Creating the Belarusian Dream Theater Project
Shortly after Belarusian President Lukashenko’s controversial fourth “re-election” in December 2010, which resulted in hundreds of peaceful demonstrators being arrested, threatened, and even injured, Belarus Free Theatre performed Vladimir Shcherban’s Being Harold Pinter in New York City as part of the Public Theater´s Under The Radar Festival. Some of the company members—including co-founders Nicolai Khalezin and Natalya Koliada—had been released from prison days before. Within a month, Koliada and Khalezin went from being imprisoned for protesting in Minsk to having the support of the New York theater community. This included a demonstration led by Oskar Eustis, Tony Kushner, and Koliada, held across the street from the United Nations building. On 27 January 2011, Koliada spoke before a hearing of the Subcommittee of European Affairs, where she compares the government activities in Belarus today to that of Stalin. You can read the full transcript here.
During this period, my company Ensemble Free Theater Norway was engaged in collaborating on a number of works in Oslo, New York (Aaron Landsman’s Appointment at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts), and Chicago (as resident artists at the Greenhouse Theater Center). I stayed in touch with Koliada as best I could, while Belarus Free Theatre began a period of touring and living on the road. While I was reaping the benefits of working internationally, my Belarusian friends were living as a theater company in exile.
What could I do to help make a difference? What tools could I use, as a theater artist, to break down this silence, censorship, and oppressive regime?
In retrospect, the seeds of what would eventually become the Belarusian Dream Theater project in March 2014 began when the Contemporary Theatre Review asked me to write an article about Belarus Free Theatre. This was published later in 2011 as "When Theatre is 'Thoughtcrime'", and later submitted into a new international journalism competition organized by the Solidarity with Belarus Information Office, based in Warsaw.
Created by Yuliya Slutskaya—former chief editor for European Radio in Belarus (2007-2010) as well as for Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarusi—the SBIO is a nonprofit organization hoping to promote democratic values within Belarus through a number of awareness-raising activities, especially working with local and international journalists about the country’s economic, political, civic, and cultural life.
My piece ended up receiving an award, and in 2012 I got to join the five other winners in Warsaw to meet Slutskaya and her colleagues at SBIO, as well as other amateur and professional journalists from around the world who were passionately interested in writing about Belarus. During the two intensive days of discussions and workshops, I spoke with some of SBIO’s staff about the possibility of having an international competition not for journalistic pieces, but for dramatic writing. Would the Information Office be interested in such a collaborative project?
Part of my inspiration for the idea arose out of my participation in Shinsai: Theaters for Japan, organized by Theatre Communications Group and the Japan Playwrights Association as a way for the international theater community to constructively respond to the devastating 2011 earthquake in Japan. Could something similar be organized for Belarus—combatting censorship by exercising our free speech in writing new plays about the country by a group of international writers?
The title for the Belarusian Dream Theater project was suggested by SBIO's Natasha Belikova, in reference to the award-winning documentary by Belarusian filmmaker Ekaterina Kibalchich. Commissioned by SBIO, the film articulates some of the country’s recent political events, which culminated in Lukashenko’s violent response to the peaceful protests in December 2010. The narrator’s hopeful vision of a time when such stories about Belarus would cease to be relevant seemed an appropriate sentiment for the kind of project I hoped to create in collaboration with colleagues around the world.
Just as the SBIO’s writing competition created an international dialogue about Belarus through journalism, I wanted to do something similar through performance and dramatic writing. What if we could have a variety of short plays about Belarus, written by playwrights from all over the world, and have them performed simultaneously on 25 March 2014, Belarus Freedom Day?
In the project’s early stages, Belikova and another colleague from SBIO, Alexandra Kirby-Lepesh, were vital in helping me structure the event and get the ball rolling. I had never organized an international event of this scale, and I valued their suggestions and experiences. Originally, we sought various public funds in Europe to support our organizational efforts, to pay for a jury to read the submitted entries, and offer some kind of prize money for a small group of "winning entries." We also hoped to get funding to film a documentary of the process and results.
Unfortunately, because we were unable to guarantee financial compensation for this additional project in time, SBIO had to withdraw their direct involvement from the project. They remained supportive, but EFTN and I suddenly found ourselves on our own.
But the Belarusian Dream Theater was already underway: writers from the US, Europe, and Oceania were already sending in their writings, and a handful of theatrical venues had already confirmed their participation. Could we see the project through to completion, with less labor and no money?
Thinking of what the protestors in Minsk endured in 2010, as well as the risks Belarus Free Theatre has taken more times that I can think of, my hesitation seemed absurd. Of course we would find a way to make this Dream into a reality.