Sunday, September 30, 2007

September 30 - Day 13

Okay, I think maybe Moscow and I are going through a phase. I have not given up on my idea that this is an amazing city with amazing people but I guess it is time to take off the rosy colored glasses. Last night, after that oh-so stress inducing student production, a large group of us decided to hit a local dance club to burn off some of that tension, and in only a couple of hours, a few too many hard lessons were learned. Lesson one: Unless you want to be considered a hooker don’t where a skirt to a dance club, no matter how conservative the rest of your outfit may be. Lesson two: One shot of Russian vodka is okay, two or more will turn your tiny nineteen year-old accomplice (and you) into a walking target for scary Russian men. Lesson three: When it becomes apparent that you have a Russian stalker of your very own, despite your best attempts to steer clear of him, denying his offers to buy you drinks and planting yourself on the side of a 250 pound American actor/linebacker, get out, no questions, no waiting because he will not go away. Lesson four: Yelling at scary Russian stalkers that you and your friends 1- don’t speak Russian and can’t understand a word they are trying to say, 2- are CATHOLIC and will not do whatever it is they have in mind, and 3- are just plain not interested, will not have any sort of deterring effect, if anything it will make them even more persistent. So again just get out. Lesson 5: When you get the distinct feeling that scary Russian stalker guy might be in the mob and the very large men in your party are also getting a bit freaked out it is time to leave and never come back. Go home, put on your fuzzy pajamas and think twice before you decide to go dancing again. Needless to say, I was less than thrilled about having to get up bright and early this morning to walk to the Moscow zoo to observe animals for acting class. I had heard that the Moscow zoo was disturbing but I wasn’t prepared for how messed up it would really be. It was a beautiful day with all sorts of children out and about (I even got to break my flip-flops figuring it would be the one and only time I would get to wear them) but the gorgeous weather was a frightening juxtaposition to what waited for us inside. Throngs and throngs of people poured into what could be considered one step above a circus. As my classmate Bob put it “Well at least they don’t whip the animals in public.” Animals were shoved in to tiny cages that didn’t even begin to resemble a habitat. There were Russian men trying to feed an ostridge beer and a woman giving her kids Kit-Kats to feed the wolves. The animals were malnourished and looked as though they were going insane. It was so disgusting and depressing, and none of the Russians seemed to find anything wrong with it. As, one by one, our students returned to the dorms all they had of animal observations were stories of which animal cruelty was more depressing. The Russians always say, ‘This is not a jungle!’ denying the American idea that this place is still not fully civilized and while, yes, there is money and opportunity and more culture than we could even attempt to comprehend they still have an ideology toward basic human decency that I am having a really hard time wrapping my mind around. It is very, very, very different here, in ways that I have yet to figure out, (I mean, it has only been two weeks) and I am doing my best to not judge and try to observe the country and the people within the context of their history but it is difficult. It is certainly an eye-opening experience and in the past few days I have really started to appreciate some of the American ways of life that I have often taken for granted.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

