On 19 December 2010, after Belarus’ presidential election, 50,000 Belarusians gathered in Minsk to demonstrate en masse about its illegality. Upon the order of Lukashenko, the authorities arrested 2000 people, amongst them seven of the nine oppositional candidates.
Natalia Kaliada, the co-founding Artistic Director of BFT, was amongst those arrested during the protests, and was subsequently released but remained a subject of intimidation. It quickly became apparent that both she and the company were increasingly at risk, and so covert plans were made to leave the country. The opportunity presented itself in the form of a prior engagement at the Under the Radar Festival produced by The Public Theater in New York where BFT were engaged to perform Being Harold Pinter on 5 January 2011, and at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club days after.
Between 2011-2013, Belarus Free Theatre and Free Belarus Now collaborated on several campaigns together, the most notable being: Artists Call A State of Emergency in Belarus.
On 19 January 2011, one month after the protests in Belarus, BFT and The Public Theater organised an event in partnership with Amnesty International, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Tony Kushner, and Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater, on 67th and Lexington Avenue, culminating in the delivery of a statement to the United Nations against the imprisonment of political figures in Belarus.
The event was attended by theatre and cinema stars including Linda Emond, Jay O. Sanders, Josh Ferri as well as Maria Goyanes and Mark Russell from Under the Radar Festival and The Public Theater. Tony Kushner read out letters from those imprisoned and Oskar Eustis outlined what US citizens could do to help: “This demonstration is for human rights, it’s for free speech, it’s for the release of the political prisoners and the ability of the Belarus people to speak freely about their own situation”.
During the protest, sources confirmed that at that very moment back in Belarus even more people were being arrested. The event was attended and filmed by various media outlets, including CNN.
A copy of the statement sent to the UN Special High Commissioner for Human Rights was passed to the United Nations in New York. It demanded the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners; asked for the appointment of a special rapporteur on the violation of human rights in Belarus during and after the presidential elections; demanded that the Belarusian authorities should provide information regarding the health and well-being of political prisoners; and called on the authorities to allow prisoners access to lawyers.
That evening, PEN America, Tom Stoppard and other artists and celebrities came together for Viva the Belarus Free Theatre, a special event to celebrate artistic freedom and the courage of those arrested and imprisoned during the crackdown. Billy Crudup, Don DeLillo, E. L Doctorow and Iva Bittova were in attendance, and Tom Stoppard read a letter penned by screen luminary and fellow Belarusian, Michael Douglas.
During January and February 2011, alongside performances at New York’s Public Theater and La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and Shakespeare Theatre, Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin met a number of leading US politicians, including then Vice President, Joe Biden. Natalia testified at the US Senate, and together with Irina Krasovskaya they met Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, to whom they insisted upon targeted economic sanctions against the Belarusian regime.
On 13 July 2010, Index on Censorship gave Belarus Free Theatre a special award – presented by Tom Stoppard – on behalf of prisoners of conscience in Belarus as classified by Amnesty International. He later addressed the annual Brussels Forum sponsored by The German Marshall Fund of the United States; the Forum has led the way in strengthening transatlantic cooperation since its inception.
In the UK, the campaign was supported by actors including Jude Law who is a BFT Trustee together with Sam West, Laura Wade and Sir Tom Stoppard, who is Patron of the Company. On 28 March 2011, hundreds of protesters – led by Jude Law, Adjoa Andoh and Kevin Spacey – congregated outside the London offices of the PR company, Grayling, to protest their continued business within Belarus. The group then marched en masse down Victoria Street to the House of Commons for a staged reading of Generation Jeans performed by Nicolai Khalezin and Jude Law. This was the first time in recent history that a dissident theatre company had performed inside a working chamber of a Western Parliament.The event, held in the Grand Committee Room, was hosted by Denis MacShane MP, Pamela Nash MP and John Whittingdale MP and began with an introduction by Sir Tom Stoppard and included speeches calling for the immediate and unconditional release of journalists Dimitri Bondarenko, Aleksandr Fiaduta and Pavel Severinets, the release from house arrest of Vladimir Neklyaev and Irina Khalip, as well as the lifting of severe restrictions placed on the movements of Natalia Radzina.
As The Guardian journalist, Carole Cadwalladr wrote: “[BFT] is an organisation that has come to be the central motor of a campaign to draw attention to the terrible political repression happening in a country that, as Natalia points out frequently, to any audience that’ll have her, “is in the middle of Europe, only two hours from London”.
In December 2011, Václav Havel signed a statement entitled The Artistic Manifesto: Artists Declare a State of Emergency in Belarus. It would be his last public act. The statement was an appeal for the world to act, timed with the one year anniversary of the large-scale public crackdown that saw numerous and brutal arrests of peaceful protesters and opposition opponents. Havel was joined by other notable signatories including Jude Law, Joanna Lumley, Michael Sheen, Ai Weiwei and Tom Stoppard.
This is a letter from a few artists to artists everywhere. As a class, artists have no executive powers but time and again in countries all over the globe it is our voices that have reminded statesmen and politicians of their moral duty to act for the redress of injustice.
In winter 2012 Artists Call A State of Emergency in Belarus continued with a video lobbying campaign to mark the second anniversary of the rigged election that returned Lukashenko to power as well as calling for the release of political prisoners Zmitser Dashkevich and Pavel Seviarynets, who were Prisoners of Conscience, held in Belarusian jails by Lukashenko. The campaign was run in collaboration with The Guardian and received major support from world-renowned artists including Mark Rylance, Alan Rickman, Simon Callow, Michael Sheen, Ralph Fiennes and Joanna Lumley. Every single artist spoke on behalf of someone who was in jail and it was a direct appeal to UK Prime Minister, David Cameron.