Thursday, June 30, 2011

St. Petersburg

Well… Sunday night ten students and our MXAT liaison Nastya boarded a sleeper train bound for St. Petersburg.  The whole experience was a little bit weird – the tiny cabins, the tiny beds, the bunks.  We chatted for a little while, but mostly, we just slept.  I guess that’s what you do in a sleeper car.  I had the top bunk, which was an odd feeling.  For the most part, though, I slept pretty hard, and woke up around 6:00am just outside of St. Petersburg.  I got some tea in one of the nifty glass and sterling silver (or something) mugs that hearken back to the tsars, and we trundled off the train and onto a van which took us straight to a hotel (not ours) for a bitchin’ breakfast buffet.  After the buffet, we met our guide Olga to begin a bus tour.  At this point, I was feeling a bit on the delirious side.  What city are we in?  Why does my back hurt so much?  What the hell is going on!?!  Still, she led us around, showing us all kinds of sights.  We saw the fourth largest dome in the world (St. Isaac’s), we saw the burial place of the Tsars (Cathedral of Peter and Paul), we saw sphinxes along the river and a creepy statue of Peter the Great.  Unfortunately, she kept us driving for a bit too long near the end of the tour, so several of us fell asleep.  I felt bad about it later, but it was just physically impossible for me to keep my eyes open at that point.  After the tour we were dropped off at the hostel, which turned out to be a pretty good setup – I might venture to say it was the best hostel I’ve stayed in.  Of course, my last hostel experience was a little over 10 years ago… but still.  At this point, a small group of us headed out to explore.  We grabbed lunch at an Irish pub on our street called O’Hooligans and then we walked over to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior on the Spilled Blood.  A decommissioned Eastern Orthodox church, it was built on the site of the fatal attack on Alexander II.  On the outside, it is definitely a relative of St. Basil’s in Moscow.  On the inside, EVERY SINGLE INCH of wall and ceiling is covered in mosaic – embellishments, Bible stories, saints, icons… it was unreal.  We strolled down to the Kazan Cathedral after that which is still a fully operational Orthodox church complete with some really special icon at which there was a giant line of people waiting to pray.  We also tried to go to the Russian National Library, but they didn’t seem to allow people to enter without a library card, so we settled for taking pictures of the statue of Catherine the Great outside before heading back to the hostel for a nap.  After the nap we grabbed dinner at Café Romanov (so Russian… even though I ate vegetarian sushi) and then met up with the rest of the group at “A Traditional English Pub.”  For realsies.  A little before midnight (when it was still fairly bright outside, by the way – maybe it looked like about 5:30-6:00pm) we strolled down to the dock on one of the canals to buy tickets for an English language boat tour.  This ended up being one of the highlights of the city – everything was lit up so beautifully, we got to watch the bridges open for the night, and some guy flashed us from a bridge.  We weren’t allowed to stand up on the boat because some of the bridges under which we passed were so low that I could reach up and touch them from my seat.  That was a trip.  At 2:30 – when it still wasn’t completely night-like outside – we hit the pillow at the hostel… one full day.

Tuesday morning we were up and at ‘em (and by “‘em” I mean the breakfast buffet at the hotel down the street again) before walking over to the Hermitage Museum.  The Hermitage was a little like Versailles and the Louvre all in the same place.  It was breathtaking.  And at the end of all the fancy rooms we were left to our own devices to wander around the rooms full of Renoirs, Monets, Picassos, etc.  At this point, Andrew, Greg and I went to lunch at an Italian restaurant with the intention of heading to a theatre museum afterwards, but upon consulting our guidebooks again, we realized that the theatre museum was closed on Tuesdays, so we started looking for something else to do.  I must admit, I considered not posting the decision we made, since my parents are reading the blog, but the fact is, it is an hilarious story for which I paid 100 rubles, so I’m going to tell it!  So, Andrew tentatively suggested that we attend an Erotica museum that he had found in his book.  Greg and I shrugged and agreed, so we walked for a while and ended up finding the address, but we couldn’t find the museum.  Then a toothless guy smoking on the corner said something about a museum and directed us around the corner and down a flight of stairs.  Now – the guidebook had said something about the museum being in the same building as a VD clinic, but we assumed that it had to be in an old one, or perhaps on a different floor.  This assumption turned out to be erroneous.  The museum and the VD clinic were one and the same.  When we walked in and inquired with the nurse behind the desk, she plopped a paper down on the counter welcoming us to Russia’s first erotica museum, giving us the price, and directing us to put on some protective booties over our shoes.  After we complied, she directed us down the hall… the “museum” turned out to be about two hallways worth of glass cases full of dirty little tchotchkes – lots of sexual positions and erections and stuff.  I was kinda hoping for some historical pieces a la In the Next Room, but there was none of that.  It was just someone’s dirty little collection.  The centerpiece of the collection, however, was a freestanding glass case with a jar inside.  This jar, they claimed, contained Rasputin’s penis.  Yup.  So, we looked at that for a little while, read the google translate English explaining their theories on how Rasputin might have been castrated (though not on how the result of that castration might have ended up in this creepy little VD clinic).  Oh, and PS – the clinic was fully operational.  We were not the only people in there, but we were definitely the only people not waiting to find out if we had Gonorrhea or something.  There were about 3-4 dudes sitting in there waiting for appointments or test results, and doctors and nurses came and went and interacted with them from time to time.  It was all kinds of surreal.  Then we went to a park across the street so that we could scrub that “museum” out of our brain.  That night the whole group grabbed dinner at a Georgian restaurant and then drinks back at the Irish pub for Greg’s birthday, and we turned in for the evening after another crazy day in Petersburg.
The third and final day began much the same way as the others – with a breakfast buffet.  Then we checked out of the hostel and loaded ourselves into a van that took us about an hour outside the city to Царское Село – the summer home of some of the tsars.  It turned out to be a little like a mini Versailles – in fact the rumor is that Elizabeth (a daughter of one of the tsars) was supposed to marry one of the Louises of France, but the marriage fell through so she decided to build a palace that would make Versailles look lame in comparison.  It was lovely, though ridiculously crowded.  That’s one thing we discovered about St. Petersburg – it’s much more of a touristy city than Moscow, so everywhere we went there were these enormous crowds.  And let me tell you, you learn a lot about people when they’re in a tour group.  French people will cut you if you get in the way of their seeing antique ceramics.  Once we wound our way through the house, we walked through the grounds and met back up with our bus, which took us to a mall in St. Petersburg where we grabbed lunch before hopping back on the train – this time it was a bullet train, so the trip that took eight hours on the way there took four hours on the way back.  On the train, there was some crazy Russian movie playing.  I tried to follow it with no sound, and I think I actually may have figured out some important elements about it, but overall, it seemed like a very strange movie.  When we got back to the dorms, some people were at a play, so I just ate and tried to get re-settled.  It ended up being a very drunk night for a lot of people, but I just had a beer with some of the grad students and had a perfectly lovely evening. So… that’s the nutshell version of my adventures in St. Petersburg.  My two main regrets from the trip are as follows: 1) I never managed to stop moving long enough to buy anything with “St. Petersburg” on it – even a keychain.  2) I didn’t get a chance to go to this vegetarian restaurant I read about called “Idiot.”  But hey… I guess that gives me a reason to come back?  Whatever the case, it was a fantastic trip that I wish could have been about a day longer.  Now, we’re really in the home stretch: Thursday, Friday, Saturday… then Sunday we fly home.  Yikes! 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Beginning of the End

