Off Center and all together

Natalia Kaliada has faced rejection from arts facilities, endured police raids, been arrested and lived in exile for more than two years.

All of that for one cause: a relentless commitment to free thought and expression.

As the founding co-artistic director of Belarus Free Theatre, the sole 25-person acting troupe in a population of nearly 10 million people, Kaliada, along with her husband, Nicolai Khalezin, and director, Vladimir Shcherban, were forced out of their home country, Belarus, in 2010.

Undeterred, they took to Skype as UK residents and continued working with actors who had been left behind, many of whom have been blacklisted, dismissed from universities, fired from jobs and evicted from their homes.

"Every time we talk to our actors and express how proud we are, they reassure us that they are not scared of those jerks in police uniforms," Kaliada said. "In a situation like ours, when you live under a dictatorship, you have very small choice, it's either black or white. When you have a group of people who decide to make and say whatever they want, when they want, it will disturb the authorities."

Soon, 16 people from this ensemble will fly out separately from Belarus, so as not to alert the government about the company's activities, to be a part of the second installation of the "Off Center Festival." Hosted by the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, they will perform "Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker," which delves into the state of Belarusian society through the prism of sexuality.

Kaliada explained that it is at shows, and in front of audiences, that the actors get a chance "to live, and not only survive."

"We don't have a choice," she said. "This is our life. We just want to do what we love and what we think is important, artistically and as human beings."

From Tuesday to Feb 2, the Costa Mesa arts complex will showcase nationally and internationally piquant performances, from comedy to music, dance to theater, presented at multiple corners of the campus.

"We wanted to have a name that connoted a range of programming that was alternative to what people might normally expect and added to the personality of what we were trying to do," Center President Terry Dwyer said about the origin of the name "Off Center." "This festival offers an array of contemporary performance styles and is defined by its eclectic and unexpected nature."

Working in tandem with Executive Vice President Judy Morr and Festival Programming Consultant Mark Russell, Dwyer hones in on intriguing and offbeat performances in cultural hubs like New York City and Los Angeles. After playing connect-the-dots via email, and in person, the trio draw on their connections with agents and artists around the country, if not the world, piecing together the lineup for each year's festival.

This year's kaleidoscope of programming features California rock band Rival Sons, whose Center debut will mark the start of the festivities. Comedian Reggie Watts and "The Car Plays" will be back by popular demand. First-timers include Doug Varone and Dancers with a performance of "Stripped/Dressed," Fleur Elise Noble in "2 Dimensional Life of Her," Marc Bamuthi Joseph's "The Living Word Project: Word Becomes Flesh," as well as the Belarus Free Theatre. Sea Wolf, the band that launched the Center's 2008 Indie Band Series, is also on the roster.

"It's amazing to see expanded and diverse audiences showing up to watch exciting new work," Dwyer said. "I enjoy hanging out at the Off Center Lounge afterward — having a beer and talking to people about what they really liked or didn't like. The energy of the crowd is terrific."

Having experienced sold-out shows last year, Paul Stein is counting down to the Off Center Festival, where he, as the artistic producer of "The Car Plays," will oversee 10-minute enactments taking place in 15 parked vehicles, several of them world premieres.

According to Stein, inspiration hit when he witnessed a couple arguing in sign language, pulled over on the side of the road. Recalling spending hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway, wondering about the lives of neighboring car drivers, the Los Angeles resident crafted a "fly on the wall" atmosphere for an "amusement-park-ride-meets-theater" performance.

"We have to have our cars here — in L.A., in Orange County, in California — and so many small, but significant moments happen in our parked cars," said Stein, who kissed his wife for the first time in a car. "These plays are about those very moments."

After debuting at Hollywood's Steve Allen Theater in 2007, "The Car Plays" has given audiences across the nation a front seat (or back seat, as the case may be) look at the action, as each show involves buckling into the car alongside the actors. This means that only two people at a time can be accommodated during each play, after which the audience members switch cars.

Stein, who places a high value on the intimacy of this style of site-specific theater, believes that it is an unparalleled venture for the audience to be close enough to see sweat gleaming on the performers' skin.

"People chuckle," said Stein, whose 2006 black Honda Accord will be at the Arts Plaza. "They think, 'I'm going to drive 45 minutes to an hour to see a play and now I have to get back into a car?' What's wonderful is that they don't know what to expect."


If You Go

What: Off Center Festival

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa

When: Jan. 22 to Feb. 2; visit website for schedule of shows

Cost: Tickets range from $10 to $20

Information: (714) 556-2787or

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