Modern Belarusian Theatre: a struggle for diversity

The article was published in the A Report on the Condition of NGOs and Independent Culture in Belarus (Warsaw, 2011)

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Performance #7, dir. Eugene Korniag

Meeting at round tables, Belarusian critics as well as theater and stage directors like to discuss “modern trends”, “contemporary heroes,” and “contemporary topics.” Yet in practice, Belarusian state theatres prefer to “comfortably” close their eyes to contemporary Belarusian life.

“Belarusian theatre” does not exist in the modern global context. Some Belarusian plays attract attention at international festivals: for instance, the building theatre of Alaksiej Leliauski, the plastique theatre of Slava Inozemcev, the Russian-Belarusian project The Wedding by Anton Chekhov in the National Academic Yanka Kupala Theatre. However, these are rather exceptions that underline the absence of the phenomenon of Belarusian theatre as such (unlike the phenomena of Lithuanian or Polish theatres).

There are around thirty theater spaces in Belarus; each has its own repertoire policy. Despite that, Belarusian theatre is a rather homogenous phenomenon, characterized mainly by “traditionalism” or “academicism”. This homogeneity is more than just a topic for discussion; it is a real problem. This problem is not so much related to the “lack of individualities”, about which Belarusian theatre critics like to write.

The reason for Belarusian theatre’s sudden return to the aesthetics of the official Soviet art of the 70’s, taking place since the mid-90’s, is obvious. The state is not interested in alternative, non-traditional forms of theatre, preferring to lead a specific cultural policy with a clear ideological set of rules.

Belarusian theatre: a self-identification attempt of the late 80s – early 90s 

The break-up of the Soviet Union triggered the active process of liberation from the aesthetics of the Soviet art both in Belarusian theatre and in other spheres of culture. Plays of previously banned authors like, for instance, Frantsishak Alyakhnovich (repressed in the 1930s) got on stage. New performances were born that provoked interest both in Belarus and abroad. The previously banned play The Locals by Yanka Kupala, staged by Mikalai Pinihin, was a significant event in the life of Belarusian theatre.

In the 80s and 90s, several projects in experimental studio theatres, totally different by form and content, came to light. Slava Inozemcev’s InZhest Theatre emerged along with Ryd Talipau’s intellectual theatre and Vital Barkouski’s postmodernist project.

In the 90s the Western European intellectual drama became popular in Belarus. For instance, the director of the freshly emerged Belarusian state youth theatre Vital Katavicki staked on the literature of that kind. His theatre’s repertoire included plays by Jean-Paul Sartre, Slawomir Mrozek, Eugène Ionesco and others. At the same time, other theatres were searching for the best project of the national theatre that would “arouse the nation”. Performances by Mikalai Pinihin and Mikalai Truchan that shed light on the issues of national self-identification were very popular.

Thus, at the end of the last millennium, Belarusian theatre had some potential and was a multi-level phenomenon for a diverse target audience. It combined staginess and entertainment with intellectuality and experiment.

Since the middle 90s, the experimental theatre movement has been in decline. Since the 00s, as many experts admit, Belarusian theatre has started to return to the “proven” aesthetics of the Soviet theatre of the 70s. Intellectual drama disappears from playbills, while the stake is on light genres: comedy, melodrama, vaudeville. This is caused, first of all, by the ideological course of the state, which finds this form comfortable and easy to understand.

On the other hand, the state does not make it easy for theatres to survive: all of them, regardless of their status, academic or national, have to fulfill their financial obligations to the government. Therefore, their management chooses light, ideologically safe, and commercially successful theater shows.

The 00s: the attack of youngsters

The new Belarusian drama has been emerging since the beginning of the new millennium. Young authors use this new form to re-define the borders of truth and theatricality. The first texts by Paval Pražko, Mikalai Rudkouski, Paval Rasolka, and Kanstancin Sciešyk gave a dare to the “comfortable” Belarusian theatre, which unlike Russian theatres, tried to be deaf to young voices. Since Russian and Western theatre experts approve the works of our authors, they become braver. They continue to write, their plays are published in foreign collections of plays and staged in foreign theatres.

For instance, big-league Russian theatres widely acclaim the plays by Belarusian playwright Paval Pražko. His works are studied by Russian critics and literary experts who have already discovered the “Pražko theatre” phenomenon. None of the much-talked-of texts by Pavel got staged in Belarus.

The same is happening to other Belarusian authors who are recognized in the world. The theatre “ignores” the works by Nikolai Khalezin, whose play I Have Come received a special prize of the Russian Eurasia award as well as the All-Russian Contest for Playwrights Protagonist’s diploma and a special prize of Culture TV channel. It also ignores the works by Kanstancin Sciešyk, whose A Man. A Woman. A Gun took the second place in the category “free composition play” at the Eurasia competition. Some plays by Mikalai Rudkouski “cannot” find stage either. His Invasion, at the same time, got the special prize awarded by Novaya Gazeta journalists at the First International Drama Festival Free Theatre, while his God of Tickling was short-listed in the “Premiere.txt” contest of the Eurasia competition.

