Nadia Brodskaya and Sveta Sugako: a love story

Sveta: Well how does it feel to live in Belarus? I prefer not to think that I am living in this regime. I’m so fucking tired of it.

Nadia: I prefer not to notice that we live inside it. I feel more that I live by its side, close to it, but not inside. Sveta and I have done everything we can to live outside the regime whilst living in Belarus. How do we feel about going abroad? Well, we had a photographer following us documenting our relationship for a few years in Belarus and abroad on our tours and he said we are completely different people inside Belarus and outside Belarus..

Sveta: Our relationship is different – apparently we hide our relationship here. We don’t think this is true actually, but he saw us here and then he saw us outside of the country and..

Nadia: is a project about our love story, but we can’t be sure if what he says is true as we haven’t seen it yet. We need to check – are we the same, or are we different? I think, when I go abroad and I am sitting on a plane just before take-off to go to another European country, a free country, sometimes I feel better.

Sveta: You give yourself permission to be free. Inside of the plane… I feel at home here though. The whole world is cosmopolitan but, and maybe this is old-style, I feel my roots are here. So here is my home. But I know that if the situation changes for the worse and we have to leave then we will. I am sure we can live anywhere. But for now, we are doing what we can to change the country, change ourselves, change the system. Talking with people and asking them questions and trying to open their minds. It is not fighting. So we are doing our best to live in another country, but inside this one.

Can I talk about politics with my family? Yes, I can talk, but we don’t talk a lot because my parents are brainwashed. One point of view of the situation is that there is propaganda which comes from the regime and the other side is that there is propaganda which comes from the opposition – which is that everything is the fault of the regime. So, my parents, they read too much news from the opposition side and as soon we start to talk they, of course, say we live how we live because of Lukashenko, we have no money because of Lukashenko. But it is not true, you live how you live because it is your choice. It is not a communist regime you know, you can go and set up your business. It is not that now everything is closed because a lot of stuff has changed and because of the internet. And it is also not fair to say that it’s not my fault, it is the regime. Well, it is your responsibility. Lukashenko and the whole government and the opposition, they are not giving people belief in themselves. No one is saying to the people, you decide how the country goes, you decide how to live. Nobody talks about it. Lukashenko says I know how it should be and I will control everything and everything will be fine. The opposition says well we would be in control, but we can’t be in control because of Lukashenko and so he is the enemy. But no one says to the people this is your country.

How did Nadia and I first meet? I had already started working at Belarus Free Theatre and our meeting was not related to the theatre.

Nadia: (laughing) It was ten years ago and Sveta had been working with the theatre for five years already. I met Sveta and then Belarus Free Theatre a few days later because she invited me to visit the theatre.

Sveta: So how did I get involved with Belarus Free Theatre? One of my friends invited me to a show, but I didn’t like theatre at all and I said “I don’t like it, don’t invite me, please.” But she said, “No, there is a bar” and I was surprised about that, how can a play be in a bar or a theatre be in a bar? So I went and it was 4.48 Psychosis and it was Belarus Free Theatre’s first performance and I was completely shocked by what I saw because of the topics and the way that the actors talked. Before all my theatre experience was very different, it was big stages, costumes, lights, movements and loud theatrical speaking and all this shit that no one really believes in. And here in the bar, this play was asking a lot of questions – about self-identity, about being gay, suicidal and trying to get away from difficult life situations. I had never heard of these kinds of topics being talked about in the theatre before. And probably it was just in time, you know. Something was happening in my life, it was not a big drama, but I was nineteen and of course, at this age your whole life is changing. I was very impressed with this show. So I said to the two actors, the director Vladimir and the stage manager that I had a car and I could help them with their props. They were very happy to use me. During this time I was a student at the university and I was playing in a music band.

Nadia: I had no idea Belarus Free Theatre existed. Ten years ago I saw a performance, I don’t remember what it was, maybe Zone of Silence and I was impressed and I fell in love with Sveta and the theatre at the same time. I think it was a mix of feelings for a person and a group of people. Two great things happened to me at the same time within a few days. I met a person, and we have been together for ten years and I met a group of people and we have been together for ten years. I started to help Sveta with her work at the theatre. I thought I did not have the level of knowledge or experience needed to be part of the company, but I was around all the time and I bought a ticket to go to Poland to a performance with them and that is where I first met Natalia and Nicolai. Probably they saw that I was around a lot.