Well, yesterday was our final day of singing and acting with Sergei.  Singing was basically a recital… which was mostly a lot of fun.  The most fun for me were the people who didn’t consider themselves singers and seeing how far they’ve come in the last few weeks.  There are a lot more people in this group who sing than they think!  I personally didn’t rock my songs the way I had the week before in class, so I was a little disappointed in my own performance, but I still have the good work I did over the last few weeks as a benchmark to set for myself on the way to getting my voice back in shape.  And Marina had a lot of kind words for us all, so we all left with a pretty warm, fuzzy feeling. For Sergei we did one final set of etudes (one involving a dead guy on a subway, my group’s involving an awkward elevator ride) and then we had individual evaluations with him.  Now, Sergei admitted that he hasn’t had the time to get to know us that he has with his Russian students, and it was quite obvious that he wasn’t setting out to point out our faults, but rather to give us all something positive to walk away with – and that was a-okay with me.  I’m not going to catalog everything he said about me… because it’ll just sound like me patting myself on the back, but I did appreciate that he commended me for not being afraid to be funny, not being afraid to look silly and being willing to sacrifice appearance for the scene – and as a comedian, that sure was nice to hear! There was no show for me to see Friday night either, so I headed back to the dorm for a little dinner, spent a couple of hours doing interweb stuff at Starbucks, and then camped out for a scholarly beer with some of my fellow grad students.  It was a pretty chill evening all around. Then Saturday we headed up to school for our last day of movement class with Vlad.  He had us watch a video of his first year students after they’d been working with him for seven months.  We could see the foundations at work that we had been learning… but the stuff these kids were able to do… YIKES!  You see, we were in elementary acrobatics training, and by the end of seven months, they were throwing each other all over the place!  It was unreal!  See, according to Stanislavsky, it’s good for actors to learn acrobatics, not only so that they have better control over their bodies, but so that they can overcome their fears.  And boy howdy… watching that video, things made a lot of sense. Finally, we had our last class with the glimmering ball of joy – Misha.  He was both our first and our last acting class, and it ended up being a really emotional class.  We all presented our final monologues from Three Sisters.  I actually felt very good about mine – far better than I had felt about my song the day before.  Go figure.  And then we sat in a semi-circle and talked about what we would be taking back with us from Moscow.  I found that I was unable to participate in the conversation because every time I thought about opening my mouth I would get choked up.  One of the other grad students put it very well though when he said that we had all been so nervous when we got here – what was it going to be like?  And then we met Misha who was so generous and disarming and welcoming and alive, and that he wanted to bring back a little bit of Misha with him from Moscow.  I’m pretty sure we all agree on that front! Class got out early, so we had some time to kill before the show that Aaron and JT and I were scheduled to see Saturday night, so I sat in the square journaling (and being approached by every beggar on Kamergersky street – one who seemed prepared to adapt his panhandling into loud slow Russian so that I could better understand.  Listen guy: as an American tourist I can tell you: louder and slower does not mean more understandable.)  Then Aaron, JT and I went to dinner, spent about an hour sitting on the boulevard at Pushkinskaya killing time and talking about the month before heading to the theatre.  It was at the same tiny little theatre where we had seen Death of Giraffe, and the place was PACKED.  The little wooden café chairs where we were seated in the front row were smooshed together and our knees were a little over a foot from the edge of the stage – then they put people on pillows on the floor in front of us and continued to set up extra chairs on the side of the seating… and this is a show that has been running since 2006!  I mean, holy moly!  I had a successful Russian interaction with the woman sitting next to me as I helped her and her husband locate their seats, so she assumed I spoke Russian – which was not a correct assumption on her part.  But she did speak English, and we had a very pleasant chat about the show and about theatre in Moscow in general. The show we saw was the last Kremov production of the trip, this one was called Торги (Auction).  It was inspired by the issues that surrounded the building they were performing in, which had been a space that was taken away from a famous director during Soviet times.  The actors seemed to be sort of saying their goodbyes to the space, and then they began to dig up pieces of the theatre’s past – literally.  You see, when we entered, the entire stage was covered in plastic sheeting, and there was a huge mound of sand in the middle where there were sand sculptures of the building as well as different places around Moscow.  During the course of the show, they dug up oversized dolls of the three sisters, money, candles, a seagull (which really did seem alive in their hands) and a whole bunch of other things that had some tangential relation to Chekhov and/or Vasiliev (the director who had had the space taken from him).  They sang and even rapped sections of Chekhov’s text, and at one point they constructed a see-saw with the model of the building in question as the fulcrum.  They played on it up and down in amazing different ways, before they began to allow it to spin, with the actors flying through the space, supported by the weight of each other and help up by the theatre space.  It was another one of those plays that made me long for the text so I could fully understand everything they had done.  I caught a few of the jokes, and felt very savvy for doing so, but I really do hope I can come back here some day with a better understanding of the language.  That would take this experience to a whole new level.  Plus, as a special treat, we actually got to meet Dmitri Kremov at the end of the production!  It was just a quick handshake and introduction by our professor, but it sure was cool.  Aaron and I geeked out big time over it. When we got back to the dorm we discovered that there was a giant round of the drinking game “Waterfall” being played on one end of the dorm, and there were some very drunk people involved in this whole process.  I’m not so much with the drinking games, so I just stopped in here and there before heading to bed.  A little after 1:00 I did have to let the world know that I was planning on going to sleep, so the noise level on our side of the floor would have to simmer down a little bit – I’m such a killjoy.  But I did manage to sleep pretty hard, if not very long, since I got up in the morning to head over to Starbucks for a little skyping.  I managed to skype with my parents and then with Rick, and then the pleasant surprise of getting to skype with my brother, sister-in-law and niece too!  And Anya has officially figured out my name, which made me want to weep right there in Starbucks!  That little girl is just the best thing ever. So… tonight I hop the midnight train to St. Petersburg (well… it’s actually at 11:00, but still) and I’ll be there until Wednesday.  I’ll be offline during that time, but I’m sure I’ll have many exciting adventures to chronicle when I return!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Clever Blog Title Here

Well let’s see.  Looking at my last post, I was right about one thing – I did start off Wednesday morning with my feet behind my head… only I did it on my own this time without the assistance of a large Russian man.  So that’s pretty special.  I didn’t quite make it this morning, but give me a break… this was the first time we’d had two days of movement in a row!  I’m lucky I’m able to sit upright.  Then instead of having acting class, we watched a Russian movie from the 1970s called Unfinished Piece for a Player Piano.  We watched it because it’s a great example of a Chekhovian style, and I totally get that, but it was our penultimate day of class with Sergei… so we were all a little bummed that we just got shrugged off to sit in front of a VCR instead of working.  After classes last night I went to my fourth show at the Сатирикон (Satirikon): Король Лир (King Lear).  This production was directed by the same guy who directed Richard IIISeagull andHamlet, and featured the same guy who played Richard III as King Lear, and it also included almost the entire cast of last night’sSeagull.  One thing I have to say about the Russian repertory system – these people have to keep so many shows in their heads for so long.  And it’s not as if a person with a big role in one show plays a smaller role in another show.  The stars tend to be the stars… and that translates to sooooooooooo many scripts running through these people’s brains!  It’s really impressive when you stop to think about it.  At any rate, I think this may have been the most straightforward of the productions I’ve seen by this director.  I thought it was good, the acting was excellent, but the staging wasn’t as creative as I had come to expect from this director.  Although the final image of the play was beautiful and devastating enough that even if the rest of the play had been abysmal, I probably would have walked away praising it.  See, they just cut all the stuff at the end about Albany and Kent and Edgar being really good people, and maybe Edgar should be in charge or whatever.  The set featured three upright pianos upstage, and after Goneril and Regan died, they sat on the piano stools and slumped over their respective pianos.  So when Cordelia died, she went to take her place at her piano, but Lear kept trying to sit her up straight – to bring her back.  Then he started going to the other sisters, but as he left to start working on another, the last one would crash back into the keys or onto the floor.  This went on for a while until the lights just faded out.  It was really gorgeous.  That’s one thing I’ve found very interesting about the way they approach Shakespeare here: they have no problem cutting things that do not suit the concept.  He wanted Richard to be about karmic retribution, so he cut Richmond and let the people he killed destroy him.  He wantedHamlet to be about Hamlet’s lone descent so he cut Horatio.  He wanted Lear to be about this man who destroyed his family, so they cut the stuff about someone else taking the throne.  And I have a feeling that, if I could understand the language, I would discover even more cuts and more pointed sculpting of the text to the director’s purposes. This morning, as I said, we had movement again.  I achieved a full shoulder stand, and even though no one saw me, I felt pretty spiffy.  Then we had our last theatre history lecture which turned out to be a Q&A… for which we didn’t prepare.  So our questions were kinda lame.  Then we had our Chekhov acting class during which we worked through our monologues with Misha.  Now, over the next two days we are going to have a bunch of lasts.  Tomorrow is our last day of singing and our last day of acting with Sergei.  Saturday is our last day of movement and our last day of acting with Misha.  Then Sunday ten of us will head to St. Petersburg for a few days.  Then Thursday we’ll have our little “graduation” ceremony from the MXAT school, Saturday we have a little outing that I will blog about when it happens (and I’m not going to tell you what it is yet.  This will probably just cause undue interest, because it won’t end up being nearly as interesting as anything any of my 5 1/2 readers could imagine on their own, but whatever), then Sunday the 3rd at 5:00am we will pile on the bus and head to the airport.  I knew the end of this month was going to sneak up on me, but DAMN!  This is madness!  I do feel like I’m ready to go home, but I also feel like I could stay here for another few months and just really go to all these classes again and again and again.  There is so much to learn here.  And I’m so lucky to have gotten this little taste of it.  And I kinda want more!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ya Chaika... For Realsies

Well, it’s the Summer Solstice today… which I suppose means tomorrow we might have about 4 hours and 10 minutes of darkness.  But anyway… this morning we had our final film history class which was, as usual, crazy interesting.  This woman is just bubbling over with knowledge and enthusiasm… I would have listened just to her for the whole month and been very happy.  After a quick lunch we had acting.  We were all gratified to hear that our group etudes were closer to the Chekhovian idea that Sergei had set for us.  Our training was overall more in-tune.  And my individual etude went over very well.  So I was feeling pretty good going into the evening.  Most of the group was scheduled to see a ballet version of The Little Mermaid (not the Disney version), but I was scheduled to see something else… SO, the first show I saw when I got to Moscow three weeks ago was a production of Чайка (The Seagull).  The folks at the MXAT didn’t seem to like that production much – despite the fact that many of their own actors were involved with it.  Most of our teachers at one time or another advised us to see the new production of Чайка running at the Сатирикон (Satirikon).  It was directed by the same guy who directed the Richard III and the Hamlet that we’ve already seen, as well as the King Lear that I’ll be seeing tomorrow.  But back to my story: JT and one of the undergrad students and I trundled off for our 7:00 curtain, took our really great seats, and had our minds absolutely blown for the next four and a half hours.  I would attempt to describe this production, but there’s just no way that I possibly could.  And even if I could transcribe the five pages of notes I took during the show, or even if I could accurately describe every moment, it still wouldn’t make sense.  It really has to be seen.  But I really truly had a life changing experience at the theatre tonight.  Everything we’ve seen here has been exceptional in its own way, but this was different.  The images and the physicality and the variations… obviously there was a language barrier, and I so wish that I could have understood everything better… but I was still able to follow them on almost all of their twists and turns, and I just want to go see that show every night until I leave.  Of course, that’s not how Russian theatre works.  So 10 of our group are going to get to see the show on Sunday night while the rest of us are on our way to St. Petersburg… and then it’s not playing again until after we leave.  So there are eight people in our group who will never get to see this production… and I am so so sorry for them.  Because I really cannot explain the experience I had tonight.  I actually enjoyed the first production we saw.  But this production had a soul and a life all its own.  I cried because the play was over.  It was earth shattering. So… with all of those images and memories and emotions and questions dancing through my head, I’m going to try to get myself to sleep.  We’ve got movement in the morning… which probably means that in about 10 hours I’ll have my feet behind my head.  Russia is weird. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Chekhov Fail

