GITIS Fall 2013: Понятно

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.