Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Every Day We Grow-I-Oh!

First things first:

Yes... it is possible for me to blog from America.  Observe:

For Christmas this past year I asked for a device that could transfer cassette tapes to digital files.  You see, I have this tape that my grandfather (we called him Gandalf) made for me for Christmas in 1982 or 1983... I think it was '82.  At any rate, it's full of him, my grandmother (Nana) and some assorted aunts singing me songs and telling me stories.  It's kind of my favorite thing in the entire world.  And since Gandalf has been gone for a little over ten years now, I thought it would be neat to be able to put this recording into a format that I could share with the rest of the family.  

Since Christmas, I haven't really had the time to work on this (I really should have been studying tonight), but for some reason, tonight I felt the need to give it a try.  There are probably a lot of things that were pulling me this way.  For one thing, my paternal grandfather passed away at the end of May, which has had me thinking a lot about all of my grandparents.  Also, while I was in Moscow, a conversation/interrogation with JT (the head of my program) led me back to this tape as one of the roots of my interest in the comic... so it's been back on the tip of my brain in the last month.  I was also feeling kinda blue these last couple of weeks for a variety of reasons - one of which is the sudden passing of one of my cousins (I have to admit, I haven't known her that well in our adult lives, but it's still such a shock when someone that young is just suddenly gone) - so I thought it might be nice to reach back into the family memory banks.  So, I pulled out my little device, dug out my tape (as well as another tape I didn't care about just to test it) and gave it a try.  After some wheedling and tweaking and such, I got the test tape to work, so I popped in my Christmas tape.  Now, this is a tape that I listened to as I fell asleep almost every night for years and years.  And this is also a tape I haven't listened to since before Gandalf passed's probably been about 15 years at least.  I put in the tape and pressed play, and I heard Gandalf's voice for the first time in over a decade... and I just started to cry.  I think I sort of expected that.  He was a Barbershop singer with this thundering bass voice... it was one of his most identifiable traits.  A wave of sadness and joy and love just washed over me.  It was really neat.  

But what was really remarkable was how completely I remember so much of this tape.  I heard just the introduction of the first song, stopped the tape, and then proceeded to sing almost the entire song from memory.  Then I plugged the device back in and listened to the whole 8 minute story/song.  It's a story about Alexander Friendly III - a little boy who gets lost in the woods, and has to learn a song called "Every Day We Grow-I-Oh" in order to find his way out of the woods.  He learns said song with the help of a sleepy old opossum, one yellow butterfly, two fuzzy chipmunks, three brown chihuahua dogs, four green bullfrogs and five red birds, each of whom knows a part of the song (there are some sheep and horses too, but they prove to be no help).  I just sat there watching the sound waves popping up on my screen and laughed and cried and shared a moment with my grandfather - which is something I have really missed since he passed away.  

When it all comes down to it, I really do think that this tape is one of my most prized possessions.  It's just a bunch of silly songs and stories, but it's such an important connection to where I came from... I can't wait to listen to the rest of it!  

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Я Чайка

Number of Steps: 26349 (8.32 mi)

Well, today was our last day in Moscow.  Weird.  We got up bright and early and headed over to Novodevichy Cemetery to visit the graves of Stanislavsky, Chekhov, Nemirovich-Danchenko, and a number of other important folks.  The Russian students who graduate from the MXAT also make this trek at the end of their studies, and it is a very moving way to spend a morning.

From there, we did the opposite of something moving – which was we went to a giant flea market and bought souvenirs for four-ish hours.  I’m not sure I’m super pleased with my gift-buying prowess this time around, but it was fun to be in there and be familiar with the territory.  I even bought from a few of the same people I bought from last year, so that was kinda fun.

Once we were done emptying our wallets, we headed back to the dorm where I wolfed down some pasta and led six of us back to the Сатирикон for our final show of the month: Чайка (The Seagull).  It’s an impossible show to describe, but I will say that it is the shortest four and a half hours of your life.  It is a stunning, imaginative, exciting, brilliant take on a classic that these actors and these audiences know so well.  And even though we couldn’t understand the actual words that were being spoken, we were all help in rapturous attention.   I wept – all out sobbed – for the last 20 minutes or so of the play – it was so beautiful.  A girl stopped us after the show - since we are clearly American - and asked us if we understood the show.  It's one of those crazy things about seeing shows over here - they are generally so clear and communicative, that we can be moved without understanding a word - the Russians don't always believe us, but it's true.  I really wish there were something I could say to do this show justice in blog form… but there really is nothing.

