Zane is a 2019 alumnus of the design track of IFTER’s Moscow Art Theatre School Summer Intensive. Here’s a look into his training in Moscow.
Upon arriving in Moscow and waking up for our first classes of the week, we started out with a walk. The walk down Tverskaya was around thirty minutes, but it was one of the nicest walks I’ve had the pleasure of taking on the regular.
The classes we had were about what most would expect to be taking, Set Design, Costume Design, Lighting, etc. but, the Russians treat design completely different than we do here in America. Design is treated as a fine art, something to be appreciated, and they train you that way. Twice a week we had drawing class and painting as well where we practiced our fine art skills that could transfer into our designs.
However, my art skills are nothing compared to the other Russian students; the designs and projects that they were doing were absolutely incredible.
This is a set a technologist student did for Peter Pan. This quality is what the professors wanted out of each and every student, which was very stressful but very worth it.
We had intensive classes in nearly every aspect of design including history of set design, history of costumes, a whole class dedicated to military dress in Chekhov’s time, and classes spent at the state art library pouring over original photos from Chekhov’s time.
One other absolutely amazing thing we were able to do is tour the workshops, stages, and backstage areas of multiple theatres in Moscow including the Moscow Art Theatre, the Bolshoi, and Lenkom Theatres. (Most theatres asked me not to post pictures)
This program was absolutely amazing and a blessing to be a part of. I would recommend any aspiring designer or tech person to take this and share in these wonderful experiences.
Our next design course will be offered in Summer 2021. Stay tuned for more information!
This post is by guest blogger and MATS Summer Intensive 2014 alumnus, Brendan Thompson. Originally from Alberta, Canada, Brendan has been living and working in Moscow for the past year. He is an actor, director, and playwright who loves literature, hockey, and pizza. You can read more about his adventures in Moscow here.
My first experience in a supermarket in Russia was a terrifying one. When I arrived last year I was taken to Ashan (actually French owned), a store that is like Superstore, but if it were the Autobahn. I have since become much better at navigating grocery stores, and have also made some observations.
I’ve noticed that Russian food, in supermarkets at least, seems to have fewer preservatives and chemicals when it comes to the essentials, like milk, eggs, dairy products, and fresh produce. This is both good and bad.
On the one hand the produce is fresh; tomatoes aren’t abnormally large, there isn’t a waxy substance around your apples, the vegetables look like they were literally pulled out of a garden, put directly onto a truck and brought to the store. Nobody sprayed them with chemicals, no one gave them any growth hormones, or whatever other wonderful things are done to our produce in North America.
On the other hand the vegetables look like they were literally pulled out of a garden, put directly onto a truck and brought to the store. Were they cleaned? Clearly they were not because they are often still covered in dirt. That’s probably fine, but it is interesting to note. It also means that the produce, the milk and often the meat goes bad quicker than in North America. Our refrigerator is often the victim of something we left for a day or two too long. Grocery stores, the bigger or cheaper ones anyway, are not always as quick to replace old produce so old, not quite rotting, food is sitting out, sometimes with swarms of fruit flies that need to be shoed away.
There does seem to be a greater appreciation for fresh food from the people here, from what I can tell in talking to people. I would argue that this leads to healthier diets, but what do I know? There are always many farmers’ markets selling fresh fruit, berries and vegetables on certain days of the week.
At first glance the majority of supermarkets are not too different from the average Canadian grocery store. You can buy snacks, chips, vegetables, dairy, meat, bread, etc. There is one popular item I’m very grateful is popular here. One of my most glorious moments upon arriving in Russia was coming around a grocery store aisle and going “Hey Nutella! Nutellaaaaa!!!!!” (That’s from a play right?)
The details are a bit different though. Salsa is often absent because the Russians are not big on spicy food. When I order spicy food I am often warned that it is spicy and what I am given is usually “mild” to “not spicy” (I pity the few Mexicans living in Moscow).
The chip flavours are slightly different, crab being a big hit. The pop is different, root beer is absent (my girlfriend didn’t even know what that was), and something called kvas is present. It’s not really pop, I would describe it as what would’ve happened had the inventors of Coca-Cola made it not as fizzy, slightly alcoholic, and bread flavoured instead of caramel (yeah, that’s right, Coca-Cola is caramel flavoured). Peanut butter is very difficult to find, but I did it once. Maple syrup, and syrup in general, is not really a thing, but select stores have it regularly.
