Belarus Free Theatre and Theatre of the Oppressed NYC in Conversation at La MaMa
Last Sunday afternoon I ducked out of the sunshine and into a three hour marathon of serious theater at La MaMa: seriously brave, seriously relevant, and seriously poignant. First up was Trash Cuisine by the Belarus Free Theatre, followed by Can’t Get Right 2.0 by Theatre of the Oppressed New York City. These two pieces were presented in conversation with each other, as they both illuminate contemporary epidemic violations of human rights; Trash Cuisine focuses on capital punishment, while Can’t Get Right 2.0 explores the American criminal justice system.
As Nicolai Khalezin, founding Co-Artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre, wrote in the program notes, “We are talking about things that are conflicting in nature, outside of the spectators’ comfort zone… It is not a pleasant conversation, but a critically necessary one. Because if we do not talk about horrible things, we will loose [sic] our ability to experience and talk about things that bring us joy.” As a spectator, it was fascinating to observe how each company’s approach to their subject matter resonated with the audience. Whereas Trash Cuisine lulled the audience into a quiet, contemplative state, mourning the lives of the assassinated characters, Can’t Get Right 2.0 energized the audience to participate in their script, asking them to present their own ideas and solutions to the conflict depicted in their story.
My first interaction with the Belarus Free Theatre was at their Give a Body Back Protest on May 5, 2015, which opened with a press conference on the steps of City Hall, followed by a demonstration in Foley Square. There, participants climbed into body bags and lay still for half an hour, in protest of capital punishment worldwide. Founded in 2005, the Belarus Free Theatre Company is outlawed in its home country of Belarus, the only remaining dictatorship in Europe, and the last country in Europe with a death penalty. The public protest was intended to publicize the Belorussian policy of not returning bodies of those executed by the government to their families, as well as encouraging governments around the world to abandon the death penalty. Khalezin said in interview, “When we started to explore this topic we figured out that all the countries where the death penalty has been abolished could fit within the territory of South America. Therefore all other countries are actively and officially using the death penalty. That’s when we understood that it’s a wider issue than in Belarus only.”
Twenty-two people attended the press conference on the steps of City Hall, including writers, actors and artistic administrators from Belarus Free Theatre, La MaMa, and The Public Theater. The entire group migrated to Foley Square, where they were joined by more protesters and spectators. Natalia Kaliada, another founding Co-Artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre, who has taken political refuge in London, said, “We’re just theater makers, and Trash Cuisine discovers the idea of what people can do to each other. Today is real life. The death penalty still exists, all over the world. When mother loses a son, the only thing she wants back is his body.” Belarus Free Theatre has staged a similar protest in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and London, but due to the political climate, such a demonstration would be impossible in Belarus. According to Kaliada, “What artists do puts [the Belorussian government] in horrible fear. We are talking about one human’s life, because one human’s life is worth a fight.”
Trash Cuisine was devised by the Belarus Free Theatre company using a method of actor training and documentary material compilation called “total immersion.” Khalezin explains, “It means a huge number of suggestions from the actors about different forms of realization of each idea, each aspect of the play. After that, material is selected, processed, amplified. It is a devised show, with all that entails. Everyone does this during the rehearsal process – they explore the topic, develop it, based on what has been found during the expeditions.” Trash Cuisine was originally developed and presented in Stadsshouwberg, Amsterdam, co-produced by the European Cultural Foundation as part of the ECF’s Imagining Europe Festival October 2011. Since then, it has been co-produced in London with the Young Vic, supported by LIFT. Research and development was also supported by Amnesty International, the Network for Social Change, The Attenborough Charitable Trust, Kevin Spacey Foundation, and Pleasance Theatre Trust.
The international ensemble that performed Trash Cuisine at La MaMa was comprised of primarily Belorussians, but also featured an American, an Australian, and an Anglo-Frenchman. The show depicted scenes of capital punishment from around the world, and excelled at juxtaposing familiar, comfortable contexts with jarring, tragic information. As the audience took pleasure in the actors’ physicality, or enjoyed the smell of meals cooking onstage, we experienced true stories of unimaginable cruelty and violence. This derisive elegance was mirrored in the black and white of the actors’ costumes, which created a blank canvas for the vibrant colors of the real food to play upon. The title is a play upon the idea of “Fashion Cuisine,” as Khalezin explains, serving both as an antonym and a consonance.
