Sunday, October 14, 2007

Experience in Moscow: Part 2

Dear Friends, Family, and Faculty,

Well...another week has passed, and still no internet in our dorm, so I'm back at the good old Internet Cafe for the next installment of my journey abroad. No news yet as to when I will have internet regularly, but I'll be sure to let you know. Thanks to everyone who replied to my last email. It's so great to hear how everyone's doing, and to be at least a little bit in touch with what's going on halfway across the world. Sorry that I haven't responded to you personally, and as soon as I get more internet time, I'll do so. But please, keep the emails coming! Again, as I like to ramble, I'll divide this e-mail into chapters to make it a little more readable:


I realized that in my last email I didn't really talk about life in the dorm too much. We were very lucky this year, as the program put us up in brand-new dorms. The rooms are cleaner, larger, and more comfortable than any dormitory I've seen in the states. Since most of our working and social environment is so foreign to us, it's nice to have a comfortable living space. However, ours is the largest group of American students the program has ever accepted (there is a total of 35 students), so life isn't always so easy. We don't have many showers, toilets, or kitchen appliances between us, so often people will battle over a stove, refrigerator cabinet, or washing machine. By the way, I don't think Russians believe in Laundromats...there is not a single one in this city! I keep reminding's all part of the experience. It's the absence of these little comforts that makes life in Moscow that much more interesting.

The dorm is located right off of Tverskaya Street, which is the main street of Moscow, so we are in a very safe and nice area. To get to school, all we have to do is walk down Tverskaya Street about 30 minutes...or take a quick Metro ride, and we're there. Simple. But I have a feeling that as the weather continues to get more and more grim, I won't be doing as much walking.

Our dorm is located next to a few other dorms, all of which have very similar front doors...and this actually led to a rather funny story I thought I'd share with you all: A few weeks ago, before I was confident in our dorm's location, I stayed in our school studio to work for awhile after class. Mariana, the Director of the American Studio (basically our Russian babysitter who makes sure we're all doing alright and watches over us), gave me the key to lock up the studio when I left...and then, for some reason, she also handed me a spoon. She told me to give it to the "digiorna" (basically a polite word for "old lady"...well, more polite than "babushka" at least) at our dormitory, who lets us in when we press the buzzer at the front door. So, later that night, I walk back to our dorm and buzz in, not noticing that the lobby looks very different, and not really giving thought to the fact that it wasn't a "digiorna" at the door, but rather a psychotic looking old man. He wore a worker's cap, had yellow teeth, fat cheeks, and large but seemingly dead eyes. And of course, me being me, I assumed that maybe the "digiorna" was on a break, and he was just filling in for her. So I walked over to the old man, hand him the spoon, and timidly said: "...Mariana." ...There is absolutely no way that the slew of loud Russian screams and shouts that spewed from his mouth were not curses. Suddenly, I looked more closely at my surroundings, and saw that the walls were basically crumbling, the floors were covered in filth, there were cables and wires hanging loosely in the air -- the place was basically a war-zone. Realizing that this was NOT my dorm, I ran to the door as fast as I could and tried to get out, but it was locked. Thinking the old man had to unlock the door by buzzing it to let me out, I just started yelling "pazhalusta" (which means "please") with my bad accent and knocking against the door, as he kept screaming and shouting at me. It was my own personal horror film. Finally, I found a little button next to the door, which unlocked it, and I hurried out, still hearing the old man's screeches as I slammed the door behind me. Only then did I see that my dorm was the next door over...about a meter away. All part of the experience, I suppose.

While we American students have our own floor, we also live in the same dormitory as some of the Russian acting students. It's been really interesting to interact with them, and find similarities and differences. Communicating is not always easy, but most of the students know at least a little English from American films and television, and we always have our trusty English-Russian dictionaries, which are a big help. While the Russian are usually quite busy, they have made time to get to know us. One of the students from our group had a birthday not too long ago, and the Russian students threw him a party in the dorm, which was a lot of fun. In a few weeks, we will be throwing them a Halloween party. While many conversations are limited to "Priviet" ("Hey") "Kak Djila?" ("How are you?") and "Paka" ("See you later"), it's still a lot of fun to hang out with them, and to see such intense, dedicated artists let loose and have fun.