September 29 - Day 12

So there is that point in every relationship where the blinding newness and excitement begins to fade and you have to deal with the real person you have committed yourself to. Sometimes you realize that maybe you made a mistake and the ideas that you had about him or her were more about you and less about what they actually have to offer. Sometimes you see these newly revealed character flaws or blemishes and can accept that they are a tiny part of a far greater package and not worth fretting over. Up until this point Moscow and I have been in a whirl-wind love affair and unfortunately today I had to come back down to earth. I woke up this morning a bit drained from a few too many beers with Alex last night but was really pumped to get to MXAT and to my acting class. We have been working on this series of exercises that were created by Stanislavski and rarely taught in the states. They are called Atudes and they are kind-of difficult to describe but basically we have been doing object work, creating a character and a story based on the life of an inanimate object. My first attempt, in which I inhabited the life of a fuzzy bath towel (I know these sound completely insane) was pretty successful so I wanted to try something with a greater risk. Another female student and I decided to portray the wedding ring of a man getting ready to have an affair. We had this entire emotional/physical journey worked out and really thought we had the piece nailed. We got up, performed the piece and thought that it really worked. Not so much. It bombed - HUGE. Our professor ripped it apart, then the other classmates helped him out. I distinctly felt my jaw hit the floor and could feel the reverb of my partner’s doing the same when they started to speak. It wasn’t just that they didn’t like the idea or the execution. They didn’t like any of it. And the professor just kind of looked stunned. The thing is after the initial shock, I started really listening to what they were saying and I totally hadn’t thought about the points that they were making. They were all really good comments. I must have looked like a complete moron with my partner standing next to me utterly distraught and I am just eating up their critiques with a spoon. Honestly, no one likes not failing but four years ago I never would have even tried to do something if I didn’t have certainty that it was going to be good. (Hell, that is the entire reason I hate karaoke – I am terrified that I am going to look like a jack-ass without hours of rehearsal and probably one too many alcoholic beverages!) This project was really, in the context of what we were doing, and it didn’t work – now I don’t think there was any way it could worked. And okay that sucks, but I learned a hell of a lot more from that first failure than watching all of the other projects succeed. I have to be honest I am feeling way to mature about this – I didn’t want to crawl into a hole and die, not even for a second! After class ended my partner pulled me aside and started freaking out. I felt such empathy for her at that moment. The competition that this art form breeds can be so destructive and it is really hard to recognize it at the time. I took a chance and decided to share with her my new ‘older and wiser’ philosophy on the work and luckily either I didn’t sound too pompous or she is just a really receptive human being because she looked at me and said, “You know you are right. They made some really good points.” And then we were able to talk about the process and walk away feeling good about what it is we have learned. We had to rush from our acting class to the MXAT small stage where the second year acting students were waiting to perform their class concert for us. That’s when things started to take a turn for the worse. The first half of the show was incredible and we were screaming from excitement by intermission. All we could talk about was how amazing these performers are but when the second half started and the students began to parody famous singers things got ugly. A group of students came out to parody Ella Fitzgerald and her band wearing blackface. It was the most blatantly racist thing I have ever seen. I looked around and the majority of the Americans shared my utter disgust at the situation. There were several, however, who seemed to find the entire thing hilarious. I looked to one of the students sitting next to me who said, “Well I never thought I would live to see a live minstrel show!” and that is exactly what it was. All I could think about were my classmates who came four years ago, the first time I could have made the trip, and how hurt they would have been to sit through that. The excuse that Russians don’t see anything wrong with that type of behavior just was not good enough. I felt this incredible sense of rage and indignation. So when one of the O’Neil students, who has a tendency to lack tack and common sense, kept going on and on about how there was nothing wrong with it, it was funny and wearing blackface isn’t racist if you don’t mean to be offensive, I kind of snapped a little. Those who have faced my wrath on the subjects of politics and social injustice know I can get quite intense on the matter and while I tried my best to stay contained and opted to walk away rather than take it further, I let my feelings be known. I had instant Catholic guilt about the situation but one of the girls in our group looked at me and said, “If you feel that it is your human responsibility to defend those who are not there to defend themselves then you can’t deny that impulse.” Later I apologized for my intensity and much to my surprise, this classmate, who is typically overly defensive, said that she was glad that I stood up for what I believe in. She said it showed character and conviction. And she showed me that if you allow people the opportunity anyone can surprise you. I am hoping that maybe Moscow can do the same.