Khalezin says, “This idea is very old, it’s five years old. It became relevant again after two men had been executed in Belarus. They were accused [and convicted] of organizing a terrorist attack without any proof.” Its relevance is indisputable, as we in the United States watched Dzokhar Tsarnaev sentenced to death this week for his participation in the Boston Marathon bombing. Although Khalezin and Kaliada no longer reside in Belarus, their company’s actions are still closely monitored by the Belorussian government. On opening night of Trash Cuisine at La MaMa, the company’s website was hacked, as was the email account of one of the Artistic Directors. The actors who will return to Belarus expect to experience pressure related to the underground performance work they do there. Many of the company’s members have served time in prison, lost their jobs, gone into hiding, or been exiles. Although so many American artists are aware of their work’s potential for social change, the consequences they face are relatively limited, due to our right to free speech. Observing the Give a Body Back protest and Trash Cuisine gave a true sense of what it means to make a direct political statement through art, with tangible results and profound consequences.
One audience member shared in the talkback that Trash Cuisine made her question whether murder can be justified, even if it’s done by an institution. Pavel Haradnitski, Belarus Free Theatre company member and Trash Cuisine performer, said in interview, “I really believe that theater can change social and even political situations. A great example is when the revolution in Poland started, it started with theater. It was a very strong tool in changing the situation, because theater can get deep into our hearts, where, for example, political manifestations and so on can not. In a situation when we are tired of political lies, theater can became something that gives hope.”
For Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, theatre is indisputably a tool for social change as well. As their mission statement explains, “The troupes create and perform plays based on real-life struggles, which engage diverse audiences in theatrical brainstorming – or Forum Theatre – to activate communities and creatively challenge systems of oppression.” Can’t Get Right was originally created with the Queens Justice Corps in Jamaica, part of CASES, an organization providing alternative-to-incarceration and probation programming. The excerpt performed at La MaMa is a revival by alumni actors from CASES, Covenant House (a youth shelter), and Concrete Justice, a troupe of adults with experience of homelessness. Travis Stevens, one of the performers, said, for him, “Theater is a more intimate viewing than any movie theater. The fact that you can see something that you can relate to and actually participate, it’s a pretty amazing feeling.”
Similar to the devising process of Belarus Free Theatre, Theatre of the Oppressed NYC’s troupes share their own experiences and knowledge around their subject matter in order to create their plays. Katy Rubin, Executive Director of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, explained, “We start by playing games and doing improvisations to uncover the pressing issues that are affecting the whole group. Then we tell stories and build the play out of the overlapping experiences of the actors.” After their performance, the troupe asked the audience to brainstorm their own solutions to the conflict depicted in the play (a young black man being unjustly arrested, detained, and sent to prison without due process), and then invited audience members on stage to act out their ideas. Stevens said, “There is always a curious character amongst the audience. They’ll have a question and we’ll make them act it out.” Our audience offered up two participants willing to try out their ideas on stage – one of which escalated the situation even further, and the other which derailed it by surprising the actors with humor.
Watching the two plays back to back, audience members were quick to find similarities in the stories of oppression and governments who have betrayed their citizens. Rubin elaborated, “I think that in New York City, we can feel distanced from capital punishment, because we don’t think of it as a pressing problem our neighbors are facing. Belarus Free Theatre’s show really brings that home. At the same time, at Theatre of the Oppressed New York City, we see that New Yorkers are often ignoring problems that really are on their doorstep, so we use theatre to try to encourage solidarity amongst diverse populations. So we think that these two plays have a really similar aim, though they’re going about it in different ways. The power of skilled professional artists is very strong, but so is, we believe, the power of people telling their own stories that don’t usually get told.”
If you would like to support Belarus Free Theatre’s protest and sign the Give a Body Back petition, text 313131 with your name, address, and email, or access it here online. Theatre of the Oppressed NYC will next be performing and leading workshops in their Legislative Theatre Festival June 4-6, at The New School.