The dairy section is a bit more diverse. They have their own versions of things. Buttermilk is hard to find, but there’s something called “kefir” (key-FEAR) which tastes mostly like if buttermilk was thinner and you were supposed to just drink it straight. “Tvorok” is cottage cheese though less… runny? Liquidy? There is also a wide range of butter, spreads, cheeses, etc. Skim milk is not a thing, except at a few grocery stores. Even 1% is difficult to find, the norm being 2-3.5%.
Seafood is also popular, herring being one of my new favourite fish. It comes in a plastic dish and is drenched in fish oil and you just eat is straight. I like to have it with seaweed salad (morskaya kapusta, which literally translates to “cabbage of the sea”). You can get all kinds of fish, crab and lobster. My friend mentioned that in one restaurant he went to, one of their finest dishes was “Canadian lobster”. Nice job, Maritimes!
Finally, getting out. You will pay less for your groceries in Moscow if you stick to the essentials. Bread can be as cheap as 70 cents a loaf. I think I pay about half as much for fresh produce as I do in Canada. Brand name things are probably comparable.
I have not seen a self-checkout from what I can remember. This makes things less frustrating, but more personal. If you don’t speak Russian, the cashier may not be happy with you. The cashier is, however, sitting down. What!? I feel like this would make many employees in Canada much happier and is a much more reasonable system than having them stand all day just to scan things. Maybe I’m wrong.
Anyway, grocery stores in Russia. The same. But different. Thanks for reading.
by Mei Mei Pollitt, guest blogger and summer 2014 Intern
10. The мороженое (Ice Cream)
Ice Cream stands are everywhere in Moscow, and Muscovites eat ice cream year round – even in the freezing winters! The ice cream is pretty inexpensive (usually less than a US dollar for any treat) and is super creamy and delicious. Choose from a large range of options such as ice cream cones with chocolate at the bottom, buttery vanilla ice cream served in a chocolate tube, or gold standard blackberry.
9. The парки (Parks)
Moscow, despite being a mega-city, is very green. In between the multitude of skyscrapers, shoved together old buildings, and screaming metro trains are vast parks; stretches of breathtaking and towering forests large enough to get lost in. You can visit Gorky Park, which includes a long bike bath with a woodland hill on one side and Moskva river on the other, or Tsaritsyno Park, a lush wonderland where Catherine the Great’s former summer estate can be found, to name just a couple.
8. The метро (Metro)
While the roar of the train and the rush hour human sardine pack-in can be exhausting, almost every station is decadently decorated and the people watching is superb. Most of what I learned about Muscovites today, I learned by watching them on the metro train.
7. The русский язык (Russian Language)
Even if you don’t learn more than a couple of words while in Moscow, being immersed in another language is always an adventure. The new sounds are intellectually stimulating and you get to observe and communicate with people beyond understanding their spoken words. Russian is a beautiful language, rich in consonants and with a vocabulary and structure that lends itself well to poetry and puns.
Some Helpful and Fun Russian words and phrases:
Будь здоров! (Byt zdarov)- “Be healthy” -that’s what you say after someone sneezes, or sometimes during a toast.
можно (Mozhna) – “May I?” – you can say this when you order food or ask for anything.
Tы рад?(Tuiy rad) – “You glad” – this is what you say to check in on your friends when they look down. If you are good, you can answer, “да, я рад”(da, ya rad) if you’re a boy or “да, я радa“ (da, ya rada) if you’re a girl.
6. The блины (Blinni)
Blinni are Russian Pancakes- they are like crepes. They can be filled with sweet things (fruit, chocolate, cream), savory (salmon, meat, cheese, vegetables), or just sprinkled with powdered sugar or spread with butter. They are cheap, too! Mon Blin, a Moscow chain, offers all types of blin for no more than 5 US dollars a blin.
5. The церкви (Churches)
Churches, their onion domes, history, and ornately decorated indoor paintings of saints are to be found all over Moscow! While it can be strange to be a tourist among religious pilgrims, it is also an opportunity to witness the piety, tradition, and ritual of Russian Orthodoxes at worship and prayer. The two most iconic and popular among tourists are Saint Basil’s Cathedral and The Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square: Legend holds that Ivan the Terrible loved this church so much, he blinded the architect after it’s construction so that the architect would be unable to recreate it for anyone else.
