More than Just Theatre: Expressions of Solidarity with Belarus from the Czech Theatre Scene

Antonín Brinda

The nation of Belarus is experiencing an extraordinary and very difficult time in its history. The Belarusian people’s non-violent protests that intensified after the last presidential election, and which have been violently suppressed by the repressive Belarusian regime, have prompted a wave of solidarity from abroad. As a country that went through its own, “velvet”, revolution in 1989, the Czech Republic is not indifferent to the fate of Belarus. Indeed, at the start of the Belarusian protests, comparisons between these two historical events were frequent. Unfortunately, it is already clear that the Belarus’s revolution is taking a much more difficult and bitter path. Over thirty years ago, the theatre community played an important role in the critical events unfolding in the Czech Republic. Due to the traditional connection between politics and theatre, the Czech theatre scene is anxiously following the development of the Belarusian protests, including the involvement of artists and cultural workers in these protests.

Svět a divadlo (World and Theatre, or SAD), one of the leading Czech theatre journals, has reported on Belarusian theatre projects since the early 1990s. Editorial activity in this area has increased since 2007, when SAD published a text mapping the current Belarusian theatre scene, particularly the work of the Belarus Free Theatre. The most recent such activity is the publication of Insulted. Belarus(sia), a new play by Belarusian playwright Andrei Kureichik, written in August and September 2020 as a reaction to the events of the first week of revolution. The play was published in SAD’s current edition, along with an original interview with the author. Kureichik’s play was put on in several countries (e.g., the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, Germany, etc.) and presented in a series of staged readings titled Insulted. Belarus(sia) Worldwide Readings. In the Czech context, for example, the Zlín Municipal Theatre took part in the event, presenting Insulted. Belarus(sia) as a radio play in October, while the 4+4 Days in Motion Festival of Contemporary Art streamed a reading and an accompanying discussion online.

4+4 Days in Motion Festival 2020, photo: Markéta Černá

Kureichik’s play is a remarkable confirmation of SAD editor-in-chief Karel Král’s statement that “politics is an essential theme for the theatre, since, in its essence, theatre is an art that is […] socio-political, because theatre is always an encounter between people, and, thus, a social activity, and the life of society and politics are interconnected.” Despite its aesthetic qualities, the significance of the play lies primarily in its newsworthiness. Via a condensed and “entertaining” format, the spectator learns about the positions of some of the main actors in the revolution. Specifically, the play features the illegitimately elected president Alexander Lukashenko, his son Kolya and the opposition presidential candidate and – according to independent election results – the real winner of the election, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, and other characters. The current social context and events leading to the mass demonstrations are also presented in brief. The play was written as quickly as it has now been translated, distributed and staged. The main reason for its very fast distribution was not its exceptional artistic quality, but its role in supporting pro-revolutionary efforts. The performance of the play to different groups of spectators can be understood as a very specific type of assistance, because it raises awareness of the given issues beyond the borders of Belarus.

Apart from journalist coverage, and the publication and staging of plays, the direct presentation of Belarusian creatives in the Czech cultural environment is another possible expression of solidarity. Prague’s X10 Theatre, for example, has provided a platform to Belarusian artists. As part of the Kutná Hora Theatre Festival (KHTF, 10-12 September 2020), it presented a discussion and readings by two Belarusian writers, Julia Cimafiejeva and Alhierd Baharevich, who came to the festival directly from Minsk. They had not been part of the original programme and their participation was arranged at short notice. Under the leadership of dramaturg Ewa Zembok, X10/KHTF is preparing a deeper dive into the contemporary Belarusian theatre scene for 2021, and the intention is to provide space for projects that are more technically complex than readings. For Zembok and her colleagues, the socio-political role of theatre is key. As she herself says, “theatre has many tools with which it can – and should – get involved, because it has the ability to shape people’s thinking and to co-create the society in which we live.” She perceives theatre as a “cultural institution with social crossover,” whose possibilities (and responsibilities) go beyond the staging of productions.

Kutná Hora Theatre Festival 2020, photo: Dita Havránková

For situations in which a fast response to current (political) crises (affecting the cultural sector) is necessary, the Drama Ensemble of the National Theatre (NT), led by the head dramaturg Marta Ljubková, created Emergency Briefing, a series of discussion-based encounters. The NT has organised Emergency Briefings on the situations in Hungary and Syria, for example. Unfortunately, due to complications related to the coronavirus pandemic, a similar briefing has not taken place about Belarus, despite Ljubková’s great interest in holding one. The drama ensemble has succeeded in disseminating and promoting I’m with the Banned, a project by the Belarus Free Theatre that involves sending postcards to political prisoners in Belarus. Surprisingly, the primary contribution of this form of assistance does not involve raising the spirits of prisoners. Because the postcards are inspected and often confiscated by wardens, it is actually these people who are the main recipients of their messages. The postcards’ significance is thus more subversive than supportive and its primary targets are the consciences of those doing the imprisoning. Ljubková considers this form of support, along with direct financial aid, to be more beneficial than other manifestations of solidarity, such as raising flags or issuing official statements.

For Ljubková, very similarly to Zembok, the theatre’s artistic engagement is essential. And, as she states, it is precisely the National Theatre that must ask who it represents and what the nation is. She feels the NT should transcend its elite position to become a “community pillar,” a meeting place that users can relate to positively even if they aren’t interested in theatrical productions. She emphasises collaboration and the restoration of confidence in institutions, including – or primarily – those that appear to be locked in their proverbial ivory towers.

Emergency Briefing, photo: Martin Špelda

It is difficult to say which is the best form of support that the artistic and theatrical community can offer. Still, there is a clear consensus, at least among the above-mentioned representatives of the Czech theatre scene, that theatre is a socio-political art form and should address topics that transcend questions of form and aesthetics. This need not, however, involve direct engagement in the field of art in the sense of Kureichik’s play. Dramaturgs Zembok and Ljubková both emphasise the complexity of the theatrical encounter, the community bound together by the institution of theatre, and the moral responsibility of artists, which is not limited to the stage.

The Czech theatre scene does not distance itself from politics; on the contrary, it actively tries to find ways to help in times of crisis, whether within or beyond its artistic activities. It is my great hope that even these modest expressions of solidarity will contribute to the fall of the tyrannical regime in Belarus.

Acknowledgments: Pavel Štorek, Yvona Kreuzmannová, Inga Z. Mikshina, Karel Král, Ewa Zembok, Marta Ljubková, Kristýna Klimešová, Martina Pecková-Černá

For Czech ITI Centre: Antonín Brinda