Premiere in Forest (Free theater), Belarus 2008, Radka Rubilina
A friend have promised us a premiere of a new play by a ‘prohibited’ (underground) theatre performed in some family house somewhere on the periphery. By the time we took a bus and got to the assigned meeting spot, we were already late for more than a half an hour. The friend was gone. Though he called us at six thirty the next morning that the yesterday’s premiere was dismissed by a special police unit and that the entire theater – both the actors and the audience – was arrested and transported to the nearest police station. But, all of them are out by now and so today’s premiere will happen – and that we should just follow the instructions.
We were squinting at the morning streets of Minsk. So this is Belorussia.
Why is the floor black?
“We all sat down and awaited the beginning of the play,” the next day a barely-rested director of the theatre, Natalie, recounted for us the events from the previous night, “then a French director Christian Benedetti who had practiced with our Belorussian actors a play by a British playwright Edward Bond called 11 Shirts came to the improvised stage. He told us a few words and wished to enjoy the show. Then lights went off. When the reflectors got back on again, there was a member of the special police unit OMON standing on the stage, all in black and with a gun. The audience started to laugh, but only I, actors, and a director knew that this opening act does not belong in to the play… I got nervous. But, when this mystery person pronounced his first two sentences, I had to laugh with others as well. The policeman on the stage actually said: “What is happening here?” And after a while: “Why is the floor black?”
We have nowhere to perform
The theater Natalia has established together with a theatre director Nikolaj has name Free (Belaruski svabodny teatr). It is comprised of actors that have been, one after another, kicked out of the state-run theatres. The theatre group has been performing for two years already but it still deals with one, a very same question: Where to perform? After the Free Theatre’s performances in some coffee houses and restaurants these were commanded, by someone, to close down; when the Theatre started performing on streets, there came the police immediately and dismissed the play. Therefore, the only solution left to them is to host so called kvartirniki – that is, a home-based performance during which the actors perform in the biggest room of the apartment or house, or possibly in a garden. The audience is typically made out of friends of some other friends, acquaintances. In Belorussia to attend such kvartirnik, it is considered as a great experience, because it is not always easy to gather all the necessary details regarding the performance whereabouts. After all, we had a chance to experience this ourselves.
The police had thwarted the premiere of the 11 Shirts in an empty house on the periphery. During this private show, the police arrested and transported to the nearest police station 60 persons. “Such interrupted premiere is nothing new in Belorussia,” we were explained by a historian of art Maxim Zbanov on some flowery meadow near Minsk a day later, “Belorussian art has been for a longtime already split up between official and unofficial. Here lists of prohibited musicians also exist; with one phone call it is possible to cancel concerts, performances, close coffee houses. Many artists are not allowed to near exhibition halls…”
We managed to attend the new premiere of the play after all though in a very conspiratorial manner. Meanwhile, the next day, our friend would several times confirm and then call off the entire action. It emerged that the audience bus will not run because the French embassy got an unofficial warning from the Belorussian police: in case the Free Theatre would organize a transportation for the audience, all the passengers would be arrested during the transit. Therefore, the theatre management decided not to threaten the freedom of the attendees. Before the noon, we met - by a coincidence – one unnamed representative of a diplomatic mission in Belorussia and as we talked he simply mentioned that he plans to attend the premiere in his car; and he would not mind to take us. We agreed and later in the afternoon covered by a diplomatic license plate we headed about forty miles away from Minsk, toward a village house in a middle of a forest where the performance would happen. When we got off the main road, moving forward very slowly on an unmarked pathway, we saw a local man and asked him if we were heading in the right direction. “Yeah, sure,” he said, “just continue going straight, and then make a turn where the police car is parked.” From this we figured out that we are already expected.
In front of the police crowd, blocking the turn toward the village house, a black car was making a sharp turn. We stopped and waited until the car got near to us. In the car was Aljaksandr Milinkevič – an opposition candidate for a president of Belorussia in the 2006 election. “Do you know what they have told us?” he said. We shook our heads. “The pathway toward the village house is covered with mines and so they cannot let us go there!” This explanation caused bursts of hilarity in everyone. The most entertained by this news was Mr. Diplomat. He even picked another passenger-girl, a Belorussian student that was dropped here by someone, who, after seeing the police, immediately left again. Then, he said something about us experiencing the “diplomatic taxi” now and drove toward the police crowd. The police members while looking at the diplomatic card got obviously nervous; after a short moment of hesitation they let our car pass through. Diplomats do not get hurt by the mines, probably. Behind us, another tree cars drove through and the police members gave up their patrolling on that turning point. We made it.