Cathedral of Christ the Savior: Rebuilt after the original was destroyed by Joseph Stalin for anti-religious Communist Russia, it stands as the tallest orthodox Christian church in the world. It is also where the punk Russian activist group, The Pussy Riot, staged the infamous concert that got them arrested and sent to Siberia in 2012.
3. The история (History)
Russia’s deep history vibrates everywhere in Moscow. In the historic architecture, the museums, the literary and artistic traditions, and in the characters of Muscovites living today. Talk to a Muscovite and they will refer to WWII as the “great patriotic war”, maybe recommend you some astounding monuments and memorials dedicated to the devastating war. Visit Dostoevsky’s or Stanislavsky’s old apartments. Walk around the Kremlin, protective walls first built for the heart of Moscow in the middle ages. Or talk to any older Muscovite about the recent changes: Moscow has changed dramatically since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and any Russian over the age of 35 will have memories of a different, communist Moscow (and opinions on what has changed for better and for worse.)
4. The Art музеи (Museums)
Of the art museums, Pushkin Art Gallery and Tretyakov State Gallery are the most renowned in Moscow, and for good reason. Pushkin Art Gallery boasts a collection plentiful with works by some of the most renowned painters from the past 2 centuries, including Renoir, Picasso, Matisse, and more. Tretyakov has an entire hall of beautiful Russian icons and is plentiful with famous wall-sized baroque murals that are endless in story and character.
Some of my favorite paintings I saw in Moscow.
However, Moscow is full of art beyond these two museums. Another favorite of mine, Garage, is a contemporary Art museum working to engage public idea and interest in new projects and ideas.
2. The исполнительские виды искусства (Performing Arts)
The performing arts are very important to Russians, and this is reflected in Moscow’s abundant and excellent theatre, dance, and opera scene. Experience the historical Bolshoi by watching ballet and opera at it’s finest, catch some edgier contemporary dance at the Shkola Dramaticheskova Iskustra (The School of Dramatic Art), or stop in at a Ticket Box to purchase tickets for a play at one of the dozens of famous theatres in Moscow (the Satirikon, the Chekhov Art Theatre, the Gogol Center, etc.) You don’t have to have money to experience the performing arts in Moscow though. Free theatre listings can be found online (http://www.nahalyavu.com/msk/theatre/) and street musicians can be found by top metro stations during the day and in Theatre Square in the evenings.
1. The рост душа (Soul Growth)
I spent a month in Moscow this past summer. I saw 14 shows, took language classes, spent days gazing at paintings in Russian museums, hours listening to Russians speaking on the metro, ate blin and ice cream almost everyday, relished in the daunting greenery of Russian parks, lit prayer candles before beautiful gold icons, drank vodka and danced to jazz in an old underground cafe, found solace in the literature of Tolstoy and Pushkin, and saw the sun set and rise again over Moscow’s infinite skyline of skyscrapers, conversing with Russian college students in a broken-Russian-English-hybrid over our differences and similarities as people, as nations, smoking black cigarettes on the 14th floor fire escape of our rickety soviet-era dorm building. However, what I gained most from Moscow goes beyond the stories I can tell and the pictures I can show.
Exposure to a nation so rich with character, story, and soul as Russia causes you to reflect more deeply on your own life, your own soul. And exposure to a place still rebuilding itself from the collapse of a government builds perspective on your own situation in your own country. What is important to fight for, in politics, in art, as a human? What freedoms must be protected? How is Russia like the United States and how is it different? How can we, as a world, work to preserve the right for every voice to be heard and every minority to be protected? How can I, as an artist, give, collaborate, and take risks to make incredible, risky theatre more available and engaging to our public? These are some of the questions that infest me still, 2 months after my return from Russia. They will continue to guide me as I create a life for myself, as a student, and then as a working adult.
And so, to Moscow, to Moscow with love, I say спасибо, спасибо большое.*
IFTER’s Summer 2014 Intern, Mei Mei Pollit is the guest blogger for this post which gives you a peek at some fresh, new, and very modern theatre in Moscow.
I spent the month of June and part of May in Moscow, seeing lots of theatre, taking Russian classes, and working on a research project which you can read about here: evameilingpollitt.wordpress.com.