Friday, September 28, 2007

September 28 - Day 11

Last night after I finished writing and was packing up to leave the café I got a call from my mom. It was the first time since I got here that I had been able to talk to her and have a real conversation where I wasn’t straining to hear over dozens of actors or in a rush to get off so I could get to a meeting or a show. I am used to talking to her multiple times a day and it was so wonderful to have a relaxed conversation. Also I think I had forgotten how important it is to have contact with the outside world. We eat, sleep and breathe theatre here and it was nice to talk about something else for a few moments. When I left the café and headed back to my dorm I felt so much better and that lingering uncomfortable feeling I had been carrying around for a few days all but disappeared. It was the first time I had walked around the city alone at night, and while it was only a few blocks to where I am staying it was just lovely, taking in the stillness of a city that has gone to sleep. Today I woke up with more energy than I have had since I got here and thought I would break out the new coat I bought in St. Louis for this trip. I wanted to try out my mom’s theory that when you have been feeling crappy you should always try to look you best and it proved to be an amazing success. I was walking to class in my heels, mini skirt and winter tights with my brand new coat and got stopped twice by people who thought I was Russian and wanted directions, a big deal to all of us here trying not to stick out like Americans. Then several random people in the American Studio stopped me and told me I was gorgeous (!) and I have got to say it was so nice to hear. My ego had been suffering a bit as of late it and it just felt good to feel pretty again. I don’t think it was the coat or the fact that it was the first day in a week where despite my best attempts I didn’t look like walking death but that warm glow I have gotten just from being here and working my butt off. (Although I have a feeling the coat and mini skirt didn’t hurt!) I am really starting to settle into my classes here though I still have a few more that have yet to begin. All of the professors are incredible and it is all really interesting. We were discussing it today and I think the difference is that every single one of them is so passionate about what they teach. Their subjects are in their souls and it is difficult not to find their enthusiasm contagious. There are classes that completely don’t interest some people, like today’s alternating lecture on the History of Russian Costume but they teach more like storytellers and less like lecturers so even though it must go through a translator it is difficult not to find them captivating. Today was also Alex’s last night in Moscow so we planned a special dinner for our little group. I have such mixed feelings about him leaving. On one hand I am excited to be on my own without someone to navigate the city for me but I am also sad because it was so great to have him here. He is a formidable presence and I hadn’t realized in school how brilliant he really is. In the last two weeks I have spent hours and hours sitting with him, talking about theatre and art and the artistic community. He pesters me to move back to Chicago and do theatre and I ask him about being madly in love with your life. So many times he told me how everyday he wakes up crazy about his work, his wife, his kids. He even went on at length about how much he loves his new dog. When I was in school I had the misguided notion that his verbosity and lofty airs came from a place of pretension. Now I see that it is just pure passion and enthusiasm for life and the art. He is the constant teacher and just wants to awaken that passion in those he cares about. Looking back he was by far the best director I have ever worked with, not because the product was more spectacular than other productions but because he changed the way I work. He changed how I look at the process and where I place the value in that process. The point of acting isn’t to get up on stage and do a little dance to make an audience like you. In fact, the point of acting has nothing to do with you. It is about connecting with another human being. The Russians say, (and Alex told me this years ago) that the way an actor can tell if he or she had a great performance is by how well they can remember what their partner was doing. It requires such great selflessness and truly open heart. It is why great artist make it seem effortless. It is so engrained into their beings that they can be free to live out each moment fully as it comes. It is an organic, living, breathing being. As Alex says, “It’s playing Jazz.”

Thursday, September 27, 2007

September 27 - Day 10

Today was rough. Well, the last few days have been a bit rough. I am definitely not used to this pace, physically or mentally and beyond that Wednesday night I started to get very, very ill. I am feeling better now but the people on my floor are dropping like flies. I should have suspected something when every teacher began their class speaking at length about what to do when we get sick. At first I thought that it was kind of them to be concerned about our well-being but by the fifth or sixth teacher I started to think, “God, how sick are we going to get?” It isn’t even that cold yet but they seem convinced we are all going to be on bed-rest at one point or another during this semester. And today I thought I might need it. One by one, my classmates were turning green and becoming feverish and when it hit me it came on fast and I could barely make it home. I drug myself to class today with firm conviction that at the rate this trip is costing me I will be at every class, play or event even if my eye balls are falling out. Luckily it won’t have to come to that and I am feeling much better, as are some of the other students. (We think it had a lot to do with the 24-hour a day construction – seriously at 4 AM they are breaking out the power tools - that is going on on the roof above us and in our hall.) The hard part was that this was the first time in this trip that I thought, “How in the world am I going to be able to keep up this pace for another 10 weeks?” We have no breaks, no days off and by the time we get home from class, eat, shower and rehearse it is pushing three in the morning. And the thing is I don’t want to miss anything. I don’t want to pass up a show or a concert for a chance at some sleep. And I love the work. The classes are so much fun that it is hard to notice when we are pushing ourselves to hard. My knees are currently black and blue from throwing myself on the floor during a scene in my acting class and at the time I didn’t even notice that I was tearing them up. I am just a bit exhausted and I don’t think I realized how much I need to be independent. We are under strict orders from Alex not to go anywhere by ourselves and at a certain point I found myself saying I just want to take a walk by myself for goodness sake. I was actually thrilled when I realized I had left my movement pants in my dorm and I had to make a mad dash back to get them. It was the first time since I got here that I really felt alone, sprinting like a crazy woman down the streets of Moscow. People were looking at me like I was an alien and it felt awesome! I guess in a weird way all these doubts and fears make this place better. It is real and scary and hard but I don’t feel like quitting. I have no intention of giving up and I guess if I can tackle Moscow, in the winter, in mandatory high heels and make-up, with sadistic ballet teachers, living with 35 actor-y actors, no sleep and what basically amounts to actor boot-camp, I can handle anything. Or at least that is the hope.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