The entrepreneurial baroque style on forest periphery
The house by which we have parked reminded an old village building placed on the edge of a forest, however all redone in the entrepreneurial baroque style. The house entrance was created by vaults and columns, the walls decorated by artificial plants. The remodeling stage was not completed yet, because the intended balcony was still replaced by a highly iffy construction made out of wooden desks. We were somewhat surprised when all the visitors started congratulating to the “groom and bride” at the doorstep. “It is because of neighbors,” Natalie whispered between hugging the “newlyweds”. “We announced it as a wedding party.” And on the backyard, in front of a garden shack, a black cloth was being spread, represented the stage. After a half an hour, the backyard was filled with 50 people. In front of the entrance gate, though, the Moskvič-car stopped rapidly and two police members got out, one police woman and one secret agent with a bull-like neck. “We are celebrating here, a wedding, you know?” They got greeted by everyone in a chorus-like mode. The police members looked terrified by the drinking and smiling individuals and then asked everyone to show their ID or passport due to a register procedure required for all attendees to this wedding. “You know me even without my ID,” Mr. Milinkevič told the police reps and they left him alone. Meanwhile two of us - some accidental participants from the Czech Republic - were walking from the house to the garden around an emptied pool and toward the stage and then around an artificially-built pound for newts back again, and so lucky for us we by-passed the evidence procedure.
“So what anti-government acts do you show that the police is after you all the time?” I asked Natalie after all those obstructions. “Do you urge others to bring down the president of Belorussia or what?” “Not at all,” Natalie answered, “our project is of a cultural-social nature; we have selected some Belorussia’s social taboos and we portray them in our plays. We call it “current art”. This method is based on re-telling our personal history or memories. We try to react on what is happening in our society, among the people.” “And what sort of taboos do you have in Belorussia?” I was interested. “Well, we have counted once and 21 themes emerged. Taboo is almost everything here. Sex and WWII, religion, catastrophe in Chernobyl, political prisoners, disgraceful aging, etc. About all this one cannot speak, write, or perform here.” Natalie nodded sadly. “We are preparing a series of performances about all those themes, it will be titled Zone of Silence. I regret, though, that its premiere will have to be abroad, in April 2008, during a theatre festival in Thessaloniki. Here it might end up same like yesterday…:
Kalashnikov full of vodka
The beginning of the performance was identical with the one that happened day before. The French director entered the stage, said a few words, and wished all of us enjoyable moments at the play. Then, there was some short period of silence, after which one of the actors jumped on the stage and handed to the French director a bottle of vodka shaped as the Kalashnikov – to remind him the first, thwarted premiere. And after that the play 11 Shirts could start. We sat on benches and on yoga mats, as the sunset was slowly entering upon us, and watched two plays over the course of three hours. No police team showed up anymore and so nothing, except the sunset, was distracting us. Only in about the tenth minute of the play, we noticed a wild pantomime made by one of the actors behind the stage, really in a door of a garden shack. With his fingers, he gestured something like glasses on eyes, while turning them back and forth. I thought for a while about what does it mean, but then I peaked toward the forest behind the shack and I got it. There in bushes our familiar policemen were hiding and recording everything on a camera. Above them, sitting on a high tree throne, their chief was giving orders quietly, only with his hands.
Though, nobody from the policemen however showed up anymore and interrupted the play; not even during the real Russian sauna, in which the actors and the audience sat together after the play, massively drinking vodka. Exactly at 10pm, music was silenced, the lights on the terrace were turned off, and the cars one after one started to move away quietly. “If anything would be happening here after 10pm,” explained to me an author of the most famous play of the Free Theatre, Jeans Generation, Nikolaj Chalezin, “they would get us for disrupting the night peace.” We waved hands and greeted each other through the car window, took the diplomatic taxi back to Minsk, and in the car a Belorussian director of the theatre, Vladimir Ščerbaň told me: “Last year, we have met with Mr. Havel. He advised us to look at all what is happening in Belorussia now with an irony. Almost all of us are taking it like that. Yesterday, when the police came to arrest us, everyone on the stage as well as in the audience smiled on them. I think that such reaction is the proper one.”