personal, you know. I just wonder if at that point you began to say to yourself “The risks I’ve running have cost me too much”. What happened to you and how did you reflect on the experience that you had?
- I believe, our experience was not an easy one in my case, even though I was in jail only for twenty hours, but it is hard when you are deprived of water, toilet, sleep, when you are standing facing walls for all those hours with your hands at the back, and you have the women in the same position standing around you, and you understand that the whole prison is separated into female and male floors, where people are held, and they are not allowed to move, otherwise they are beaten up. I only was there for twenty hours. There are political prisoners, who are still in jails in Belarus, and they are going through a nightmare, through tortures. Our very close friends, you had an amazing person here few years ago – Andrei Sannikov, he was in jail for a year and a half.
- An opposition leader.
- Yeah, he ran for the presidency on behalf of the opposition, and he was winning, that is why he got in jail. He was tortured, his wife was arrested, and the authorities wanted to kidnap his three year old son to send to an orphanage in order for his parents to stop talking, to stop telling the truth.
- Did they threaten you too?
- Oh yeah. In our situation it is connected to personal stories also. After left Belarus, but continued to push and put pressure on Belarusian government after having meetings with Hillary Clinton, William Hague and many different politicians in order to put pressure on Belarusian government, after that our apartments were raided by KGB, even though they understood that we were not in the country. After one of such raids my father-in-law had a heart attack and he passed away. We were unable to even go back and attend the funeral. But before he died, it was the same day, when we had a KGB raid, he gave us a call and he said: “You need to keep going, you need to finish what you started”. I believe, if we didn’t have this phone call from him, it would be impossible for us to comprehend how we will keep going. Our younger daughter, when she was elven she was interrogated by police. She was smuggled out of Belarus also.
- I don’t mean to belittle your own experiences and of many others in the theater group, but in the end are you not preaching to the converted? There is a small cadre of people in Belarus that are determined to stand up and oppose the Lukashenka regime whatever it costs. You know, you’re sort of talking to yourselves. Is it really true that ordinary Belarusian are taking the risk and coming to your shows?
- Of course. It is only ordinary Belarusians, who come to our performances. And our small audience – on 19 December 2010, when there were so-called presidential elections, because we do not have real ones, even when there was not a single chance for opposition leaders to have proper live time on TV or radio, can you imagine that 50.000 people came out to protest? I do not consider that it is small audience.
It was an absolutely amazing moment during the hours that I spent in jail, when women on both sides of me of 68 and 72 years old said “We came to such a protest for the first time. Our husbands and sons are on other floors”. And there were 99% of such people in that jail at the moment. So it is a huge audience, but there is no such a repressive machine in other countries that is there in Belarus.
- Which matter more to you now – the consciousness raising that you do outside Belarus with the Young Vic theater and many others here in London or the determination to keep the secret underground shows going inside your country?
- It is both. It is not possible for us to consider Belarus separately from the global context.
- Where do you put on shows outside the UK, where you are based now? Where else, which countries, if send the message about the Belarus Free Theater?
- We produce shows only in two methods – it is Skype for small performances that we could present in Belarus and we have an absolutely unique partner here, it is the Falmouth University with which we have started our three year strategic partnership. They gave us residency, where we could produce our shows.
This is the only possibility for us to bring our actors here and to work with them. And the first outcome that will be possible to see as a result of the residency will be at the Young Vic in June. It is called ‘Red Forest’. So come and see it! The only problem that is necessary for us to smuggle our actors out of Belarus. This is a logistical nightmare, and it is very dangerous to them.
At the same time we always appeal to issues and we raise those particular topic that do not only cover Belarus, and it has always been the nature of the Belarus Free Theater, we go to those countries of the world that do not have enough attention as we do not. Just recently we came back from the illegal refugees camps in Morocco, or from Bangladesh and India, and it will be on stage.
- So you want to get the message out there in as many countries as many countries also could use the freedom of expression as you can, but let me put this to you, quite bluntly, it is not working –Lukashenka has been in power for twenty years. For then of those years pretty much you have been active in your theater group (and frankly today this group is empowered stronger than even), but nevertheless there are even signs that the EU is beginning to re-think its sort of isolation policy toward Lukashenka. It is not working.
- I believe that it is not working, because there is not enough attention on the part of European politicians and journalists. A journalist in Amsterdam told me “Oh, it is so interesting to talk to you for few days, and it is a kind of a discovery that such a situation exists in the middle of Europe”. But whose job is it to talk about such countries like Belarus? First of all it is the job of journalists to discover such stories where human rights are violated so terribly, were death squads exist and EU politicians, who did not solve problem of the last dictatorship in Europe, and now we have what we have with Russia and Ukraine…
- Isn’t Ukraine and what has happened there, the crisis in Ukraine, something that, perhaps, European governments are look at and they think “We know Lukashenka is repressive, we know, he is a dictator, but frankly the idea of having deep instability alongside that in neighboring Ukraine is actually even worse and goodness knows what Putin would do if Belarus became deeply unstable”. May be they have decided that just leaving this man in place is the most pragmatic policy?
- I believe it is the biggest mistake, because then we need to go back to 1936 and start talking about Hitler. What happened that time, when Europe did not do a proper job? So now we are in the danger of going back to a mutated system of the Soviet Union, but now it will be more sophisticated, if it is not prevented.
- Lukashenka said recently “I have set the task to show the European Union, the entire international community that Belarus is a country that should be love, appreciated and respected. You, Europeans, should appreciate us as your partners”. Do you worry that actually twenty years on Lukashenka is beginning to win the argument in Europe?
- No, he is just making fools of European politicians, and it has been his game for all these years. He has been blackmailing Russia with the EU and he has been blackmailing the EU with Russia. This is exactly what is happening, but it is necessary to understand that if in Belarus the bestselling political product is political prisoners, I believe it is important to understand that if he releases – this is what he is saying “If I release political prisoners, you give me money” – this is the end of the game.
The EU should either put very tough economic and political sanctions in place not only against Lukashenka now, but against Putin and stop this game.
- Do you believe there will be a time, when you can go back and direct, put on your shows yourself in your home country in freedom?
- I do believe there will be such time, but it is only possible to make it true if the European Union and the United States have a joint position on that part of the world and stop talking, but act. “Do not tell me – show me” – this is exactly what should be done by the European Union and by the United States politicians.