One of my favorite theatre companies of all time, Belarus Free Theatre, brought their new work, Burning Doors, to New York City’s La MaMa last October. I first encountered this Belarusian company in London, when I saw their piece on capital punishment, Trash Cuisine. I got to see BFT again with their production Red Forest, about climate change. Those two productions from this now London-based company rocked my world, and my ideas of what theatre can be and do: Not only can performance be immersive, it can also plant seeds of change and cultivate actions. As a political theatre company, BFT raises consciousness about pressing socio-political concerns. Like the previous two shows I saw, Burning Doors is extremely urgent, as the dialogue, physical moments, and music track contemporary human rights violations.
Burning Doors investigates and meditates on questions of freedom, expression, oppression, and art, through the lives of Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian artists who have been persecuted for their creative expressions, resulting in violent imprisonments. In the pre-show, profiles and images of the persecuted artists are projected on the wall, as an introduction to the performance and to the stories being investigated. At the top of the show, the stark space fills with ominous sounds, and the voices of the performers draw us into an Eastern European setting.
The performance toggled between soliloquies from or about these three artists and scenes of Russian government officials conspiring on their persecution. In addition to these textual moments in Russian and Belarusian, instances of intense physical action enveloped the stage, as actors ran in circles or ran directly towards the audiences for extended durations. This rigorous physical element evoked the corporal condition: we humans only have these breathing, blood-pumping bodies. In the scenes with government officials, the corporal is also evoked as these officials are in dialogue while sitting on toilets. These compromising positions were welcome moments of humor and deepened the satire on such bureaucrats. Though I am a theatremaker concerned with climate, with what’s beyond the human, I do start with myself, with the body that I have. Once I recognize my own form and hold awareness for my capabilities and limitations, I am better prepared to get to work on climate action.
In another scene, three women sit in a triangle, while a fourth gets into their faces, berating each woman for saving a moth. After the sequence of questions and answers, the women would trade places and rotate, so that everyone filled each of the roles. This scene was fascinating to me in that the questions being asked were so elementary, yet the delivery was filled with vigor: Why did you save the moth? Did you know the moth would die by the end of the day? The juxtaposition of fury and innocence, and the way that the players rotated, evoked questions of authority. The subject of the questioning, an unseen moth, introduces a hierarchy of species: How are moths impacted by humans? Who, among humans, is able to save a moth? Do moths want to be saved? From my climate perspective, this scene referenced the era of the Anthropocene, with human activity as the dominant influence on other species and on our planet. I was left with even more questions about who has the power in our ecological system.
I was also struck by the participatory elements of the production. One of my favorite moments (spoiler alert!) comes after a woman delivers a monologue about her imprisonment. Suddenly, the stage action holds, the house lights dim on, and we are met with the woman, Maria Alyokhina, of Pussy Riot, and a male moderator. The play opens up to include a “talk-back” for the audience with Alyokhina herself. At first, the downtown New York audience was timid, too accustomed to the “typical” role of audience as passive spectator. With some coaxing from the moderator, a few hands raised to ask Alyokhina about her life post-imprisonment, about her perspective on the United States and Russia and democracy. This moment was a practice in democratization itself; the audience suddenly had a chance to participate directly in the performance. I was surprised by this dialogue with the audience, and thrilled at the opportunities that such a theatrical device can offer, as I seek more and more to make space for conversations with and amongst audiences in my own work.
The final segment of the performance highlights Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who is currently imprisoned for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks. After curtain call, the artistic director of BFT, Natalia Kaliada, brought postcards designed by Ai Weiwei for the audience to write notes for Oleg. This tangible step resonated – skilled artists of multi-media coming together around human issues to support our shared humanity. BFT is effective in that they highlight human rights that are easily taken for granted by Western (American) culture, and provide direct roads to action. In this time of political and ethical divisiveness, I seek the issues and injustices that bridge various identities, that transcend political affiliations, and reach the core of what makes us human.
In BFT’s Burning Doors, I experienced how political acts of resistance can have a role on the stage. Through rigorous physical moments, BFT cuts to what it viscerally means to be human, and in their playing around with hierarchies and authorities, I reckon with my political implications. I know that those with political power are not doing their jobs for vulnerable populations, for our planet, or for our future. These instances of interrogating authority are vital toward altering this status quo, and reconfiguring how decisions, from tax brackets to healthcare to energy regulations, can be made.
(All photos of Belarus Free Theatre’s Burning Doors unless indicated otherwise.)
This article is part of the Persistent Acts series which looks at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics. How does hope come to fruition, even in the most dire circumstances? What are tangible alternatives to the oppressive status quo? The series considers questions of this nature to motivate conversations and actions on climate issues that reverberate through politics and theatre.
Julia Levine is a creative collaborator and vegetarian. Originally from St. Louis, Julia is now planted in the New York City downtown theatre realm. As a director, Julia has worked on various projects with companies that consider political and cultural topics, including Theater In Asylum, Honest Accomplice Theatre, and Superhero Clubhouse. She is on the Marketing team at HERE Arts Center and is a co-organizer with Climate Change Theatre Action. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative, The Food Plays, to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.
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