September 26 - Day 9

Russians are a humble people. This is what my Russian language teacher Lena tried to explain to us as the justification for some tense conjugation thing I have yet to understand. It goes beyond that though. I think it embodies much of why I am starting to appreciate the ways in which this place different than America. I feel like it is so easy to take for granted how great we have it (how great I have it) and while I know we all have our cross to bear, I could not imagine what it must have been like for these people to wake up one day in the same place, same apartment, same town but in a different country. My cinematography teacher told me, “Americans never know where they are going. Russians never know where they have been.” What was once damned as evil is now perceived to be great and what was once canonized is now revealed to be of darkness. They are a people of great self-reflection who are still trying to grasp where they have been and where they are going. Now the young people who are recreating Moscow are working to figure out where they fit in it all, the new money, the new freedoms, the old ideology. I had the most interesting conversation with one of the young Russian women who studies at MXAT and asked her what it was like to grow up in a country that went through such great flux in her lifetime. It is hard to describe what came next. She told me about standing in line day after day in an attempt to buy things like furniture and how she feels this great sense of freedom now. She said she feels like she has the opportunities to do anything but is still aware of the resistance toward being different. She said with a growl that only a Russian can produce, “Sometimes I hate R-r-r-r-ussia!” And yet she loves it. It is her home. Months ago I started talking about how I needed to do something that would demand I be humble. I wanted to be around greatness and just be quiet and take in all they had to teach me. I thought in studying at MXAT I would get that opportunity. I am learning that that opportunity is everywhere. It just requires opening your eyes and looking around. The most amazing teachers often come in the strangest places.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

September 25 - Day 8

Okay, I thought I knew pain. I thought I was prepared. I mean ballet class was intense and I could barely bend my legs this morning as I staggered to class but I had yet to meet Natasha, our “Movement” teacher. I say “movement” because at this point that is something I am no longer able to do. Her motto is ‘pain is pleasure’ and when she told us that we would be doing back-flips and running up walls I had a good feeling this wasn’t going to be your typical ‘let’s get in touch with our emotional core’ kind of movement class. I have never sweat so much in my life and as moans and groans emanated from our class she just said, “Why what’s wrong with you guys? Come on get up!” I am used to being sore and stiff the next day but by the time my Russian class was finished I could barely stand, let alone lift my arms. We worked on an exercise that consisted of us leaping over folding chairs which is apparently going to transition into doing summersaults and back-flips over them. We’ll see. At this point I am still having a difficult time believing her when she says she will have us all in full spits by the end of the term. Speaking of pain, part of our study here is a daily Russian class. I am trying my best but there is so much to absorb, I constantly feel like my brain is going to explode. One of my classmates, Mitch, a big guy who is easily 6 foot 7 and 200 + pounds said he felt like he was going to cry the entire class. They just want us to be able to function in the city, know how to order food, ask for directions, not look like complete tourists so they just keep throwing stuff at us, telling us to memorize now and understand later, which is so hard for me. I need to get it or my brain just won’t retain it. Thus getting around has been a little rough. For now I am inclined to just keep my eyes low and say ‘excuse me’, the only Russia phrase I can seem to remember, as much as possible. Oh and then there is Singing. Part of the training here is to take voice lessons. We work with a private voice instructor, who bares a striking resemblance to my grandmother and is just downright crazy. She reminds me of a female version of Santa Clause on crack. She is great but she can’t stop laughing except for when she is ranting in Russian at speeds which make translation a near impossibility. I was unaware that we needed to have an a cappella song prepared or that we would be singing in front of everyone. I used to love to sing but it has been a long, long time and I was completely petrified. I got up there and for some reason the only song I could thing to sing was ‘Daydream Believer.” I must have looked insane because I could sing it and was enjoying singing it, but I just could not look at the audience. It was the most intense stage fright I have had in I don’t know how long. I just kept wringing my hands, which for some reason made me think of my mother, which then just made me laugh. That was a poor choice because it made the crazy Russian grandma lady start this series of exercises with me as a demonstration to the class. She made me jump around and try to sound Chinese as I sang and then had me stomp out the song like some big ol’ Russian soldier. I felt like such a jack-ass. I got what she was doing, but man would I have preferred not to be the one up there singing at the top of my lungs with my face bright red from embarrassment! I have a feeling she must have got Natasha’s note that pain is really pleasure.

