I have written here, on a number of occasions, about Belarus Free Theatre, a company whose founders were forced to seek political asylum in the UK in 2011. This was after being targeted by the government in their home country, Belarus, for standing up against its repressive and dictatorial regime.
In fact, the very first two posts on Reading Room Asia were about the company (Belarus Free Theatre Part 1 and Part 2). To quote their own website, BFT is now a two-headed beast with a new part of the company in London, and a permanent ensemble left behind in Minsk who perform and tour around the world as Belarus Free Theatre.
Natalia Kaliada, one of the company’s co-founders, has become a significant voice, not only about the human rights violations that are taking place in her own country and around the globe, but about the power of theatre to challenge such atrocities.
Since fleeing to London, she has used the new-found freedoms to rally support and has been joined by a whole host of influential people from both the theatre world and beyond. One of BFTs most high-profile supporters is the actor Jude Law, who has said when you talk about artistic freedom you are talking about freedom of speech and all our fundamental freedoms….it could not be more central to how we live. And these freedoms that we often take for granted are celebrated……by the struggle of the Free Theatre……These are freedoms which define us.
BFT now has a home in London with, and as an associate of, the Young Vic Theatre. The company, together with the Young Vic have just released a short film, called Connection, with Law in the cast, which you can watch here. It is a metaphor for BFTs own search to find a new home. Kaliada has written about this journey in an article for The Guardian:
Losing a home is always sudden, always a shock and always a tragedy.
An aircraft that can’t find an airport for landing, a doe searching in vain for a watering place in the desert or a man who has lost his memory in the middle of the metropolis – an endless stream of literary cliches could not reflect one hundredth of the horror and confusion that you feel after being left far from home without friends and family, without comfort and security.
We lost our home in Belarus involuntarily, without imagining that it could happen to us. The presidential elections in Belarus in 2010 resulted in thousands of arrests, long-term jail sentences, and hundreds of socially-active people fleeing persecution just for demanding one thing: respect for their rights. That is how the creators of Belarus Free Theatre ended up in exile.
Regaining a home doesn’t start with a space to live in, it begins with people. It begins with someone suddenly appearing next to you and asking one very simple but very important question: “How can I help?”
The film Connection……is a metaphor for our story. It is about how we as members of the troupe bridged the psychological gap between two societies; how we attempted to accept the fact that we were persecuted in one and celebrated in another. Jude Law, who co-stars in the film, supported us even before we escaped from Belarus. He performed in a Belarus Free Theatre production at the Young Vic a month before the ill-fated presidential elections of 2010. The theatre welcomed us with open arms, and Belarus Free Theatre soon began to show its performances there. It is no accident that the Young Vic became our London home: it’s an open, freedom-loving theatre, that listens keenly to others, with an acute sensitivity to theatrical innovation and freedom of creative expression. Belarus Free Theatre continues to show its performances underground in Minsk, but London is our second home, the place where our performances can be shown on some of the very best stages.
Jude was one of the first people to ask “How can I help?” and soon his voice was joined by Tom Stoppard, Irina Bogdanova, David Lan, Michael Attenborough, Kevin Spacey, Albina Kovaleva, Alison Stanley, Sigrid Rousing, James Bierman, Sam West, Laura Wade, Alexandra Wood, Joe Corré, Olga Proctor, Dominic Dromgoole, Joanna Lumley – first dozens then hundreds of people, famous and not so famous, influential and not so influential, wealthy and not so wealthy. Every single one of these people asked that crucial question and helped to create the foundation from which we began to build a new home.
Be assured, we are not complaining about our fate, nor are we looking for sympathy. We are strong. We want to work, to tell stories, to build and develop creative projects. Connection is not only a metaphor for regaining a new home, but a sign of communication between people coming together with the desire to create and collaborate; strengthening each other’s voice.
Incredible strength! If you want to get an idea of what it was like for BFT before being forced to flee, take a look at this work here by Alessandro Vincenzi, an italian photographer who charted their work and lives.