Interview with Natalia Koliada, producer, Belarus Free Theatre, 17/1/09

I conducted this interview with Natalia Koliada during her company's visit to Sydney in January 2009, and it was used as the basis for a feature article in RealTime. I thought that the interview was quite fascinating (not least for the company's apparent focus on celebrity validation, and for the ineptitude of my interviewing technique), and so transcribed the whole thing. For more about Belarus Free Theatre, see here. Other articles about the company can be found here. Reviews from the Australian tour of Being Harold Pinter can be found here, here, here, and here.

This seems to have been a very successful tour for Belarus Free Theatre. So what kind of reception do you think you’ll have when you return home?

[interview begins but recorder has stopped]

[repeating from unrecorded discussion] All the actors have been fired from their other jobs…

Yes, this is one of the main that they’ve used before against us, so for example, if we go, it was our French tour, and there was a council of Minister of Culture on Free Theatre, and there was a decision to fire a few of our actors while we were touring in France. Then it happened last February in London, when two of our actresses they lost their jobs by backdate. So while performing in London… [recorder stops again]

So, ah, the last one it’s a case of my father who was fired from the Academy of the Arts, and one of our actresses. This is one of the ways that they show that there is oppression.

So it’s economic punishment?

It’s economic and they want to show us that they know about you, and they could stop us doing everything right away. So its important for the authorities to show that there is oppression. They do it very successfully, because for… it’s very complicated when you have family, when you have small children. When you get fired you cannot get any other job in our country. So what will happen next we don’t know. It depends on level of meetings here, because we still plan to meet with Cate Blanchet and to make this video appeal – it was done with Mick Jagger – so this the support we need for the whole country, not for us personally. But when we meet with such people, usually we get arrested.

Right, OK.

But we understand this. As I’ve said many times already, he have a very great teacher, who is Vaclav Havel, who told us we need to speak very loudly and openly in order to stop dictatorship. Otherwise we would just prolong this dictatorship. So this is what we’re trying to do, and we hope for the same level of support here in Australia as we got in the UK from the British actors and musicians. So we never know what can happen to us. We understand that you could lose job, you could lose education, you get beaten up, get arrested, go to jail, different types of repressions.

It’s like the torturer in… I’m not sure which play it is, it’s the one before Mountain Language…

New World Order

New World Order. The two torturers say, “he doesn’t know what we can do to him, or what we could do to his wife”. Or by extrapolation, what they could do to your family, or… take their jobs away. I mean the thing that’s quite beautiful about the Pinter that you guys use is the arbitrariness of power’s exercise – we’re going to exercise power because we can.

This is absolutely true, and when we read this piece New World Order, one of the recent plays of Harold Pinter, its like they do not do anything to him on the stage but there is an essence of violence in just words. Just two scary people. And this is what the Belarussian authorities do, they do a lot. They come to the point of torture when they kidnap and kill people, this is when we have in our country too. There are political enforced disappearances.

It’s very frightening to imagine in this context.

But it could… we never know when it comes to that point. For example, when we have the presidential elections I was walking with my husband every morning to walk our dog, because I had a hundred percent fear that I would never see him again. So it’s a constant feeling that we have. But we agreed silently that we need to stop [being] afraid of something, otherwise we would just stop work. ‘co if you in the fear of something all the time, you cannot change anything. Only if you are able to stop the fear inside of you, to overcross this line of fear.

In terms of the work the Free Theatre Belarus does, how do you begin making the work? For instance, something like Being Harold Pinter, though this is far from all that you do…

We were start with Belarussian plays. That was the main idea, to promote contemporary Belarussian plays. Everyone from official side says that there are no…

Ah! There are no plays! Prove them wrong.

And this is what we decided to do with my husband. He received royalties from Moscow for his play, and was called Here I am, and received many awards outside Belarus, but it is not possible to produce within Belarus because he the author is not recommended for production in Belarus. And it was not about politics, it was about life philosophy, how a person lives his life. But it is prohibited because of his name. And we started this theatre on his royalties. Then my brother started to help us from the States, because he has political asylum in the USA. And Vladimir Scherban, who is the director of Being Harold Pinter, he joined us in the month from the moment when we started. And it was 4.48 Psychosis of Sarah Kane…

I’d love to see what you guys did with that!