Monday, September 24, 2007

September 24 - Day 7

My ballet professor, Larissa Dmitriebna can only be described as the Russian version of Frau Farbissina from the Austin Powers movies with a ferocious scowl, pounds of make-up and long graying hair pulled so tight into a bun that it provides an automatic face lift and perpetual look of shock. We have been attempting to guess her age since she has been around for decades and was the instructor to our teachers when they were students. According to them she was ancient even then. She was the prima Ballerina in the Bolsoi Ballet for many, many years before retiring to teach at MXAT. She is practically an institution in Russia and as such demands perfection. She speaks no English and we have no translator for that class so she simply screams at us in Russian while gracefully gliding across the floor, demonstrating whatever sadistic pose she has lined up next. It is no secret that I have a complete and utter lack of grace and I have, on more than one occasion, recounted the tales of how my ballet teacher at Northern would simply place her hand on my shoulder while I attempted a position and shake her head in disbelief. Larissa doesn’t even seem to notice. On our first day in class she had us doing insane bar work and partner exercises like the one in which Daniel, my 5 foot 2 inch partner, was throwing me up in the air as I tried my best to maintain an arabesque. She seems to believe that we all know how to dance and has no problem coming up behind someone to yank their leg up over their head. It is crazy and parts of my body that I didn’t even know existed are now throbbing in the most unnatural of ways. It is a blast. A cruel and painful blast but a blast none the less. Larissa, for all of her initial intimidation factor is hilarious. When she begins to move she completely transforms and a smile so large it almost looks clownish spreads across her face. She gets giddy and childlike, and it is impossible not to she how stunning she must have been performing pirouette after pirouette on the Bolshoi stage all those years ago. So for now I will suck up my sore rear-end and hope to dear god it gets easier with time because I have a feeling we are going to be amazing in the end.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

September 23 - Day 6

Today we all got up bright and early to take a bus tour of Moscow. I think I was the only one on the bus without a hang over, which I have to admit, was pretty amusing. We saw some amazing sites but I think the place I loved the most was the Cathedral of Christ Our Savior. It was built in 1997 as a recreation of the Cathedral destroyed in the Revolution and it reminded me of home. I was able to stand there surrounded by hundreds of tourists and feel completely alone. I said a prayer, which I realized I haven’t done since I have been here, which I surprised me when I thought about it considering how spiritual this experience has been. (I know I sound completely gushy and I suppose it might be hard to understand from the outside. People who have taken this trip have always told me how life changing it is and I never got it. It is really hard to explain but I feel more like me than I have in a very long time and it is just kind of trippy. Your life isn’t supposed to change overnight but it is kind of what this feels like.) Anyway I lit a candle for someone I haven’t thought about in a while and left with that warm fuzzy feeling I only get after my mom’s homemade cocoa.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