This morning was an extension of my day off yesterday, since the other half of the group had singing this morning.  So I got up and <gasp> did my damn laundry!  I now have clean clothes to wear!  It’s a very exciting feeling, I must say.  So, I stepped outside and presently sweated my way through my first clean shirt on the hot and humid walk to the theatre for acting class in the afternoon.  Because we are trying to cover in a month what MXAT students usually do over the course of about a year and a half, we often have to take giant leaps for which we are not ready.  Today was an example of that, in that we moved into working on “Chekhovian” etudes to start out the class.  We were basically told that we used too many words and ended up lying on stage the whole time.  Ouch.  I think this threw us a bit, and so our group dynamic was way off for our training exercises.  Then, when we went into our personal etudes, it just went from bad to worse.  My attempt at channeling my niece was extremely unsuccessful, but lauded for the difficulty of what I attempted… so I guess that’s something.  And when I helped out one of my classmates with his etude, we were congratulated for not being as untruthful as the one that preceded it… so I guess that’s something too.  Oh well – it’s all part of the process.  After class I walked back to the dorm and made a little dinner before leading a group of six undergrads to see Катя, Соня, Поля, Галя, Вера, Оля, Таня (Katia, Sonya, Polya, Galya, Vera, Olya, Tanya) – a play I saw a week or so ago.  I loved it, talked it up, and decided that I would go again… why the hell not, eh?  I will say that I don’t think that this performance was quite as on as the last performance, but it was still absolutely stunning and fantastic.  Plus, since I had seen it before, I knew when they were trying to hide something by directing my attention elsewhere, so I fought back and tried to observe some of the mechanism behind the magic.  I’m not sure the students enjoyed it quite as much as I did… but I think they at least appreciated it anyway.  Especially the young women – because seeing the kind of work done by the four women in that show is just plain inspiring. Then… when I got back to the dorm I drank a little vodka and did some journaling, reading and blogging (oh my!)   Not a bad way to end a day.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Long Arm Tourist Photos

We don’t have classes on Sundays, but we usually do have shows to attend in the evenings, so they end up being only partial days off.  Today half of us were supposed to go see Richard III and the other half of us were supposed to go see Much Ado About Nothing.  I was in the Much Ado half.  However, it seems that some wires got crossed, and no one ended up getting us tickets for that particular show, which gave us an honest to goodness day off.  So my plan was to be the uber-tourist.  The fact that it was raining pretty heavily when I woke up put a bit of a damper on this plan, but I was not to be deterred.  After a little Starbucks interweb time, I made myself some lunch, put on my rain coat and headed out on an adventure.  I started out at the Храм Христа Спасителя (Cathedral of Christ the Saviour) – the largest Cathedral in Moscow.  It was originally built to commemorate the Russians’ victory over Napoleon, but then Stalin tore the magnificent building down with plans to build a giant statue of Lenin in its place.  Luckily that never happened.  Instead the site was the largest swimming pool in the world for many years.  Only in 1994 did they begin to rebuild the cathedral… finishing it in 1997.  So even though this particular building is only about 15 years old, it has the feeling and grandeur of a much older and more historical place.  I walked inside and was just overcome with the sheer beauty and scale of it.  It was not unlike the feeling I had walking into St. Peter’s Basilica ten years ago.  My eyes couldn’t open wide enough to take it all in.  I walked around and around in circles just staring in every direction.  I even bought a candle so I could go light it for my family at one of the many shrines in the building (It is Fathers’ Day after all… so I figured it was a good time to do it!).  By the time I was done in there the rain had mostly stopped.  So I decided to head to the Арбат (Arbat) – a pedestrian street with lots of stores and street artists.  On my way there I got off one stop too early from the metro and wandered around a really pretty park for a while before finally heading on to my destination.  There was nothing particularly fancy about the street itself.  There are a lot of tattoo parlors on the strip, which is sort of making me want to go get one.  We’ll see how brave I get.  Oddly, I have never heard the frickin’ theme song from Titanic as many times as I did on that strip.  I mainly steered clear of the gazillion souvenir shops, but when I did walk into one I was absolutely adopted by a sales girl.  She swooped down on me and wouldn’t leave me alone.  She was very sweet, but way pushy.  I ended up buying a couple of items for some family members and headed back down the street to the metro. Back at the metro, I hopped onto another line which took me out to what is known as “Victory Park” – a ginormous park dedicated to the Russian victory at the end of WWII.  There are fountains and monuments and floral arrangements everywhere.  There is a 142m tall Обелиск (obelisk) in the middle of the park – 1 cm per day of the war.  They even have their own Триумфальные Ворота (Triumphal Arch).  Apparently St. George is either Moscow or Russia’s patron saint, so he is all over that place.  I didn’t go into the Церковь св Георгия (Church of St. George), but I did take my picture in front of it.  So there’s that.  I wandered around the park for about an hour, bought a Magnum Bar (here it’s Магнат) that was just as delightful as I remembered them from my Austria days, and headed back to the dorm.  It was such a full day!  And since I was on my own, I ended up taking a ton of long-arm photos of myself at the various sites, since I was tired of just seeing the scenery… I wanted to be in the pictures too!  I’m sure I got plenty of stares, but I really don’t care.  I made the conscious decision that I was going to be the uber tourist today… and uber tourist I was!  I even bought my first bottle of vodka since I’ve been here.  I’ve been told this brand is extremely smooth, so I’m quite looking forward to giving it a try this week!  Go Boдka! PS - thoughts to myself during my solitary outing included:
  • Man, I’m good at this metro thing.
  • I have Russian face.  I wonder if I look Russian enough.  Do they think I’m Russian?
  • How do you pronounce that sign?
  • Wait… which stop is this?
  • I wonder who those people are.  Well… they’re in this picture.
  • How much did that shot glass cost?
  • What if I pretended I didn’t speak Russian or English?  Then what would they do?

Stanislavsky and the Bolshoi

The morning of the 18th we took a tour of the apartment that Stanislavsky was given by the Soviet government after they collectivized all of the country’s assets.  The apartment was a pretty nice spread… until you look at a picture of his original residence, and you realize that this must have felt like pretty cramped quarters.  Still, it was pretty wild seeing the literal places that I’ve read about and heard anecdotes about.  There’s even a large door that he had brought in from one of the sets from the first season of the Moscow Art Theatre and it’s become a ritual for actors starting on new projects to come touch the door handle for good luck.  So… of course… we all did.  Ah, it’s good to be a tourist. The afternoon was taken up by our Michael Chekhov class with Misha, who just continues to amaze me every single day.  He’s working on monologues from Three Sisters with us, and it’s ridiculous how well he knows these plays.  We tell him a character and an act, and he knows what monologue it is.  And though he doesn’t understand most of the actual words we’re saying, he still gives us these crazy insightful notes based on exactly what we’re saying and doing.  He’s a master.  And he’s adorable.  I want to put him in my pocket. The evening was an excursion to the Большой (Bolshoi) for a preview performance of the Rimsky-Korsakov opera Золотой Петушок (The Golden Cockerel).  It’s a crazy little fairy tale about a foolish tsar and the magical bird he’s given to help tell his future.  Of course, there’s a beautiful Tsaritsa, a mysterious old man, and the bird ends up pecking a hold in the tsar’s jugular… so you know it’s going to be a good time.  And this production was really amazing in every possible way.  Of course the voices were stellar, and the production values were out of this world!  THAT is what it looks like when you put money on stage.  The building itself is an absolute monument.  And we were in the alternate space that they built to house the Bolshoi shows while they’re renovating the original Bolshoi.  But even so, it was magnificent.  The lights were alive, the sets were amazing, there was a cast of about a gazillion (including a chorus of creepy lollipop guild dancing children).  I bought the program and discovered that there was a full libretto inside in both Russian and English, so as the show began I was prepared to try to follow along in English… when we discovered that they were projecting subtitles in English!   Huzzah!  This was the first show we’ve been to where we were able to simply sit back and follow the show the way we would in the states, so that was a nice relief.  Plus, the seats were definitely more comfortable than any of the other shows we’ve attended, so that was a double treat.  The only thing that sullied the experience in the least was that our translator was all pissy at us for not getting dressed up for the show – even though no one told us to.  And frankly, we all would have loved the opportunity to get dolled up, but we didn’t know.  There were plenty of people dressed casually, so we weren’t completely out of place, but in such a sort of fairy tale setting, it would have been pretty cool to have felt a little fancy-schmancier.  Oh well.  The show was so much damn fun, we didn’t spend too much time worrying about it.  Besides, our other liaison showed up in jeans, so we just dismissed it as part of our first translator’s constant negative demeanor.  So there!  We went to the Bolshoi, bitches! PS – the show did include a guy doing that Russian dance where he squats and does a bunch of front kicks… so that’s another Russian stereotype to cross of the list! 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Bears on Unicycles

