Friday, November 30, 2007

Experience in Moscow: Part 5

November 30, 2007

Dear Friends, Family, and Faculty,

Wow. I can't believe I'm only three weeks away from coming back to the states. It seems like only yesterday I started writing this blog, but all of the sudden, the streets are glazed in snow, there's an ice-skating rink being built in Red Square, and Christmas trees are sprouting around the streets and squares. The sidewalks are getting more difficult to walk on...Russians don't spread rock salt on the streets like we do in the states to prevent people from slipping...apparently, it's not good for their shoes (typical Russians...sacrifice safety for beauty!). So, winter is here and I'm one step closer to finishing my semester. It's extremely bittersweet. After two and a half months of being here, I really feel that, despite all the daily trials and tribulations, I could definitely live here. I've become a lot more comfortable, and a lot more "Russified"...I've mastered my Russian face (basically, I just keep my eyebrows lowered and a permanent scowl on my face). In fact, Russians don't automatically recognize that I'm American anymore (that is, until I open my mouth). The other day, I was stopped and asked directions by a Russian woman...I had no idea what she was saying or what to say back, but I felt pretty damn proud for fitting in so well.

Once again, I'm sorry I haven't written in so long. As you can imagine, I've been extremely busy, and usually by the time I get a chance to write, it's about midnight. Also, I didn't think there was too much to write about, but looking back at my journal, I realize there's actually quite a bit. So, as usual, I apologize for the Dostoevsky-esque length of this email. I'll break it down as best I can and hope you get through it:


1. Izmaylovsky Park: I've found that it can truly be a struggle to fight the American urge to souvenir shop when in a foreign country. My friend and I decided to make a trip to the dreaded Izmaylovsky Park. It is an infamous outdoor souvenir market known for its enormous crowds and pushy salespeople about a half hour metro ride away from our dorm. Now, for those of you who know me well, you know that I have a pretty heinous phobia of large shopping areas...Wal-Marts, supermarkets, malls...something about them just makes me cringe. So, I was pretty much terrified when I got to Izmaylovsky Park. Hundreds of people pressed against each other, shoving their way through narrow paths, surrounded by silly matroshka dolls (you know, those dolls that open up only to reveal smaller dolls...), painted lacker boxes, cheaply made fuzzy hats. It was kitsch hell. I was completely overwhelmed. I ended up leaving with nothing except a new winter hat (to replace the former ridiculous one I regretfully purchased). I had to be firm and bargain quite fiercely to get a reasonable price for it, though. Ali, the salesman who had mostly gold teeth and a devious smile, refused to budge. I told him I was a student and didn't have much money, and he told me he was a student as well (yeah, right...). But by some miracle, I was able to haggle him down $30 less than his original price. So, I was quite pleased and ran away as quickly as possible. It was an experience, but not one I'd prefer to have again.

2. Weekend with Whitmore: A few weeks ago, I got an email from Whitmore Gray, a supporter of my college's Musical Theatre Department. He had heard from one of my best friends at school that I was studying in Russia. As a former professor of Soviet Law, he visits Russia every several years, and was visiting for a long weekend. He generously offered to be a "visiting parent" to me and invite me to dinner and shows for the weekend. We ended up having a blast! Over the weekend, we saw three productions: DR. ZHIVAGO (a dramatic interpretation infused with live guitarists and vocalists singing Russian folk songs and church hymns), IOLANTA (Tchaikovsky Opera at the Bolshoi Theatre), and an absolutely hilarious production of THE INSPECTOR GENERAL. We also caught a jazz balalaika performance (Russian banjo accompanied by trumpet, drumset, bass, and piano...something you can definitely only see in Russia!). After months of blood, sweat, and tears, it was so refreshing to be treated to such a wonderful weekend and have a new friend with whom to talk about my experience. It's amazing to me that even halfway across the world, I managed to connect with someone related to my University's theatre department!

