Speech by Belarus Free Theatre artistic director Natalia Kaliada that became a major event at the Congress Arts, Power + Politics organised in New York by the International Society for the Performing Arts (ISPA).

Natalia Kaliada
Natalia Kaliada
Co-founding Artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre


Whilst preparing to write this speech, my first thoughts were of recent political events. Two in particular. both share a fundamental similarity in my subjective opinion: that decisions were taken based on short-term emotional concerns without consideration of the long-term historical consequences not only for us now, but for the generations ahead of us.

Then I thought, wait a minute, in Belarus Free Theatre we have an agreement that we don’t talk about the Dictator in our shows, we only talk about the real people whose lives he destroyed. By focusing on these real people we make their voices heard. If we start to talk about Lukashenko, Putin, Trump or Brexit in our shows then we will lose our time and energy…

Let’s all be honest now. Politicians, who of course we all blame for everything, easily with no real visible and vocal resistance from the majority of the population played on simple human weaknesses and fears:

Fear of the stranger who wants part of your home, your benefits, your rights.

Fear of the woman who will take an executive role instead of a man.

Fear of native people to whom a land belongs.

Fear of people who don’t think or look like us.

Fear of others.

We could keep adding to that list.

Did we not really reflect on what happened in recent human history? Killing aboriginals, killing women as they are witches, killing jews, killing homosexuals. Kill the different. Why didn’t we learn from it?

We were all too lazy to leave our comfort zone with our everyday troubles – where to buy a better coffee, how to find a better phone deal, whether we’re happy with the room our organisers booked for us. Just to be clear we are happy with the room.

In reality, our fears are rooted much deeper. Our fears became a kind of “internal migration” an autopilot mode where we’re thinking about whether we have a place to live, whether we could go to see a show and after that to the pub to see our friends on Friday night, whether we could have a week-long vacation in a warm place sometime soon, preferably somewhere where there are no other people from our own country around because their behavior is quite embarrassing…

All of it could be simply summarized by the famous English phrase: Keep Calm and Carry On.

What happened in societies across the globe last year and what will keep happening this year? We Keep Calm and Carry On.

We are OK. Right? We are not OK. We are fucked! And we allowed it to happen.

You would be right to ask me: am I afraid to lose everything again?

Yes because I know what it means to lose all of it, and for the last six years, I was - for better or worse - taken care of by our friends in London.

Am I afraid to lose what our friends gave to us?

Yes. I wake up every morning thinking my home in Belarus is lost and I now live in the house of our friend. How much longer will he be able to offer this kindness to us?

BFT has survived for the past 12 years but what might happen if we don’t manage to secure its future funding in such a political climate.

I don’t have the right to vote. I don’t have a voice but of course I keep protecting my small, warm and cozy territory as every human being does.

By only protecting ourselves from our daily fortunes and misfortunes and staying in our warm comfort zones, we have created the conditions of one of the most dangerous political and geopolitical situations since the WWI.

Fear led us to intellectual laziness.

Ask any psychologist and she/he will tell you that when a person is ill for a long time, it is very difficult to start the process of recovery. Why? Because everyone takes care of that person and gives them more attention…

It is exactly why we are where we are now: we treated policy-makers like ill children who we thought had the right to continue to pretend that they were ill. And we keep pretending that in the end, the disease will be gone. But it’s not and what is worse is that the disease is contagious. Democratic leaders love how unpunishable dictators are and decided to replicate them within frames of democracy. Democratic leaders saw that dictators do what they want and stay in power for more than 20, 30 or 40 years… They become some of the wealthiest people in the world… Here are some quotes from some of those dictators and their associates, the ones from whom democratic leaders learn.

These quotes make me gag but I can’t suffer alone so bear with me:

German order … attained its peak under Adolf Hitler. This is perfectly in line with our understanding of a presidential republic and of the role of its president... Hitler formed Germany due to the strong presidential power... Germany rose thanks to this strong force, thanks to the fact that the whole nation united around its leader... The head of state is the president, his influence, his leading role is the main thing... The History of Germany teaches us this.

I am sure you loved that. Painful isn’t it? Who said it? It was Alexander Lukashenko, better known to the World as the Last Dictator of Europe, speaking to the German newspaper Handelsblatt.

A few more: “Today it is much more costly to kill one enemy soldier than during WWII, WWI or in the Middle Ages, if you can persuade a person, you don’t kill him” said Dmitri Kiselev, who is the de-facto main Propagandist of the Kremlin. He said this in an interview in December to Russian state TV. It looks like there are no money issues at the Kremlin at the moment given how many people were killed in Ukraine after the Russian invasion and Russian opposition leaders who have been either killed or exiled.