A week ago, our group was taken to the home of Konstantin Stanislavksy, which has been converted to a museum. Stanislavsky was basically the founder of Modern Acting technique, and he was made famous for his "Method." When people refer to someone as a "Method Actor," it means they are students of his style of training. He also founded the Moscow Art Theatre, which is where I am studying. While his work was relatively recent (he died in 1938), he is one of the foremost figures in theatre history around the world, but he has always been very elusive to me. I've read many of his writings and studied some of his techniques, but he's never been much more than a name in a book to me. To see his home, where he worked, where he developed his craft and taught his students, was quite illuminating. In each room...his study, his bedroom, his living room, his studio, there were pictures of him working in those same rooms. For an actor, the house exudes a special sort of is like a temple, the birthplace of acting as we know it. Seeing the photos of his everyday life, walking where he walked, touching the furniture and bookcases he used, seeing the books he read, suddenly, this textbook figure, this artistic genius, this god of the theatre, became human to me. Having visited his home, and learning more about him in our Theatre History course, I feel more of a personal connection with the roots of my craft. Overall, the experience was very enlightening.

Today, on my day off, I wanted to visit one of Moscow's must-sees. The skies were gray, it was the first day of snow, the wind was strong, the air and ground were fitting a day for a visit to Vladimir Lenin's mausoleum. In the heart of Red Square is a dark, granite monument, in which the body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the leader of the world-changing Communist Revolution of 1917, is embalmed and on display. The visit was the most chilling experience I've had since being here, and a perfect example of the "Russian soul" and the conflict between new-world and old-world Russia. At the mausoleum, there are two very important and very clear rules: 1.) No cameras or bags. 2.) No speaking...or smiling. We waited in the queue line for about five minutes, in the sharp, freezing Russian chill...which was appropriate preporation for the experience ahead. Suddenly, we were led into the mausoleum, and walked a few flights of steps underground. We immediately saw a "militsia" guardsman, illuminated by a single light within the dark hallway. We followed a series of hallways...and every corner we turned, there was another stone-faced guardsman, watching our every move. Finally, we reached the main area, with a small path leading around the center of the room, in which there stood a glass box with a perfectly preserved Vladimir Lenin lying inside, a typical Russian frown imprinted on his lifeless face. It was hard to believe it was really him, his skin glossy and wax-like. (In fact, there is a rumor among new generation Russians that it is not really him, and that his body was replaced by a wax figure years ago). The room was almost pitch dark, except for the light illuminating the glass box. The air felt still, and not a sound could be heard. There was a guardsman at each end of the path, and if you stopped for more than a few seconds, they would snap at you to keep moving. So, we were only in the mausoleum for about a total of 3 or 4 minutes. Once we emerged above ground, we walked down an outdoor path, along which were the graves and busts of many historical revolutionaries, including Stalin himself. I was shocked to see dozens of flower bouquets on the graves and along the path, and it was clear to me that for many Russians, the former Communist regime is still very much a part of their souls.

The Lenin mausoleum has been the subject of much controversy in Russia for many years. The idea to preserve Lenin's body actually came from Stalin, who insisted that Lenin remain a part of Soviet Russia even in death. In fact, in his lifetime, Lenin had specifically requested to be buried in St. Petersburg next to his mother, and his widow insisted that no monument be built for him, but still, Stalin went along with his plan. When Boris Yeltsin was in power, he made plans to remove the body and bury it as Lenin wanted, but there was such an upsurge of opposition from the older generation that he was unable to carry out this task. Putin, the current president, is very much opposed to keeping the body preserved, and it is rumored that he will have it buried within a few years. While I understand the historical importance of monuments, I think that keeping his body preserved is a sort of bizarre psychological anchor, a hanging on to the past, a depraved reminder of a regime that failed. I think it would be better to bury the body, and with it, the past. However, many Russians insist on holding on to the ideals of the former Russia. Just today, as we entered Red Square, there was a small group demonstration of marchers, mostly older folk, proudly displaying a Red Flag with the hammer and sickle, the symbol of Communism. Never has this fascinating aspect of Russian culture been so dramatically apparent to me until today.


My Russian has been getting better, as we have Russian language class 6 hours a week. I can finally order food at least a little more comfortably. Speaking of food, my body is still adapting to Russian cuisine. The food here is VERY heavy. Salad is almost non-existant. Usually our meals will consist of some sort of meat dish...usually chicken or pork (sometimes with cheese toppings), with sides of potatoes or rice or sometimes vegetables, and bread pies filled with cabbage or basically you have your carbs with a side of carbs. But one thing Russians do especially well is dessert. We always have a huge assortment of cakes, pies, and pastries, decadantly decorated with chocolate, marshmallow fluff, or cream. Even their drinks are heavier! Last week, I visited the "Shokoladnitza," a popular cafe. I ordered a hot chocolate, and the waiter brought me a cup filled with literally, melted chocolate. In America, when I order a hot chocolate, I expect chocolate-flavored hot water, not literally chocolate that is hot. But nonetheless, it was some of the most amazing chocolate I've tasted, like something out nof Willy Wonka's factory. Luckily, our classes are so physically demanding that we're able to work off the extra calories. I think I sweat off an entire meal in one ballet class!

