Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), the underground theatre group routinely censored and persecuted in its state-controlled homeland, is celebrating its tenth birthday this month. Founded by human rights activist husband-and-wife Nikolai Khalezin and Natalie Koliada, joined by director Vladimir Shcherban, BFT’s inaugural production in May 2005 was Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, which tackles Belarusian taboo subjects of suicide and depression.
Now, thanks to international support and crowd-funding, headquartered in London, BFT continues to promote freedom of speech and artistic expression, focusing on subjects of social justice and human rights violations across the globe.
To celebrate the tenth birthday, Belarus Free Theatre is now staging a two-week festival of work, entitled Staging a Revolution. And to coincide with the season, the company has also curated an anthology of 34 short essays on the concept of freedom.
The resulting “little red book”, On Freedom – which has a cover designed by Chinese artist and political activist Ai WeiWei (whose current exhibition at the Royal Academy is excellent, by the by) and a foreword by Tom Stoppard – comprises contributions from artists, directors, writers, activists and politicians, including several members of and collaborators with the company. They include: actor Michael Sheen, Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, Arts Council chair Peter Bazalgette, and directors Michael Attenborough, Dominic Dromgoole and David Lan.
Below, I’ve gathered together some of my favourite quotes from a selection of these thought-provoking essays. Scroll down for more information too on Staging a Revolution.
On Freedom is published by Oberon Books, priced £10.
13 quotes on freedom
1. “However many times you look in the dictionary to find the meaning of the word ‘freedom’, it won’t bring you any closer to actually understanding what it means.”
– Nicolai Khalezin is a playwright, director, journalist and co-founding Artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre
2. “Since the publication of The Satanic Verses 27 years ago, the trend towards censorship has become an established and much repeated response to speech that offends. The emergence of the idea that avoiding offence may be more important than defending the right to free speech has dangerously undermined our protection of freedom of expression.”
– Jo Glanville is director of English PEN and longtime supporter and fan of Belarus Free Theatre
3. “We need to acknowledge that not everyone lives neat tidy lives and that the outsider is as important as the conformist in any vision of a civilized world.”
– Topher Campbell is a writer, archivist, filmmaker and theatre director, who came into contact with the work of Belarus Free Theatre at a House of Commons human rights event
4. “When public money is invested in media and the arts it should demand greater risks than commercial money would. Today’s outrage is tomorrow’s mainstream. Freedom within liberal laws…drink it in: ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’”
– Sir Peter Bazalgette is Chair of Arts Council England
Belarus Free Theatre’s production of Generation Jeans is revived during Staging a Revolution. London, November 2015
5. “With genuine equality, we have little fear of lost liberty, as everyone must protect your liberty to enjoy the same right.”
– Clive Stafford is director of legal action charity Reprieve and occasional collaborator of Belarus Free Theatre
6. “We must keep fighting for freedom. There are many ways to do it: be responsible; be conscious; fight your deepest fears. Don’t be a bystander, fighting means action!”
– Pavel Radak-Haradnitski joined Belarus Free Theatre in 2005. He is unable to apply for jobs in Belarus because of his association with the company and has been detained for his activities
7. “Freedom is the possibility to act or make decisions according to one’s beliefs of what is important, valuable and necessary. Freedom is not satisfying somebody else’s expectations. I don’t know how to achieve it. I’m on the way.”
– Victoria Biran studied at the Belarusian State University but was forced to interrupt her studies because of the university’s reluctance to accept her work with Belarus Free Theatre
8. “Total freedom is paralysis. Once we make a choice and commit ourselves to something, we are less free; but, crucially, we have EXERCISED our freedom.”
– Trustee Michael Attenborough CBE gave Belarus Free Theatre one of their first key London residencies when he was Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre
Belarus Free Theatre’s production of Trash Cuisine is revived as part of Staging a Revolution. London, November 2015
9. “I don’t know what freedom is; yet I certainly know what lack of it means. Non-freedom is fear. Fear to accept yourself, fear not to be accepted by others (and I’m not certain which fear is greater). According to this you get the fear to touch whom you desire, fear to say what you think, fear to do what you want. Fear that paralyses you, enters your dreams and eats your soul.”
– Vladimir Shcherban is an original partner of Belarus Free Theatre and joined the company shortly after it was founded in 2005
10. “There are many inhibitions placed in front of being free in the theatre, some by others and some by ourselves. It is our privilege and our right and our duty, to burst through those and to say in the face of the many who will always say ‘why?’, a resounding and free ‘why not?’”
– Dominic Dromgoole is Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe where, in 2012, Belarus Free Theatre performed King Lear
11. “Without freedom everything changes to some extent, yet at the same time nothing changes at all. Freedom is something that each individual can obtain only by himself and then he has to decide what to do with it.”
– Yuliya Shauchuk is a member of Belarus Free Theatre’s permanent ensemble
12. “The most widely sought freedom is freedom from doubt, which is why such huge numbers have accepted obedience to an authority that tells them what to believe.”
– Theodore Zeldin’s books include A History of French Passions, An Intimate History of Humanity and The Hidden Pleasures of Life
13. “It is up to you to use your freedom to fight for something better than this. The cavalry are not coming; there is no rescuing knight. Only you. Now. Being alive before you die. Only you.”
– Jamie Kelsey-Fry is a UK teacher, writer and activist
Staging a revolution in London
During the two-week Staging a Revolution festival, Belarus Free Theatre presents a programme of some of the company’s most acclaimed original productions, reinvigorated classics and the world premiere of its brand-new work, Time of Women.
Following each performance, a curated panel of experts – including artists, campaigners, journalists and activists – discuss an area related to each taboo topic and generate fresh ideas around taking up action. It is an approach drawn directly from Belarus Free Theatre’s work in Minsk, where the space for free exchange of ideas and open debate is as valuable as the space in which to see independent theatre.
Staging a Revolution continues until 14 November 2015. During the first week to 8 November, performances take place at undisclosed locations around the city of London. For the second week (9-14 November), the company returns “home” to the Young Vic theatre. All performances and discussions are also live-streamed care of the Ministry of Counterculture.
For the full Staging a Revolution programme, visit www.belarusfreetheatre.com.