THEATER   | December 22, 2010 
Theater Group in Belarus Is Forced Underground 
The leaders of a Belarus dissident theatrical troupe have been arrested in Minsk shortly before a planned appearance in New York. 

 December 21, 2010

Theater Group in Belarus Is Forced Underground


The Belarus Free Theater, one of the revelations of the 2008 Under the Radar alternative-theater festival, is scheduled to return for the 2011 edition of the event, which begins early next month. But a real-life drama has suddenly intruded: both founders of the troupe are now in hiding, and another member is in jail, as the result of a government crackdown on protests against a presidential election that human rights groups have described as rigged.

Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Kolyada, the husband-and-wife team who run the five-year-old company, were at a demonstration on Sunday night on the main square in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, when government security forces charged. Ms. Kolyada was arrested, roughed up, released on bail and went underground, as did her husband. The company’s manager, Artiom Zhelezniak, was less fortunate: he has been tried and convicted of charges of illegal assembly.

“We don’t know what happens next, and any kind of development is possible,” Ms. Kolyada said in a telephone interview Tuesday from a location she would not disclose. “Every one of us could be taken from the street, from apartments, from any place that we go. But we still hope to go to New York, because we understand it is important to speak on behalf of Belarus, so that the voices of those arrested can be heard in the world.”

The arrests of the theater company members are part of a larger campaign of repression directed by the government of Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who claims to have won 79 percent of the vote in Sunday’s balloting. Since 1994 Mr. Lukashenko has run this former republic of the Soviet Union, leading what former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once called “the last true remaining dictatorship in the heart of Europe.” On Monday Mr. Lukashenko announced that more than 600 “bandits and saboteurs,” including several of his opponents, had been arrested.

The 12-member Belarussian company earned admiring reviews when “Generation Jeans” played at Under the Radar in 2008, and they have since performed elsewhere in the United States. “Their work is innovative, adventurous and moving, on a par with the best ensembles working in this field of independent theater,” said Mark Russell, the artistic director of Under the Radar, adding, “They are the bravest theater makers I know.”

Asked about the prospects for their return to New York in time to perform, Mr. Russell said: “We still have high hopes. We’re not in touch with them right now, but efforts are being made around the world to secure their release and enable them to travel.”

Produced by the Public Theater, Under the Radar runs from Jan. 5 to 16, with the Belarus Free Theater scheduled to perform “Being Harold Pinter,” a piece that mixes transcribed statements by Belarussian political prisoners with writings by Pinter, the Nobel Prize winner, who also was a friend and supporter of the troupe. Interviewed in The Observer of London after seeing the production there, the playwright Tom Stoppard said, “ ‘Being Harold Pinter’ knocked me out.” The Sunday Times of London wrote, “Drama doesn’t come more urgently political.”

The Belarus Free Theater operates from “a small house on the outskirts of Minsk” and “is really tied in to the political opposition” there, said Mike Harris, a spokesman for Index on Censorship, a London-based human rights group. Ties are particularly close with Charter 97, a pro-democracy initiative similar to the one founded in Czechoslovakia by the playwright Vaclav Havel and others when that country was under totalitarian rule.

Because the Lukashenko government will not allow the theater group to register as a public entity, “technically we do not exist in Belarus,” Ms. Kolyada said. As a result, the group can offer only free performances, since charging admission would leave members open to accusations of committing “economic crimes,” she said.

Members of the troupe and their relatives “have lost their jobs or university positions and been beaten up,” in an effort to close down the company, Ms. Kolyada added. “When that didn’t work, they targeted our audience and began to photograph and film the people who came to our shows and blackmail them.” To elude the authorities, they inform followers of the time and place of some performances via Twitter.

On Dec. 5 the group was in England performing two plays at the Young Vic. They were harassed and threatened by customs officials as they left Minsk, Ms. Kolyada said. In London the troupe shared a stage with the actors Jude LawSienna MillerIan McKellen and Samuel West, who have all publicly supported freedom of expression in Belarus.

On Tuesday night Mr. Stoppard, who was born in Czechoslovakia, was the main speaker at a protest demonstration outside the Belarussian Embassy in London. Other British celebrities, Mick Jagger among them, have also signed a petition calling for the release of members of the Belarus Free Theater and an end to political repression in Belarus, Mr. Harris said.

“Our main mission now is to repeat in New York what was done in London,” Ms. Kolyada said. “Even if we are not allowed to travel, American artists need to make statements in solidarity, so that the people in charge know that these terrible things are being heard and watched all over the world.”

Mr. Russell of Under the Radar echoed that position. “We definitely will be doing something,” he said. “We have a couple of ideas on the floor if they can make it,” including adding performances of “Zone of Silence,” another of the troupe’s works, and having American theater and film celebrities present at shows as a gesture of support. “We’re just trying to figure out how and when to do that.”