New Realities:
Disturbing the sounds of silence

Theatre in the dark - as in ages or mood, as in approach or "hasn't a clue". All were to be found at the recent Europe Theatre Prize, an awards event that took place in Thessaloniki, Greece, from 26-29 April. One theme that threaded its way through the weekend was, as prizewinner Robert Lepage put it, "Theatre as communication: we try to change our public and to change the world."

Dark ages: Think revolution, dissidence, struggle and art. Hark back to the sixties, when youth had specific issues they were fighting for or against, not just torching cars and spray-painting their 21st century angst. Yes, there is still oppression in continental Europe, and a clandestine theatre company from Minsk talked up their cause and their conflicts.

During the breaks between symposiums and performances, Belarus Free Theatre spoke with participants about how the theatre they created two years ago got closed by the state; how they secretly produce plays in apartments whose location and dates are obtained by discreet word-of-mouth and cellphone; how the government hinders their travel. Despite the roadblocks, and helped by such notables as Tom Stoppard, Vaclav Havel and the late Harold Pinter, the company has been nominated for next year's Europe Theatre Prize for New Realities, and will be performing in France for the next two weeks.

One of the New Realities prizewinners for this year, Latvian Alvis Hermanis, best known for his breathtaking play "Long Life", also talked about growing up under Soviet repression in Riga. He described in an interview in Thessaloniki how he and his friends would secretly gather to tune into Radio Free Europe, to watch forbidden Western videos, exchange forbidden books. It was a dark period, he said, and projected a series of short pieces called Sound of Silence, thespian exercises based on songs from Simon and Garfunkel's eponymous album. One was a portrayal of people crowding into a tiny room to listen to the radio and moving different metal objects around as receivers to try and capture the elusive radio waves.

Speaking of "theatre in the dark", he stated his dream to make "light" theatre, arguing that Simon and Garfunkel represented the last spirit of utopia in the 20th century: "There was such positive energy in those songs, before we lost our innocence and purity".

Taking the idea a step further, Hermanis said, "Today especially, theatre should be about getting people out of their houses and together, so that they're not just huddled incessantly over their computers, their TVs, listening only to their stereos, cellphones, Ipods."

Alexandru Darie, head of the European theatre union, also spoke of days as a theatre student in Romania when western materials were forbidden books and videos were smuggled in. "What a change when the walls came down," he said. Plays were brought in, communications opened up, and he became first head of the state theatre and now head of the union. His voice cracked as he said, "I only got to see live performances by Lepage and Hermanis in the last few years, and it was so moving to finally see these pieces come alive."

Accepting his New Realities prize, Hermanis said, "In the past, artists were bohemian, self-destructive, alcoholic; but the art they created was always seeking beauty, humanity. Nowadays we artists behave very nicely, more like businessmen, we drink mineral water, do sports, go to bed early. But we create art that is pessimistic and dark, focusing on the dark side of our lives. It would be a good challenge for artists to present a more positive theatre. I think our brains are too large, and our hearts are too small. But we have to try."

Belarus Free Theatre performs in France at Nancy from 8-12 May, and in Paris from 15 May to 2 June, 2007. Check their schedule here.

Photo: Alvis Hermanis - photographer, Epaminontas Stilianidis