Beyond Lukashenko

New Short Plays About Belarus

This six-part series explores how the work of Belarus Free Theatre changed an American expatriate's life, inspiring him to find new ways to use theater, writing, and social activism.  

Once Ensemble Free Theater Norway (EFTN) resolved to move forward and make the Belarusian Dream Theater project happen on 25 March 2014 without any financial support from public sources—essentially creating a new international play festival independently from scratch—I was naturally curious to discover what plays would be submitted. I had assumed that all of the entries would be realistic and highly political, in the same spirit as the neo-documentary works of Belarus Free Theatre, like 2009’s Zones of Silence or Discover Love.

Instead, I was delightfully surprised by the diversity of material EFTN received. In addition to new works by Belarusian playwrights, writers as far-flung as Europe and the United States, Australia and New Zealand, ended up making excellent contributions. The Belarusian Dream Theater project linked playwrights with more than a dozen independent presenting groups in Europe and North America, who donated their time and talents to assemble the collaborators necessary to present as many of the twenty-five new plays as each group wanted. These performances or staged readings were coordinated to occur on 25 March 2014, Belarus Freedom Day, as a way of emphasizing international solidarity with the country, and for freedom of expression.

These new short plays existed in many theatrical genres, and the participating playwrights—thankfully —chose to write about topics beyond Lukashenko and “the last dictatorship of Europe.” Those old myths were replaced with new and fresh dramatic stories.

Of course, some of the plays were political, and perhaps in forms international audiences expect. Set in a spare interrogation room somewhere in Minsk, Under Protest by David L. Williams is a sinister encounter between a peaceful protestor and a member of the KGB. Article 119-1 by New York’s Aurin Squire examines the assumptions and consequences of political activism in Belarus for the LGBT community.

But some boldly chose comedy as their form of expression; a choice particularly engaging given how serious most international journalistic writing is about Belarus. No One Gives a Clap by emerging writer Jake Rosenberg and Welcome to Belarus by New Zealand’s Rex McGregor both used humor to highlight the absurdity, the perspectives, and the prejudices many foreigners have about Belarus.

Other writers chose a more domestic setting, using the intimacy of the home to investigate relationships and metaphors related to the public sphere. These included Draniki by Australian playwright Vivienne Glance, In the Belarusian Kitchen by Nikolay Rudkovski of Minsk, and Portraits by British author Jez Broome.

And still others plays in the Belarusian Dream Theater project were striking in their non-realistic form. Berlin-based Richard Pettifer used the musical theater framework of Oliver! to tell the story of Lukashenko’s rise to power, in his short musical The Puppet of White Farm. Daniel Michaelson, a professional designer and former Dean of Bennington College in Vermont, made a comparison of his recent trip to Belarus to explore his ancestral origins to L. Frank Baum’s journey in his play Oz Revisited. Wisconsin playwright Laura Lynn MacDonald's script for en dangerous (part I and II) reads like the blueprint for a dance piece, composed almost entirely of stage directions. And all of the characters in Battle in Babruysk, by Ohio writer/director Diane Rao Harman, are beavers.

For some groups, the presentation of the Belarusian Dream Theater plays was one component of a larger whole. “We are involving students in our project through our Creative Corps program,” said Bari Hochwald, Artistic Director of The Global Theatre Project, which coordinated performances in Los Angeles, California and Florence, Italy. “There will be a four session workshop educating them about Belarus, eliciting personal responses to what they learn and using the plays as inspiration for their own spoken-word pieces.” These spoken-word pieces, as well as original drawings and paintings, were then displayed for their American and Italian audiences on 25 March.

American playwright K. M. Mustatea, who contributed her sardonic Applause, Please to the project, got some of our contributing writers to connect with PoetryGenius. Interested playwrights uploaded their short plays onto the site, and then added their own comments to the piece. Directors of those same plays were then encouraged to participate by adding their notes. Belarusian Dream Theater was the first time PoetryGenius ever had dramatic literature appear on the site.

For others, the simple fact of participation was of great significance. Less than one month after protesters ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Kiev’s independent group Theatre in the Room remained committed to participating in the project. During rehearsals of Alice Pencavel’s Nightmare, they felt that the play became “more and more consonant with what is going on in our country.” Olya Velymchanytsia, one of the members of the group, described their experience of participating in Belarusian Dream Theater as “an inspiration,” giving Theatre in the Room “more confidence to overcome any difficulties.”

Leading up to the project’s culmination on 25 March, I was working in Lithuania with Belarusian students enrolled at the European Humanities University in Vilnius. More on this powerful and rewarding experience at the so-called "Belarus university in exile" next time.

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