Putin is not ashamed to praise Joseph Goebbels, who was the Reich’s Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany. He called Goebbels “a talented man who knew that the more incredible the lies, the quicker people believe them”. He says that knowing that that’s 24 million people were killed in the Soviet Union during WWII…

Moving to your part of the world, guys…

White nationalists in America have celebrated President-elect Donald Trump’s victory with a Nazi salute and a “zieg heil victory” chant, according to reports.

President of the National Policy Institute, Richard Spencer told an assembled audience that America belongs to white people, whom he called the “children of the sun,” a race of conquerors and creators who had, until now, been marginalised. Trump’s victory, he said, had awakened them “to their own identity”.

And finally…

Cyber attacks from Russia are now so commonplace that Germany must learn to cope with them as part of daily life, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on 29th November 2016, after Europe's leading economy suffered its largest-ever online assault.

Here’s my point: if the Head of State of the most stable democracy in Europe is ready to learn how to live with those who are eager to destroy all democratic values and bring the world into geopolitical chaos, then we as artists can not ignore this reality. They have an agenda, we don’t. The role of the arts is to illuminate, enlighten and to educate society so it’s time to do that job and not to listen to anyone who tells you it’s not your business. Just fuck them all!

Politicians have the world stage thanks to the media, but we as artists also have our world stage and by that I mean real stages across the world where we meet with real people. We have a responsibility to them to talk about the reality in which we live, to say together that dictators will not be accepted. We have to learn together how to be pro-active and not allow such situations to happen again.

We have to apply the wisdom of Chinese medicine here which says that you must see your health (or world) as a full picture and treat the reason of a problem and when the whole body is re-balanced it will thrive again.

How did we miss the moment of such big shifts in the Western democracy? When did it happen? Why did happen? There are many long answers but let’s keep it swift here:

It didn’t happen overnight. It happened slowly because we allowed ourselves to be afraid.

I am tired of people telling me that people are free to discuss anything and everything in a democratic country like the UK, Australia, or the USA. It’s not true. Maybe it’s possible around a dinner table (but I doubt that too) but it is certainly not possible on stage.

During the Soviet Union, we called it the “kitchen revolution” - when you discuss everything at home in whispered tones, but you can’t say what you think publicly. We have always said to our friends in the West in democratic countries, please look at our reality and remember that it could happen to you. And over years, intellectual and historical shifts that are initially imperceptible start to change our everyday reality, which brings us to where we are now.

We are theatre-makers are part of a vibrant global performing arts industry – and let’s be clear that it is a real industry that brings money into the economies of major democracies. With that power and position comes a clear duty and responsibility to our audience.

Why do we return time and time again to the classics - to Shakespeare, Chekov, Ibsen and other proscenium theatre playwrights? Why do we justify it to ourselves, to our teams, and what is worse to our audiences, by saying that we can learn through the prism of these plays? That the shine a light on today’s reality? It’s not true. We do it simply because it is a safe choice. But offering the safe choice is not our job. Our job is to talk to our audiences and to give them a chance to talk with us. We need to remember the Greeks, the forefathers of theatre. This was their legacy, but somehow it’s been forgotten along the way. Why are we afraid of putting the real stories of real people on stage? Because it is right in our face. Because real life doesn’t allow us to ignore politics. Because politics is real life. Everything turns on politics: where we sleep, what we eat, what we learn, what news we read, what we put on stage…

I know I won’t win a popularity contest for saying this, but I’m ready for it. Political correctness is used as a tool of control that leads to self-censorship.

It’s time to stop creating and ticking boxes. Some boxes are created by ourselves, some boxes are created by systems.

If you are not gay you can’t talk about the rights of gay people.

If you are not disabled you can’t talk about the rights of disabled people.

If you didn’t die in the holocaust then you can’t talk about that.

Imagine now that you are a gay person in Belarus or Russia or Uganda, and that when you say it openly, you are beaten, jailed or killed.

I spoke recently with a group of disabled people in Belarus and said that we can’t help you with your campaign in-person as it’s you who has to go out in the streets. They said: “You know what, you are completely lost in your liberal democracy. How is it possible for us, disabled people in Belarus to do it on our own, when there are no provisions for us - no elevators, no pavements, no phone system to access to emergency services”. I felt ashamed in that moment. My next question was “what should we do?” The answer is a very simple one: “We could only do it together”.

