Actors take to the stage for Belarus Free Theatre

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A scene from “Being Harold Pinter” created and performed by Belarus Free Theatre

Here in the United States staging a controversial play may draw protests, but it won’t land you in prison.

Not so in Belarus.

This coming Monday, local theatre companies are playing their part in an international show of support for Belarus Free Theatre, a company whose recent travails give its name even more irony and urgency.

The company started its “Free Theatre Project” in March of 2005, committed to staging underground performances of Belarusian prohibited playwrights as well as other modern works that contradict the “ideological system of Belarusian dictatorial regime.” Their website says the project will end once the Belarussian political system is transformed from a dictatorial regime to a democracy.

On December 19 several members of the BFT company were arrested for protesting what they believed to be the rigged election of Alexander Lukashenko. While BFT was still able to make it to New York in time to perform its critically acclaimed “Being Harold Pinter” at the Under the Radar festival earlier this month, their story has led theater professionals around the world to stage readings of “Being Harold Pinter” in a show of support.

“Being Harold Pinter” is a piece that combines playwright Harold Pinter’s words with the performers own experiences living with the brutality of an repressive regime. One man’s engaging fiction is revealed as these performers’ horrifying reality.

Gulgun Kayim of Skewed Visions, one of the local organizers, says Belarus Free Theatre’s work reminds other professionals just how powerful theater can be:

They show us what courage means – to use theater as a platform to speak up against all odds. BFT reminds us of the power of theater to inform, influence, represent the minority or hidden and stand outside of established systems to highlight abuse or issues.

I believe theater does and should make a difference in any community’s dialogue – in this particular case to transform our preceptions of Belarus and put a face on what it means to fight for human rights and free speech in a country that has shut down the free press as well as free theater.

Kayim says initially, when members of BFT were still in jail and it looked they wouldn’t be able to perform in the United States, Skewed Visions wanted to stage “Being Harold Pinter” as a means to simply get BFT’s message out. Now the event has expanded in scope to educating US audiences about the Belarusian regime.

Skewed Visions’ Charles Campbell says lack of awareness is a large part of the problem:

As a small country outside the eye of the general public, Belarus suffers not only from the presence of a brutal dictatorship but also from the ignorance and apathy of much of the western world — particularly Americans. We are in a position to try to help bring awareness to the plight of this country’s people and the injustices of the current government. In order to foster change in Belarus for our friends, we need to encourage the leadership of this country to apply pressure. In a democracy, popular will is an important impulse for action. We feel this project is our small way of doing what we can to raise awareness of the situation and support for changing it.

Campbell adds that while any one individual might think it impossible to make a difference, theater by nature is built by community:

We are not politicians or activists: as theater artists, this is what we can do. Although it too often merely regurgitates our own desires back to us, at its best theater can provide galvanizing new ways of seeing, thinking, and being. On your own, it’s very hard to try to change the world. In theater, no one is alone.

Monday’s reading of “Being Harold Pinter” will be staged at Park Square Theater, and is a collaboration of Bedlam Theatre, Frank Theatre, Pillsbury House Theatre, Heart of The Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, and Skewed Visions. For more information, click here.

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