Sunday, October 14, 2007

Experience in Moscow: Part 1

October 7, 2007

Dearest Friends, Family, and Faculty,

I am so sorry it has taken me so long to contact you. We were told that we would have wireless internet, but they still haven't set it up for us! If you've tried to contact me, I really haven't had more than a second on the internet, and I'm sorry I haven't gotten back to you. But here I am, sitting in an Internet cafe, and this is my first official MOSCOW BLOG email! Feel free to forward it to whoever may be interested. A little disclaimer: Since I expected to be able to write more regularly, and I have already had two weeks of immense experiences in Moscow and at the Moscow Art Theatre School, this email may be rather long, so I am dividing it into parts. Read it in whatever free time you have:

MOSCOW: LIFE IN THE CITY

We've been here about 2 weeks already, and the culture shock is still very strong. While the city is very modern, I wouldn't consider it entirely Westernized. Sure, you've got your McDonald's and KFC's, your decadent shopping malls, and I think they just got their first Starbucks, but the culture is so inherently different from our own. If I had to describe Moscow in one word, I think it would be "intense." The architecture is vast and grand, but with sort of a bleak shade to it. The enormous statues scattered around the city (there are still some monuments to Lenin and Stalin as well as many other historical figures), are dark and masculine, as opposed to the more delicate feminine Western classical Roman sculptures.

While I wouldn't consider Russian people very warm, they are very "real." I was so surprised by how quiet they are. Some nights, I have walked along Tverskaya St. (basically the Broadway of Moscow), with hundreds of people walking around me, and all I can hear is footsteps. Unless they've had their fair share of vodka (which is VERY common here), the Russian people remain relatively silent, whispering to each other. Sometimes, in communicating with them, I have a hard time hearing them. It's made me realize even more how incredibly loud Americans can be...not to mention American theatre people! The faces of the Russians are very intense...you always feel as if they have all been through many hard experiences...and many of them have, what with Communism falling only about 2 decades ago. You also won't find many smiles among those faces. The philosophy behind it is: "A smile should come from the heart." It is actually kind of refreshing, considering many of the plastic smiles we find in America. But it can be unnverving at times. A former student of my program summed up Russian living/culture very accurately: "In the Russian language, there are six words for 'suffering' and no word for 'personal space.'" People automatically recognize Americans, and they are not afraid to stare us down like we are aliens. On the subway during rush hour, people will pack like sardines. Very often, you will find your face centimeters away from another. It is easy to feel invaded and vulnerable in this city.

Speaking of the subway, the metro stations here are absolutely amazing. When Stalin built and modernized the metro system, he referred to it as "a palace for the people," as stations would be places frequented by most of the working class. And sometimes, the stations really do feel like palaces. They are adorned with huge statues, monuments, stained glass, ornate decor. Every station is also entirely different, and you feel like you are in a different world at each one. The system is incredibly efficient. I have waited no longer than 2 minutes for a train (one is guaranteed every 3 minutes), and the system is quite easy to figure out once you recognize the names of the stations. The other big difference is the doors of the trains. When they close, THEY CLOSE. And if someone is in the way, they will still close. Thus, people will push and shove (sometimes violently) to get onto a train, not just out of impatience, but out of fear that the doors will close on their heads or arms or bags!

Some of the older generation of Russian people tends to be very superstitious. One funny superstition: If a woman sits on the ground, she will not be able to have children. Their gender roles are very conservative. Women are not expected to do manual tasks, like moving furniture. Men are expected to adhere to "gentlemanly" rules, such as opening doors, moving chairs, offering their jackets in the cold, etc. As this is sort of "old world," it sometimes frustrates the progressive females in our American group.

The police (called the "militsia") are very corrupt. We are required to carry our documents with us at all times, as the police are free to question us as they please. If we don't have our identification documents on us, they can arrest us and actually hold us in jail! Or, of course, you can always bribe them. One of my friends in the program was holding a beer in Red Square, and a policeman approached him and told him it wasn't allowed (despite the fact that you often see beer being SOLD in Red Square, not to mention many people drinking it). The policeman told him that it was Russian protocol to arrest him for 3 hours. Natually my friend was terrified, but offered the policeman a bribe. The policeman wanted 4,000 rubles (roughly 160 dollars), but all my friend had was 700 (about 30 dollars). So the policeman gave him a cigarette case, and told him to put the money in the cast and hand it back. He did so, and the policeman let him go.

