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Struggle over Identity

Nelly Bekus

Part VI. Cultural Manifestation versus Social Reification

Chapter 25. The “Free Theater” or the Alternative Belarusianness on Stage

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1Another example of the alternative Belarusianness’ actualization is Svobodnyi Teatr (the Free Theater).1 It was conceived as an alternative drama troupe to the official Belarusian theatrical establishment. The main reason of such opposition was the aspiration to stage new plays dealing with topical issues of contemporary Belarusian life, which Belarus’s state theaters refuse to do. The Free Theater was founded in March 2005 when the playwright Nikolai Khalezin, together with Natalia Koliada, launched a playwright competition. It has attracted 231 plays by 123 writers from nine countries, including 30 Belarusian playwrights. The main award was given to the Russian dramatist Viacheslav Durnenkov; however, the most important achievement of the competition was the discovery of a new generation of young Belarusian playwrights. Since then, one of the spheres of the Free Theater activity is a series of master classes for local playwrights led by distinguished professionals from abroad (playwrights, directors, critics). Workshops and performances usually take place in private apartments, bars, cafes, and clubs, often outside the city, because none of the official institutions want to take the risk of hosting them. Tom Stoppard2 described his exotic experience of a master class for playwrights after he returned to the United Kingdom. “My seminar was bussed an hour into the countryside to a repro ‘traditional village.’ So, in a setting of an old-world farm buildings, a working smithy, a pottery and a museumful of costumes and artefacts, we sat down to talk about making theatre.”3

  • 4 Karty i byrlo v dva stvola references Guy Ritchie’s movie, Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.
  • 5 “Verbatim theater” is a phrase used to describe a type of play written using only the precise word (...)

2The group premiered with 4.48 Psychosis, a play by British playwright Sarah Kane that deals with depression and suicide. Their next performance was We. Self-Identification, seen as one of the most politically-charged plays staged at the theater. The theater announced a competition inviting mini-plays that reflect Belarusians’ cultural self-awareness. Several plays were combined for a final version that was directed by Vladimir Shcher ban: the parabolic play A Friend or a Sister for a Dead Man by Kon s tan tin Steshik, a psychedelic monologue by Pavel Priazhko Mother land N2, and a dark comedy Matter of Principle by Pavel Rossolko. The idea of the whole project was best represented in Karty i byrlo w dva stvola4 by Pavel Rossolko written using the verbatim technique.5 It is based on trivial conversations recorded by the author on the construction site of the National Library in Minsk—a construction project supervised by the Belarusian government. Its construction was declared to be a national “grand-project” and, when built, became a national achievement, a symbolic representation of the Belarusian “success story.” One of the authors spent several months working as a construction worker with a dictaphone in his uniform pocket. For the play the author put together real dialogues of construction workers, who drink, philosophize, and swear; they did not talk about politics, but their attitude toward the work they were doing, with all its cynicism and indifference, became highly political in this context. Director Vladimir Shcherban, commented on the harsh style of the performance: “Everyone wants the fair talk. Even if it is artistic overshoot, but it will have no conventionality. Today, when people have the Internet at their disposal, there is no need to speak in allegories.”

Scene from We. Self-Identification.


Poster We. Self-Identification.


4The conditions under which the performances of We. Self-Identification take place impose some limitations on them. As Andrei Kureichik writes, each performance acquires specific features of “apartment stage-directing,” which takes into account the small space, closeness to the spectators (so the speeches are addressed directly to the audience), and does not allow any complicated stage settings.6 Scenography in the performance is nearly absent. Everyday noises and songs replace the musical background. The four actors dressed in black dungarees and orange safety helmets perform in all parts of the play. The performance displays how the working class, the lowdown of the Belarusian people comes through at the work places, in family life, and in philosophic reasoning. It shows the “other side” of the national grand project, and the attitude real Belarusians have toward it.

Scene from Jeans Generation.


  • 7 Claire Bigg, “Belarus: Underground Troupe Brings Cutting-Edge Theater to Moscow,” RFE/RL, February (...)

6In the final scene the actors recite texts about slavery by Socrates and Aleksei Losev, a prominent Russian philosopher who was sent to labor camps for rejecting Marxism. In an interview with Radio Free Europe Khalezin describes the play as a “contemporary vision of slavery.” One passage from the play reads: “In a sense, the slave looking after his master is freer than the latter, because he has the option of running away from him. The master, however, cannot hide from himself.”7

7By 2007 the Free Theater has had seven plays in its repertoire. The third premiere was the performance The Technique of Breathing in the Vacuum, by a Russian playwright Natalya Moshina, which tells the story of a girl with cancer. Then there was a one-man production The Jeans Generation by Khalezin. It is a two-hour monologue about childhood in the 1970s and the blue trousers, which are very uncomfortable to wear while one is in prison.