This blog post is dedicated to a few great young theaters in Moscow. You may have already heard of the historic Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre, but have you heard of the Gogol Center? Or the Shkola Dramaticheskova Iskustra (The School of Dramatic Art)? Some of my favorite work in Moscow was performed at these newer and younger theatres. Below, read about them and what I saw while I was there.
Гоголь-центр – Gogol Center
«Гоголь-центр» — это территория свободы. (The Gogol Center is a place of freedom.)
That is the theatre’s mission statement. Renovated from the former “Gogol theatre” under new director Serebrennikov in 2013, the Gogol Center today works to provide a place that engages the community and a place where art can tread new frontiers. There is a café, a bookshop, and quotes mounted on the walls from famous contemporary theatre artists, discussing the role of theatre or the role of the Gogol Center.
“If a vacuum is formed in generations, in the theatre there comes a catastrophe. All time should pass updated composition, feeding new blood. It is necessary. Without the young generation making theatre, we cannot evolve”
I saw Gogol Center’s «Мертвые души» or “Dead Souls”. A staging of Gogol’s masterpiece novel, “Dead Souls”, it tackled mortality, materialism, and identity in a 3-hour, no-intermission voyage with song, satire, and a united hyper-physicality in the ensemble and characters. It was also a purposeful and obscene revolt against Russia’s “Anti-Gay Propaganda law”, with constant and outright homosexual or gender-reverse images and characters, and a decry against Russia’s tumultuous government. The protagonist buys souls from corrupt government officials, finds out the majority of these souls have died from alcoholism, and is, in the end, kidnapped and shoved in a claustrophobic human-sized box by a crazed lead antagonist who resembles Putin. The closing song in the performance asks, “Russia, what do you want from me?”
You can read more about the Gogol Center, and all of their performances, on the English version of their website.
Школа драматического искусства- School of Dramatic Art
Говорят: “Нужны новые сюжеты…”Да не нужны новые сюжеты!Возьмите один. И ставьте всю жизнь. О театре.(We say: “We need new stories…” We do not need new stories! Take one. Place a lifetime. About the theatre.” )
^From Anatoli Vassilev, founder of the Школа.
Vassilev opened the “Школа драматического искусства” in 1987 with a performance of “Six Characters in search of an author” which presented new theatrical methods and techniques that established the school as a place of experimentation; a Лаборатория (lab) as well as a Школа and Театр (school and theatre). In 2001, the school moved to a newly constructed building that is full of skylights, stairs, and interesting angles. I saw two productions at the school while in Moscow, one in a small studio lit by candles, and the other in a large gymnasium with semi-circle wooden risers.
The first show I saw at the school was ГЕРОИДЫ. ТАНЦЕВАЛЬНЫЕ ПИСЬМА (Heroides. Dancing Letters.) It took “Heroides” by Ovid- a collection of 15 “love letters” from Greek and Roman mythological heroines- and transformed the letters into a solo dances. Each dancer took on the role of a heroine and came out to dance for a 15-20 piece to music that was performed live andhad been composed after the choreography (so that the music was made for the dance instead of the dance made for the music). The choreography was bursting with a raw, ugly, and fascinating feminine sexuality that experimented with costume and hair in new ways.
The second show I saw at the school was КАК ВАЖНО БЫТЬ СЕРЬЁЗНЫМ (The Importance of being Ernest). A Russian interpretation of the Oscar Wilde masterpiece, the play was performed in a gymnasium and was staged in a way that broke all rules of “realistic” movement. The characters moved in a way that was true to the action, but their world was a place where chasing and running in huge circles or vibrating in movement groups against the floor could be paired with dialogue from 19th century British Society. There were also several physical montages and a live piano that responded to the characters in a way that made the pianist a character as well.
Gogol Center and the School of Dramatic Arts are Muscovite leaders in breaking preconceived notions of what theatre “should be”, however most of my experience with Moscow theatre provided some sort of theatrical experimentation or novelty that I hadn’t seen before. Streetcar named Desire at the Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre had real people embodying Blanche’s ghosts, so we saw the experience of her insanity embodied; London Show at the Satirikon preceded its first dialogue with 10 minutes of the actors communicating in strong physical gestures and gibberish, etc. It is important for American theatre artists to go to Moscow and see theatre like this because it broadens their perceptions on what theatre can be. Seeing one’s own idea of theatre “rules” get broken inspires one to return home and tread new frontiers of their own.