Such lack of attention towards Belarusian young talents is surprising. Meeting at round tables, Belarusian critics, theatrd and stage directors like to discuss “modern trends”, “contemporary heroes”, and “contemporary topics”. Yet in practice, state Belarusian theatres prefer to “comfortably” close their eyes to contemporary Belarusian life.

The problem of theatre’s diversity is a frequent topic for public discussions. Experts note that together with academic theatres Belarus should have separate platforms for provocative texts and experimental practices that will have their own audience. Unfortunately, even the Minsk Youth Theatre is not working with young audience. On the contrary, it stages plays that are not relevant to its target audience, or, as one of the theater’s actor joked, “for 50+”.

The Republican Theatre of Belarusian Drama (Minsk), which claims to be searching for experiments and new playwrights, very carefully selects authors and texts. Even an apolitical new play seems to be too provocative for the theater. As its young director Mikita Valadz’ko says, “they ban not only those who talk about politics, but anyone who touches upon the topics that are tabooed by the state ideology.” There is an unspoken division of playwrights into “allowed” and “non-allowed” ones, which among other factors, is caused by the “self”-censorship. Therefore, the theatre’s repertoire includes mostly the plays by proven young authors.

The “deficit” of the relevant topic on Belarusian stage brought an expected consequence: young viewers do not treat theatre as a place where some relevant topics or problems can be raised. For youngsters, theatre is like an “offline” history textbook on world culture, or a museum, where the “magic lamp” and actors speak some unusual language. The visit to the theater is a funny way to spend time or is forced by the educational system, since the “cultural visits” of school students and soldiers to theaters are commonplace.

Currently, onstage readings, which sometimes are included in the programs of official theatre festivals or in one-off laboratories organized by independent groups, have become the only “bridge” between new plays and viewers. Although viewers show obvious interest in such events and actively discuss the content of those plays, none of the plays presented to the public got staged. No one researches new Belarusian drama; new books are not published. The recent Contemporary Belarusian Drama collection includes texts written in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The only exception here is the project of a young director Ekaciaryna Avierkava who has recently become the director of Mahiliou Drama Theatre. Despite the lack of understanding and support from her bosses and colleagues, she has started a one-year project “Stage readings” on the small stage of the theatre. Once a month, the reading of a play of some young Belarusian author is organized, followed by open discussion. The project should result in two full-fledged performances that will be based on two presented plays. The reading of The God of Tickling by Mikalai Rudkouski and The Closed Door by Pavel Pražko was regarded as a significant event in the non-formal theater life of Belarus.

The German-Belarusian Drama Laboratory MitOst that took place in Minsk this February became a unique experience for Belarusian theatre community. During four days, six young playwrights created new texts under the guidance of the German director Lars Vogel. The main requirement for them was “relevance.” The readings organized at the final stage of the Laboratory’s work showed that Belarusian authors were ready to bravely face the contemporary situation. Their texts featured the recent Japanese tragedy and the presidential elections in Belarus. Despite everyone’s enthusiasm, it was obvious that the Laboratory would not be able to continue its work.

The primary reason for such a bad prospect is that there is no independent theatre center or laboratory in Belarus which would research and permanently practice new theatrical forms. The free experimental theater platform is absent as such.

Independent initiatives are forced to rent municipal stages for the realization and presentation of their projects. This is practicable for the commercial theatre products (theatrical enterprises); however, alternative and experimental theaters have to survive balancing between commercial and non-commercial art.

A bright example is The Company Theatre under the guidance of Andrei Saučanka, who has voluntarily created and staged plays on rented municipal stages for many years with no external support.

“Here and now” of Belarusian theatre

The new theatrical generation does not want to tolerate the homogenous directions that they get from the officials despite the general monotonous situation in Belarusian theatres and the lack of interest on the part of young specialists (the case of Ekaciaryna Avierkava is rather an exception). Due to the availability of information and freedom of movement, the new generation of playwrights, directors and actors not only talk about the necessity to upgrade Belarusian theatre, but make some clear steps.

One of the most impressive recent independent theater projects is Eugene Korniag’s project KorniagTHEATRE, which, based on the form suggested by German choreographer Pina Bausch, suggests its own unique vision of plastique and drama theatre. The high ticket prices (which are caused, first of all, by the high cost of the premises rent) do not scare away: Café Pogloshcheniye and Non-Dances gather crowds. Volha Skvarcova and Dzmitry Zaleski’s Independent D.O.Z.SK.I Theatre of Contemporary Choreography is popular too.

