Laura Wade’s first play, Limbo, was produced at the Sheffield Crucible Studio Theatre in 1996. 16 Winters was produced at the Bristol Old Vic Basement Theatre in 2000. After university she worked for the children’s theatre company Playbox Theatre in Warwick. Wade’s adaptation of W.H. Davies’ Young Emma opened at the Finborough Theatre, London (where she was later Writer-in-Residence) in December 2003. Young Emma, as well as 16 Winters, was directed by Tamara Harvey, a contemporary from her time at Bristol. In 2004, Wade was a writer on attachment at Soho Theatre and her play Colder Than Here was produced there in February 2005. Her next play Breathing Corpses played at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in March 2005. In March 2006, she returned to the Soho Theatre with Other Hands. 2010 marked her reappearance at the Sheffield Crucible with her reworking of Alice in Wonderland, entitled Alice.

Read Laura's Story

I came to Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) through the Royal Court’s international department who sent director Lyndsey Turner and I to run a week-long playwriting workshop with their students in Minsk. Minsk is an extraordinary place. It was 2009 and it was fascinating to see the layers of history under the skin of the city: the hammer and sickle still there on buildings and park railings, built into the texture of the place. It was the first time I had been somewhere where people had very necessary reasons to be quite guarded and had a way of talking to you that was charming but that didn’t reveal anything political or personal until they knew you well. For instance, we met a lovely woman who looked after us the whole week but I didn’t find out until the very end that she had a daughter. In the UK we blurt out personal details as soon as we meet someone, so it was interesting to build relationships that used a different currency.

Working with the Fortinbras students was refreshing. When I did my drama degree at university in the UK there was a culture of looking down on earnestness, as if people were ashamed to appear to take theatre seriously. Which now seems an absurdly luxurious approach. But the young people in Fortinbras were strident in their politics, eloquent in expressing themselves and a hundred per cent earnest. They took it seriously because they’d taken considerable risks to be there. They really believed that theatre could start important conversations between people and bring people together to create change.

We saw a BFT performance while we were there, and again the audience had taken risks to see it, because there was always a chance of the show being raided by the police. I was blown away by the total focus in the room, the audience’s thirst for ideas and dissent and discussion, and the fact that BFT gave a space in which they could be free.

It made me want to buck my ideas up. I spent my early and mid-twenties saying that I wasn’t a political playwright which was born from a fear of not being clever enough to understand politics, or not being able to articulate my ideas, as well as not feeling entitled because of the very special structures that we have in this country around who’s allowed to say things and who’s not. Structures that are quiet and insidious but are nevertheless there. When we were in Minsk Lyndsey and I were still developing my play Posh so I hadn’t quite stuck my head above the parapet yet. But I thought if these people can produce such inspiring work in these straitened conditions, then for god’s sake I can be braver.

So my association with them has helped me to articulate what I think is important and worry less about what response it’s going to get. BFT reminds me that theatre at its best asks urgent, difficult questions and provokes debate, and that the work shouldn’t ever be so bland that you forget about it as soon as you walk out of the auditorium. It shouldn’t be, “Well that was charming, where are we going for dinner?”

Natalia and Nicolai are amazing people, it was a privilege to meet them in Minsk and get to know them better when they moved to London. Natalia can speak with such passion and articulacy and I’m so impressed at the way she can get into rooms with important people. She’s an ambassador not just for Belarus but also for women and anyone who is disenfranchised.

BFT doesn’t let you go: once you’re in you’re part of the family. I wanted to help them put roots down and keep the company together when they moved to the UK. Initially that meant helping them find staff, or connecting them with useful friends who knew how to make funding applications. It was all quite hairy at first and there were times when they weren’t sure how long the company could keep going. But their doggedness and enthusiasm are infectious, so I have always been a very keen cheerleader for them.

One thing you realise when spending any time with the company at all, is how little we know about Belarus and the situation there, and yet how close to us it is. Not just geographically close, although that proximity is striking, but also how close we are to a similar political situation. Or how easy it would be to get there: that thing people say, that we are all only two paycheques away from destitution, well how many national crises are we away from dictatorship? We are seeing attempts to curtail the right to protest here, where in Belarus they’re a few steps ahead and you can get arrested and jailed for protesting. It’s chilling to think about, but also crucial to recognise the strain on lives lived in fear, in a world that looks normal on the surface, but has these dystopian events, such as when journalists or activists ‘disappear’ or are mysteriously killed. These are our close neighbours, and it’s crucial that we don’t turn a blind eye.

Laura Wade is a playwright and screenwriter.