IFTER does not own any of these photos. They are for reference only.
At 9 a.m. on a rainy Saturday we began our first ever workshop in partnership with Susan B. Productions. It was the kind of morning that begs a person to stay in bed. Would anyone be there? Would it be a success? We couldn’t be sure.
When it was time to begin working, the room was full of bright, eager faces ready to discover Biomechanics. Our instructor, Ana-Maria Bandean, filled the room with energy and confidence. A room of strangers quickly became an ensemble moving from one exercise to the next, discovering, for most, their first taste of Biomechanics.
Although I was also participating as a student in the workshop I couldn’t help but take a step back, take a deep breath and say to myself: “This is why we do this!” Since IFTER’s creation our goal has been to link American students with International theatre artists both abroad and here at home. We are in our second year of international programs and now we can finally offer programs in the US too.
Through out the workshop Ana-Maria carefully explained Meyerhold’s techniques and invited every student to try exercises to go along with them. Each student stretched and pushed their body and mind continuously for three hours to understand the basic principles of Biomechanics.
We worked at lightning speed through a long series of exercises designed to help the actor understand Biomechanics with his/her body and mind. We worked with organic movement, energy, space, balace, coordination, objects, text and with partners to begin to develop a sense of the fundamental principles of Biomechanics: otkas (refusal), posyl (sending), stoika (stance), and tormos (brake).
When twelve o’clock came and the session had ended we were all equally surprised that time had passed so quickly and that we had covered so much in three hours.
We couldn’t have asked for a better kick of to our new Workshop Series. Special thanks to Ana-Maria Bandean, Susan B. Productions, and our fantastic students for making the workshop possible. We hope to offer more Biomechanics workshops in the future.
Have a great idea for a workshop? Feedback on this workshop? Let us know at email@example.com
Today’s blog post is written by 2009 MATS Summer Intensive Alumna, Jessica Strauss.
My month-long summer intensive at the Moscow Arts Theatre School was highly influential with shaping my perspective on the arts overall. During our time in Moscow and St. Petersburg, I was exposed to the highest caliber of theatre that I had ever experienced. Although the plays were in an entirely foreign language and several hours long, the
works that we attended were by far the most engaging pieces of theatre
I have ever seen. All elements including technical, directing, performance, etc. were presented in a professional level that is rarely if ever achieved in America. It was amazing to be in a culture that so deeply appreciated theatre as well. We attended Three Penny Opera at the MXAT while it was still in previews and the audience was completely full (just like every show we attended). My exposure to Russian theatre showed me that anything really is possible and theatre is so much more than the words on the page. Those two concepts were of course presented to me at Butler by Elaina’s classes, but it was such a gift to see them fully realized and actualized in the highly professional and high achievement setting of Russia.
The classes at the Moscow Art Theatre School carry the same high expectations as the professional theatre and it’s clear to see the professors aim to equip students with the skills to truly master their craft. We took classes in Acting, Ballet, Movement, Singing, and
Theatre History. Each one stretched me and challenged me in new ways as an artist, student, and simply as an individual. In Ballet and Movement, I was challenged to move beyond my comfort zone and physically and mentally work hard. I really appreciate in Movement being instructed by Natalia Fedorova to do the impossible. We were
directed to run on walls, jump over tables and chairs,and accomplish physical feats we had deemed impossible. She broke down the mental limitations and unleashed new freedom in her entire class. I had similar experiences in our Singing class, where I was pushed beyond being a beginner in voice and guided to remove previous boundaries. I
thoroughly enjoyed our acting classes that focused on both building ensemble and achieving individual artistic growth. Again, all these classes exemplified that the impossible was in fact possible. That principle is definitely not a foreign idea to Elaina’s students and it so rewarding to get to experience that lesson in it’s fullest as capstone to the Butler Theatre experience.
I would definitely encourage other students to attend the program. It’s such an incredible experience to be challenged in unique ways in such a historically and culturally rich country. From my time in Russia, I have learned to dream bigger and work harder.
Today’s blog post is by guest-blogger and MATS Summer Intensive Alumna, Melissa Fenton. Melissa is a 2010 graduate of Butler University and now lives and works in Los Angeles.