September 22 - Day 5

Lesson one in Moscow fashion: burning your hair off with a blow dryer is not the best way to look like a non-tourist! Rough morning aside I once again floated to class even though it was Saturday, I am still going on a few hours of sleep a night and I have not quite gotten used to the heels that are a requirement in Russia society. We have a rotating schedule of classes which includes a daily acting class, ballet, an acrobatic-like movement class, singing, Russian, Russian Theatre history, Russian cinematography, Costuming and Scenic Design. I thought it was going to be a 9-6 kind of day. I know get the impression it is going to be more of a 7-12 kind of day and Sundays are not off. We all seem to feel like we have been here a month as the days tend to blend into one another without a break. It is the best kind of exhaustion I have ever felt. So far the teachers have all blown me away. I think there is a very different ideology when it comes to teaching here then in the States. It is very strict and there is pressure but there is not that need to impress the faculty. They all say not to worry if you succeed on a given objective because if you do not there will always be another opportunity to try again. One of my classmates put it best when he said that they establish a dynamic from the beginning that makes it much easier to work WITH them rather than for them. After class the group from Northern had dinner with Alex, who has become a fast friend. It is so nice to reestablish a new relationship with someone you have know when the parameters have changed. We have had the most incredible conversations over the last few days and I will be truly sad when he leaves next week. But by the way he keeps trying to convince me to return to Chicago to act on stage I think he believes our days of working together are far from over.

We spent the rest of the evening hanging out in the dorms with the Russian students who are in the four year program, playing guitars, singing (Apparently I sing in Russia, full-out, without being afraid – I forgot how much I love it!) and talking about art. I got into a two and a half hour conversation with one of the guys in my class about our process and this art form and life outside of academia. I sat there telling him how important it is to just let go, not beat yourself up about every little mistake you make and just embrace the fact that most things in life are out of your control. It was amazing because these are the very issues I have spent my entire life struggling with. I don’t know if it is Moscow or the fact that I am doing the one thing in life I love more than anything else or because I have wasted so much of the last year with b.s. drama that doesn’t seem to matter now but I now, here in this place, I just seem to get it. I know it has only been a few days and I am sure the hard part has yet to come but I honestly can’t remember a time in my life when I was happier. Real happiness, I am learning, comes with obstacles and pit-falls but offers you a lightness and an inner peace that is so very hard to find. The keep telling me that the theatre is like a religion and I think I am starting to see what they mean.

Friday, September 21, 2007

September 21 - Day 4

Anatoly Smeliansky is the Artistic Director of the Moscow Art Theatre and the head of the School. He is also our Russia Theatre history professor and as I learned today is brilliant. It is quite a different experience to hear the history of a country and an art form through someone who lived it rather than from someone, who like you, has only studied it in books. He spent today’s lecture discussing the history of MXAT, through Lenin and Stalin and Gorbachev, all who rocked it through their influence of power. This theatre, he said, has been a mirror of the country and ultimately the changes that have place at MXAT seem to subsequently occur in the country. As Anatoly spoke it was not as a teacher but as a kind of parental figure bestowing his wisdom on another group of children too ignorant to understand the vast world outside their own sphere. And we all drank it in. You could hear a pin drop and from time to time I could see Alex looking at me, with that ‘See, I told you he was brilliant’ grin. The schedule here is grueling and we are only on day one. We go from class to class with five minute breaks in between from nine am till after six. The work is intense and far more strict and formal than even my classes at Northern but they are so much fun. I had my first acting class today with our two professors and one translator. Neither of the instructors, who’s names I can’t quite pronounce or spell yet, speak any English but they are hilarious. We did a few activities I have done before and then a strange series of exercises meant to teach us to think and act as one organism. The low point involved us needing to sing a song that we all knew. Sadly the only one we all had in common was “Oops, I Did It Again” by Brittany Spears. The instructors we horrified. We are definitely not the greatest generation.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