3. Sami's Birthday: About a week ago, one of my best friends in the program, Sami, had her 22nd birthday, and a few of us invited her out to celebrate. I suggested we go out to eat somewhere we're never able to go...somewhere unique and memorable. So, we browsed through our guide books and found what looked like an interesting Uzbekistanian restaurant called "Keesh Meesh" on Arbat St, a popular pedestrian street and hang-out spot. The restaurant was set up like a traditional Uzbeki tea-house, with Oriental rugs and pillows, a huge tree in the center of the restaurant, branches lining the ceilings, and the staff dressed in traditional Uzbeki garb. The food was fantastic! With apologies to any vegetarians reading this, I ate more delicious mutton than I ever could have dreamed (in case you don't know, mutton is rabbit it was basically my subconscious revenge against having to read "Watership Down" in high school). It was so essential to have an evening off to just have fun and celebrate our friendship (in toasting to Sami, I think we all began to realize just how close we had gotten). I think it was a very special birthday for her, and we all got a little emotional.

However, on the way to the restaurant, we had a bit of an uncomfortable experience. We were approached by three little boys (roughly between the ages of 8 and 12) dressed in ragged, but urban clothing. One of them walked in front of us, facing us and walking backwards. He recognized our English, and began tugging at Sami's coat, constantly asking "Can you money, baby? Can you money, baby?" and begging her "Take me." The other two boys followed behind us, trying to speak to us in Russian. It was a sad and pitiful sight that really shook us up. Eventually, as we walked on past them, they began screaming at us viciously in Russian, probably obscenities. The homeless situation continues to irk me every day. I usually give them change, but nevertheless, one feels helpless in seeing children and elderly folk reduced to practically nothing, at the height of despair.

4. My free morning that ended in filth: Last Saturday, I didn't have class until 2pm, so I decided to take advantage of my free time and do a little sight-seeing and exploration. I, of course, headed to Red Square (my favorite part of Moscow) to do some people-watching, take a tour through St. Basil's cathedral, and visit the State History Museum. The morning began quite successfully, the skies were fairly blue, it wasn't too cold, Red Square was filled with interesting characters to study. I explored St. Basil's Cathedral and was stunned by its beauty: elegant paintings, vibrant colors, centuries-old icons, elaborate winding hallways...a completely different world than outside, I felt like I was transported to the 15th Century. And then it happened...nature called, and it called quite ferociously. I figured there was probably no restroom in a historic cathedral built in 1434, so I abbreviated my journey and went in search of the nearest bathroom. Turns out the closest one was in GOOM (the famously decadent shopping mall in Red of the fanciest and most expensive in Moscow -- and don't forget that Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world). Needless to say, I felt slightly out of my element walking into this commercial shrine in my old gray coat and jeans, but I thought to myself: "Hey, at least I'll probably get a fancy bathroom." I frantically asked a security guard "G'dye tualyet?" (one of the more important phrases I had learned in Russian class) and he pointed me towards the restroom. When I arrived, there was a woman with a cash register in front of the men's room. Yes, believe it or not, it actually cost money to go to the bathroom...10 rubles to be exact (only about 50 cents, but still, it's the principle of the thing!) Anyway, I couldn't waste time worrying about saving an extra couple of cents, so I paid the fee and thought to myself: "Wow, this better be the most incredible bathroom I've ever seen." When I walked in, I anxiously perused the bathroom, looking for the gold-plated toilets I had expected. I found the stalls, peered inside, and toilet, but rather a steel hole in the floor. I was in disbelief...I thought I was being "punked." I'm not even going to get into the foul, toxic stench that filled the air. And so, for the first time, your friend and narrator had to...(gulp)...squat. It was an experience, to say the least. And now, here's the punchline: I later found out from one of my friends, that apparently, just two floors up in that mall, there is a free bathroom with regular toilets (if any of you can figure out the logic in that, please email me and let me know, because I am still completely stumped)!