Today was madcap and non-stop.  First, half of us had our singing class.  The highlight of this class was when I sang “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” and Marina told me that she wished I were one of her students.  I mean… damn.  This crazy Russian woman who meows at us and punches me in the stomach has really reminded me how much I love to sing, and how much I need to make opportunities for myself to do just that.  So there’s an assignment for me when I get back to Detroit this fall. Our acting class was a little low key today.  We did our etudes (the other group did a pretty brilliant Ouija board etude – ours was a race and was fine… it just wasn’t as awesome as the Ouija board) and then we discussed Three Sisters for a while before launching back into our person etudes.  I still haven’t done mine – I’m not sure why I’m so nervous.  But hey… it’s just a couple minutes of my life.  And I’ll be channeling my niece… so you know that’s a good time!  There was no show planned for the group tonight, but Aaron, JT and I headed off for another piece directed by Dmitri Krimov – this one was called Сметь Жирафа (Death of a Giraffe).  The play began with four people coming out, setting up a rickety table and drinking cups of hot tea which they then left on said table.  They then proceeded to lift this table and place it on brightly colored blocks that got taller and taller with each level.  The process of building these legs was crazy tense… the performers were amazing!  Eventually – once they had balanced the table about 6 feet in the air, and after they gave it a head, neck and tail – the conglomeration of elements had become a Giraffe.  A circus erupted around this tenuous giraffe – first with a lion tamer act involving a tiny puppet lion that eventually went mad and attacked the whole cast.  Then there were a pair of little bear toys – one of which was a bear on a unicycle.  This made me extremely happy, since my brother had sent me THIS CLIP from The Family Guy before I came to Russia.  The basic gist: all Russians are bears on unicycles.  And I saw one!  Huzzah!  Then a woman came out as if she were going to do an acrobatic routine, but all she had to do was jump and the giraffe came crashing down as the lights went to black.  Then we met the mourners.  I have no idea what any of them were talking about (except for the one who spoke a few lines in English, which was an exciting surprise), but it was extremely engaging.  For one thing, the giraffe in a wheelchair costume was to die for!  There were these crazy projections involving dead flamingos and fish and a magical mystery tour through the solar system or something.  I think there may have been some sort of sales pitch for visiting Paris.  And I am fairly certain that the one-legged clown who inhaled helium from a giant tank each time he spoke is going to feature prominently in every nightmare I have for the next five years.  Then, just as the show was ending, just as we thought we had seen it all, a boy who looked about six years old walked across the stage in a backbend.  The end.  I kinda felt stoned as I was leaving. Once I got back to the dorm, no one seemed to be around on my side of the hallway, so I enjoyed the me time… until suddenly, this weird chime sounded and a Russian voice started saying something over a loudspeaker that I didn’t know we had.  This happened twice in about 20 minutes, and the second one sounded a little like it might have been a Russian rap.  I have no idea what was going on, but it sort of creeped me out.  I felt a little like I was in the LOST bunker or something.  So, I grabbed my $15 ice cream, sat in my room, and blogged before heading to bed.  So… good night!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Russian Dumpling

Well folks, mark it on your calendars.  Today will go down in infamy as the day when a large Russian man hooked both my ankles behind my head in front of 18 onlookers.  Yup.  We had movement this morning, and one of the things he attempts to get us to do is to put our feet behind our heads.  I am very nearly able to do this one leg at a time, so all of a sudden, as I was working on one leg, I felt Vladimir’s arms grab my other leg and pull it back behind my head… and there I was, in a pose he refers to as “Russian Dumpling.”  Do you think I should put that on my Curriculum Vitae? Nothing else for the rest of the day could really compare with how my day started, so I won’t bore you for long.  We had an hour of theatre history with Anatoly Smeliansky, during which he talked about the founding of the Moscow Art Theatre and their first production of The Seagull.  Then we had our Chekhov acting class which was okay, but we’ve had better days.  After a quick dinner, a few of us hang around to see a MXAT student production of selected scenes from Richard III.  It was a fine and energetic performance, though it was almost impossible to follow as it was not only in Russian, but cut all over the place, and Richard was split into two actors, and one of them was a small blonde woman.  But it was kinda cool to see some student work.
So… aside from my newfound flexibility… not a terribly eventful day.  So here’s a picture of an awesome Soviet statue from one of the metro stations.

My Russian Dreamboat

Okay, so I did have classes on the 15th, but they were not the highlight of the day for me.  No sir.  (Even though the dance class surprised us by being our last dance class… which sort of made us all heave a sigh of relief.)  The highlight for me was the epic production of Гамлет (Hamlet) we saw last night.  First of all… I must explain something about the way Russian theatre works.  They don’t rehearse a show for a couple of months, run it for a couple of weeks, close it and start on a new one the way we do.  Instead they rehearse a show until it is ready, then they open it and play it a couple of times a month for as long as it sells, rotating between several other shows in their repertoire over the course of the rest of the month.  Last year the Moscow group saw a production of The Seagull that had been running at MXAT for about 30 years.  The Hamlet we saw last night has been running since 2005.  Clearly actors will come and go throughout that time, but it’s a director’s theatre here, so the director’s production is what remains.  This means that company members keep all these shows in their brains for as long as necessary… and they love their star actors here… so a lot of the same people end up having the lion’s share of the roles.  The guy who played Sorin in Seagullplayed Peacham in Three Penny and Hamlet’s father’s ghost/player king in Hamlet.  The guy who played Trigorin inSeagull played Mack in Three Penny and Claudius in Hamlet.  And this fellow… oh my… he’s crazy talented and crazy hot.  There are many of us who are becoming fairly serious groupies.  But I remain cool-headed.  The other day as I was walking down from the cafeteria with another woman in my group, he was just sitting there in the hallway smoking (everyone smokes in the hallways here… it’s really annoying).  I very coolly greeted him and he returned the hello and we walked on.  Of course, when we got a level down the stairs was when I started freaking out: “Was that him?  That was him right?  Oh my gosh!”  Anyway… he’s super dreamy.  (No worries, Rick… I have no plans to stay here and become a permanent stalker or anything.) So… back to Гамлет.  You see, my Russian Dreamboat Константин (Konstantin) was one of the things I loved about this production – and not just because he’s so darn pretty.  As Claudius, he avoided that Hollywood trap of “Claudius is a villain.”  So many productions play the end in the beginning – there’s no doubt he’s a power-hungry murderer, so we just sit around and wait for Hamlet to get off his ass and kill the bastard.  But this was a crazy likeable Claudius.  And also interesting – he and Hamlet seemed to have a pretty good relationship at first.  They wrestled and joked and clowned around.  He doesn’t know at the beginning that Claudius killed his father.  But that’s not to say that there aren’t any cracks in this relationship, and when Claudius granted Laertes his request to leave, things started to get more tense.  Then, when the ghost appeared… oh man.  Hamlet followed him off, just as you would expect, but then they re-entered running and playing and hugging each other – he wasn’t the cold, distant specter, but the loving father getting one last chance to speak to his son.  It was very moving and was very effectively juxtaposed against not only Polonius’s advice to his children, but against some of Hamlet and Claudius’s interactions in the first scene.  Claudius and Gertrude had a really fun, sexy relationship too, as their really fun foreplay chase was interrupted by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and then by Polonius.  R & G were dressed in drab browns when we first met them, but when they came to greet Hamlet they were in matching sailor suits, carrying satchels and bouquets while they swayed to the music.  It was such a brilliant illustration of how they had been carefully packaged by Gertrude and Claudius before being delivered to Hamlet.  One pretty amazing cut happened in Act III Scene 1 when Hamlet picked up a crumpled piece of paper off the ground, read off the line “to be or not to be, that is the question,” and then tossed it away in disgust – they cut the speech!  But, never fear – they put it back at the end, right before the duel.  And when he finally did deliver it, I got chills even though I didn’t understand a damn word.  And he did the piece while clutching the ghost of Ophelia in his arms.  The staging was largely very stylized and expressionistic – it was actually the same director who did theRichard III that we saw last night – but it was so full of meaning and soul.  I mean… damn!  There were many cuts and rearrangements and such, but things began to get very wild and much harder for the non-Russian speaker to follow after Hamlet killed Polonius.  It was at that point that madness truly began to descend on the prince, and the story and imagery became more and more distorted.  I can’t say that I understood everything that was done in this later part of the show, but it was absolutely beautiful.  The final duel was completely stylized – it involved everyone (even the dead characters) sitting around a table, and they had a group movement every time there was a hit, and confetti denoted the poison (as it had in their production of The Murder of Gonzago).  Finally, when everyone was dead and the curtain began to fall, all the actors sat up and looked out at the audience with their hats spinning on their canes – a recurring motif they had used.  The image was absolutely gorgeous. I’m finding it difficult to fully describe the awesomeness of this production in a way that can do it any justice.  But what I would say is that I learned things about Hamlet by watching this production – and that’s pretty darn cool.  I actually walked away feeling light I’m almost ready to direct my own Hamlet now… and I even started mentally casting it for Greenville actors.  Hopefully I’ll get a chance to do that some time.  Because man… I’ve got some great ideas. Oh – one important thing I have to mention: this production had no Horatio.  This surprised us all.  It ended up working in that it really isolated Hamlet, giving him no support and no solid link to sanity.  It was a bold choice, and I think it worked for this production, but I don’t know that it would work anywhere else.  Just a little something to ponder for ya. Seriously… mind-boggling. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Now is the Winter of Something Russian

