Belarus Free Theatre is banned from performing in its home – a country described as Europe’s last dictatorship. It means their shows must be held in private residences and audiences notified by text message. In the all-too-common event of a raid, police collect the IDs of the audience to threaten them for attending. Natalia Kaliada, co-artistic director of the provocative theatre company, says proudly that “our audience back in Belarus is the bravest audience in the world”.
Courage is required from the company’s members, too. They have been threatened, lost their jobs, and – after protests against the 2010 election – arrested and jailed. Kaliada remembers requesting a chair for an old woman sharing her cell. “They told me that the legs of a chair were not for sitting, but for policemen to rape women, and if I opened my mouth again it would happen to me.”
The show that would become Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker was already planned before her arrest, but then Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, her husband and co-artistic director, were smuggled out of the country. “We didn’t know what would happen to us. It was not a discussion on whether to make a new production. It was a discussion on whether we would stay free, whether we were becoming homeless.”
She thought they’d be back within weeks. While the company’s actors have since returned to Belarus, Kaliada and Khalezin – branded as enemies of the state – have not. While working on Minsk 2011 with its director Vladimir Shcherban, Kaliada’s father-in-law had a fatal heart attack after a KGB raid. “Our family didn’t tell us about it because they feared that we will fly to Belarus to attend the funeral. We were absolutely, completely empty inside.”
Support from artists and institutions around the world has been “amazing”, says Kaliada. “It was necessary for us to prove that we could still exist as a theatre company. This is the only one of its kind in the world. We produce works under dictators, and, at the same time, we perform on the best stages of the world.”
Despite the raw depiction of repression and exploitation in Minsk 2011, she rejects the idea it will only connect with those that know her homeland’s history. “When we create our productions, we do not think about a particular country. We create the shows that would challenge us personally.” Seeing the show sell out in New York made her feel they were truly understood. “Because we’re just human beings,” she says. “It’s very simple.”
Showing as part of the Melbourne Festival.