Just some eye candy from a piece of theatre that is absolutely what theatre is supposed to be.
Then we headed back through the metro – our last trip on the metro for the month (including what I assume will be my last time for a while giving directions in Russian to a Russian…booyah) and back to the dorm where the packing began.  It’s now almost 3:00 in the morning… the bus will be here in about 3 and a half hours… and the packing continues.  As you can tell from the fact that I’m currently posting a blog, I am totally on top of this packing thing.

The next time I blog… I’ll be back in Detroit!  Wow! 

Friday, June 29, 2012

They Can't All Be Winners

Number of steps: 19715 (6.22 mi)

Well… as far as the Moscow Art Theatre is concerned, today was it for us!  We came in at 12:00 for individual assessments with our acting teachers Сергей and Илья.  It’s funny – they tell us that after a month they can’t really know us that well – but they really do.  They’re extremely insightful.  And while I’m sure they could be a lot more brutal, they still manage to do a nice job of giving everyone very personal feedback that leaves them feeling like they have accomplished something here and that they can take that something home with them.  Of course, when I walked in the first thing Sergei said was that he was sure he’d be seeing me again.  I told him he certainly would.  I’ve really caught the Russian fever… and I will be back here more than a few times throughout the course of my life.  From there, they went on to talk to me about my commitment, my hard work, my leadership, my relationship with the other students, my creativity and my constructive and insightful feedback – basically all of this was stuff that made me sound like a good director, teacher and group leader.  And all of this was said in front of JT – so it was double good!

Our fantastic group with our acting teachers for the month: Sergei, Ilja and Stanislavsky!
After that we had our little reception with snacks and champagne and not much fanfare – but who needs fanfare when you have studying at the MXAT?!?  Frankly, I think we were all perfectly pleased with the level of fanfare.  And the snacks were delicious!  From there, we went to a “Mexican” restaurant for lunch.  This ended up being a bit difficult for the vegetarians – so we just ended up with a tiny salad and some borsht with beef in it (yeah – they served borsht at a Mexican restaurant – but apparently it was spicy!), but we also all got strawberry margaritas… so all was well with the world.

We had most of the afternoon to ourselves, which was a nice little slice of down time before I headed out on my own to Театр Ет-Сетера for a production called Шейлок (Shylock), which was an adaptation of Merchant of Venice.  Now, the theatre itself was pretty darn cool.  The seats were all a bunch of different upholstered arm chairs like you see in period plays, but they all fold up like normal theatre seats.  I really liked it.  The show, on the other hand, was really not very good.  Portia was lovely, and Nerissa kinda looked like my darling Anne Kelly Tromsness, but it was really a bit of a mishmash.  It was set in modern day Wall Street (sort of), which seems like a logical setting for this play.  But it wasn’t completely there.  And the movement and music were weird and stylized in a way that didn’t fit the gravity of the show.   And Lorenzo and Bassanio were both really not very attractive – definitely not attractive enough for the women they were with.  And the movement in this production was extremely awkward – a huge contrast to the physical artistry of most Russian theater.  Oh, and the woman who played Portia’s other servant was totally out of time with the rest of the show – and she was way too hammy.  The set had its interesting qualities, there were some admirable performances and some lovely moments, but overall the show had the quality of a pretty good community theatre production.  Really, according to most of the photos on the walls, this is a theatre devoted entirely to the lead actor (who played Shylock) playing all the roles he ever wanted to play.  Not the best.  But I have to admit, it’s a little comforting to know that Russian theatre isn’t all the mind-bogglingly awesome artistry that we have seen.  Sometimes they suck too.

From there, I came back to the dorm for a little me time, since the rest of the group was out for the evening.  I should really catch up on my journal or read some stuff for my quals, but instead…I’ll probably just reread the Hunger Games trilogy. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Hail to the King, Baby

Number of Steps: 11951 (3.77 mi)

Well… another day of final classes under our collective belt.  We had our final film class during which we watched the movie Wedding.  It had a nice, happy ending, which Галина did on purpose so that we would leave with a happy feeling about Russia.  Very nice of her.  She also passed along a list of Russian movies that are available in America… so I have a little hobby when I get back (other than studying for my quals, planning GTA training and writing my dissertation… crap).

