There is still dictatorship in Europe. Protestors are beaten in the streets. Artists and activists are tortured in prison. An iron-fisted strong man rigs elections and crushes all opposition. This is not a setup for a dystopian film. This is Belarus 2017.
But there is a resistance. A theater company in exile devotes themselves to freeing Belarus. Their art raises awareness abroad for their country’s plight. Their actors at home work in secret to prevent kidnap and imprisonment. They are Belarus Free Theatre.
And they have come to the United States.
Not to get asylum. Not to seek aid. But to deliver a message: They are not alone. This is not just happening in Belarus.
That message is Burning Doors. The play depicts the brutal details of torture of Russian artists, relived by those who have first hand experience. More stems from contact with those close to captives. It shows the unbreakable human spirit within those artists. It shows how art can be a tool of resistance against a regime that would exact that kind of pain.
One of these artists is Natalia Kaliada, a Founding Artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre. She has been leading a cross-country tour of Burning Doors throughout the United States. The tour will land in the DC area this weekend. Ms. Kaliad agreed to an interview to share insight into their process, the deadly stakes of their play, and what they hope to inspire with their United States tour. The interview is reported verbatim.
Why should people come to see Burning Doors?
Natalia Kaliada: We’re here to share one of the most beautiful, and yet harsh, theater pieces. Share the lives of real people, real artists, who decided to challenge a system. Our actors put their bodies on the front line to challenge that system. This is a moment where our actors, who work underground in Belarus, who understand what oppression is, they share stories of people who can’t share.
What makes theater the best tool to tell these stories?
NK: We are there. Onstage. We are alive. Our audience is also there. We can touch each other. But we don’t say that we are the theatermakers and they are the audience. We are all individuals and this is merely the method of our conversation.
So how do you negotiate the line between the necessary fictions of the theater and those real stories you’re telling?
NK: First of all, we try to never have limits on the theatrical language of what we create. It’s the most interesting and most challenging part of how we create. When we start to create a show, we have no idea what will come out of that. For Burning Doors, the initial idea was absolutely a different one [from what it became]. The initial idea was to talk about how the U.S. negotiated the Ukrainian situation with Russia in Belarus, knowing that this is the last dictatorship in Europe, knowing that the bodies of the political opponents of the regime are still not found from when they were kidnapped and killed, knowing that those who did that are still in power. It was a huge question: how democratic leaders can negotiate so-called peace in a dictatorship.
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But that idea evolved into talking about artists because that became our experience for us, for our audiences in our part of the world. Our actors have been jailed.The Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was arrested. In that time, Petr Pavelnsky [whose immolation of the door of the Russian Secret Police, the FSB, inspired the name of the play] was arrested. Masha Alyokhina [of the Moscow-based art protest collective Pussy Riot] said she wanted to work with us.
So we had pieces of a puzzle. But their stories are so different. It was a long process to connect those pieces. We spent a long time talking to Masha, not to understand, not to share, but for her to discover what she had not previously shared. Everyone knew her story of her jail time; she gave thousands of interviews. We are not interested in that part. We have been in jail. Our friends have been in jail. We know that story. We needed to find out who she is. That was a challenging process: emotionally, intellectually, and eventually physically. But in those details, in those small steps, we create what we want to share.
It was the same with Petr Pavelensky and Oleg Sentsov. We talked with [Pavelensky’s] partner when she came to London, trying to find out who he is. We’ve come to understand that there are none of us who are heroes or victims. We are just human beings who are very complex, as are other humans. The difference is that we pit our bodies against the authorities.
With Oleg Sentsov, we talked with his family. We talked about him raising his two children as a single father, which is hard anywhere, but we came to understand that in that part of the world [Crimea] it is especially hard. We came to understand the kind of personality that takes. The kind of deep personality. And based on records, we came to understand the kind of tortures that he suffered. He managed to smuggle two letters out of the jail in the last three years. In those letters, you think “wow, he is in the worst jail in Russia,” but he keeps saying he “has no doubts of success. There will be victory. Don’t worry about me. I’m ready to be the last nail in the coffin of a dictatorship.” It shows how strong he is morally. He’s incredibly strong, to overcome those tortures. He gives everything he has, his body.
Our leading director, my husband Nicolai Khalezin connected these three stories with two classics: Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot in a monologue of a character who believes he is about to be executed and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish where he talks about the only tool that a government or system uses against a human being is that human being’s body. Bringing pain. Before, the idea was that a person had to be executed publicly for everyone to fear being punished the same way. But our systems have moved torture and execution inside our jails. The psychology of a person works a different way when they imagine what is happening.
It sounds more complex than it is. Burning Doors is the personal stories of three artists, persecuted in Russia. Their stories are linked through deconstructed text.
What’s it like to do this play in Donald Trump’s America?
NK: I’m deeply concerned, and disappointed in people’s reactions. We were here in January during the immigration issue. There was a reaction then. But now, having been in Seattle and even in New York, I often hear people say, “We need to move on. Yes, I understand horrible things happen every day, but we need to move on because life didn’t stop.” For me, who comes from a country run by a dictator, I really can’t accept that position.
This is exactly the moment when it is the beginning of the end. The moment you allow small, small, very tiny freedoms to be taken from you. When nobody reacts or even if there is a reaction, that reaction doesn’t last. This is a country that is based on democracy. This is the country that fought so hard for many human rights. And now, to allow those rights to be taken from you, I can’t accept that. That’s my personal reaction.
In terms of Burning Doors, we created this show last August, more than a year ago, just after Brexit, just before the U.S. elections. We knew it would be a disaster. Talking to people in both places, they thought that it would all just pass away. Just go. It can’t stay. No one believed that it happened, that it would continue to happen. That it would have an impact for the whole world. But now it is happening. Very actively happening.
You know, when we came to the U.S. seven years ago, everyone was saying “stay here, take asylum here.” They said the same thing in the UK. Come to our country. I come from a family…my grandfather was in Stalin’s gulag, so it’s family tradition to resist. But over the years, I knew that whatever happens…if I understand if there is no other way out for my family, I know there is a way out that we have friends in the U.S. and the UK. But if the same thing happened now, the most scary thought is that we have no place to go. That there is no place where people are fighting back for their freedoms. I understand that I am a refugee.
I always hear in the U.S. and the UK and even Australia when we perform, and not just Burning Doors, that this work is relevant to people. I wish it wasn’t.
What action do you hope to inspire with Burning Doors?
This is what we’ve been saying in Belarus for, unfortunately, the past 24 years: any system of control should be afraid of people who think.
In reality, I hope there will be great art made. And that it will be funded. This is the key point. Everything about art in the U.S. has become very safe. People have become spoonfed. I’m not saying there aren’t artists who challenge society, there are many. But the problem is that they are marginalized. They are not funded.
This country gave so much to the world, underground music, unique political art. Get back to it. Get back to your roots. Get back to the history of art in your country. And if it is possible, if it still possible to find people who are not afraid to fund that art, that would be an achievement.