This morning it was raining – hard enough to really soak those folks without rain gear on our 30 minute walk to class.  But my little umbrella left me fairly un-soggy-fied, and my foot was feeling a bit better, so the morning started off pretty well.  We had film history again this morning, during which we talked about Russian cinema from the 1930s-1950s.  We watched some great clips, including an awesome Soviet propaganda sequence in which Stalin (or a much handsomer film version of Stalin) descended from above to congratulate his troops on their victory after WWII, and to proclaim his dedication to freedom and world peace – of course prompting spontaneous cheers of “Viva Stalin!” from the crown of onlookers.  Most notably, we spent half the class watching the filmThe Cranes are Flying.  About 95% of it could have passed for a good old American-style romantic film a la An Affair to Remember only during a war (I’m sure there’s a much better parallel to draw here… but it’s almost 1:00am, I’m in Russia, give me a break).  Charming woman, dashing man who goes off to war, his dashing brother moves in on his turf but the charming woman never stops believing, even after he is missing in action, even after she has been told he died.  Finally, as the troops return, she hears the news of his death from someone she believes and she begins to weep.  But she hears a Stalin-like figure talking about how it is their duty to remember those who fought so bravely and to assure that we will never need war again… and she was cured.  All her heartache needed was the realization that she had the opportunity to be there for her fellow comrades, and that whole lost love thing was a thing of the past.  The film was really well made and well acted though.  We can’t wait to get to discuss it next week!= Acting class was extremely fun today.  We are really pushing ourselves in terms of concentration, and our exercises keep getting harder and harder, which is a lot of fun.  We started an exercise today that I fully intend to use with my improv kids in the fall in which we had to build a sort of movie image one detail/one person at a time.  There are so many important lessons that came out of that exercise I could hardly keep my head on straight.  Then we started our person etudes in which we are supposed to be a person as different from ourselves (though still our own gender) as possible.  Only a few people had time to go today, but so far, the ideas have been very creative.  I’m nervous about mine… but hey… no pain no gain. After class half of us shuffled off to the Сатирикон for a production of Ричард III (Richard III).  Yes, that Richard III. There were a lot of things I really liked about the production, though I wasn’t as blown away as it seems many of the other people in the group were.  The visual style sort of reminded me of an Edward Gorey cartoon – dark and sketchy and cockeyed.  The use of fabrics and shadows were really striking.  Richard was charming and creepy in all the right ways – and we’ll be seeing the same actor play Lear next week, so I’m very much looking forward to that transformation.  There were some cuts that worked really well, and some cuts that I didn’t quite understand.  They cut almost all of Ann’s role – she just had her first scene.  So when she showed up among the dead people haunting him, I was a little surprised to see her, since he hadn’t seen her in hours.  However, they did very consciously sculpt the play so that the final destruction of Richard was a direct comeuppance for the specific evil he had done, eliminating the big battle against Richmond and company.  Instead he was murdered by the spirits of the young princes – who had also played the assassins all along.  And boy howdy… the ways they found to kill people in this play were absolutely stunning.  They were all very stylized, and completely captivating. During the show, my ankle began to bother me again, so I hobbled a bit as we wove our way back through and under the streets of Moscow back toward the dorm. The realization hit me today that we have one and a half weeks left of classes at this point.  Then we have one week without classes. Then we’re back to the States.  Madness!  (And… as time is flying by, we still haven’t received our documentation to carry with us… so 2 1/2 weeks in, we’re still wandering the streets semi-legally. Gotta love that.) Doppleganger Update – I saw Russian Brita Clothier on my way to class this morning.  And it struck me this evening that our film history professor may well be Russian Isabella Rosselini (I have no idea if I am spelling that right).

Monday, June 13, 2011

Panda Porn

So last night, about 1:30 in the morning, just before I went to bed, the lights went out.  I looked out my window and saw lights there.  I heard some of the other people in my wing come out of their rooms, and we discovered that the lights were still on in the common room off of which our rooms branch… just the lights in our rooms had gone out.  So when they still weren’t working in the morning, I figured we had to tell someone.  This is not as easy as one might think, since the women who are in charge of the dorm do not speak English.  So, I typed a couple of simple sentences into my internet translator, wrote them down on a piece of paper, and walked down to see the babushka on duty (we call them the babushkas – but they don’t know that.  Apparently “babushka” means very old woman… so it’s something that the MXAT students say behind their backs).  I apologized for my bad Russian and handed her the note.  I’m sure that the grammar was atrocious.  It probably translated to something like “Electricity badness dark room 310-315 night please.  But she seemed to understand, I cheered, she smiled, and I headed off to school.  My ankle was giving me a lot of trouble this morning, so there were a lot of stops along the way.  When I stopped inside the underpass at Pushkin square, a man walked up to me and started speaking.  I responded with my well-practiced phrase: “I don’t speak Russian.”  So he started speaking English – asking if he could take a picture of my beautiful smile, assuring me he’s not from a newspaper.  I told him no and hobbled away.  Apparently several other members of our group did have their pictures taken, but the fact is, I’ve seenTaken… and the whole thing started with a friendly stranger taking a picture, so hell no! The morning started with our movement class, and though I had to take it a little easy on my foot, I was able to do most things.  And in general, things were a little easier this time.  I actually successfully balanced all my weight on my shoulder.  Next time, I’m planning on trying to straighten my legs into a full shoulder stand!  Ah yeah!  Vladimir is a task master, but he’s also a big ball of Russian sunshine. Next the people who hadn’t already worked with our singing teacher got a chance to work with her, so I had a little extra time off before lunch and acting class, which gave me time to catch up on my journal.  We started off the acting class with two etudes.  One group was a forest that caught fire because of a careless smoker.  My group was a bunch of people hanging out on the slots in a casino, and mine hit the mega jackpot.  Both ended up being fairly successful – but I think Sergei liked ours better.  We win!  We then worked our way through another set of complex but silly but brilliant exercises that I can’t explain, but can assure you have great meaning in the course of our training.  We then finished up with our animal etudes – one of which was a particularly brilliant gorilla performed by the skinniest girl in the world – and finished off with a discussion about panda porn.  Of course the only thing better than your Russian acting teacher talking about Panda porn is the fact that his interpreter has to then say “Panda porn” over and over. There were no shows scheduled for tonight, so we headed back to the dorms and just kicked back a bit.  Then Aaron, JT and I went to the park for a little PhD discussion time (aka an excuse for JT to smoke a Cuban cigar while having deep conversations about Russian theatre).   PS - the electricity was back on when I returned to the dorm after classes.  Hooray for communication! 