I've been observing more and more interesting characters as the days pass. Our acting teachers encourage us to closely observe everyone around us. One of the funnier things I've noticed is that the mullet, a hairstyle (which is short in the front and long in the back) often considered "trashy" or "hicky" in America, is extremely popular here. Most of the hipper young people sport mullets proudly, and I've spotted dozens of them all over the city.

One of the more interesting characters I've come across is the older homeless woman who hangs around the area of our school. On our first day here, she approached our group, and shrieked at us in a high-pitched voice, pattering in Russian. Somewhere in there, our guide heard phrases like "Go back to America!" and "You have no culture!" As I've seen her more and more, I've noticed she verbally attacks almost anyone on the street, Russian or foreign alike. Sometimes, she shouts out just plain gibberish...often speaking to herself. She carries around what looks like a bag of personal treasures, including a pink whistle which she constantly cleans with a leaf. I often see her taking naps on a nearby stone bench or meandering around the street. Moscow is filled with quirky characters of this sort.

While I'm beginning to adapt to the culture, there are still some cultural differences that are so foreign to me. One of them is the Russians' light treatment of racism. They do not take racism very seriously here, which can sometimes be shocking to our group. For example, when we saw the Moscow Art Theatre second-year students' class showcase, they had a series of pop-star impersonations. When some students impersonated Ella Fitzgerald and Gloria Gaynor (which they had down to a T), they donned full black-face...which is illegal in America. The face-painting was meant, I'm sure, as an artistic choice (Russian actors very much believe in "becoming" the character they are portraying) rather than as a gesture of prejudice, but nonetheless some of the students in our group were offended. Sometimes, it is very difficult to see past the cultural gap. Luckily, we haven't had any other serious run-ins with any sort of prejudice, but now we know what to expect.

Life in Russia still remains mysterious and a bit unsettling, but, once again, this is all part of the experience.


I am constantly stunned at the theatrical experiences I have here. Since I last wrote to you, I've seen Tchaikovsky's opera THE QUEEN OF SPADES at the Bolshoi Theatre, an Afro-Modern interpretation of Stravinsky's THE RITE OF SPRING at the Territoriya Festival, and a movement showcase at the Schukin School performed by students of Droznin, the founder of the movement technique we are studying, and MAMMA MIA!

As I've attended more theatre, I've noticed some more interesting aspects that depict the amount of respect for the arts and the weight that performing arts carry, that is inherent in Russian culture. Theatre here runs in repertory. Rather than a Broadway-type schedule of 8-performances a week continuously, a particular production will perform once every few months. This not only allows for productions to run for years, and for actors to work in multiple productions simultaneously, but it also makes shows more sacred. If a show is playing one night, it will be your only chance to see it for maybe two months, and thus, the importance of seeing the performance is heightened. Another interesting difference between Russian and American theatre is the curtain call, when the actors come out to bow. Sometimes, the curtain call will last ten minutes and continue on as the house lights come up. The audience will not stand up immediately, but rather they clap simultaneously and in rhythm at first. Then, maybe after four or five bows, the audience might stand if the performance was outstanding. A standing ovation here carries significant weight, whereas in America, it has become almost standard. At some performances, in the rare cases that I've seen audience members pull out phones or try to sneak out their cameras, rather than approaching and reprimanding them personally, the ushers point red laser lights at the offenders to get them to put their belongings away.

MAMMA MIA! deserves a paragraph in itself. It was one of the more hilarious theatrical experiences I've had here. I guess if there's one thing that can make Russian people laugh, smile, and dance, it's a Broadway mega-musical. The script as well as all of the famous ABBA tunes, were translated into Russian. However, some famous words and phrases were kept in the songs, so while you'd hear a ton of Russian lyrics, suddenly you'd hear the words "Dancing Queen" or "Super Trouper" or "S.O.S." I realized that one thing American theatre does really well is musicals. The show itself is kind of silly and ridiculous, and to see Russian actors adapt their more intense, Method acting style to this kind of performance was very funny. The actors were good, but none of them had the glorious Broadway voices you would hear in America. One of the actors, an older male, couldn't sing too well, and actually couldn't act very well either, but he kind of looked like Robert DeNiro so I gave him the benefit of the doubt! The theatre itself was lavish and beautiful, and the lobby had a large wooden dance floor and little mini-stage set up. At intermission, there was a cold-faced young man leading a "Mamma Mia!" dance party in the lobby. It was absolutely hysterical, as he was unenthusiastically teaching cliche 70s dance moves to an enthusiastic bunch of Russian theatregoers. Of course, we all joined in and were the stars of the party. In America, you don't see a dance party at intermission...I think it's kind of a hilarious reflection of how they view America. Most of the audience actually seemed to really love the show, except for a frumpy, conservatively dressed elderly couple sitting behind me, who had clearly come to the wrong show. As the performance went on, they sank further and further into their seats...I don't think I saw them crack a smile once. By the final song, almost everyone in the theatre was standing and dancing in their seats or in the aisles. The final song was "Waterloo" and the cast sang it in English (though it took me 3 verses to realize this, because their accents were so thick..."Wada-loo, I wuz dee-feeded, you wohn the worrr"). The experience showed me that there is always room for fun and escapist theatre, even in a country where Chekhov and Shakespeare reign supreme.


