A Theater Troupe That’s Also a Support Network for Exiles

Then the two founders of the renowned Belarus Free Theater applied for political asylum in Great Britain in 2011they became homeless, had few possessions and faced a bureaucratic labyrinth before they could work.

Only with the help of British theater makers did the pair find a home and restart the company from exile, using Skype to hold rehearsals with actors in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

Twelve years later, the company’s founders, Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, are using that experience to help other artists fleeing political repression.

Belarus – an Eastern European country with about nine million inhabitants that borders both Russia and Ukraine – has been ruled by President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, a dictator and ally of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. The political productions of the Belarusian Free Theater have often criticized Lukashenko’s authoritarian leadership, and the group has long been at risk of arrest. But as the repression increased, the company decided that it was no longer feasible for the other members to remain in Minsk. They also fled in 2021 to avoid long prison sentences. Since then, Kaliada said, she and Khalezin had helped the actors find housing, therapy and visas.

The company also gave acting lessons to other Belarusian and Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw, Kaliada said led to large-scale showsand also provided assistance to some Ukrainian singers, who could no longer perform full-time in their home country due to the war.

“All we wanted was for people not to go through our experiences,” Kaliada said.

This summer, Kaliada and Khalezin started rehearsals in Warsaw for their latest project: “The Wild Hunt of King Stakh”, a piece of experimental theater with opera singers and video projections that premieres Thursday through September 16 at the Barbican Center in London.

In interviews with eight actors, musicians and production staff during those rehearsals, four said they had difficulty adjusting to life in Warsaw. Composer Olga Podgaiskaya said that it was only with the help of a therapist that she was able to accept that she would not return to Minsk anytime soon. In Belarus, she said, she was a fixture on the classical music scene: “Here I am a nobody. I have to prove who I am from the start.”

Raman Shytsko, an actor, said he still felt like a guest in Poland – and sometimes an unwanted one. Once in the city of Wroclaw, he said, he was sworn in on the street because he spoke Russian. “Many people here hate Belarusians now,” he added, because of the regime’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Many of the exiled artists said that simply working on ‘King Stakh’s Wild Hunt’ had given them a much-needed sense of purpose.

During rehearsals, which took place in Warsaw’s main opera house, the cast helped each other learn lines and dance moves, and were able to hang out between scenes. Yuliya Shauchuk, an actor, said the studio was the only place where she always felt happy.

The plot of this show, which is drawn from a popular Belarusian novel and involves a group of ghostly hunters terrorizing a rural community, also felt analogous to what was happening now in Belarus, said Shauchuk, where police track down and arrest people who have protested against the president’s rule.

Several Ukrainian opera singers involved in the production said the rehearsals also benefited them. Mykola Hubchuk had driven overnight from Kolomyya, Ukraine, to participate. “This project is very important to me,” he says. “I need emotion and singing in my life.”

Sveta Sugako, the production manager of the Belarus Free Theater, said the exile company had renewed its sense of purpose. The members mostly shouted about Belarus, she said. Now the company also tried to raise awareness about the war in Ukraine and about the political situation in Russia. It had become, she said, “across the region.”

The group’s journey into exile began in 2020 with elections. That year, Belarus seemed ready for change after Lukashenko’s landslide victory was widely dismissed as fraudulent. Company members took part in the subsequent massive street protests, hoping that Lukashenko would be forced to step aside.

Instead, he took a violent approach crushed the opposition and in October 2021, Kaliada and Khalezin pulled out the remaining members. They first went to Ukraine, with some members wading through swamps to cross the border, before some continued to Poland and others to Britain.

Since then, Kaliada said, the situation in Belarus had deteriorated. Last year Putin used the country as one podium place for his invasion of Ukraine, and then said he would Moving Russian nuclear weapons across the border into Belarus.

Helping the company members reach London had proven easier than those in Warsaw, Kaliada said, because of the company’s established connections in the London theater world. Cate Blanchett hosted some members in London, Kaliada said.

In Poland, the company had few relationships with similarly generous individuals, Kaliada said, but it had secured cheap rates for some actors at a hotel on the outskirts of Warsaw. The Polish government also helped by allowing the group to rehearse for free at the state opera house.

The company is trying to deepen its ties in Warsaw. Whenever it puts on a show in the city, including recent productions featuring refugee teenagers, it invites local dignitaries and adds Polish subtitles.

As the company nears the end of its second year in exile, Kaliada said its members would soon have to do more to support their livelihoods. There were about a hundred people working on “King Stakh’s Wild Hunt,” she said, and the Belarusian Free Thater did not have the resources to support them all.

Many actors in Warsaw said they were already making efforts to find their own work. One said he had taken on the dubbing. Another said they taught and another worked as a coder.

Shauchuk said she knew she had to “build a life” in Warsaw and wanted to improve her Polish. But, she said, she would not give up hope of returning home. “Even if I start a family outside Belarus,” she said, “I want the right to go back.”

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