I remember an immediate respect for the quality of art I saw – not just in theatres – everywhere. Advertisements were glossy and beautiful, the people themselves seriously aesthetic, and everywhere I turned, some street performance was wow-ing a crowd. First impression? Russians were serious about, well, just about everything.
This proved to bode well for our group as we made our way, awkward and American, into the world of Russian Theatre. We bumbled about in ballet class, ached and moaned and human pretzel-ified ourselves in movement, reveled in the absolute joy that was acting class, and any spare time we had left was dedicated to seeing shows. I think we saw over twenty shows while we were there. They were all amazing and alive, like nothing I’d ever seen or felt before. Everything was perfect. Refined over and over and over again, sometimes for years, we were told, until the Russians decided it was perfect. Their standards account for the often-lengthy rehearsal schedule.
But it showed. It was truly an experience I wish for every student of theatre. When I saw what was happening in those theaters, I felt something “click”. I understood why I loved this art form so much and how endless the possibilities were.
One final memory, and I think that will do. I remember this beautiful group of young actors, standing in line to audition for the school. They were 16, 17, some probably younger. All beautifully decked out in their meticulous clothes, personalities shining, the girls in red lipstick and collected brows. There was an air of dignity about them, lined up from the stone steps and on through the narrow corridors. I could tell they were honored to be there. They were there to learn.
Believe me, you will come back inspired, informed, and if your experience is anything like mine, a better person all around.
More information about the MATS Summer Intensive here.
In today’s blog, guest blogger and MATS Summer Intensive Alumna, Marcy Thornsberry, describes her experience with Russian theatre and how studying at MATS informed her career as a professional theatre artist.
The summer before my senior year of college, I participated in the Moscow Art Theatre School Summer Intensive. My trip to Russia was the first time I had ever been abroad, and I loved it! As a theatre artist, I gained vital experience both from the classes I took and from the plays we saw while in Moscow.
We were lucky to see a production almost every night. Although I do not speak the Russian language I was still able to understand the majority of the plays we attended. The language barrier encouraged me to observe the characters closely in order to better understand the story, and as a result of the talent and dedication of the performers, I clearly understood the intentions and relationships performed. I feel as though experiencing the Russian repertory theatre system, as well as working with and watching artists that are closely connected with Chekhov and Stanislavski, provided me with an experience that I could not have received in America.
I still vividly remember sitting in the audience seeing Butusov’s production of The Seagull, one of the most beautiful productions I have ever seen in my life. Krymov was another of my favorite directors. His productions were all enthralling, visually dynamic, and the performances were always excellent to watch as an acting student. I was also fortunate enough to visit the homes of Chekhov and Stanislavski.
Since graduating college last December, I have been working professionally as an actor. My training in Moscow has made me more marketable as a theatre artist. The experiences both in the classroom and in the audience have made me more rounded both as an actor and an ensemble member. Understanding how to work in an ensemble is essential in any career, and my time in Moscow developed those skills.
In addition to the amazing theatre in Moscow, the culture and history are just as awe inspiring. I would recommend this program to anyone interested in furthering their study of theatre.
In this post, guest blogger and Moscow Art Theatre School Summer Intensive Alum (2009) Raphael Schwartzman tells you what this program meant for him.
Interested in joining us for MATS Summer Intensive 2014? Click here.
One of my clearest memories [of the MATS Summer Intensive] is of being so wonderfully sore after my first movement class. The performance training we received, which included Droznin movement technique, yoga, acrobatics and ballet, was demanding physically and mentally in a way that I hadn’t usually experienced back home. I had to learn to move with parts of my body, in rhythms and isolation, that I had never done before, and this woke me up to how important it is for actors to train their body like an instrument, in the same way that dancers, musicians, and athletes do. I also got the chance to run across a wall and try to flip off of it, which was challenging and frightening and unbelievably fun.
I saw as much theatre in a month in Moscow as I do in a year in the United States. Every single show was evocative and visually stunning. Even though I don’t speak enough Russian to follow the dialogue, the actors’ performances and the stage design are so compelling and attention-grabbing that it is impossible to look away. It’s even possible to figure out the general plot of the play because the actors are so specific and clear with their bodies and voices.