Russia Day

June 12 – according to our tour guide last weekend and all the posters all over the streets of Moscow – is День России (Russia Day).  It’s like the 4th of July in the States.  It commemorates their first democratic elections… in 1991.  Yes, today is the 20thanniversary.  It’s a pretty big deal.  Apparently tonight in Red Square there will be fireworks and we think a Linkin Park concert… because nothing says Russia Civic Pride like Linkin Park.  Since Russia day falls on a Sunday, most of the city will be off work tomorrow, out in their little country villas (they’re called something else here… I think it’s дачас (dachas)… but I’m really not sure).  I hope that doesn’t mean our teachers will be grouchy about having to spend their Russia Day (observed) with all the dumb Americanskis.
But I guess we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.  Today, we didn’t have any classes, so we hopped on the metro down to the Moscow River and took a boat ride for about an hour and a half.  I had a beer (which I had been craving like crazy since the night before) and just sat on the top deck in the sun and breeze, watching the sights of Moscow pass by.  On the other end of the ride we got off at one of the big parks, but JT was on a mission, so we didn’t stop to look around for long.  We stopped at a fountain, took a group picture, and hopped back on the metro headed for the dorm.  This gave us a few hours before the show that Aaron, JT and I were on our way to see, so I went to the grocery store, where I accidentally bought some $15 ice cream (it had better be DAMN good!) and headed back to the dorm.
Then I did a very American thing and headed over to Starbucks for a little while to use their internet.  We do have internet in the dorms, but we have a limited amount of bandwidth (or something else technical) allotted to each of us, so I decided I wanted to do a lot of surfing and uploading and such, so Starbucks seemed the place.  I ordered my drink and the friendly Canadian fellow next to me struck up a conversation.  I just love Canadians.  Then, it was an hour of web time before heading back to the dorm for a little more relaxation.  Russia Day has been pretty good for my weary soul!
After our afternoon of lounging like the lazy Americans we truly are, Aaron, JT and I met downstairs to head out to another Dmitri Krimov joint.  This one is called Катя, Соня, Поля, Галя, Вера, Оля, Таня (Katia, Sonya, Polya, Galya, Vera, Olya, Tanya).  It’s based on a collection of famous short stories by the Russian author Ivan Bunin.  Of course, I haven’t read these short stories, and they’re not available online in English, so I was, once again, going in fairly blind.  The theatre was a large but pretty conventional black box space, but as we entered, there were 6-7 men and 6-7 costume/make-up crew people – one per actor – on stage.  Each team was at a chair, and we watched as the men changed from their street clothes into their tuxedos, and then they were frozen in their new characters until a stagehand came and placed a different hat on each head and then lit each man’s cigarette.  From there… it was one helluva wild ride!  There were three human-sized boxes on stage, but until they opened the first one, it didn’t occur to me that they were human sized, just that they were part of what was around.  The first one was opened downstage… and the stagehands promptly sawed the woman inside it in half, leaving some entrails in between.  One of the men started talking for a while – I assume about this woman – and then they all left.  The stage was empty until another box upstage started to move.  It began to hop toward the audience, and then it fell on its side.  First a leg popped out, then an arm, and finally a head.  This woman began her energetic piece from this bizarre half-in-half-out position, and eventually climbed out.  She talked a mile a minute, until words projected on the upstage screen began interacting with her – then she had to slow down to allow their part of the conversation.  I really wish I had been able to read them!  Chairs moved without any human or string assistance, even her shoes floated away from her once she removed them.  Finally, as her piece ended, the men came and placed her back into her box, leg propped up at an impossible angle.  Then another man started speaking his story entirely in French (a language I understand only slightly better than Russian).  The woman he was speaking about seemed to be played by the tiny ragdoll he strangled in the midst of his story.  After he started brandishing one of the legs of the sawn woman as a weapon, the men all began to inspect the lower half of her body.  At this point, the upper half crawled out of the box and came over to see what they were looking at.  She began a long piece about a series of postcards.  Then, suddenly she had legs again, and she began this fantastic tango with one of the men.  She completely changed her dress and character two separate times in the course of the dance, and she ended up back in the box – and we didn’t even see it happen!  The third box was opened by this time, and a tiny little woman appeared and called to one of the men on the opposite side of the stage.  She then climbed across the other men – their shoulders, backs, knees – to get to her man.  They giggled and kissed and made love, but eventually there was blood on her head and blood on his hand, and she was placed neatly back in her box too.  The men rushed out and another woman walked in and started to give a lecture on the writer whose stories these were based on.  The men returned (in what must have been an impossibly fast quick change) dressed in baggy jeans and bright football team coats – the way I guess Russians assume American teenagers dress.  They watched her lecture, and then they all left, leaving a small hooded robot toy walking around the stage… and that was the end.  I can’t possibly begin to explain how cool this production really was… but even without having any idea what was going on, I was captivated.  I think I might be going back on the 20th to lead a group of other students who are interested in seeing it.  So friggin’ cool.
We finished off the evening with our Sunday night potluck, a group meeting that really had no excuse for lasting an hour and a half, and then I tried to skype my parents, and though I could hear them, they couldn’t hear me.  That was the first time I felt homesick since I’ve been here – listening to my parents’ voices and not being able to talk to them.  It was very frustrating and made me feel very lonely.  But we’re hoping for more success on the next try.
So that’s Russia Day.  Apparently a few people in our group ventured down to Red Square to take a peek at the Russia Day festivities, but they found after going through several security checkpoints, that there were tickets involved – tickets that they didn’t have.  Then they found that getting out of Red Square was even more difficult and full of military checkpoints than getting in.  Wowsers.
Doppleganger Update – I’m pretty sure Russian Jerry Witty was in the play I just described.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Cow Says...

This morning we started out with dance class… and we continue to be convinced that this guy hates us for not being better dancers.  I know he was crazy pissed when some of our group members were late this morning.  Granted, they shouldn’t have been late, but it was understandable, since the class started half an hour earlier than we’re used to.  Anyway, ballet with my gimpy ankle was frustrating, since I can’t point as well, and I can’t do any of the jumps or anything.  And I had to sit out some of the Russian folk dance too (lots of stomping and something that resembles the Watoosie).  The afternoon had us back with everyone’s favorite Russian imp, Misha!  As part of our warm-up today we played a game I had played in Girl Scouts, but let me tell you, you have not lived until you hear this white-haired, bright-eyed Russian chant, “I said a boom-a-chick-a-rock-a-chick-a-rock-a-chick-a-boom!”  Possibly the highlight of the trip so far.  Then we started to more in depth about Michael Chekhov’s process and he got to about 2/3 of us talking about our monologues from Three Sisters.  I was a little disappointed that he didn’t get to me today… it doesn’t involve my stupid ankle, and I was really prepared!  <sigh>  Oh well.  I can be even more prepared the next time we see him, which I think is not until Thursday!  BOOHOO! Tonight’s theatrical offering was just for me, the other PhD student (Aaron) and our professor (JT).  We went back to the theatre where we had seen the mind-blowing, life-changing production ofDemon to see another piece by the same director called Cow.  It’s based on a well-known Russian children’s story or folk tale or something, but of course we knew nothing about it.  Instead of the round space we were in last time, we were ushered into a long rectangular space that was completely white.  As we entered we had to walk along a trail of newspapers.  At the far end were the seats which were covered by a giant image of grass and sky.  Approaching the seats, we were met with a giant pile of rubber galoshes – not the big ones, just overshoes.  And we were all instructed to put them on before taking our seats on the grassy hillside.  The play started… and I really can’t tell you what the hell happened.  There was a boy who loved a cow and the cow was hit by a train while he was away at college… I think.  But there was a father on stilts, and there was a projection of a giraffe with a severed head, and there was a shadow play strip tease performed by the woman playing the cow, and there was “Old Man River,” and there was a hammer and sickle and I think possibly a nuclear explosion.  A lot of the visuals of the performance were fascinating and very clever, but we were totally stymied by what we saw.  This was not the universally applicable uber-work of Demon.  But it was interesting.  And we’ll be heading out for another piece by the same director tomorrow… so there ya go. Doppleganger Update – The woman who played the cow tonight really looked a lot like a Russian Sara Kosmer.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Die Dreigroschenoper

Yeah… that’s German.  But Friday night we saw a production in Russian of this play by a German set in London.  Yeah… it hurt our brains too.  But the day started out as all our days do – with classes.  Half of us had individual coaching with Marina – our whirlwind of a voice teacher.  She got way behind so we ended up having to stay late, but the time she spent with me was really fun.  We hardly even needed the interpreter.  We just kind of screeched at each other in Soprano-ese until we got the sounds we wanted.  After we worked through “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” she added “Misty” to my work load, which should be fun.  The afternoon brought us another acting class, and a grouchy group of us for some reason.  Our training for the day relied on us all having memorized a portion of “To be or not to be,” but it became rapidly apparent that not everyone had.  So we failed at that exercise.  We don’t like to fail, but apparently we don’t always like to rehearse either.  So there you go.  Anyway, we had to start doing our animal etudes today, and I was trying to hang back so that mine would be put off to next week since my ankle is giving me so much trouble, but after the first few etudes, no one else was willing to go!  So I got up to be a squirrel (and to prevent us from looking like a bunch of slackers).  Unfortunately, squirrels have stronger ankles than I do, and I definitely made the whole ankle situation worse with what I did.  Sergei was very kind, however, applauding me for taking one for the team.  He also commented on the stupidity of my squirrel – which we both agreed was a realistic characteristic. So after grouchiness and not-so-great etudes and not-so-great exercises and not-so-great motivation, half of us met up to go see Трехрошовая Опера (Threepenny Opera) at the MXAT.  I have to say, I really enjoyed the hell out of this show.  It was three acts, almost four hours… but somehow it didn’t feel as long as some of the two hour shows we have seen thus far.  The men who played Trigorin and Sorin in the Seagull that we saw played Mack and Peacham in this production… and man were they good.  This Trigorin/Mack fellow is all kinds of sexy.  And the production was extremely well constructed.  The end was a giant piece of spectacle that didn’t end up making a whole lot of sense, but it was pretty darn impressive.  It’s not every day you see a ginormous human/horse/dragon skeleton puppet in hell, now is it? Doppleganger Update – Russian Craig(e) Holcombe was in front of me in line at the cafeteria this evening, and Russian Sonya Thompson was in the audience at Threepenny.  And I’m pretty sure the  main chorus for Threepenny was the Russian equivalent of 1957 Diva Heaven – probably Cheryl, Debra (two hot blondes in evening gowns) and Rick and Will (two smooth dudes in tuxes).  Though I will say… aside from opening with “Mack the Knife,” I would say the doppelganger ends there.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Read Your Tickets Well