Vodka is also a huge part of the culture here. It is said here that once two friends have drank together, they're friends for life. About a week ago, a few friends and I went to dinner at a nice restaurant. As we talked and laughed, the Russians sitting near us (who were clearly inebriated) started to look and giggle in our direction. Towards the end of our meal, one of them turned to us with a big smile and said in a heavy accent: "May I interrupt?" He then told us that they noticed we were Americans and thought we were funny, and they would like to toast us. So, they bought us all a round of vodka shots, and gave us a long toast (the toast in Russia is treated like an important event), ending it with "to our International friends!" We drank, and as music played in the background, they sang with us, and laughed and were very friendly. Sometimes, I couldn't tell if they were laughing WITH or AT us, but it was all in good fun!

Every day here I am faced with some sort of obstacle. While the people of most countries are slightly versed in English, and thus can usually communicate with Americans, most Russians don't speak a word. Menus are mostly in Russian, and ordering food is a challenge. Many waiters and cashiers are sweet and friendly about it, but some are very impatient and pushy, and the experience can be very stressful, especially when there is a line of people waiting behind you to order. While there is a Western-style supermarket, it tends to be ridiculously overpriced, so we moslty buy groceries at places called "Productee." Basically there is a woman at a counter, the groceries are behind her, and you have to tell her what you want. As you can imagine, this can be very difficult, considering the women at the counters don't speak a word of English. Usually, the task entails us pointing at different foods and saying "Moshna?" which loosely means "May I?" Then, the women will point to the different choices and we will enthusiastically shout "Da" ("Yes") when she points at the one we want. But, as we're learning more food words in our Russian class, the task is slowly becoming a little easier.

The Russian women are so gorgoeus, sometimes I don't know what to do with myself. Sure, there are the older "babushkas" who are very "old world" and not too attractive, but the average young woman is stunning. Considering the conservative gender roles, women are expected to "dress to the nines," so sometimes it looks like there are supermodels walking down the street! Every girl is better looking than the one before! Who knows, maybe I'll bring home some blonde Svetlana! I actually met a nice, beautiful Russian girl, a student at the same theatre school, who I've been spending time with, so we'll see if anything comes of it!

The sights in Moscow that we have seen thus far have been breathtaking. The Red Square, which holds the Kremlin and the world famous St. Basil's Cathedral (considered one of the wonders of the world), is almost spiritual. When I first visited the square at sunset, and approached the Cathedral, it looked like Disney world. Also in Red Square is Lenin's mausoleum, where you can walk through and see Vladimir Lenin's embalmed body. I haven't done it yet, but I heard it's quite chilling. The rules at the mausoleum are very strict: you are not allowed to bring in a bag, and you are not allowed to smile! I also visited Patriarch's Pond (a place made famous by Bulgakov's "The Master and Marguerita"), which was a very peaceful park with a beautiful pond, swans, trees....like a very small Central Park in the middle of this vast metropolis.

While life here is very different, and far less comfortable than in America, the experience of being thrown into an entirely different world is exactly what I wanted. Right now, I feel like I'm on a planet that resembles Earth, but it's this type of vulnerability that will help me grow as a person and as an artist. I'm still having the time of my life, and I am slowly adjusting.


MOSCOW: THE ARTIST'S MECCA

The arts are so highly revered in Russia. To be an artist, be it in the Dramatic Arts, music, dance, and what have you, is considered among the highest callings for a person. Many of Russia's most well-respected artists are bowed to. A theatre actor can become a national celebrity. It is incredible to be in a place where the arts are so respected and non-elitist. Tickets to performances, while the more popular ones can be expensive, are relatively affordable. Many of the top ticket prices are as low as $50 to $60 dollars, as opposed to the $110 Broadway prices. Some tickets can be as low as $2 to $5. Russia, believe it or not, has a literacy rate in the high 90's percentage, so most people are very well versed in literature and the arts. You mention Pushkin or Chekhov, and most people can recite pieces of their work to you. Our group leader said that she has had some of the most intellecetual conversations about theatre with common, working-class people. There is so much art and culture surrounding us, countless plays, ballets, operas. It is truly like a Mecca for an artist. And best of all, with our Moscow Art Theatre School ID cards, we can get free tickets to just about any performance in town.

