Yana was looking into my eyes and she was talking to me – not the audience – but to me personally. It was so powerful. It was at Belarus Free Theatre’s Psychosis 4.48 which I saw in a small park. The actors were one metre away from me and I couldn’t speak afterwards for three hours because I didn't understand how they did it. I thought, "I want to do something like this". I was still at university at this point, but then I saw another show at the Festival of New Writing and I was impressed again in a different way. I didn't know that theatre could do shows with new writing about current issues in society, I was very surprised. Then an actress had to drop out of a show because she had to go to hospital, so they decided to have an understudy and Vladimir Shcherban asked me! That’s how I joined Belarus Free Theatre.
After I graduated university I had to work for two years for the state and the Ministry of Culture wanted me to travel by bus two hours out of Minsk to act in a small town. But my friends told me that the Military Theatre in Minsk – the army had a theatre – needed actors. I went and auditioned and they took me on, so I could stay in Minsk and in Belarus Free Theatre after all. And seven months later Belarus Free Theatre had a tour to Leeds, I had no rehearsals in the army (it can take a year to read a play with them) so I asked my director if I could go. She said yes, of course, with her blessing.
"Do you want to smoke?"
"Yes," I said.
Well the situation I was in made me want to. Somehow my manager found out I was going to Leeds with Belarus Free Theatre and all of a sudden, I got my very own KGB officer, Vadim Vadimovich. It was very funny because we met in a basement.
“I understand why you are going to Leeds with Belarus Free Theatre, so go, watch and listen and tell me what you see and hear," he said.
Of course, he wanted me to be a spy, so I said to Natalia, what shall I do and she said, “It is your choice!” So when I got back from Leeds I said to Vadim – I don’t know why – that I wasn’t doing workshops in Leeds, I was shopping instead and I bought new jeans and a hat and a blouse etc. And this guy, he was still smoking and he said:
“You know Vadim Vadimovich is a very good guy when you tell the truth and Vadim Vadimovich is a very bad guy when you lie.”
Then Belarus Free Theatre had a tour in London and he told me I couldn’t go. I went anyway and I was fired from the army theatre because whilst I was away they decided to have some rehearsals and of course, I was not there...
This was a terrible situation for my mum and when I got to London she called me crying and screaming: “What are you doing with your life, you will not have any normal work, think about me, about your father!” She had understood that by choosing this theatre I had broken with normal life in Belarus and that I would never find work in any other theatre again. It was hard enough for my mum that I was in the theatre, because she wanted me to be a lawyer. That was her first challenge and this was her second, me not being able to work for any theatre other than Belarus Free Theatre and it was a very hard situation because she realised that she had a crazy daughter. I have a baby now and my husband stays at home to look after him whilst I work. When we made this decision six months ago she was very nervous, she said "It is not OK, you have to be with the baby. Your husband has to work, has to." She is afraid of people’s opinions. We tried to talk to her and said it is our choice, we are partners and this way is better for us, but then she said “if you think I am satisfied with your situation with Belarus Free Theatre you are wrong. I am not happy about it, what will happen when you go on tour?” So the conflict is not finished. I mean we are OK, we love each other and we talk every day by phone, but I know that she is still worried about me.
When I was fired from the army the KGB stopped bothering with me. But I think they monitor all of us, yes.
So there are risks being in Belarus Free Theatre. We can’t get state benefits should we need them because we can’t be registered, we don’t exist because Belarus Free Theatre does not exist, it can’t register as a company. It is strange and difficult. And we can’t do things about things. Even during our rehearsals for Dogs of Europe, we could do nothing when the people upstairs were crashing down weights so hard it made the ceiling crumble onto our stage.
I remember a tour in Paris and how I was very confused, physically confused, because I did not understand how to walk down the street! People were so relaxed and sitting on the grass and I thought, what? Because all I can hear in my head from my childhood is “don’t walk on the grass.” In my head it was a meeting of two worlds, I did not understand how to behave or that I can do what I want like scream and shout and show my feelings and it is OK. But the strangest thing was coming back to Minsk. There is an exercise you can do where you are holding your hands tense against your leg for one minute and then you relax and your hands will just go up in the air quite naturally. It was the same thing here, but the other way round. I was flying, then I came back and I have to go back to being tense again.
I mean you can see differences in people when you walk down the street, people are not smiling, people don’t want to talk. When my husband and I first moved into this area in Minsk it became our mission to go to the shops and say to the sales assistants “hello, how are you?” because no one spoke. For the first month, people were looking at us like we were crazy, but then they started to say hello and at the end of the second month they started to say how are you and we started to make connections.
But there are a lot of problems here - there is corruption - and it is coming from old people. Even when I go to the hospital or to the doctor I always buy some sweets or chocolates to take with me because I want to say, “Be careful, it is my son.” It is somewhere in our minds this behaviour, it is personal corruption, it is post-Soviet baggage. My generation is a little bit broken because we were growing up in this post-Soviet society, where if you need to get something you have to give gifts.
With every show, when we invite new people to Fortinbras and with every new project, it is another step away from my comfort circle. I am uncomfortable. It is a strange feeling because I want to do this step but I’m also afraid of it. So I can’t say Belarus Free Theatre is freedom for me, it is a mix of different feelings. I like it but I am afraid of it and I am scared of every new step. When we started to work on Dogs of Europe, I hadn’t worked for one year because I was with my baby. I wondered, can I still do it? In life, you can get yourself into a circle where you feel comfortable. And calm. And with Belarus Free Theatre I have to take a step out of and behind this circle.