If any theatre company is going to feel at home during COVID-19 and the challenges the pandemic has brought to theatres worldwide, it is going to be Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), an outlawed company based in Belarus and the UK (its artistic directors Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, in fear of their lives, had to seek asylum in Britain in 2011). In Belarus, where dictator President Lukashenko faces national elections in August—and is busy arresting citizens attending opposition rallies—the BFT ensemble is banned from performing and from registering as a theatre company because it produces democracy-promoting plays and global campaigns advancing human rights.
Working out of a small garage in a secret location in Minsk, the country’s capital city, BFT is ineligible to apply for national funding, and ensemble members, continuing to perform illegally and underground, face the very real and constant threat of being arrested by the KGB, tortured, and “disappearing” into the country’s notorious prison system everyday. Enduring such an environment for years has made BFT resilient and given them the ability to adapt quickly to fast-changing circumstances and to be at the forefront of technological developments—Kaliada and Khalezin have been using secure platforms to communicate, rehearse, direct, and livestream performances for the last decade. And whilst BFT also finds it difficult to get funding in the UK, it was awarded COVID-19 emergency funding from Arts Council England (ACE), and its UK staff, eligible for the treasury’s job retention program, have only very recently been furloughed. But the program does not apply to BFT’s ensemble—they all remain in Belarus still working, having received philanthropic donations from global funders.
On top of this, Lukashenko is a COVID-19 denier and has advised his citizens to drive tractors, go to the sauna, and drink vodka to prevent infection. Whilst he has not imposed a lockdown, he is using the virus as an excuse to ban protests of any kind (prescient in the run-up to the elections) and arrest anyone who raises a voice in opposition. This means that, in Minsk, BFT, in tandem with their colleagues in the UK, have voluntarily gone into self-isolation to protect themselves and their families whilst creating work from their living quarters—turning their homes, quite literally, into performance spaces.