September 20 - Day 3

To say that the artists and teachers of MXAT are intimidating would be to say that the Grand Canyon is a good sized ditch. They are the defining voices in this art form and in Russian culture. When you think about what it means to be a true artist, these are the people you look to and today I had to perform for them. The National Theatre Institute out of the Eugene O’Neil Center in Connecticut has been running an affiliate program through the Moscow Art Theatre for something like the last 15 years or so, which allows independent American students the opportunity to study at MXAT. Now that NIU started the first undergraduate university semester program with the school (which the O’Neil group was very unhappy about as we have received some serious special treatment from MXAT) the Artistic Director and faculty decided to combine their 27 person group and our 8 person group and then divide us into two classes. In order for them to do that they needed to evaluate us individually. So the day we arrived Alex informed us we would need to prepare a monologue to be performed in front of the ENTIRE faculty and all of our classmates. I had no idea I would need to have anything ready and I haven’t worked on a monologue in months and this is for the greatest artists in all of Russia! I was terrified and excited and just hoping to dear god that I would be able to speak. I honestly can’t remember much of the first part of the morning as my mind was fixated on praying I wouldn’t suck since I am supposed to be some sort of role model for these kids who are currently in the NIU program. (It is a really weird uncomfortable feeling and they all look at me like I am supposed to have words of wisdom or insight into what happens next and all I really want to say is ‘Don’t look at me cause I don’t think I would be here if I had a clue!’) Anyway, the program coordinator spent an hour or so before the audition giving us tips on making our way through the Russian culture, trying to get by when you literally know two words in the entire language and can’t read the alphabet, and how to handle a society that won’t smile back at you because they do not believe in smiling ‘unless it is from the heart’. So when one by one the faculty walked in with their intense stares and stern faces you could feel the nervous anticipation in the room shift instantly into down-right terror. They sat down in line in front of us and silently looked us all over. Suddenly they broke out into laughter and one of the professors said through a translator (yeah, almost no one speaks English) that he had discovered a phenomenon with all the American students. They come to Moscow and are afraid to smile. “Smile!” he said. That is why they love Americans, because of our openness and warmth even if they don’t necessarily follow the same practices. With that I began to understand the complexity of what makes this people so profoundly dynamic and I started to feel a sense of ease. The professors moved down into the audience in front of us, with Alex sitting right in front of me so he could send me sly looks throughout the performance and one by one the students got up to perform. I have to say I was very impressed by the quality of work that these students brought with them. It was clear that everyone was at different levels in their training but there was an overall sense that these were all artists and regardless of background had a level of respect and commitment you don’t always find in people our age. More important, however, was what I didn’t see, in myself. I have this horrible affliction, and I think it is one that most artist share, in which I compare myself to everyone else and I feel the need to quantify my talent against theirs; too good I panic, too bad I panic. This was the first time I can ever remember sitting and watching other artists without judgment or preference, just enjoying each moment. In fact it was intoxicating. I just got more and more excited thinking how amazing and surreal this experience is going to be. I was nervous but not scared. Two-thirds of the way through I got up to perform a piece I haven’t done in years and had only briefly practiced the night before. And it was a blast! Probably the most fun I have had in, well, a very very long time. I felt really good about it, it felt easy and natural but it really didn’t matter. It was just fun. I thought that was a pretty darn good way to end the day but then we found out that we would be spending our evening seeing a new avant-garde adaptation of a Gogol short story on the MXAT second stage. We killed a few hours by walking TWO blocks to Red Square and snapping a few photos.

It is very difficult to explain the Russian theatre experience. It is so unlike anything we have in the States. It is such an essential part of Russian society, most people start going to the theatre when they are only a few years old. Alex explained that in a society where religion was banned for nearly a century, the theatre has become for these people a kind of secular church, a place of sacred communal union. It has a level of godliness and as the society shifted with changing structure so did the theatre. Thus it was no surprise that as we hovered in the crammed lobby long past curtain time waiting for show to begin, the audience seemed barely phased by the house manager’s announcement that show would be delayed by a lead actress who was stuck in traffic. The show was well worth the wait. Even though I did not know a word that was being said there was not a moment that I did not understand. The actors’ specificity was perfection. I have never seen an actual Star of the theatre and that was what these artists are. The audience laden them with flowers and as I sat through the endless applause I realized the theatre we will be seeing here will be unlike anything I could ever know anyplace else. Oh, and the wait was also worth it for a second reason. Alex took me aside and told me how impressed he was with my piece. He said I have really grown as a performer and he had not expected such a great ease and openness given the circumstances and what he could remember of my work. Even more thrilling, he said the Russians really liked my work too! I kinda feel like the Grinch when his heart grew three sizes!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