Final film class with Галина... only the strong survive!
Anyway, after lunch we had our last acting class, which started out with some frustration, because we can’t seem to get the damn etudes right, no matter how hard we try… and sometimes with the echo in the room and the timbre of the translator’s voice I have a hard time hearing her so I’m sure I look like I’m all pissed about the notes, when really I’m just trying to hear what’s being said.  <sigh>  Anyway, after that the training exercises actually went really well.  I had a really cool experience with my fellow grad student Vanessa today as we communicated effectively with each other using only our eyes.  It was really neat feeling that connected, and feeling that shared sense of accomplishment as we completed our tasks.  Very cool.  We still have a day of individual meetings with our acting teacher, so we have one last day of goodbyes tomorrow... then Saturday we'll shop a lot, see another play... and then Sunday it's back state-side.  Wow... where did this month go?

And while all this class stuff was great, the main event was still to come in the form of King Lear at the Сатирикон.  This is a show I saw last year, and though I enjoyed it, I have to admit that I came away a little lukewarm.  Not so this time.  Holy moly, it was devastating.  Nothing tangible had changed about the production – maybe it was just that I have changed since the last time I saw it.  Maybe they were having a particularly “on” night tonight.  I don’t know what it was, but this play hit me in just the right place.  This is a director I greatly admire (I’ll be seeing his Seagull on Saturday night – my favorite show from last year), and tonight I really drank in all the inventiveness of his staging and imagery.  An interesting thing about Russian Shakespeare is that they are not so tied to the text as we are.   Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of text work because I really do believe it has the power to open up the soul of the piece in all kinds of ways.  Unfortunately, however, text work does not always do that – and in worst case scenarios, it can turn out a pretty lackluster museum piece.  (For notable exceptions, see The Distracted Globe, who is currently in rehearsal for what is sure to be a totally bitchin’ Twelfth Night – I miss you guys!)   But the Russians (and especially Бутусов) go straight for the viscera – cutting and rearranging and inserting etudes as they see fit.  And the commitment of these actors to every moment and to each other is so moving and engaging!  And the physicality!  The actor who plays Lear is quite a virtuoso – and though he’s 68 if he’s a day, he can also do all kinds of crazy tumbling and stuff that the most rambunctious American 20-something would probably balk at.  And the design… oh boy.  Every moment is so carefully sculpted, and the interplay of shape, light and color becomes its own character.  Wow and a half.  The last scene left me weeping all the way through the well-deserved standing ovation.  Pretty much every time I leave that building I’m a complete mess.  Saturday, I’m sure, will prove no exception.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Matchmaker, Matchmaker...

Number of Steps: 15439 (4.87 mi)

More goodbyes today.  Ugh – this last week is way too emotional.  I started out the morning by purchasing some overpriced flowers in an underground flower shop on the way to class… so that was a weird way to start the day.  From there it got a little more normal.  We had our last ballet class, which made me want to set things on fire slightly less than usual, so I count that as a win.

Our elegant ballet teacher Ренат, humoring us.
Next up was our final singing class, which was some of the most fun I’ve had here.  For the last two weeks our singing classes have been split up – 6 and 6 – which means that we haven’t been hearing everyone progress throughout the month.  So it was a real treat to hear everyone today.  Several people made me cry.  Everyone made me proud.  It was a really fun way to spend an hour and a half.  And our teacher Marina is one of the most marvelous people ever in the history of the world.  Last year she told me that she wished I could study with her.  This year, she has gone even farther in reminding me how important singing is to me.  It’s such a great release.  I really need to give myself the gift of voice lessons while I’m trying to write my dissertation.  I think it’ll give me hope during the inevitable dark times.

With the magical Марина after our final singing class.  She told me no one comes to Moscow twice - I must come three times.
Then it was another day in acting with exercises and etudes – but the big event of the day was that we got to go see a show starring our assistant acting teacher Илья (who is about 25 years old).  It was this crazy Russian musical or something about a matchmaker and young lovers and some guy with jowls… very silly, very energetic, a really fun evening. 