Sveta: But also the reason why Nadia is so important is because no one else wants to do this boring job – for Nadia it is not boring – and someone has to deal with all travel documents etc and no one else wants to do it! For Nadia it was yes sure, I want to. I mean well, I hope Nadia enjoys it. (to Nadia) You are enjoying it, no? Anyway, Nadia was enjoying it more than everyone else.

Nadia: I am the only one here who has no interest in being on the stage. Even Sveta. Verity, you ask, does Sveta want to be onstage?

Sveta: Well you know, I am before each show. Each show is mine.

Nadia: As backstage –

Sveta: No, I mean talking with the audience..

Nadia: Sveta played in one performance, she replaced one girl. It was in Staging a Revolution, New York 79 and we played it in some bar. Sveta says she has ambition and I am the only one who wants to do this kind of work.

Sveta: Freakin’ actors, “leave me alone onstage, give me an audience and I will be happy.”

Nadia: Maybe this is why I am still at Belarus Free Theatre. I am good at what I am doing and I have no ambition. The theatre changed me a lot though, I have no idea what kind of person I would be without it. I think I have the perfect work and the perfect life.

Sveta: Verity, you say that this is amazing to say in a dictatorship? Well, again, if we were to think about it every minute, we would go crazy. The main dictator is in our heads you know. If a majority of Belarusians could get rid of the dictator in their heads, the country would change immediately.

Nadia: (showing me a candle via Skype) Can you see our Belarusian candles? We still remember that we are in a dictatorship.

Sveta: Well it is a good point. Belarusians are now starting to laugh about this stupid fucking system. A lot of stuff is coming out now, mementoes and T-shirts about the regime (pointing at some magnets and a candle). These things are a symbol of Belarus – these are fridge magnets of the riot police vans they used on the protests. These are the presents you can bring from Belarus. People are like, OK, this is a symbol of Belarus, let’s put it on a fridge. It’s the only way to live with it, OK let’s play with it, to say we are not scared of you.

Nadia: If they are still on sale, we will bring you your personal one…

Sveta: Challenges for me? Well, a big challenge came in 2010 when Natalia and Nicolai left and decided not to return to Belarus. They were arrested for the protests and Nicolai went into hiding. Natalia and Nicolai escaped from the country, Vladimir joined them soon after, and it was a big question: what about us and what about the theatre, what shall we do? At this moment I left the theatre for half a year or maybe a year. I tried regular life, working as a sales manager Monday to Friday. Then one director left and then I realised that someone has to run Belarus Free Theatre. It was a big deal. It was a very important decision in my life – what is my next step, should I do this, do I want to run the company? It was very quick, we had not a lot of time to do it, but I knew I had to run it, there was no one else. We weren’t asked but there was no question.

Nadia: There were no proposals, but things happened by themselves, it was just understood. We don’t have any contract and our duties are not described. We are here, but it is our lifestyle.

Sveta: The work can start very early in the morning, you can continue until 2 am, you are going to sleep with this. Sometimes we are tired of it, sometimes we try to talk about other things and we try, but again we come back to talking about theatre. It is a way of life. If I think about life without Belarus Free Theatre it will be again something interesting, no doubt about it. A lot of options. Probably we might be sad. Even so, we have done so much to change society. If for some reason it stopped now, I would be happy that I had this experience. It’s very important and I see how people are changing because of us. It has impacted on others, but it is a big topic. Our state education system is shitty because for the whole of your life no one teaches you how to make mistakes and then when people grow up they are shy to chat with each other because they don’t know the right answers and they are shy to do things or start things up because they don’t know how to do it right. They are scared because in our schools and universities you have to know the right answers. This is not right, you have to be able to make mistakes and grow through these experiences.

So what are we doing at Belarus Free Theatre? We are asking questions, but we don’t say this is how it can be. There can be many different answers. You have to find your answer and your own answer is more important than the right answer. But I can see how people change from their first meeting with Belarus Free Theatre to years later. They come to the first show, shy and too scared to talk and react and then they kind of go, “Oh so I can feel, I can let myself feel” and during regular life they accept their feelings and that they can make mistakes. And after one year they bring friends and I can see how they communicate even with strangers and talk about the shows’ topics. And this is what education in schools has to do. So our theatre’s role here is very important and this is probably why we continue to do it.

Belarus Free Theatre makes me feel that I have a lot of energy and I can see results and I am enjoying the process. And then at other points, I am very tired and I feel very empty. But even then you are all the time on a wave. I like this way.

Nadia: One word is alive.

Nadia Brodskaya is General Manager of Belarus Free Theatre in Minsk and Sveta Sugako is Stage Manager, although both take on other roles when needed. They live together as partners in Belarus