FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Three years ago, Vladimir Shcherban, Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, all part of the Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), became political exiles from their home country. They found themselves homeless in London..

At the time, the future of BFT was under serious question. The directors of the company were in the UK having been forced to flee Belarus following the 2010 presidential election, while the actors themselves remained in Minsk. This was, incidentally, the same election that saw oppositional candidates imprisoned before the polls closed. BFT became the subject of strict censorship in Belarus, which led to a situation where they couldn’t perform or even find a place for to rehearse

BFT has always, in its own words, sought “to create work that is politically and culturally urgent. We were borne from a desire for free artistic expression”. So reflecting on their position in the UK now, three years on, how does freedom compare to freedom in Belarus?

According to Vladimir Shcherban, (Artistic Director) “the first thing to say is that the British theatre system offers more opportunities. In Belarus there are only state-run organisations controlled by the government. Of the 27 that exist in Belarus, we are the only company that is independent. In the UK you can write a proposal for a grant and get the funding to do the work, which is great”.

“But it also means that you’re bound to another type of restriction – to create work that sits within the aims and values of grant donors. It means that British theatre is based in social politics. It restricts [British theatre’s] ability to explore more “risky” or challenging topics and it results in a theatre landscape where all the work begins to look the same. Or in the case of commercial work, a subject matter that easily translates into profit”..

This is a very interesting and important point. Do we in fact have artistic expression free of censorship or are we governed by a system that appears free but in fact restricts because that’s the way the system has to be? During the 1980’s left wing theatre was rife in the UK, especially around the times of the “Winter of Discontent”, the miners’ strike and the Thatcherite days. Some productions were of course deemed to go too far in thir interpretation of “free”, “Romans in Britain” director Michael Bogdanov was of course sued for his production which showed male rape and “Hair” together with “Oh Calcutta” with their nude performers caused some controversy.

Shcherban goes on to say: “It can be restrictive in other ways too. We (BFT) create our performances by allowing the actors to develop a creative idea: to write, direct, act, promote and produce the material themselves. We find this is the best way to tap into the personal, social and political taboos that we seek to expose on stage. In Belarus, lots of people won’t go to the theatre because they feel the censorship there creates performances that bear no relation to their lives. By developing work directly from personal experience we aim to combat this. We found that working with an ensemble of like-minded actors is the most effective way to create urgent, current theatre. However, this process doesn’t sit hand-in-hand with the way British theatre is funded because the system turns theatre professionals into grant writers. You have to describe the creative process. If you’ve already defined your outcome before you begin, your freedom of creation is already dead. The funding here can work as a trap; it can kill the opportunity for spontaneity because the process of creating a show cannot be immediate”.

As an ex-Dartington College of Arts student yours truly’s philosophy on creativity starts and ends with the premise that “If it’s not anarchic it’s not art”. Very much in line with Shcherban’s way of thinking. If you know where you’re going to end up you’re not being creative, you’re being prescriptive.

And as Shcherban goes on to say, “while the censorship in Belarus cannot be paralleled by the restrictions on artists in the UK, it can be compared. In the UK, these are largely defined by money – by commodity. There is a review culture that relies on a star system, defining artistic endeavour as an easily-digestible and consumable product. How much of our work is defined by the financial constraints around us? How does that effect who’s making the work and what they are saying?”

At this moment in time there are several topics that are in vogue, in fact to the point of boredom. Inclusivity, LGBT and the #MeToo movement. If a production contains these topics it is deemed acceptable. But imagine a production that advocates male dominance, a baby’s right to life, the abnormality of homosexuality, the banning of all religions, a fascist state or the right of a government to kill off homeless residents who don’t come up to scratch. There would be an outcry. Freedom of expression? Is such a philosophy possible with Social Media as it is? In fact is social media the new “Thought Police” as mentioned in George Orwell’s “1984”? With a multi pronged thrust in to the bubble that is British Theatre from Local Government cutbacks, Arts Council England’s restrictive criteria, Social Media and the British Press do we have “Freedom of Expression” within our theatre culture? Belarus has a visible and tangible censorship regime. How do we fair in comparison?

Paris has recently engaged in lots of “naturist” activities including naked gym sessions, naked restaurants and of course, a naked audience theatre production. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be that free and unrestricted in our approach to theatre in Britain….

 

 

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