Long before the coronavirus closed most of the world’s playhouses, one company pioneered creating theater at a distance.
The Belarus Free Theater, founded in 2005 by dissident artists in the former Soviet republic, has operated clandestinely in the capital, Minsk, and in London, where the artistic directors, Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, have lived in exile since 2011. For performances in Belarus, where most of the 12-person ensemble is still based, the troupe rehearses its provocative productions over Skype and puts them on in changing “underground” locations, in defiance of a government ban.
Their plays, which often lay bare political corruption and social decay in the authoritarian country, have been raided by the K.G.B., Belarus’s secret police. Audience members and actors alike have been jailed.
The Belarus Free Theater has nevertheless been able to present its productions abroad, and it has performed in over 40 countries. The troupe was getting ready to celebrate its 15th anniversary with an ambitious lineup of productions and workshops and the premiere of a documentary film. But then the coronavirus struck.
With its performing activities on hold for the foreseeable future, the company has opened its digital archive. (A spokeswoman said it hoped to reschedule as many of the anniversary events as possible for later in the year). This month, it began streaming 24 productions, roughly half its repertory, on YouTube, with English subtitles.
Although recordings often fail to capture the excitement of live performance, these documents of the troupe’s intimate performances convey what makes the Belarus Free Theater such a unique and artistically thrilling company. New videos will be made available each week until late June.
In the early works that have streamed so far, all of which predated the government’s ban in 2010, you have to marvel at the troupe’s ability to achieve startling theatrical effects with extremely modest means. Performing in underground clubs and black box theaters, the actors often have little more than a chalkboard, bed or chair to work with. This is theatrical minimalism born of privation and necessity. Eschewing flashy stage effects, the four productions I saw achieved a remarkable theatrical purity.
While the political situation in Belarus looms large in the productions, the country’s specific struggles take on a degree of universality that all revolutionary art strives for. Politically urgent though they are, these productions are not agitprop.
A stark staging of the British playwright Sarah Kane’s feverish “4.48 Psychosis,” the Belarus Free Theater’s first production, from May 2005, kicked off the online programming. It premiered at the Graffiti Club in Minsk, a bar in an industrial neighborhood that hosted the group’s first three productions before the authorities pressured it to stop.
A tormented monologue about mental disintegration, “4.48 Psychosis” can be staged any number of ways. In this production, two of the company’s mainstays, Maryia Sazonava and Yana Rusakevich, share Kane’s wrenching and poetic text in a performance that alternates between violence and tenderness.
The video shows the audience mere feet from the performers. Many cover their laps with blankets; they look cold. Onstage, props and effects are kept to a minimum: candles, a cigarette, a thermos, projected video and blinding light against the venue’s brick wall.
In its frank dissection of mental breakdown, “4.48 Psychosis” is clearly a subversive text, although you would need to read between the lines to find a political message. Since then, the company has mostly staged original work with more explicit references to Belarus.
In “Generation Jeans” (2006), Khalezin, one of the artistic directors, delivers a highly personal monologue on dissident culture in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Onstage with a D.J. and a bag full of props (including clothes, LPs, flags and pickles), Khalezin looks the audience straight in the eye as he describes the risks involved in procuring real denim jeans, as opposed to Lithuanian knockoffs.
The black market for imported clothing and music was under close surveillance at the time, but being hauled in for questioning by the K.G.B. was a small price to pay: “We didn’t know that it was possible to long for anything else,” he says. “Jeans and music were our symbols of prosperity.”
“Generation Jeans” is a good introduction to the troupe’s technique of building productions from simple, polished monologues that bristle with mordant humor and closely observed details. This also works for more ambitions stagings, like “Zone of Silence: A Modern Belarusian Epic in Three Chapters” (2008), a sweeping yet intimate production in which the actors’ personal reminiscences fuse with vivid character sketches to paint a kaleidoscopic portrait of life in the country.
Painful memories, including the deaths of parents and children, dominate the play’s fast-moving first chapter. These give way to a series of colorful monologues about characters on society’s margins, including an armless guitar aficionado, a babushka whose fanatical belief in communism has not been shaken and a sex-obsessed old man with a motor mouth.
In the overtly political final segment, damning statistics about Belarus are projected on a wall. They expose the country’s devastating human rights record, including the government’s hostility to the press and free expression, and high rates of suicide, domestic violence and human trafficking. Then, in an unexpected coda that lands somewhere between cheesy and stirring, the statistics give way to a list of famous Belarusians (or people with Belarusian heritage), including Ralph Lauren, Harrison Ford and several founders of the state of Israel.
The personal and the political come together in the more narratively straightforward monologue that runs through Khalezin’s 2008 production “Discover Love,” inspired by the real-life case of Anatoly Krasovsky, a businessman who disappeared along with a prominent political opponent of the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, in 1999.
Staged from the perspective of Krasovsky’s widow, Irina, the sparse production conveys the sense of disorientation and hope, shot through with panic and possibility, that the characters feel in the midst of vast social and political upheavals. The powerful dialogue, delivered with unerring directness by actors who have evolved together with the company over the past decade and a half, accomplishes far more than any amount of expensive stagecraft could ever achieve.
Right now, much of the world is learning firsthand that it takes enormous courage to persevere in a time of adversity. Bravery and artistic focus have kept the Belarus Free Theater producing singularly robust stage work through the past 15 years. What they have done has gone beyond coping. They have thrived.