One experience that I had in Moscow that has stayed with me is the incredible quality of the diploma show done by the third year students at the Moscow Art Theatre School. It was a series of short scenes that the students had created themselves which included performing as animals, puppets, celebrities, and in extreme situations like sky-diving and fire-fighting. Even though there were minimal technical elements, and the actors almost never spoke, the scenario and the progression of the characters were so clear and moving. The scenes were simple, subtle, and extraordinarily powerful because they were so detailed. The students had been working on these scenes for the entire three years that they had been in school. This is common for actors in Russia to do, where they will perform multiple shows in rep for years. This level of commitment and passion was formative for me as an artist, even though we only got to experience it for a short time.
I try to bring that perspective with me into the theatre work that I do here in the United States. These students could work for so long on these little performances and continue to refine them, to find more details, more questions to explore. In the US we only ever have a few weeks to put up a show, so it was extremely valuable for me to see what could be made when the right amount of time is invested.
I would recommend this program to current students (or anyone who has the opportunity) over and over again. The training is superb. The opportunity to experience the culture is priceless, and the perspective that it offers is eye-opening. In Russia, there is a deep-seated respect and need for theatre that is ingrained in the culture. We struggle with this outside the artistic communities in the US.
About the Author
Raphael Schwartzman graduated from Butler University with a BA in Theatre in 2011. He currently lives in Chicago where he works as a director, actor, designer, and educator.
Eliana Sigel-Epstein shares more about her experiences studying directing at GITIS. Visit her personal blog here for more!
Понятно (pahn- YAT – nah)
It’s strange to me that it wasn’t until the past few months that I realized how frequently Russians say Понятно. It literally means “understandable,” but it’s usually used as a question to check understanding, so it’s like asking “Got it?” but it’s used even more frequently, and isn’t quite as condescending. Understanding, and checking a person’s understanding, is becoming the theme of my experience at GITIS. I had already experienced how the simplest of tasks are made extraordinarily difficult without being able to understand the other person’s language. And now I’m trying much more complicated tasks: sitting in a classroom, trying to learn fairly complicated ideas about theatre. And then the most complicated task of all – forming friendships with other people. How to understand a person without understanding all the words they say.
Not to mention, trying to get others to understand your artistic ideas. I am now working on three separate projects with Russian actors. And it is so hard. For the first rehearsal of each, I wrote out what I wanted to say in Russian (well, first in English, then I translated into Russian) and read it aloud at the rehearsal. Of course, I’m positive I made embarrassing errors in my translation, and sometimes I’ll come across a word that I don’t quite know how to pronounce, or I won’t be able to read my own handwriting, and it’s just awkward to be reading off a sheet of paper at a rehearsal. Voice inflection is so important in communication – especially communication in theatre, and it’s hard to do that with words in a language you’re still learning. Also, I try to communicate my ideas using simple words and sentence structures that I’ve already learned, and for me, it’s always been difficult to simplify my thoughts. After the first rehearsal, it’s almost impossible to write everything out beforehand, because a rehearsal is a living thing with unexpected problems. And the best ideas are those that come from collaboration. So how do you collaborate when one person only speaks the language 50%? How do you bounce ideas off of each other? How do you solve problems? How do you express problems in a way that is понятно? I mean, in rehearsal with American actors, I struggle to communicate with them sometimes. How do I translate the result I want from them into words they can use for their process? How do I change the way I say something that they are not understanding? How do I create an environment where we can feel free to share ideas and build on the ideas of the other person? How do we come to the same understanding of the character or the situation in the play – one that not only we share but that is in line with what the playwright wrote?
I am quickly learning that understanding is the source of all good theatre. Our master teacher’s guiding philosophy is that once you understand, everything else comes. Understanding the character and understanding the play is key. Simply understanding. “What’s happened?” he frequently asks when analyzing a student’s work. Not even “what does your character want?” or “what are the surrounding circumstances in which your character is living?” Those questions are important, but the answers come from simply understanding what is happening right now with your character. What has just happened that makes you act the way you act. And being able to distill what’s happening to the simplest, most powerful, most playable words. I frequently understand his Russian, not only because he is quite old and speaks quite slowly (he also frequently says “don’t rush” and clearly lives by that philosophy), but also because he speaks quite simply. He uses simple, straightforward sentences but each word has wisdom and truth.
So, more understanding to come – about cultural differences, about theatre, about everything.