It’s a fantastic piece! Tom Stoppard said that this is the best Psychosis he ever saw. He saw many performances. He saw in Minsk underground in a small café, and one journalist from Time Magazine, he was at this performance too, he said “I didn’t believe that at 10 o’clock in the morning we would have 120 people in a small café, and Tom Stoppard is sitting in underground in Minsk watching Psychosis of Sarah Kane.” It was just amazing for everyone. So each topic you choose, it becomes prohibited. Whatever you choose, it’s not possible to talk [about]. It’s everything. We have like alternative system of education that we organise for young people, a small group because we teach only underground, and we discovered 16 taboo zones. It’s like you choose a topic and its prohibited, you cannot talk publicly on this issue. So we decided that we needed to explore it every time, one of the taboo zones. If it’s possible, we do many explores at once. For example, we have performance, its called Discover Love. Its about our friend love story, and she is the godmother of our younger daughter, and her husband was a businessman who supported opposition, and he was kidnapped and killed together with his friend who was vice-speaker of the parliament.

Then Zone of Silence, it’s a trilogy that we created especially for the European Theatre Prize – we got a special mention last April. It’s… Zone of Silence is Belarus. That’s why we came [up] with this name. We started with personal stories of our actors. They tell what happened in their childhood. And then… Its called Legends of Childhood. The second part is called Labours. The actors received a technical assignment to go to the city and find people from normal lives. And the last part is Numbers, Belarus in numbers without any words. So its… and Discover Love was done in support of European Convention Against Enforced Disappearances. So we started the big global campaign in support of this convention. So it’s a lot. We try to choose all these topics. As for Being Harold Pinter, I believe you already read it, because it’s the same story everywhere. So, it was the advice of Tom Stoppard, and it just took a while for us to get all those translations. But of course when we read it we understood that he [Pinter] understands us better than many people who live in Belarus. So it was absolutely direct contact, and besides we got his support when we started to write [to] him and ask him for author’s rights, as we did with Simon Kane, who is the brother of Sarah Kane. So we receive all of these permissions all of the time. So I don’t know what to tell you… Probably, you just ask me what you’re interested in, because…

I guess I’m interested in… I liked hearing about the kind of starting points for some of your other works other than this. So I guess I’m, what I’m interested in how do you approach – so you choose a topic that’s forbidden, that can’t be spoken about. How do you then begin working on it? I know you were talking about giving the actors an assignment to find particular kinds of stories of normal people, but I’m just interested in the kind of aesthetic strategies you have.

This is absolutely the main point for us, because when we organise the theatre, we decided that it should be aesthetic opposition first of all. If we have a high standard of aesthetic opposition then we have, we could change aesthetically a society, and when we have such an artistic product then we could attract more attention for political changes, if we have an artistic voice. So this was the main aim for us. As for performances, all of them done absolutely different ways, but mostly actors need to show their ideas and their thoughts on pieces that they receive. So for example if they read plays, they should present the ideas. Its very important work of actor, because we don’t have a lot of scenery or costumes, so we decided that we needed the main impact from actors, if that’s correct to say. So for rehearsals – Being Harold Pinter was rehearsed in ten apartments, just move from one place to another. For example, Generation Jeans performance that we just presented at the house of Vaclav Havel in Prague. It was already the second time when we presented at his house in Czech Republic. It’s about transformation from Soviet Union time when jeans and rock music were prohibited, so it’s prohibited now in our country. We hope if there is a revolution, it will be a denim revolution, so if young people wear jeans and jeans jacket –

[Points out that both of us are wearing denim jeans and jackets] We’re matching!

Yeah! They get arrested and go to jail, if it’s before the election campaign.

Wow, that’s interesting, because Tom Stoppard recently did his play Rock’n’Roll, which was about…

It was the most interesting. He came to us and he asked Nikolai, who is my husband, he said “what are you writing now?” And he said, “I’m writing Generation Jeans.” And Tom Stoppard said, “I just finished Rock’n’Roll.” And they started to share what they wrote, and it was the same idea. It was music, jeans, and Czech Republic. Because in Generation Jeans, Jan Palach, the Czech student who burnt himself in the main square against the Soviet tanks, so he is a legendary person in Czech Republic, for Czechs and Slovaks. So when they shared ideas, Stoppard said, “now I understand why I am here.” So it was the same thoughts at the same time.

