ED2014 Interviews ED2014 Theatre ED2014 Week3 Edition

Vladimir Shcherban: Belarus Free Theatre

By | Published on Wednesday 20 August 2014

Belarus Free Theatre

Belarus Free Theatre is a bold arts organisation, established to present ideas and issues usually denied public debate by the Belarusian dictatorial regime. Performances in Belarus must be staged in secret, its performers risking persecution from the state, and its founders forced to relocate to London for their own safety. The company’s productions often tackle contentious and timely political issues, with their latest piece considering the treatment of the trans* community in the modern world.
And while ‘merry christmas Ms Meadows’ may have been initially inspired by the treatment of LGBTQIA people back in Belarus, the tragic death here in the UK of teacher Lucy Meadows – from whom the show’s title originates – proves that, whatever achievements have been made in countries like this, society still leaves trans* people feeling vulnerable. We spoke to BFT’s Vladimir Shcherban to find out more…

CC: What is the premise of ‘merry christmas Ms Meadows’? What made you decide to tackle this subject matter?
VS: The show is dedicated to one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups of people in society today – trans*. At Belarus Free Theatre we are always interested in exploring human rights, and the catastrophic situation in Belarus – with the prohibition of activism and protest, the arrest of activists and the closure of LGBTQIA social spaces – has inspired us to explore the problems experienced by LGBTQIA society.

We touched on this topic in our prize-winning show ‘Minsk 2011’, which explored sex and sexuality in Belarus and its capital Minsk. But as the situation became worse in Belarus for the LGBTQIA community, we made the decision to dedicate a whole show to this subject. We want to draw attention to these issues, and to take upon ourselves, in a way, the function of educator, to do what state education programmes are often failing to do.

As we began our research for this project – which was nameless at the time – the news of the tragic death in Lancashire of trans* primary teacher Lucy Meadows reached us. We followed the story in the media, and in doing so began to turn our attention to the situation worldwide; we realised that such sad events take place not just in dictatorships, but also in democratic states like the UK.

CC: The piece has been built on gender studies and observations from across the world. What form did the research take?
VS: In the course of our research for the show we met with different representatives of LGBTQIA communities, not just in Belarus but also in other countries: transgender people in Malaysia, drag performers in Thailand, sex-workers in Ghana, and others. Speaking to them heightened our awareness of the extreme, global vulnerability of trans* people, whose visibility makes them the target for violence.

And in Belarus this violence is encouraged by the government’s attitude to such communities. Lukashenko, the long-governing president of Belarus, has on more than one occasion made negative comments about the LGBTQIA community, openly stating that he, personally, will only justify lesbians as women who “couldn’t find the real man”. It’s factors like these that have brought us to the idea of education, and to the construction of what we are calling a ‘show-encyclopedia’.

The aim of the show-encyclopedia is to introduce the audience to the latest medical and scientific research in this area with the help of the unique language of theatre, to trace how over thousands of years the knowledge of sexuality and gender has formed and transformed in different societies.

The Albanian Virgins, Hijras in India, texts of Ovid and Plato, quotes from the French philosopher Michel Foucault, statistics, medico-scientific definitions and articles from The Daily Mail – all of these became a literary base for the show. In the show these threads are intertwined with real stories of real people from different countries: people who have the courage to be who they are. The question we ask is: can contemporary society fully allow people to be themselves?

CC: It seems that you had a definite political message?
VS: Absolutely. In Belarus, each topic you develop inevitably becomes political. By doing this show, voicing the issues and articulating the problems, we are already making a political statement. The attraction, by the means of our show, of public attention to the breaching of the human rights is a political act.

As a result of the research we conducted, we realised that the politicisation of discourse about social status, gender and sexuality in any society is unavoidable. It is easier now for British society to accept gay marriage, which is a great development and an achievement in terms of the improvement of human rights, but the situation with Ms Meadows shows that there are other questions in line… Is progressive society ready to refuse or change the gender binary in favour of gender multiplicity? The paradoxical visibility and, at the same time, invisibility of trans* people makes their integration into society or ‘normalisation’ very difficult. There should be no general rules of masculinity or femininity; the human is an individual, a personality, and has to be treated as one.

For us it’s a personal show that we dedicate to our loved ones and friends who suffered discrimination, those who died as a result of violence, and to all of those who paid a dear price for their right to be themselves. And we are not just observers when it comes to these issues. 50% of the people in our company identify as LGBTQIA, so this show is a dedication and an education at the same time.

CC: What will happen to the show after Edinburgh? Do you have plans to tour?
VS: We are hoping that ‘Ms Meadows’ will have a great future. BFT is an ensemble of actors who have worked together for nine years now and 2015 is a very important year for us: the tenth anniversary of our company. They have not been easy, but these last ten years have been fully loaded creatively; the richest years of our lives. We have a dream to tour worldwide to celebrate our milestone. I really hope that we will do this, and no dictatorship, political or financial, will stop us from doing so.

CC: Tell us about the history of Belarus Free Theatre.
VS: Belarus Free Theatre was founded in March 2005 in Belarus by Natalia Kaliada, Nicolai Khalezin and myself. For the next nine years we worked together as an ensemble, all the while the subject of cruel repressions and arrests. All of the participants of the BFT have been fired from their jobs. Nevertheless, despite these oppressions, difficulties with performance spaces, and lack of finances, we have kept on performing.

As the company’s creative leaders, Natalia Kaliada, Nicolai Khalezin and I have developed the artistic vision and aesthetics of the company, which has remained consistent throughout. Forced to flee from persecution in Belarus in 2011, we have been given political asylum in the UK and created a new part of the company in London, while continuing our work with the permanent ensemble who are still performing underground in Minsk.

CC: How are you able to work with the performers who are still in Minsk? Do you think that theatre and the arts can help to bring about political reform in Belarus?
VS: Thanks to David Lung, we are now an associate company with the Young Vic in London, which gives us some stability. But our main aim is to continue our work in Belarus. This is extremely difficult and is getting more so, as the government becomes ever more repressive; we can’t even find a place where we can perform. But I think this is an indication that theatre can make social change; we have made steps towards the change and the repression we are experiencing now is the reaction to it.

This particular situation, with the geographical split of our theatre, is pushing us to find new ways to meet our audience. Times are hard for our theatre. We have a residency in Britain twice a year at the moment, which gives us an opportunity to work on new shows, but mostly we make shows through Skype, and the working process never stops: I rehearse with actors in Minsk via Skype. To bring actors here and make shows we have to fund-raise constantly and this is never easy.

CC: You’ve performed at the Edinburgh Festival before. Do you find it to be a rewarding place to produce new theatre?
VS: We have been to the Fringe twice before; we won a Fringe First with the aforementioned ‘Minsk 2011: answer to Kathy Aker’, a show which looks at the political situation in Belarus through the prism of sex and sexuality. Last year we performed ‘Trash Cuisine’, a play about the death penalty in Belarus, the only European country that still has capital punishment. The show received the Impatto Totale Award in 2013.

The festival is an amazing opportunity to meet other artists and to exchange experiences, and a great platform for new theatre. We are very much looking forward to this year’s premiere at the Fringe and the chance to meet with our many friends from all over the world.

‘merry christmas, Ms Meadows’ was performed at the Pleasance Dome at Edinburgh Festival 2014.