The staging of the plays by the scandalous yet widely recognized Irish playwright Martin McDonagh was a kind of a breakthrough for Belarusian theatre. They were first staged in New Theatre, and then on the small stage of the National Academic Yanka Kupala Theatre. Unfortunately, these experiments did not get any support from Belarusian critics; on the contrary, the journalists of some state publication accused the theatres’ directors and managers of the lack of understanding of “what they want to say,” while the playwright was labeled as “pale.” After such reviews, the appearance of modern plays in repertoires is highly questionable.

The Belarusian State Puppet Theatre’s director Alaksiey Leliauski stands out in this environment. Besides his planned shows for children, Alaksiey Leliauski develops the experimental genre of the building theatre which fuses the forms of drama, puppet and plastique theatres. His unconventional interpretation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters uses the latest achievements of the contemporary European theatre.

Slava Inozemcev’s InZhest Theatre which emerged as a result of studio experiments in the ‘80s continues its successful and aesthetically complete work. Although the theater does not have its own stage and is in constant financial trouble, it continues to stage plays and experiments with different forms (plastique, Butoh dance, theater games, video). It also has its own studio which supplies the theatre with new actors.

Belarusian Free Theatre is a unique project in Belarusian theatre environment. Although some call it political speculation, this is the only permanent theater project in Belarus which tries to be as truthful as possible in reflecting the Belarusian political and social “here and now”. Belarusian Free Theatre went beyond simply allowing itself to talk on any topic of its concern. It applies this rule as a main principle of its activities. The topics that are officially tabooed are openly and ruthlessly presented in the plays of Free Theatre. Unfortunately, after the latest presidential elections the troupe was included into the “ban list” and cannot perform in Belarus, so they have to live abroad.

The successors of Free Theatre are students of the Fortinbrass Studio created by the theatre several years ago. Having no formal theatrical education, they write plays in the underground, publicly read them and make their directorial debuts. Ryma Uškievič’s play Bezuprechnyi made it to HotInk, the short-list of modern drama in New York.

The First Independent International Festival of Experimental Theatres: that very festival became a significant event for Belarusian theatre environment. It was organized by a group of enthusiasts from the “RONS” theatre with the help of Bonn Municipal Cultural Institution (Germany). The basis for the six-day program was formed by street and plastique plays of experimental groups from Czech Republic, USA, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Russia, and Belarus. The huge interest in the festival has proved again that there is a “deficit” of alternative theatres in Belarus, since their development and promotion is not in any way supported by state programs.

Naturally, the form of Non-Dances by Eugen Korniag, Being Harold Pinter by Vladimir Scherban, or Access to Body by Slava Inozemtsev are not innovative for the European theatrical context. However, each of these projects is a “small victory” in Belarus, since it makes an important step towards the theatrical diversity. In the conditions of monotony the most important thing is not how something is done, but the very fact of using alternative forms to present alternative materials.

Unfortunately, many of these projects are not featured in the media, have to survive in semi-underground conditions or are shown only once during stage reading. Such “elitist” nature of the independent project negatively impacts the formation of diverse theatrical environment and contributes to the myth of Belarusian theatrical helplessness.

One should remember that the authors of these projects have to “invent” new forms for Belarusian theatre. There is no theatrical education in Belarus which would be alternative to academic education. Belarusian Academy of Arts educates future traditional theater workers. Its curriculum does not include courses on contemporary trends and practices. Students have to learn another theater on their own: through books, some theatre shows, or from the experience of foreign specialists presented during master seminars. Monotonous and outdated curricula alongside with the lack of highly qualified staff force young people to study abroad. After graduation they do not return to Belarus, since experience shows that they are not in demand there.

Young director Volha Saratokina stayed in Moscow. Her degree performance A Capital Around based on the young Belarusian author Siarhiej Hirhiel’s play attracted attention not only in Belarus. Her show represented Belarus at the oldest European festival New Plays from Europe Theatre Festival in Wiesbaden. Afterwards, Olga got invited to the Republican Theatre of Belarusian Drama and was not allowed to make any performance for a year. So, she got into the Meyerhold Center’s Magistracy in Moscow. After graduation she stayed in Russia, realizing that she would have to deal with “lumps” in Belarus while trying to defend her creative ideas.

The audience is the first victim of the existing theatrical monotony. It has to select from amongst entertaining and “Belarusian” theatres. This is a vivid example of how Belarusian ideology works: intellectual, reasonable and provocative theatre has no place here.

On one hand, of course, current circumstances hinder the development of Belarusian theatre. On the other, they inspire the new generation of theatre workers, who have no hopes for state support and try to work autonomously. This allows to hope that Belarusian theatre will soon get to the next stage of its development.

© Tania Arcimovič

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