Back at the dorm I picked up some vodka shaped souvenirs and then we hung out for a little bit with some of the NIU students.   Then I turned into a pumpkin.  So… our last Wednesday is in the can!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Our First Goodbye

Number of Steps: 9262 (2.92 mi)

Today we had our final movement class… which, for me, is one of the saddest goodbyes for several reasons.  Vladimir is an amazing, warm, inspiring personality that, over the two separate months I have spent time with him, has pushed me to do things that I never believed I could have done.  Movement training here is so different from in the U.S., there is not really anywhere to go to continue the work I did with him – it’s all on me.  And as I sat there with my feet behind my head or my head on my knees or my feet in the air as I stood on one shoulder… I know that the only thing that really has the power to hold me back from anything is that little voice in my brain that tells me “I can’t.”  Vlad, on the other hand, tells us that the only thing we should really say is, “I can’t… yet.”  I can be pretty negative and defeatist in my daily life, and if I can carry that little bit o’ Vlad with me into the future, I’ll be in good shape. 

Group picture with the incomparable Vlad!
After photos and tearful goodbyes with Vlad (I totally expected myself to be all stoic, but I definitely got choked up), we had a quick lunch before heading to acting class, wherein we had a way too long discussion about the last two shows we had seen.  Then we did some training exercises in which we were a giant typewriter, and then another in which we had to send our energy to people with their back turned… a day that was really about focus, which was good.

Then we finished up our observation etudes and I presented our first Ivanov etude – from the point of view of one of the less popular characters: Zinaida.  No cute young lovers or tragic waifs for me, no sir.  Give me the curmudgeonly money lender!  It wasn’t as detailed as it should have been (they never are), but it went pretty well, so I feel like I redeemed myself from yesterday’s total bomb of an etude more or less.

Then the evening was free!  Nothing planned, no shows, no potlucks, no nothing!  So I began packing.  That’s right… this leaving thing is really going to happen.

As I was walking home today, I thought of something that happened yesterday that amused me, and I felt I should share it.  You see, most of our classes are taught through interpreters because most of our teachers don’t speak English.  Now, these translators are brilliant, but every now and again they come across words they’re not familiar with or are uncertain how to translate into English.  Yesterday, I taught our translator the word “Schmuck” and Vanessa taught her “nerd” and “slacker.”  She liked all three of those words very much, and used them proudly for the rest of class.  Another thought on translators: I need to work on my Russian – I would really love to be in on the conversations our teachers have with the translators when they know we can’t understand them.

Monday, June 25, 2012


Number of Steps: 9055 (2.86 mi)

Okay, so at this point, every day is our last one of that day.  So today was our last Monday, tomorrow our last Tuesday, and so on.  Whoa.

Today, our day didn’t start until 2:00 when we met to plan our etude for our 2:30 acting class.  So it was a leisurely morning without such silly things as alarm clocks… which was very nice.  I did get some good work done this morning on our gifts for our teachers, so that’s good.  And then I strolled down Tverskaya to the theatre.

Our etude was fun today, in that we included our teachers in the etude – seating them at one of the tables in our “restaurant.”  Then we discussed the movie we watched as well as Ivanov, which was an interesting discussion.  It’s always amazing to me how well these guys know these five plays – they are in their blood and their bones.  Sergei said he has read the play at least 50 times and practically knows it by heart.  I personally don’t like the play very much – I would have preferred to work on Cherry Orchard, but the consensus was Ivanov, so there you go. 

Then we did some more observation etudes – some went really well.  Mine was not one of those.  I had all these ideas and details planned out, and they went straight out the window.  Who knows why?  Maybe I was just nervous because JT was watching.  Maybe I’m just exhausted.  Whatever the case, it was not my finest moment, and I felt kinda crappy about it.  So I guess that means my next etude is going to have to ROCK.

After class JT and Vanessa and I had a scholarly beer and salty snack fest (JT brought these creepy dried fish things that I watched them eat… they had the tails still on… yikes) while we discussed the last week or so.  Then it was our last potluck – which was not quite as ambitious as some had been before, but still pretty tasty.  And boy, was everyone all kids of silly tonight! 

All in all, today was very low key, which was really needed, because this is going to be one helluva haul to the finish line.  And then it’s Back in the US…Back in the US… Back in the USA!