Today we had our movement class with Vlad again… and boy howdy… that man is sadistic!  First of all, I woke up extremely sore today after our evil dance class and the power walking catching up with me, so by the time he got his hands on us, I was already feeling like I might fall apart.  Then he had us hopping across the room like frogs and jumping for our lives, all the while gleefully growling “SMILE” in his terrifying and hilarious Russian way.  Theoretically I should be able to stand only on my shoulder by the end of this class… I’m a little afraid of that, but we’ll see.  After lunch we had a theatre history lecture from the head of the MXAT school, but unfortunately it turned into less of a history lecture and more of him complaining about the version of The Seagull that we saw last week.  He seemed very non-plussed by anything any of us said that painted the production in any sort of positive light, and basically expounded on the director’s responsibility to the playwright for an hour.  But apparently next time we’re going to talk about the first MXAT production of The Seagull, and I am very much looking forward to that lecture! The lecture was followed by our Chekhov class – the first one in several days, and we were all delighted to see Миша again.  (Although his energy and childish delight is somewhat tempered by our new – and sadly permanent – acting class interpreter.  Her tone is utterly disinterested and condescending… and she’s definitely editing in translation.  But Misha is too fantastic!  He will not be defeated by our Droopy the Dog interpreter!)  After our usual group warm-ups he took us through a mirror exercise as well as an exercise in which we had to take two different positions that he described and then try to remember a time in our lives that we had taken that position.  I’m sure this is just part of the lead up to Psychological Gesture work, but it was a little unsettling when it got a little too personal/bordering on Method with some members of the group.  After class the grad students grabbed some dinner and headed back to the same theatre we had attended last night for another show.  At about 6:40, when we noticed that no one was around the theatre yet, we started to be a little concerned.  We have been told over and over and over again that everything in Russia has a 7:00 curtain (which usually ends up being 7:15 or 7:20).  So there we were, waiting for our 7:00 curtain… all alone.  So we pulled out the tickets… at which point we discovered that this show was the notable exception with a start time of 9:30pm… about 45-30 minutes after we had expected this play to end with its 7:00 curtain time.  Fantastic.  So, we headed back to the dorm for a few hours before heading back to the theatre for the third time in two days.  But let me tell you, this show was all kinds of worth it!  The play was К. И. из “Преступления” (K.I. from “Crime”), also directed by Кама Гинкас (Kama Ginkas).  This turned out to be a one-woman-show about the character Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladova from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  In the novel she is a fairly small character, but Ginkas lifted her out of the novel and gave her her own evening of theatre… and it has been playing forever!  We came upstairs to the same level of the theatre we had been in the night before, but instead of entering the theatre, there were seats set up in the lobby.  We sat down, and a bedraggled woman popped in and out of the doors in front of us a few times before launching into her frantic monologue.  She dealt directly with the audience – we were the guests at the memorial dinner she had thrown for her late husband – talking to us directly, touching us, sitting among us, etc.  She flew with great agility from emotional extreme to emotional extreme, bringing us with her even though we really only understood the few English sentences that she repeated from time to time (and I also understood the German and French that she threw in).  About half an hour in, she insisted that we all stand up and follow her into the next room – a tiny little theatre space that was entirely white.  Most of us sat in standard (though cramped) raked audience seats, though there were about twelve audience members who were seated at her banquet table on the stage.  Her three young children (two of whom we had met briefly in the lobby) were also in this room, and they acted as her props throughout the rest of the evening.  She sawed away on the violin, she berated the woman she had labeled as her landlady, she laughed, she wept, she screamed, she shook her children about like dolls, and eventually she died – at which point a wooden ladder attached to a rope was lowered from the ceiling, allowing her to swing freely.  Clearly shuffling off this mortal coil was a freeing experience for poor K.I.  As she and her children took their six curtain calls (each containing about six separate bows), we got to observe this remarkable actress in a whole new way – the joy that oozed out of her was simply gorgeous.  It made me think of this article I had to read for my directing seminar.  I can’t remember who wrote it, but he talked about the fact that actors – even when they are playing someone who is dying or murdering someone – must always have a sense of joy.  This woman was the purest embodiment of that idea that I have ever seen.  Even as she sat propped against the wall on the verge of death, even as she beat her children and screamed at the heavens, I could feel the joy of her creation underneath it.  This theatre was so alive… it was fantastic.  And I really want to get a copy of a translation of the script… I want to study what they did there, because it was beyond beyond! Doppleganger Update - I saw Russian Debra Capps as I was leaving the show tonight… but I have to say, Russia has more than its fair share of gorgeous leggy blondes, so I can’t say I was too surprised.     But seriously folks, it was a little uncanny.

Technical Difficulties

Well… I actually have a very nice blog post written about a wonderful show I saw last night, but wifi is down in the dorms, so I can’t get it off my computer for the moment.  It’ll be here at some point.  In the meanwhile, I’ve managed to do something icky to my ankle, and I woke up with my left shoulder in spasm this morning.  Good news: we have no movement based classes today.  So I plan on being all better and un-little-old-lady-fied by the time we have dance class on Saturday morning.  WOO!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Be the Shoelace

This morning started off with dance class again… and I think we’re getting the impression that he doesn’t like us very much.  None of us is particularly strong or flexible (and he rolled up his pants today to demonstrate something… revealing calves that could possibly destroy everyone in the classroom without a second thought), and for most people in the group it’s all we can do to turn our head the right direction, let alone do the bar exercises correctly.  He definitely took those bar exercises up a couple notches today… and boy howdy did we feel it.  I may have to check the Geneva conventions to see if what he was doing to us is actually legal.  Then, rolling his eyes only slightly, he took us through some Russian folk dance… and we were slightly better at that this time around, so hopefully we are on the way to redeeming ourselves.  After dance two of the other vegetarians and I decided to try out a restaurant a few doors down from the studio (Прайм Стар – Prime Star) that we heard had vegetarian fare.  Well, not only did it have vegetarian fare, it had a variety of vegetarian fare… and everything was labeled in Russian AND English!  We were very happy.  Hello, caprese sandwich and cheesecake mousse.  Welcome to my tummy. After lunch we began our acting class with another set of etudes.  One group set up a wedding party in which the bride ran from the altar, and my group set up a big drunk party to which the cops showed up.  We continued to work on a lot of the same group-think exercises we have been working on for the last few days – always making them harder when it seems that we might be getting the hang of them, and then we finished our inanimate object etudes.  I did my second one today – a shoelace – and I was told by Sergei that it was an “elegant” etude.  Now, this is a word that all of our professors are using a lot, and it’s something that it’s pretty clear that we Americans don’t really have readily accessible in our bodies. But today, I achieved elegance!  BOOYAH!  (Or… I suppose in Russian that would be БУЯ!)  He was all kinds of encouraging about my little etude, which made me feel all kinds of spiffy. For dinner, the grad students made another visit to Prime Star and then sauntered up to the theatre for this evening where we saw Дама С Собачкой (The Lady with the Lapdog), adapted from Chekhov’s short story by Кама Гинкас (Kama Ginkas).  I have to admit, this was the first show so far that I thought to myself: “I could have not seen that and not been sad.”  For a 15 page short story, 2 hours and 15 minutes with no intermission in a VERY hot room seemed a little long.  That said, the space was very cool.  It was a huge theatre like the Peace Center or the Buell or the Schnitz or something like that… but the stage and audience were on the top balcony.  So the whole gaping maw of the space was behind the stage.  That gaping maw wasn’t really used hardly at all except as background, but apparently two other grad students saw another show in the same space the night before, and said that they did actually use the real stage to great effect from time to time.  We’ll be back there tomorrow night for a third piece by the same director, and this one is supposed to be mind-blowing, so hopefully I’ll be a little more enthusiastic about tomorrow’s offering. Doppelganger update – Tonight I saw Russian Steve Schultz… complete with the white on red flowered shirt!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Just Another Manic Tuesday