September 19th - Day 2

Moscow is magnificent. I can’t even think of words to describe it. There is that feeling when you meet someone for the first time and their warmth and openness assure you immediately that they are kindred spirits and there is an ease like that of an old friend. Moscow is that friend. I have barely been here for twenty-four hours and it is already the most amazing place I have ever been. In fact, I keep saying that – every other word out of my mouth is ‘amazing.’ I am becoming acutely aware of how ridiculous I sound but I can’t help it. It truly is spectacular and so much more than I could have ever imagined. The day began brilliantly. Our group of eight students (five NIU undergrads, and two outside students plus me) headed out from our fifth story walk-up to find some coffee and I was ecstatic to discover that not only can I maintain my addiction but it is quite possibly the best coffee I have ever tasted – ever. Professor Alex Gelman, who chairs the program at Northern and accompanied us to Moscow for the first two weeks, met us at the dorm to lead us to the Moscow Art Theatre School, which is approximately a forty minute walk from where we are staying. (I have the feeling that from all the walking and endless stairs I will be in great shape to run another marathon when I get back!) The walk is fantastic and could be compared to a longer, more elaborate version of Michigan Avenue with enormous statues of famous Russian heroes, incredible architecture and spectacular gardens. I couldn’t help but think how gorgeous it must look when it snows even though I am more than happy to wait a while before I see it. When we finally got to MXAT, I was blown away by how overwhelmed I felt. This is the place where theatre as we know it was created and the awe and respect it demands is just intense. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the likes of Chekhov and Stanislavsky and to have the opportunity to study in this temple that they built for our craft is truly a life changing experience. We briefly saw the American Studio, which is an expanded wing that MXAT has built as a result of its ongoing relationship with Harvard’s ART Masters program and now programs like ours. Then we headed to the commissary for an introduction in Russian food which although incredibly basic is delicious. After a harrowing subway ride, which did little for my claustrophobia we reached the place Alex was determined we see before we begin classes. Novodevichy Cemetery is a national cemetery and the final resting place for past leaders and dignitaries like Yeltsin and Mrs. Gorbachev, famous scholars and scientists, and is where the most famous of all Russian artists, performers and musicians are buried. We purchased flowers to lay on the graves of Chekhov and Stanislavsky, as well as other inspirational artists like Gogol and while I was moved to see their graves, it was the sea of other tomb stones, people I had never heard of, all engraved with the symbol of the seagull, a sign of membership in the company that truly stirred my soul. All of these people were so devoted to their art that they wanted to spend eternity close to Chekhov with the final remembrance of their life being their work. Alex saw me staring at the tombstone of Nemirovich-Danchenko, the man who partnered Stanislavsky in the creation of the Moscow Art Theatre and founded the school the year before he died and said, “This place reminds you that this is not a profession but a calling.” And in that moment I felt my soul come alive in away it has not been in a very long time. That evening over lamb and a pint of the strongest beer I have ever tasted we spoke about art and creation and the process that challenges and motivates us all to do this crazy thing we love so much. I have so missed having people to share this with and I can’t imagine a better way to begin our training. This place is just magic and if I had to come home tomorrow I think it would still be the best thing I have ever done.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

September 18th - Day 1

My first evening in Moscow was a blur. Truthfully, aside from the minor visa snafu, the entire travel process went rather seamlessly. While it was long it wasn’t too painful, even when our bus from the airport temporarily broke down on the freeway. Actually, I arrived in Moscow more rested than I had been in weeks (thanks Erin!). The group from Northern all seem nice however I was still relieved to find out that I would not have to share a room since the travel time with them was enough to remind me that my college days have long since past and I am way too old (or at least too tired) to keep up with the type of trip they have planed. I am looking forward to a lot of really hard work and I think the quiet will be exactly what I need. Moscow is magnificent and the people, at least all those I met in the first few hours seem to defy all expectations. They representatives from the school were so excited to meet us and have all been incredibly sweet. Our guides are called ‘angels.’ I am not sure where the expression comes from but they have set our trip off on a lovely note and I hope it is only the beginning of great things to come.