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Free Theatre of Minsk: onstage resistance

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The Belarusian independent theatre company uses black humour and underground performances to protest against 'Europe's last dictatorship'

In Belarus, freelance artists show up in private apartments, in underground bars or in the forest. No need for a box office - the audience is informed by SMS text message or blog posts. The Free Theatre of Minsk troupe (or MFT to its fans), brings together seventeen professional actors and dramatists who also work for the Yanka Kupala Drama Theatre (state theatre). Deprived of official representation at home, they have been welcomed at numerous festivals in the West, and sponsored by the British playwright Tom Stoppard as well as the former Czech president and fellow playwright Václav Havel.

Artistic Chernobyl

Since its creation in March 2004, in a Belarus asphyxiated by twelve years of president Lukashenko's dictatorship, the MFT cultivates creativity and resourcefulness on the underground scene. In a country where creativity in general is in freefall - and some are even comparing the local cultural and artistic scene to a 'Chernobyl 2' - the MFT is something of an anomaly.

The repertoire is imaginative and yet subversive, ranging from foreign adaptations to original creations. It puts onstage young people from the suburbs, stories of sex and drugs and the aspirations of the 'Generation Jeans', who are too accustomed to freedom for the liking of the authorities. With 'Being Harold Pinter' or 'Belliwood', the MFT is a long way from Lukashenko's artistic conception: the development of the 'mental health of Belarusians'. Rather, their objective is to awaken consciousness.

Calm before the storm

One couple stand at the roots of this collective, today considered the symbol of Belarusian counter culture. Nicolas Khalezine, 42, a former journalist-turned-playwright and Natalia Koliada, 33, consider themselves strong opponents to the current regime. 'In March 2006, the assembly of several thousand peaceful demonstrators on the capital's main square (October Square) on the eve of Lukashenko's re-election, despite KGB threats, gave the feeling of a Belarusian pride, of a strong nation with a fervent desire for change,' believes Koliada.

One year later, the situation has worsened. The Lukashenko stranglehold has tightened even more with the outlawing of dissident media, multiplication of political imprisonments and blanket propaganda. Opposition associations have been dismantled, the mechanisms of political resistance jammed. In spite of economic difficulties, an important part of the future of Belarusian creativity is today being played out underground.

Rock groups are flourishing; the Belarusian language has become a rallying symbol and the Free Theatre the new spearhead of this dissident avant-garde. It's a bohemian resistance which could be a sign of a new era to come. As Khalezine is keen to predict, 'today's Belarus is the calm before the storm.'

Three questions for Vladimir Scherban, 32, MFT director

What are the Free Theatre of Minsk's aspirations?

The main subject of our plays is the question: who are we, us Belarusians today? It's a question which the official theatre is obviously not concerned with. We are at the heart of a conflict between the Soviet type aesthetic and all the other forms of creativity which are not tolerated by the regime.

It is time to understand why we Belarusians have found ourselves in such a situation. We have to stare ourselves in the face. Theatre without political goals adds nothing of value. That remains the triumph of middle class art. What we demand is liberty of expression.

Where is MFT's place on the European theatrical scene?

Belarus is completely isolated from the rest of the world. Promoting our productions and inserting them into the European context is both necessary and indispensable. Our tours abroad are a means of overcoming the censorship that we are victims of at home. The set that we use has become one of the only free spaces for promoting Belarusian culture. We recruit writers by means of competitions, all under 30. Some of them are starting to become very well-known in Russia.

What is the relationship between the MFT and its public?</</em>

We want to make the spectator more active. For a part of our public, rather than a mode of expression, the Free Theatre has become a way of existence and of life. We have cultivated a telepathic relationship with our spectators who stay loyal to us, even it it's become more and more difficult to find places to perform. The theatre must be democratic and accessible to the greatest number of people. Even if people have difficulty in grasping our style at first, now that they've got used to it, they demand that it be even more radical. We wanted to teach the actors and spectators to look each other in the eyes. If the spectator has become freer, then we have succeeded in our mission.

MFT is in residence at the Alfortville studio-theatre in Paris throughout May.

Saturday 26 May at 9pm, Saturday 2 June at 3pm: 'Generation Jeans'

From 29 May to 2 June 2007 at 9pm: 'Us identification. Belliwood'

See images from the shows

With the invaluable help of Youri Vavokhine

(Photo micro: Free Theatre flyer)

Translated from Théâtre Libre de Minsk : la résistance par les planches