5. Meyerhold Museum: On Sunday, we were taken to the Moscow apartment (which has now been converted into a memorial museum) of Vsevolod Meyerhold, one of the greatest theatre artists in history. Meyerhold, a contemporary of Stanislavski, is considered one of the world's first experimental theatre directors. Internationally renowned, he changed the face of theatre in Russia and the world (influencing future directors and artists around the world) and developed Biomechanics, a psycho-physical movement technique that revolutionized actors' training. We have studied him extensively in our Russian Theatre History class. We learned that he was a radical revolutionary and die-hard Communist, but as the USSR became totalitarian under Stalin, he could no longer adapt to the Soviet state. In the late 30s, Stalin infamously stated: "Russia no longer needs Meyerhold." In 1939, at age 66, as most artists of the Russian Great Utopia, Meyerhold was arrested, tortured, forced to sign confessions of treason, and murdered by the KGB. A few weeks after his arrest in St. Petersburg, the KGB broke into the same Moscow apartment that we visited, and murdered Meyerhold's actress girlfriend Zinaida Raikh, stabbing her 17 times. Our tour guide actually showed us exactly where in the apartment she was murdered and where the killers was unbelievably chilling. Like when we had visited the Stanislavski museum, this visit really humanized Meyerhold. All of the theatrical history here is so modern, that visiting such an important figure's apartment makes you feel like you're within that history, like it is the present. For an artist, it is so inspiring, witnessing the birthplace of one's craft, like visiting one's roots.

6. Jon-Michael's Horror Story: While we've come to feel generally safe in this environment, the dangers of this city are still very real, and sometimes it takes a traumatic encounter to remind us of that. I didn't actually witness this happening, but it's definitely a story worth telling. A few nights ago, my roommate and best friend in the program, Jon-Michael, went out to buy some groceries. On a street-corner near our dorm, a middle-aged, gray-haired Russian stepped out of a car, approached Jon-Michael and started frantically speaking to him in Russian. Jon-Michael tried to communicate that he doesn't speak Russian, and the man understood that he is American. He began to ask: "Bars? Clubs?" Jon-Michael said he didn't know where there were any bars or clubs. The man grabbed his arm and started pulling him towards towards the car, saying "Come with me! Prostitutes! Prostitutes!" When Jon-Michael pushed him away, the man began to grab his belt, again pulling him towards the car. Jon-Michael yelled "No!" and pushed him away again, and them turned around, stepped back into the car and quickly sped off. Thoroughly shaken, Jon-Michael continued on to the grocery store. After picking up the groceries and getting to the register, he reached into his pocket for his wallet...only to find that it was gone. The man had robbed Jon-Michael blind. His wallet contained 4,000 rubles (about $160), credit cards, driver's license, everything one keeps in a wallet. I was in the dorm when Jon-Michael burst in hysterically, terrified that he had just been pick-pocketed. He worriedly called his parents and had them cancel his bank accounts. I tried to help calm him down, explaining that it could happen to anyone, and that he was merely at the wrong place at the wrong time. To think that something like that could happen right outside of our dorm, in our own's very discomforting. Since the incident, we've all been a little more weary of our possessions. However, the story ends brightly. Of course, we all assumed the wallet was lost for good. Yet, this morning, Jon-Michael received an email explaining that his wallet had been found and turned in to the American Embassy. His credit cards and ID were still in there, all that had been taken was the cash and, funny enough, a Metro card. A trolleybus driver found it on the floor of his bus and kindly brought it to the Embassy. So, it all ended relatively happily...Jon-Michael had a memorable life experience, and it only cost him $160!