Absolutely. So this Generation Jeans performance, it was only rehearsed in my husband’s mind. It was not possible to find facility for this performance. It’s a monologue – it’s called a monologue for two, monologue for actor and DJ. So it’s a strange genre, but… And we have a DJ onstage with Nikolai performing, and everything depends on the music. So its like dialogue between music and words and, so it’s one of our most famous performances. Generation Jeans and Being Harold Pinter. Zone of Silence and Discover Love, these are two recent performances. The new piece is, its called Eurepica – that’s Europe and epic, one word. Eurepica. This is our own word that we made up. Eurpica dark challenge. So the idea is make new European epic. It will not be nice. At all.

No it certainly hasn’t been a very good century for Europe!

We believe that besides problems with our governments we will shake other European governments. So we invited 14 playwrights from all over Europe, besides Russia, Turkey, the USA as an influential neighbour, and Belarus as the last dictatorship in Europe. So they write, all these playwrights, they write on the main challenge of his/her country. So it’s a new European epic with original music that is written by, like a neo-classic [composer], his name is Sergei Netsky, he lives in Germany. And it was an attempt to write a new European anthem. So what will happen in the end, we don’t know but we understand that… we hope to give a push for Europeans to think about themselves, because they do not know about each other at all, as it’s appeared to us when we started to travel. It looks like everything is happening inside the borders of each country, not for the whole Union. And when there are such problems as Belarus – this is, we think that this is the main challenge for Europe because for the first time in the European continent history, this continent could become free from dictators. For the first time in the whole European history! Because for today there are only two continents that are free from dictators – Australia and North America. This is it. So Europe is still under dictatorship, which is our dictatorship. So is what we want to say, and we want people to think. And, actors they present again all their ideas on the plays. Many, many, many ideas. And then if our director Vladimir Scherban, who is directing this performance, and we are, Nikolai and me who created this conception and idea, we need to find the piece that could be developed. And of course the main role on directing is Vladimir’s, merging all of it.

A lot the work seems to be very much about the very specific bodies of the actors and their voices. So, when you talk about the actor’s ideas, that would seem very much… I mean the thing I like about this work in the terms of this Festival; the kind of antithesis of this work in the Festival is kind of Robert Lepage’s Lipsynch. Now all the ideas there are about objects. We have an idea, and we’ll build something very expensive, and we’ll use it. And there seems to be, at least this was my experience of the work, there seems to be a real paucity of ideas. There was an attempt to use technology as a way of kind of dealing with a lack of ideas. I since saw the show today for the second time, which was good because I didn’t have to watch the subtitles so much. Your work seems to focus very much on the immediacy of the actors’ bodies, their voices, their relationships in space with each other and their proximity to an audience…

This is the main. This is the main thing for Vladimir as the director of the performance, and Nikolai and me as producers. I wish you could come to us, because then you would understand all of it, because actors are the main. The connection with the audience, this is another side, the main side of it. So the actors – it’s one coin, actors and audience. Both sides of it. We don’t have light, so we have just one lamp like this at our house that we rent for rehearsals, and sometimes we don’t like to make it that we should use it for performances. There is a small wall with a broken part between two rooms, some part for audiences, some part for actors. So it’s direct connection all the time. So when we started to travel our work, the actors said they don’t see the eyes of spectators. “It’s so complicated for us, they don’t have this communication with us”. I mean we just said, “Probably you will like performing in real circumstances”. So it’s difficult for them to get used to real theatre light. This is very important for us to have this communication. This is hundred percent communication and contact with spectators. And actors they are the main, we just don’t have… And I think even if you have better conditions it’s interesting to continue by working through the actors. I mean, we love all the technology. We love Robert Lepage, but we will continue by working with actors. We met with Robert Lepage one year ago in Thessaloniki, and he received this European Theatre Prize, and we invited him to come to us, but his schedule is very overloaded I believe. And he said: “To me, it would be very interesting to come and work underground because it would make my environment wider.” So it’s very to good to hear this for us, because not many people are saying that to work underground is opening in some way.

