Risking it all for their art: Belarus Free Theatre comes to Chicago

Belarus Free Theatre in performance. [photo credit: Greg Wood]

Yesterday, Goodman Theatre announced that they, in cooperation with the League of Chicago Theatres and Northwestern University, are bringing Belarus Free Theatre to Chicago in early February (see the blurb from their press release at the end of this post). I hadn’t heard of the group before last night, but after a bit of research, I came to learn of their fascinating, harrowing and deeply inspirational story.

Belarus Free Theatre is an underground theatre group created in 2005 as an artistic means of resisting Belarusian government pressure and censorship. They are constantly under risk of being arrested, detained, or killed by their government. In their homeland, they had to perform in secret locations, such as people’s houses, secluded cafes or even in the woods. Members of their company have already been kidnapped and killed. In December 2010, things got really bad in Belarus due to a rigged election, and members of the group stealthily escaped to New York to perform their play, Being Harold Pinter, as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival.

That play’s run recently concluded in New York, and they are bringing that performance to Chicago. This move to the windy city, as Chris Jones reported yesterday “will allow the Belarus artists to consider their options, including requesting political asylum in the United States.”

Time Out Chicago‘s Kris Vire also reported on this last night shortly after the news was announced, linking to this Guardian piece, which provides some additional background.

I also came across this youtube clip, which offers an overview of the group, their history and mission:

In short, this group is willing to die for their art. Freedom of expression is so easily taken for granted, and to live in constant fear of having your voice silenced must be unbearable. But that’s the remarkable thing — it seems this group isn’t fearful about their fate. It’s their mission to speak the truth through performance.

“There is no way just to keep silent,” says Natalia Kolyada, a co-founder of the Belarus Free Theatre, in the clip above. “If there is a tiny chance we can change it, we will do it.”

If that isn’t what theatre is about, I don’t know what is. I can’t wait to see them in performance.

From the Goodman’s press release:

For an unprecedented artistic event with potential far-reaching international impact, Goodman Theatre Artistic Director Robert Falls and Executive Director Roche Schulfer invite Eastern Europe’s Belarus Free Theatre to Chicago for a limited engagement of Being Harold Pinter, February 1 – 27, 2011. Presented in partnership with Northwestern University and the League of Chicago Theatres, Being Harold Pinter arrives in Chicago on the heels of its sold-out engagement at New York’s Under the Radar Festival—for which the Belarus Free Theatre, facing persecution in their homeland, escaped imprisonment in December 2010. Being Harold Pinter, adapted and directed by Vladimir Shcherban, produced by Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada, was hailed as ‘truly passionate, truly political theater (that) isn’t just admirable, it has virtues beyond its relevance and bravery’ (The New York Times). Being Harold Pinter runs 1 hour, 15 minutes and is presented in Russian and Belarusian with English supertitles. Venue, performance schedule and ticket information will be announced shortly; call 312.443.3800 or visit GoodmanTheatre.org for updates.

“We found it imperative to extend this brave, bold theater company’s stay in the United States by offering them the opportunity to perform in Chicago,” said Artistic Director Robert Falls. “These are artists struggling against an oppressive state, and their work is both essential and powerful.”

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