1. Yuri Butusov, Konstantin Raikin, and Satiricon: I have become completely enamored with the Satiricon Theatre. I've written a great deal about Konstantin Raikin in my previous blog, and I am continuously in awe of his work. After seeing him in RICHARD III twice, I saw him play the title role in KING LEAR. The production blew my mind, the performance was so stirring, I returned to the theatre and saw it again two days later. It was everything a piece of art should be: thought-provoking, funny, moving, emotionally wrenching, visually fascinating. It was one of the most viscerally stimulating productions I've ever progressed along with the title character's madness: as Lear lost his mind, the production became more intense, more abstract, more physical. I think I enjoyed it even more than RICHARD III, which is no easy feat. While Raikin commanded the stage merely with his presence, this production featured the other actors of the Satiricon Theatre just as well, and their talent shone as brightly as Raikin's, creating a real ensemble piece, as opposed to RICHARD III, which was an incredible tour-de-force solo performance, with the other actors overshadowed by Raikin. Both productions were directed by Yuri Butusov, one of the most innovative directors I have witnessed. Before seeing his productions, I could never say I truly LOVE Shakespeare so much as I appreciate it. But Butusov gave me a new understanding of these plays, of how to interpret Shakespeare...a completely new vision of the Bard's genius. I was also able to catch Butusov's production of MACBETT, Ionesco's absurdist adaptation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," also at the Satiricon. It was so bizarre, and I didn't understand much of what was going on, but the production was an extravagant feast for the eyes, and kept my jaw down through the entire 3 and a half hours. The visuals of the production and physicality of the actors were so dazzling: Macbett came on-stage with a flaming sword, there was a huge glowing hamster ball that the actors stood and moved on, one actor wore a flaming jacket that sparked fire as he was shot, there was a huge dance element to the piece...Macbett tap-danced and Duncan performed ballet pieces, and most stunning of all, fireballs rained on-stage during one of Macbett's monologues. Butusov's vision, imagination, and creativity are unlike anything I've seen in the states.

2. Eimuntas Nekrosius and the Meno Fortas: If Yuri Butusov blew my mind, it's Eimuntas Nekrosius that has torn my soul to shreds. Nekrosius is an internationally acclaimed Lithuanian director, hailed as one of the five best directors in the world by theatre scholars. Within a week, I saw two of his productions that were touring as part of a theatre festival, THE CHERRY ORCHARD and OTHELLO. Nekrosius is particularly known for the length of his shows; THE CHERRY ORCHARD ran at 5 full hours, and OTHELLO ran at 4 and a half hours. As these plays were performed in Russian and Lithuanian, respectively, I feared that sitting through them would be agonizing. However, there's a reason Nekrosius is considered one of the best in his craft. Though many of my peers left during the intermissions, I was personally blown away. Nekrosius makes use of very stylized movement, with each character having distinct "psychological gestures." For example, in OTHELLO, Iago delivered his soliloquies at break-neck speed, standing completely stiff, but twiddling his fingers maniacally. Desdemonda was played by a Lithuanian prima ballerina and thus employed a great amount of dance and grace into her performance. Her scenes with OTHELLO were illustrated as modern dance duets. The productions were so cohesive and beautifully unified. Nekrosius' use of aural elements was also astounding. During the tragic climax in Act Three of THE CHERRY ORCHARD, the sound of flying and chirping birds blared on the speakers, rising to a volume so high that the entire audience had to cover their ears; Nekrosius really made us feel the agony of that moment. The music in THE CHERRY ORCHARD was constant, fading in and out sometimes abruptly, sometimes seamlessly (creating a rhythmic effect of breathing); The music changed along with the play, becoming more and more ominous as the story progressed. In OTHELLO, the actors played trumpet and piano live, mixing along with the sounds of the ocean. The effect of all these elements is a sort of theatrical mosaic, a real piece of art that delivers a plot clearly, but with creativity and surrealistic style. At the plays' emotional peaks, one could hear much of the audience sniffling or weeping openly. His plays are not just entertainment, they are a journey; I learned that one must be physically and emotionally prepared to be completely shaken at a Nekrosius production. Most importantly, Nekrosius showed me that theatre can be anything...we can break molds and get past our preconceived notions of what theatre should be and create something completely new; that is art.


