World

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

When the two founders of the renowned Belarus Free Theater claimed political asylum in Britain in 2011, they found themselves homeless, with few possessions and facing a bureaucratic labyrinth before they could work.

It was only with help from British theater makers that the pair found places to stay and were able to restart their company from exile, using Skype to conduct rehearsals with actors in Minsk, Belarus’s capital.

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 East European country of about nine million people that borders both Russia and Ukraine — has been ruled since 1994 by President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, a dictator and ally to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. The Belarus Free Theater’s political productions have often criticized Lukashenko’s authoritarian leadership and its troupe was long at risk of arrest. But as repression increased, the company decided it was no longer feasible for its other members to remain in Minsk. In 2021, they also fled to avoid long jail terms. Since then, Kaliada said, she and Khalezin had been helping the actors to find housing, therapy and visas.

The company was also running acting classes for other Belarusian and Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw, Kaliada said, that had led to full-scale shows, and was providing help to some Ukrainians singers, too, who could no longer perform full time in their homeland because of the war.

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

Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada run the Belarus Free Theater. After their country’s 2020 election, they moved their entire troupe out of the country. Credit…Anna Liminowicz for The New York Times

In Warsaw this summer, Kaliada and Khalezin started rehearsals for their latest project, “King Stakh’s Wild Hunt,” a piece of experimental theater including opera singers and video projections that will premiere at the Barbican Center, in London, on Thursday, running through Sep. 16.

In interviews with eight actors, musicians and production staff at those rehearsals, four said they were struggling to adjust to life in Warsaw. The composer Olga Podgaiskaya said it was only with a therapist’s help that she’d come to accept that she wouldn’t be returning to Minsk anytime soon. In Belarus, she said, she had been a fixture on the classical music scene: “Here, I’m a nobody. I need to prove from scratch who I am.”

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

The conductor Vitali Alekseenok and the composer Olga Podgaiskaya rehearsing with musicians from the Five-Storey Ensemble, in preparation for “King Stakh’s Wild Hunt.”Credit…Anna Liminowicz for The New York Times

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

In the rehearsals, which took place at Warsaw’s main opera house, the cast helped each other learn lines and dance moves, and larked about between scenes. Yuliya Shauchuk, an actor, said that the studio was the one place where she always felt joyful.

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

Several Ukrainian opera singers involved in the production said the rehearsals were benefiting them, too. Mykola Hubchuk had driven overnight from Kolomyya, Ukraine, to take part. “This project is very important for me,” he said. “I need emotion and singing in my life.”

Sveta Sugako, the Belarus Free Theater’s production manager, said that the company had renewed its sense of purpose in exile. Its members used to mainly “shout about Belarus,” she said. Now, the company was trying to raise awareness about the war in Ukraine, too, and about the political situation in Russia. It had become, she said, “about the whole region.”

The troupe’s journey to exile began in 2020 with an election. That year, Belarus looked set for change, after Lukashenko’s landslide victory was widely dismissed as fraudulent. Members of the company took part in the subsequent mass street protests, hoping Lukashenko would be forced to step aside.

Instead, he violently cracked down on opposition and in October 2021, Kaliada and Khalezin pulled the remaining members out. They first headed to Ukraine, with some members wading through swamps to cross the border, before some continued to Poland, and others to Britain.

Ever since, Kaliada said, the situation in Belarus had gotten worse. Last year, Putin used the country as a staging ground for his invasion of Ukraine, then said he would move Russian nuclear weapons across the border into Belarus.

Helping the troupe members who reached London had proved easier than those in Warsaw, Kaliada said, because of the company’s established connections in London’s theater world. Cate Blanchett provided accommodation for some members in London, Kaliada said.

Shauchuk, left, and Kaliada outside the Polish National Opera. The entire company is now in exile, split between Warsaw and London.Credit…Anna Liminowicz for The New York Times

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, letting the troupe rehearse for free at the state-run opera house.

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

With the company approaching the end of its second year in exile, Kaliada said its members would soon have to do more to support themselves. Around 100 people were working on “King Stakh’s Wild Hunt,” she said, and the Belarus Free Thater didn’t have the resources to support them all.

Many of the actors in Warsaw said they were already making efforts to find their own work. One said he’d taken on dubbing. Another said they were teaching and another was working as a coder.

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

The company will perform “King Stakh’s Wild Hunt,” a piece of experimental theater including opera and video projections, at the Barbican Center in London.Credit…Anna Liminowicz for The New York Times

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