It is a very right time to refer to a late John Berger: the opposite of love is not to hate but to separate.

There are huge gaps in between all the different layers of society that we need to fill in.

Travelling on London’s Underground you will see words: Mind The Gap. It’s a great phrase and if we really reflect on it, we see quickly what a huge gap there is between all of us. And we have allowed those gaps to become even greater by not doing enough. And besides, filling in that gap is a lot of work, trust me. In my country we have lived that gap for more that 23 years. That gap divided many families. As artists, we saw that huge aesthetical gap between people and the regime…

For me personally and for my children it is really scary to wake up in our second home in London and to understand that the deep division of society is here as well. That very same division and fear-driven thought and action led to every war in Europe during the twentieth Century. Where will it take us this time?

I wish we could all find the strength to be free.

It is such a painful process to be free. Especially when our only tools are our bodies and creativity.

What we could gain by leaving the comfort zone of creating “safe” arts?
– We could finally get to know the real stories of real people instead of only those of stories of dead Kings.

– Through these new stories from the contemporary world we could discover something new and important for and about ourselves.

– We could amplify the role of the arts in provoking public discussion to become more meaningful and reality-based, not delusions or illusions of the world.

– The degradation of arts would stop.

– We would proudly take the mantle of influencers and not just entertainers.

What we might lose? Obviously we could lose funding.

What else? We could lose our education, our place to live, be beaten up and taken to jail. More painful than this is that it might bring pain to those you love, but I can tell you the incredible reality that they’ll tell you they support you and can manage it. The main thing is to keep educating people because when people have knowledge, they have the strongest weapon of all against systems.

So, is it worth doing it? It is. Why?

Order has been established. At the price of the paralysis of the spirit, a deadening of the heart, and devastation of natural life. Superficial "consolidation" has been achieved, at the bargain price of a spiritual and moral crisis in society.

Unfortunately, the worst feature of this crisis is that it keeps deepening. We only need to glance a little above our limited daily perspective to see with horror how swiftly we are all abandoning positions which only yesterday we refused to desert. What social conscience only yesterday regarded as improper is today casually excused; tomorrow it will eventually be thought natural, and the day after be held up as a model of behavior. What yesterday we declared impossible, or at least avowed we would never get accustomed to, today we accept, without astonishment, as a fact of life. And, conversely, things that a little while ago we took for granted we now treat as exceptional: and soon--who knows, we might think of them as unattainable chimeras.

The shifts in our assessment of the "natural" and the "normal," in moral attitudes in our society over the past few years have been greater than they might appear at first glance. As our insensitivity has increased, so has our ability to discern that insensitivity declined.

The most serious grounds for alarm, then, are the prospects which the present state of affairs opens up for the future.

The main route by which society is inwardly enlarged, enriched, and cultivated is that of coming to know itself in ever greater depth, range, and subtlety.

The main instrument of society's self-knowledge is its culture: culture as a specific field of human activity, influencing the general state of mind-albeit often very indirectly–and at the same time continually subject to its influence.

I am sure you loved the last big paragraph from words The Order has been established. And thought wow! How brilliant she is! I wish it was me who had said that. It was in fact our very close friend and patron President Vaclav Havel who wrote it in 1975.

We don’t have the time or luxury to be apolitical.

Like any contemporary artist it is a part of our nature to challenge politicians.

Today we understand that it is not enough to be just theatre-makers; we must always be just human beings…

Late February last year, and it was the day when the French authorities decided to demolish the refugee camp in Calais. Together with the Joes who run the Good Chance Calais Theatre, we walked through the camp, where everyone was waiting…..

We hear a shout: “Come over we have the best freshly made bread”. We ate the best bread of our lives minutes before the French authorities decide to demolish the camp. Those minutes of warmth and hope, of sharing hot freshly-made bread will stay with me until the end of my life.

Hope can be transformed into a dream, and dreams can come true when we move from words to actions.

The main challenge we have as artists and human beings is how to convert pain into hope. How to ensure that we do not forget the dignity of a man.

Through sharing our real stories from across the world, we can help people refind hope for themselves and maybe there will be chance for all of us, including me to have dreams again.

After we got smuggled out of Belarus my father lost his voice. The only thing left for him to do was to whisper. It was enough for us to keep moving. Even though my father is losing his voice again I know that for as long as he can whisper my daughters have a chance to understand what freedoms means.

Whether in whispers or in wails, we – together - have to disturb the sleeping conscious that absorbs the world.

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