Sometimes restrictions actually force you to be more creative in order to find solutions, and you seem to have many restrictions!

It seems very often… we have meetings with our journalists from all over the old and they say, “You know, when you are old, won’t this be one of your best memories?” And I say, “I dream of the time will come, and it will be my best dream.” I mean, we are so tired with so many situation of political stress that we have in my country I’m not sure that we will get to old years.

Well I hope that you do. I feel like I could talk for a long time, but I’ll just ask one more question.

Ask as many as you want.

Well, you guys have got to have a break! You set up the Belarus Free Theatre to work against the dictatorship in Belarus. What would happen if your work, and the work of other activist, and other pro-democracy activists around the world and within Belarus – what happens…

What happens next?

What happens next? If the President is forced out of power and a real democracy takes the place of that regime, what would happen for Belarus Free Theatre?

First of all, all the presidential candidates, they are our friends… very good ones…

So, a ministerial post?

So I’m sure we will have a fantastic theatre in the centre of Minsk.


And the time will come when we will organise the Minsk Festival, and we will bring the best examples of world theatre to Belarus and start to educate the Belarusian people on the world theatre, because people are hundred percent isolated. They don’t know what’s happening in the world. From our side we try to do it by performing world plays, and there are many people who write to us and want to bring their performances underground and show audience. But it’s small audience. Even if we perform very often we cannot make it for the whole of Belarus because very often we are restricted. So we are waiting for this time when democracy will come. Hopefully all of us will be alive when this time will come…

Alive and not too old!

And not too old, yeah. So we know it will be another start up. And we know that each country needs Free Theatre. Even if we move somewhere else before we get older! So I believe even very stable and democratically open society needs such a theatre as Free Theatre. We are ready to go and work in different societies. For example, now we’ve doing our first documentary about arts and politics. It will be called It Lasts. So we start from our situation, this is the last dictatorship, but ‘it lasts’, so it continues. It means that we want to go to Zimbabwe and Burma and meet with artists who are doing this sort of, like Cuba, who try to make their artistic jobs in their environments. And from another side we started to record interviews like Vaclev Havel, with Tom Stoppard, with Mick Jagger, hopefully we will get some Australian people who will help us with this, so we want to show the strength, and we want to make it for artists, by artists. And we want to show that only art will change the world for better.

[…] And have you had some good dialogues with local artists, with local audiences?

We haven’t really had the chance… we really want to do the same stuff we did in London, when all the British... I don’t know if you know this, but we did this really fantastic gala event in London. It was presented by Harold Pinter. I showed this video on the first night.

Yes, I remember seeing it.

And at the last part of the performance, when the actors read political letters from political prisoners, our actors exchange with the British actors. And the British actors were reading all these letters from Belarusian political prisoners. Alan Rickman, Kim Cattrall, Diane Rigg, Richard Wilson, Henry Wolf… so it was just a list of them. And absolutely, it gave to our actors one year of life, because they, they got such support. And as for the whole Belarus, all the actors they made video appeal, saying lonely Belarus in Belarusian language, and send in support letters, like Belarus should be free and democratic, and we should continue the fight and we’re with you. We put it on internet site in Belarus, as we did with interview with Jagger and Tom Stoppard and Vaclev Havel and Harold Pinter before. And internet site, servers just collapse, because people were downloading this information and sending to each other and saying if we have such a support, we could continue our fight. So we do want to get in contact – I don’t from the list of those people we have from the Sydney Festival, we see Cate Blanchet and we hope to contact her. We know that there are many Australian great actors, but we don’t know how to contact them, like Nicole Kidman, Russel Crowe. But I believe its not a… so we just don’t know how to get to them.

If you get to Cate, she might be able to tell you how to get to the other ones.

Yeah, yeah, like Nick Cave. Unfortunately we have to leave tomorrow, because we know if we went to the island we would get him. So we need these video appeals which support not the theatre, but the people in Belarus.


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