Our coursework remains tough and intense, but pretty incredible. Our American group is divided into two separate groups, and my ensemble has really started bonding. As we are all very vulnerable here, we have been able to really get to know each other in class. While definite alliances have formed, and some people have begun to annoy each other (typical of any group that spends most of their time together), in the classroom, we are all fully supportive of each other as artists. This idea of a strong working ensemble is key to Russian theatre training. Next week, we will be performing a five minute piece in the "Kapusnik" (which literally translates to "Cabbage Party"), which is a show/party for performed by and for all of the Moscow Art Theatre School students and professors. The origins of the name of the event are still a mystery to me, but I think it has sometimes to do with the fact that Bread cabbage pies are served there. We still don't know exactly what we will be performing, but we know it will somehow include a popular Russian song "Stariklyon" ("The Maple Tree") that our Acting teacher has taught us.

We are continuing to work on mostly etudes, games, and exercises in class. Most of the games and exercises are designed to develop our imagination. Misha, our Acting teacher, constantly tells us that "an actor must be like a child," imaginative, creative, and emotionally vulnerable. One of the most difficult concepts were are learning is not to SHOW emotion, but simply to FEEL it. Many of the exercises that we do in class, some of them developed by Stanislavsky himself almost 100 years ago, are helping us to discover our emotions, as we must be able to access them before we can control them. The training is not easy, and can sometimes be very frustrating, but I can see all of my peers growing as artists, and I'm sure I am as well.

This past week, we worked mostly on animal etudes. We each had to fully inhabit an animal, and have some sort of event happen to it, causing the animal to change in some way. I decided to be a turtle crossing a busy street and nearly getting hit by a car, causing it to move as fast as it can. I spent several hours looking at pictures and videos of turtles, trying to understand exactly how they move, their facial features, their speed, the sounds they make, the way their joints move. I then infused a sort of "character" or "soul" into the turtle, as the teacher suggested. I used a duffel suitcase as my shell, and spent awhile crawling around my dorm as a turtle. When I presented it in class, my teacher complemented my efforts and my character, but told me that I needed to be even more specific with the movements and the turtle's objective (WHY was he crossing the street, etc.) That is the level of work our teachers demand. We also had a group etude, which was an etude performed by our entire ensemble, in which we had to recreate a waiting room at an audition. After we presented the etude, our teacher gave us extensive notes, but told us it was one of the best group etudes they had seen in years, which for us, was a huge achievement. Now, we are continuing to work on etudes that we adapt from short stories by Chekhov, as well as duet etudes in which we perform an apology and forgiveness between two people. Next week, we will begin our first venture into scenework.

As I get to know my teachers more, I begin to understand the kind of discipline their training is built upon. I talked awhile with our ballet teacher, Larissa, a few days ago (using an interpreter of course). Speaking about her demand for hard work and extreme discipline, she told me: "I cannot live when I see bad dancing." She told me that her father, who was her teacher, would never allow her to show any signs of frustration, and insisted that she always maintain a calm composure. She compared this form of discipline to the famed theatre director, Suzuki, who, she explained, "used to beat his actors with a stick." She highlighted the fact that nowadays, you have to be multi-talented. You must be able to do 4 pirhouettes, then sing a classical aria, and then perform a Shakespearian monologue. "Discipline builds character," she told me. Coordination and strength are highly important, and "exercise is essential to your art." This was some very inspiring advice. Larissa is the kind of remarkable, disciplined, hard working artist I aspire to be.

I can't wait to bring everything I've learned here with me back to school. But I know that I still have a lot of work ahead of me.

This coming Thursday, we are taking a 4 day trip to St. Petersburg, which I am very excited about. St. Petersburg is known as the "Paris of the east," and I have heard it is among the most beautiful cities in the world. I'm not sure about the itinerary, but I'll be sure to update you next week about how the excursion was. I know it will be an unforgettable experience.

Anyway, that's all for now. Please write to me when you can, I love hearing from you. And, once again, I promise that when I get a better internet connection, I will send more pictures for you. I hope all is well back in the states, and I wish you all the best. Hopefully, I'll survive the ever-approaching Russian winter and be able to write to you soon.

With love,

Etai Benshlomo

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