Theatre in Moscow is unlike anything I've seen before. I can see why it is considered some of the best theatre in the world. While the plays I have seen have been entirely in Russian, the language has not been a barrier in the slightest. The actors are so physical and honest, one can figure out the story and relationships merely in their faces and gestures. Also, the production values are stunning...sometimes very minimal, but stunning nonetheless. While you won't find exploding chandeliers and revolving sets in many theatres, the lights, sounds, and visuals are beautiful and thought-provoking, and the imagery is usually awe-inspiring. I saw a production of Chekhov's THE SEAGULL at the Vokhtangov Theatre last week, which changed the way I look at a piece of theatre. The movements, music, dance, physicality, lights, and sounds, were so perfectly unified, that one felt as if they weren't just watching a play, but a work of art on stage. The actors remained so honest and real in such a heightened atmosphere. It was truly inspiring to watch. Many of the plays are long...since theatre is so respected here, audiences are happy to sit in a theatre for 3-4 hours for any given play. But the plays are usually very compelling to watch, especially for an American not used to this kind of theatre. And while in America, you mostly see elderly people at the theatre, here you see people of all ages and types.

So far, I've seen THE SEAGULL, Gogol's LANDOWNERS OF THE OLD STYLE and McDonaugh's THE PILLOWMAN at the Moscow Art Theatre, SWAN LAKE at the Bolshoi Ballet (it was amazing to see some of the best dancers in the world perform Tchaikovsky's classic with a 40+ piece orchestra), and the opera THE QUEEN OF SPADES at the Bolshoi Theatre. Our program sends us to see tons of performances, and I know we will soon be seeing THE CHERRY ORCHARD, RICHARD III, HAMLET, the ballet RITE OF SPRING, and the opera EUGENE ONEGIN. Also, a few friends and I are currently working out getting tickets to MAMMA MIA!, which should be hilarious considering it will be entirely in Russian, script and lyrics!


THE MOSCOW ART THEATRE SCHOOL

One of the highest honors of being here has been knowing that I am associated with the Moscow Art Theatre. This is considered the best theatre training school in Russia. For the four-year program for Russian students, about 8-10,000 hopefuls audition every year for about 25 spots. Thus, they train the best student actors in Russia. To be a part of such an institution is a dream come true. All of my fellow American students are very serious about their craft, and the working environment has been ideal.

The schedule is very demanding. We have class Monday through Saturday (it's been tough adjusting to a one-day weekend). We have class from about 9:30am - 6pm every day. Our classes are ACTING (which we have every day for 3 hours), MOVEMENT, BALLET, SINGING, HISTORY OF RUSSIAN THEATRE, HISTORY OF RUSSIAN CINEMATOGRAPHY, RUSSIAN LANGUAGE, SCENE DESIGN, and COSTUME DESIGN. The teachers, while warm, welcoming, and very kind, are not coddling. They demand 110% effort at all times. All of our classes are taught in or interpreted to English, except for BALLET.

My acting teacher, Michael (he goes by Misha) Lobanov, is known as one of the best acting teachers in Moscow. He has taught many nationally famous actors. The training is heavily ensemble-based. Russian training is all about ensemble...working with your fellow actors in a comfortable and safe environment. We have played a lot of fun games to help us get connected to one another and to get to know each other. Also, we've done some very tough exercises in sense memory, ensemble energy, connection to one's partner, and something called "psychological gesture." The training is based mainly on the Stanislavsky Method, which is the basis of modern acting training. We have started perfoming pieces called "etudes," which are basically a means of theatrical experimentation. For example, our assignment for this week is to choose an animal to physicalize in great detail. We must inhabit the animal to the smallest physical detail, and play an event in its life. We have also taken short stories, and theatricalized important moments/events from them...entirely in silence. Our next etudes will be based on our observations of people on the street. We are encouraged to find people around Moscow and try to inhabit their characteristics...and believe me, there are a lot of very interesting characters out there! The work is very difficult, and so far very hard to grasp, but very rewarding.