8“Jeans” acquired a particular meaning when following the “rose” and “orange” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine the Belarusian revolution to be was called a “blue jeans” one. The main topic of this play is freedom in all possible meanings. The play starts with the main character sharing his memories about the Soviet times, when jeans could only be bought illegally, but those who wanted them could find a way and buy the desirable pair. The first part of the performance reminds the viewers of a nostalgic anecdote, funny and touching at the same time. But then the actor moves on to different stories of present-day Belarus, about his arrests, and how one can be taken into custody for an innocent attempt to disagree with the government. It is about his real experience of being arrested and judged without a defense attorney, and detainment in an overcrowded prison cell. At the end of the performance everyone gets a little piece of jeans as a symbol of freedom.

9Another performances—Being Harold Pinter—was based on a play by Harold Pinter and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. It is a ninety-minute show in which seven young actors display a gradual destruction of a human personality. It shows that a simple lack of mutual understanding within a family is not far from cruelty in a couple’s relationship, and physical humiliation of an individual is not far from humiliation of a whole people. At one point during the performance the actors appear to be trapped inside a polythene sheet as if gasping for the oxygen of freedom. As a final masterstroke, the group incorporates transcripts from Belarusian political prisoners that are almost indivisible from the dramatized scenes. A combination of Harold Pinter’s ideas with the reality of present-day Belarus makes a way from today’s Belarus to Europe.

10The Free Theater has received a lot of international support. Among its patrons are Václav Havel, the renowned playwright and former Czech president, and Tom Stoppard, an acclaimed British playwright. The Nobel Prize winner British author Harold Pinter transferred the copyright for all his plays to the theater. The Free Theater participated in festivals in many countries—France, Germany, the United States, Great Britain, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia. It has performed on the stage of the Swedish Royal Theater, at Meno Fortas theater in Vilnius, and at Moscow’s Meyer hold Center, one of Russia’s most progressive theaters. In Belarus, the performances have taken place not only in Minsk but also in several smaller towns like Borisov and Mogilev. “To attend our performances, you need to find out a special phone number, call it, someone will write down your name, then you need to go to a place far from the city center, where you will be identified,” Khalezin describes the way to get to a performance. Despite such obstacles, between 2005 and 2007 more than 100 performances were given, visited by about 5,000 people.

11When the cofounder and playwright Khalezin says “we do not declare any political idea. The only thing we declare is freedom in art and the morality of those involved in the theater” he is both right and not. On the one hand, the Free Theater indeed does not proclaim any political issue as the main topic of its performances. On the other hand, the alternative approach to the Belarusian contemporary life and to the Belarusian identity in particular—such as in We. Self-identification—proves to be one of the most politicized subjects in today’s Belarus.

12Pavel Priazhko, the author of two plays staged by the Free Theater, explains the reason why his plays are accepted only by this theater: “Those who head state theaters still live in the Soviet Union, but I want to live in Europe, in a free country.”8 And he does not mean by this “moving from Belarus to Europe,” but rather, transforming Belarus into a European country. Performances of the Free Theater are reflections of the current Belarusian situation from the standpoint of a European Belarus to be. They install “European Belarus” into the context of the existing reality, paradoxically, by showing its dark sides—political prisoners, human rights violation, people’s unawareness of the problems, and political apathy. However, as one of the theater’s spectators, after the performance Being Ha rold Pinter noted, “the main paradox of the situation is that this kind of effervescent performances is addressed and presented to the auditorium that is already on ‘this side of barricades’ and has no need to be agitated and persuaded. As a result, the show turns out into a kind of psychological abreaction for people deprived of other ways of self-determination.” And this in fact is not only a paradox of the Free Theater activity but also the major problem of the alternative Belarusianness’ manifestation in general. The status of an underground theater and its performances located on the territory of a parallel Belarusian culture prevents their influence on Belarusians’ self-perception on a wider scale.



2 A British playwright and human rights activist.

3 Tom Stoppard, “Accidental Tyranny,” The Guardian, October 1, 2005,,12084,1581238,00.html.

4 Karty i byrlo v dva stvola references Guy Ritchie’s movie, Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.

5 “Verbatim theater” is a phrase used to describe a type of play written using only the precise words spoken by people interviewed about a particular event or topic. The playwright interviews people that are connected to the topic that the play is focused on and uses their testimony to construct the piece. This is used to achieve a degree of authority akin to that represented by the news.

6 A. Kureichik, “Pronas,” Belgazeta, October 31, 2005,

7 Claire Bigg, “Belarus: Underground Troupe Brings Cutting-Edge Theater to Moscow,” RFE/RL, February 3, 2006,

8 Anton Kashlikov, “Trusy po vsei kvartire,” Belgazeta, December 4, 2006,

Table des illustrations

Légende Scene from We. Self-Identification.
Fichier image/jpeg, 518k
Légende Poster We. Self-Identification.
Fichier image/jpeg, 487k
Légende Scene from Jeans Generation.
Fichier image/jpeg, 399k

© Central European University Press, 2010

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