By James Haro
Imagine that you live somewhere else, another country you may never have been to. You have a hankering for some theatre but its not easy to come by. You live in such a repressive society that the only way you can attend a performance is to secretly meet actors and theatre artists who, at intervals, lead the audience to an intimate studio where it is recommended you bring your passport incase there is a police raid. This scenario is a regular one for fans and supporters of Belarus Free Theater.
Belarus Free Theater has long been a reputable troupe operating out of the previously USSR absorbed nation Belarus. Set to perform at The Public’s 2011 “Under the Radar” international theatre festival in New York, the troupe fell upon some difficult times. Since 1994 Belarus has been under the auspices of what international observers call the last dictortatorship in Europe. On December 19th, a presidential election took place which many believed to be fraudulent and sent protesters into the streets in revolt. As a result, two members of Belarus Free Theater were arrested, the rest took to hiding, and the future of the company became uncertain. Once she got to New York, Natalia Kolyada, a co-founder of the company, said in an interview, “We’ve had to leave the country in small groups, and not in an official fashion, let’s put it that way.”
Their widely praised performance of “Being Harold Pinter” at the festival has come and gone, but not the challenges the group faces in times to come. The Public hosted a special benefit production with a group of guest actors that, according to the NY Times, raised $25,000 for the Belarus troupe. Also, on January 19th, a month after the presidential election protests, The Public, the troupe, and individuals of around 30 NY theatre companies joined to protest outside the Belarusian mission to the U.N.
There is a lot to consider in all this. As art lovers, our hearts bleed (if I may borrow the expression) for those who do not have access to the free speech rights that we enjoy and practice here in the states. It is also very romantic to imagine consuming and producing art that speaks out against the powers that be in an authoritarian environment. However, were we to be transported to Belarus, or if we were under the same repressive rule here in America, how many of us would risk imprisonment, ostracization, or even death to take part in unpopular expression? I certainly don’t have an immediate answer. And in the same vain, speaking as a student of the non-profit theatre model, its fairly risky for an organization to get too mouthy as far as political issues go. These days many organizations find support through corporate sponsorship. If, for example, a company officially came out against the death penalty or produced a work in that regard, a corporate sponsor and even traditional donors may pull their support if they found this statement disagreeable or something they could not be affiliated with, and this would leave a company in pretty bad shape. These circumstances could potentially prevent a company from putting on a polarizing piece that they believe needs to be seen. With this in mind it’s important to remember how much is at stake producing in the non-profit world. Artists and patrons should be more educated about these issues as well.
Its inspiring to see the resolve and integrity of the Belarus Free Theater troupe, as well as all the support they’ve received from The Public and many other NY theatre companies. It should make us examine exactly what we’d be willing to risk to come out and say what we believe to be right, be it by bullhorn or blog.