Our ballet teacher is phenomenal. Her name is Larissa Borisovna Dmitrieva, a former prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet Company. She is 70 years old, and still in prime shape. She is charming and adorable, but the very image of a tough Russian ballet teacher. She works us so hard, we are always sweating, hufiing and puffing at the end of every class. While we are panting and wheezing during the exercises, she just keeps screaming "PLIE!" "STRETCH" "STRAIGHT LEG" "JUMP" and the other few words in English or French that she knows. She is very hands on, which helps us a lot. I think she's also taken a particular liking to me, since she sees that I have some ballet experience from school. That class is our most physically demanding, and will definitely whip us into shape.

Our movement class is also very tough. Our teacher, Natasha, throws exercises at us that, while very painful, literally stretch us to our limits. She is stretching our bodies in ways and shapes we didn't know we could do. She is a protege of Droznin, who created the movement technique we are studying. He is considered one of Stage Movement legends of Russia, and several times in the semester, he will be coming to teach our class himself! So, basically, I am soar all day everyday...everywhere! But at this rate, my physicality is bound to improve tremendously by the end of the 3 months.

Our Theatre History teacher, Dr. Anatoly Smeliansky, is the director of the Moscow Art Theatre School, and I believe Artistic Director of the Theatre itself. He is an extremely important figure, often very busy because he has a meeting with, say, the Minister of Culture! His lectures are fascinating. He speaks near-perfect English, and his ability to tell a story is so compelling. He is one of the foremost Russian theatre historians in the world, having published dozens of books, collections, and translations.

So, basically, I am studying with some of the best of the best in terms of Russian training. It is in no way easy, but it is this kind of rigorous training that I wanted from this experience. I am loving every second of my training at the Moscow Art Theatre School. I've also been able to interact with many of the Russian students, who have been very welcoming. It is hard to find a lot of time with them, as their schedule is twice as rigorous as ours. They usually are working every day from 7 in the morning until at least midnight, non-stop, with maybe a few 15 minute breaks. Not even enough time to eat a real meal. We've seen some of the students' performances, and one can see how incredibly talented and well-trained they are. While they are always busy, we have had a few nights in the dorm with them to socialize and play music...many of them sing and play guitar.

Our dorm is brand-new, so it is really nice, one of the best dorms I have ever seen. It is only about a 30-minute walk from the school, and a very quick metro ride. My roommate, John-Michael Miller, is pretty much my best friend here. We connected immediately, as if we'd known each other for years, and we get along fantastically. We're very similar, and I can tell he is one of those life-long sort of friends, which is nice to have in such a foreign environment. The weather, until yesterday, has been sunny and gorgeous, very much like the Florida I am used to. However, for the past 2 days, the Russian weather has begun to strike. It has been getting colder and grayer and rainier, and I am awaiting the freezing chill and snow.

Anyway, that's it for now. If you made it this far through the email, THANK YOU and CONGRATULATIONS! I miss you all very much, and am thinking of you often. Please please please email me and let me know how you all are doing. I can't promise a quick response (at least not until they get our wireless up and running), but I'd still love to hear from you. Also, if you have some sort of long distance plan, and wish to reach me by phone, here are instructions on how to reach me:

It's a little complicated so try to follow along.

The country code for Russia is: 7

The area code for Moscow is 495

You can call any of these numbers to reach the dorm:

609-2624
609-2698
251-0365
251-1049

They should all reach the same answering service. Once you hear the answering message (it might be in Russian), dial 314 which is my room number.

Please remember that my time is 8 hours ahead. The best time to reach me is around 3-5 pm your time, which is later in the evening here (11pm-1am). I would give you my address if you wanted to send a letter or package, but apparently the international mail servie is so bad, it can take over 2 months for a package to arrive, so I figure it's not worth it. But please, email or call.

In my next email, I'll try to include some more pictures, but I'll attach a few I hope you like! The internet connection here won't let me send more than a few, so for those of you who have it, I'll try to post more on Facebook. I know some pictures of me have already been posted on Facebook, so you can take a look there if you have Facebook.

I wish you all the best!

With love,

Etai Benshlomo

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