It is Tuesday, isn’t it?  We’re never quite sure around here.  At any rate, this morning we had our first of three classes on the history of Russian cinema… and holy moly.  Our teacher – Галина Аксенова (Galina Aksenova) – is a human encyclopedia.  No lecture notes, no reading from slides.  She just projected images and dates, and then she was off and running.  First she gave us a brief history of Russia over the 20th century – most of which, I’m proud to say, I was fairly familiar with (especially the Gorbachov coup… that made a big impression on my punning development – my Odyssey of the Mind team did a whole sketch about Gorbachef hunting the elusive coup-coup bird… pretty heady stuff).  Then she talked about silent films, which was great, since there’s none of that language confusion that comes with watching something in Russian!  Definitely the most popular film of the morning was a stop animation piece about a couple of adulterous beetles.  Yes, you read that correctly. After a stern talking to about the bad kids who have been getting wasted in the dorms (bad undergrads!), we had a hurried lunch before rushing upstairs to practice our etudes before class.  This time my group created a whole gym workout atmosphere with people checking each other out and getting all flirty.  The other group created a restaurant setting on the morning of September 11, 2001.  Two more different atmospheres you might never see, but both etudes worked very well.  We moved on into our training exercises for the day which were an awful lot of fun.  I can’t wait to teach the DG folks the new samurai game I learned.  We’ll need a fairly big group to make that game work… so lots of people will have to come play with us!  We also continued our inanimate object etudes – the big hits for me being a popcorn kernel and a bra. Class went a little long today, so I booked it back to the dorm before heading out to see a piece called The Demon devised by Russian directing/design badass Дмитрий Крымов (Dmitri Krimov).  For the first time since we’ve been here, the language barrier was almost a non-issue (aside from finding our seats).  Oh… the seats.  Before I try to explain the beautiful insanity that was this show, I have to talk about our seats.  A lot of these plays that we’re seeing, we’re getting into because theatres are exchanging favors with each other.  So we got a card that said there would be four people coming courtesy of the MXAT… but the show was sold out.  So they had to fit us in where they could.  In this case, it meant the tech gallery.  And this is not your Warehouse Theatre tech gallery.  Oh no.  This theatre was built specially for experimental director Анатоли Васылев (Anatoly Vasiliev) to be extremely free form.  It’s in the round with three seating galleries around the center, and the tech gallery is on the fourth level hovering above it all.  We were craning our necks to see around the lighting instruments, and I spent most of the show standing up and bending out over the abyss I was so totally engrossed in what was happening. To try to explain The Demon in words is not an easy task, since they used almost no words to create it.  The entire floor of the stage was covered in layers and layers of paper and plastic, and the performers painted images, tore shapes, crumpled, ripped, stomped, splashed… it was magnificent.  I wept at stick figures.  I sat there watching the entire human experience (and a good portion of human history) unfold beneath me, and the simultaneous simplicity, specificity and complexity of every single moment was simply breathtaking.  The three curtain calls this cast took were well deserved. After the show the grad students sat down with our professor to talk about other shows that might be available for us to see over the next couple of weeks.  My head might explode. Doppleganger update – Today was a day for too-tall doppelgangers.  I saw too-tall Russian Mary Freeman and too-tall Russian Amy Holtcamp. Travel abroad tip - I know there are a lot of those Americans who think that loud English is more likely to be understood than regular old English when addressing non-English speakers.  This is not the case.  It turns out, however, that speaking English in the accent that you hear Russian English-speakers using does not work either.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Our First Full Week - GO!

That’s right, we haven’t even been here a week yet, and in some ways it feels like we’ve been here for months.  Of course, all I have to do to counteract that feeling is attempt to have a conversation with a Russian person.  Then it is abundantly clear that I am a dumb American with only a couple of days under my belt. But today began our first full week of classes… so time marches on!  We kicked off the week with our movement class taught by Владимир Сажын (Vladimir Sazhin), a Russian beefcake of a man who can move his buttocks independently of one another (and does so with great relish).  He led us through an hour and a half (no breaks) of stretches and isolations and bending and jumping and jumping (so much jumping), and all sorts of other ridiculous things that your body doesn’t usually have to do.  I did manage to do this crazy double jointed thing with my arms that I can’t possibly describe, but it made me feel like I accomplished something for the day.  After class with him, we went straight to singing class where Marina kicked out the women in order to work with the men for an hour.  She then brought us in and finished handing out the songs that we would be working with for the next few classes.  I have to admit, I was a little disappointed at being assigned “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from the world’s most overrated musical, Phantom of the Opera.  But still, this class is sort of like taking voice lessons from the Tazmanian Devil (the woman punched me in the stomach while I was singing today), so it seems our best bet is just to hold on for dear life and learn what we can along the way. Lunch was very quick, as we only had an hour and we all wanted to practice our etudes before acting class.  Class began with the first group’s etude about several blades of grass who grew up and then were tragically mowed in the prime of their lives by a man and his lawnmower.  It was a pretty fantastic etude.  My group created a gumball machine and a whole progression of a person trying to get the right gumball… it really wasn’t all that successful or clear, but it was a lot of fun putting it together.  From there we did a series of exercises which proved to be very frustrating.  The second was the worst because we all understood it, but then a couple group members started asking a bunch of questions which led the interpreter to give us the wrong instructions, so Sergei then chastised us for not understanding the exercise and not asking more questions when it had been the questions that had led us astray in the first place.  Then we completely failed at the third exercise – and since my half of the class was second to go we were chastised again for not being better than the first group after having watched them.  After our break, however, things got a lot more fun when we presented our first individual etudes.  We had to become an inanimate object and illustrate a story about it.  There was a tree, a cloud of hairspray, a match, a hair tie, a baseball glove, a Russian cathedral (which ended up being hilarious), a clothes drying rack, a stick of gum… and I was an egg.  I went from fridge to bowl to whisk to frying pan to plate… it was quite a journey.  And though I ended up with a bit of a floor burn on my elbow, my little egg went over pretty well. Monday nights are not dark theatre-wise in Moscow as they are in the states, but they are slightly less action packed, so we don’t have tickets to anything tonight which gives us a much needed evening off – as we have to work on new etudes and re-read The Three Sisters for tomorrow’s classes.
Doppelganger Update – Today I saw Russian April Schaffer on my way back to the dorm from the theatre, and apparently Russian Craig(e) Holcombe lives in our dorm on another floor.

Drinking Out of a Fire Hydrant

The first thing I did on Sunday was sleep until I couldn’t sleep anymore.  It felt fantastic!  And I might declare myself now officially on Moscow time.  Huzzah!  I headed to the grocery store for the first time, which was a formidable experience, since my credit card refused to work.  Luckily I had some cash, but that headshake by the cashier made me all kinds of nervous.  I knew I couldn’t get by for the whole month with the $300 worth of Rubles I had exchanged.  Eek.  Then in the afternoon we were led on a bus tour of Moscow… and then my brain exploded.  We saw so much in this three hour tour (a three hour tour…), and yet so little at the same time.  Of course, the place where we spent the most time was Red Square – a place I’ve already been.  But it was neat to be there with someone who knew all the crazy history about the cobblestones and the invasions and crazy wax-dipped Lenin.  And it makes me want to come back a third time so that I can tour around inside the Kremlin… which just sounds fantastic!  Our bus drove us slowly (and not-so-slowly) past a lot of things while our guide gave us fact after fact after fact after fact about everything on the planet.  There were places we couldn’t stop because of the difficulty of parking a bus, and there were places we couldn’t stay because we were on such a limited schedule.  We couldn’t stop at the Christ the Savior cathedral – the largest in Moscow built to commemorate the Russian victory over Napoleon, so I’m definitely going to have to swing by there on my own.  We only stopped across the river for a photo op of Novodevichy Convent (which includes Novodevichy Cemetery – the burial place of people like Stanislavsky, Chekhov and Bulgakov).  We only drove around part of the outer perimeter of the ginormous Victory Park (commemorating the end of WWII).  This city is so friggin’ huge, and there is so much history here, and we have so few days off… I am really going to need to try to budget my time in order to make it everywhere I want to go.  Our tour guide told us that we should go to Victory Park at night since they light up the fountains… and while that sounds cool in theory, that would mean wandering through a giant park in Moscow at 11:00 (when it is finally dark)… so I’m not sure it’s necessarily the best idea. After the tour, we booked it down to the MXAT.  There was little time for dinner and I stopped by an ATM where my debit card worked (Huzzah again!), and then we headed in for their production of The Cherry Orchard (Вишневый Сад).  The design was very spare and minimalistic, which gave us poor non-Russian speakers even fewer cues to hold onto in following the story, but I really liked it aesthetically.  Ranevskaya was, unfortunately, not terribly strong.  She was not – unlike every other actor on stage – a MXAT company member, MXAT trained, or even an actress at all.  She is famous throughout Russia as a personality.  I might compare casting her to casting someone like Paris Hilton – not that she’s as trashy as good ol’ Paris (PS – everyone I could think of as an example of an American celebrity personality is super trashy: Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Snookie… are there non-actor personalities we worship who aren’t super trashy?), but she’s famous for being her, not for being particularly talented at something.  Aside from her volume issues, there was just a palpable (if not entirely easily described) difference between her and the company members in the rest of the cast.  She was absolutely gorgeous, but her performance just wasn’t on par with the rest of the cast.  She certainly wasn’t as lousy as someone like Paris Hilton would have been, but she just wasn’t a MXAT actor.  The rest of the actors were really pretty remarkable though.  I thought Lopakhin and Varya’s final scene was devastating, Anya’s evolution throughout the script was really lovely, Yasha and Dunyasha were delightful, and the stage pictures were absolutely breathtaking. Having seen two Chekhov plays now on this trip – it occurs to me that every Chekhov play has that one male character who I completely forgot about.  He’s the person who doesn’t make it into my brain when I’m thinking through the plot before the play begins, and then I spend the entire play going, “Oh!  I remember him… what the hell is his name…?”  In The Seagull it was Shamraev, and in The Cherry Orchard it was Simeon-Pishchik (and a little bit Yepikhodov). After the show, we all came back to the dorm for our Sunday night meeting/potluck.  It’s interesting to see what we all cobbled together as our potluck offerings.  I brought some watermelon (which we read in a guidebook the next day we probably shouldn’t have eaten… but it tasted good), there were cookies and candies and cheeses and breads, a makeshift Mac & Cheese, and even some nachos.  Following that meeting, we divided up into two groups to plan our etudes for the next day’s acting class.  More on this tomorrow.  After that, I tried to go to sleep, but my tummy had other plans.  So, after dealing with my grouchy tummy until almost 3:00, I finally managed to fall asleep.  Phew! PS - Allergy sufferers - summer in Moscow may not be for you.  Right now, as I look out my window, it almost looks like it is snowing… but it’s cottonwood puffs (or something equivalent) blowing EVERYWHERE.