A few nights ago, we attended a gala at the Moscow Art Theatre in honor of the 80th birthday of the late former artistic director Oleg Yefremov. There were performances and speeches from some of the elite theatre professionals in Moscow; I hardly understood a word, but I must say it was pretty awesome to feel like a part of this exclusive circle of artists. Most exciting for us Americans, Mikhail Gorbachev was meant to make an appearance...but apparently he had hurt his tooth from doing a pizza commercial and couldn't attend the gala (true story).

But the main special event that happened last week was our Thanksgiving feast! Seeing as the price of turkey is astronomical, we decided to hold a pot-luck dinner at our dorm, where everyone pitches in their own dish or drink. We actually compiled a really impressive and ecclectic buffet, with everything from homemade hummus to chicken noodle soup to cabbage pies...and of course, vodka and wine (because what is a Russian meal without alcohol?). I think it was the most I've eaten in one night since I've been here, and any weight that I may have lost from movement and dance class was put back on, and then some. Some of our teachers even showed up! Halfway through the night, Anatoly Smeliansky (our Theatre History teacher, Director of the MXAT school, Co-Artistic Director of MXAT, and one of the foremost Russian theatre historians in the world) came strolling in like Santa Clause, but ironically with Hanukkah Wine to contribute to the feast. Everyone of course crowded around him to make conversation, partly because you feel like the coolest person in the world when he acknowledges you personally, and partly because listening to him tell a story is a huge treat. His lectures in Theatre History class are always fascinating, as they are just stories, and he tells them so passionately as if he was right there through it all. Another hilarious experience that night involved Marianna, the overseer of our studio and basically our Russian mama. She offered to give free palm and face readings to read our personalities and tell our futures. Apparently, I will be married at least twice (the first one will be very early and too rushed) and I will have two sons...also, according to the curves on my face, I'm kind-hearted but can be spiteful, I am generous but sometimes have problems with money, and I am ambitious and passionate and friendly. Wow. Well, I guess I better start thinking of names for my two future sons...

Overall, this was one of my favorite Thanksgivings. After spending so much time together, experiencing everything together, learning together, growing together, and sharing our vulnerability in this exciting but very foreign environment, our studio has really become like a family. So, while I missed digging into turkey with my own family in the states, this was a very unique Thanksgiving experience with a new family, one that I am very thankful for.


The last few weeks of classes have been grueling but stimulating. Acting class has been especially rigorous. We finally received our final scene assignments. I am working on three compiled scenes from Alexander Ostrovsky's THE FOREST (considered one of the great Russian comedies in history), playing the role of Alexei Bulanov, a young, low class school-dropout who basically prostitutes himself to a 50-year-old woman to gain wealth and know, your average run-of-the-mill material! Before even approaching the text, we focused on character development, writing biographies for our characters, creating Dream etudes (where we create and perform the dreams of our characters), working on "organic silence" (where we perform an action in character, but in complete silence). Then, we began our rehearsal process. I've never worked so much on a single scene, and this experience has taught me a whole new method and depth of working. I doubt I will ever approach a scene in the same way again. At first, the character, language, and naturalistic style was very difficult for me to grasp. With my teacher, Alexander ("Sasha") Rezalin, giving me constant notes and trying to break me of my bad habits, I had a little bit of a breakdown (as artists tend to do), and only then, when I had been stripped down to artistic and emotional nakedness, was I able to begin working freely. Sasha explained to me that the character need not be much different than myself, and I didn't have to show or put anything on, just simply BE. Slowly, I began to feel more comfortable, more relaxed, and more free on stage. All of the exercises we had been doing in class for the semester helped me hold my focus in the scene and connect solely with my partner. I noticed as soon as I stopped worrying about whether the scene was funny or not, the comedy emerged naturally. I've begun to feel natural in this role, putting my own inner life into the character rather than acting mechanically or dishonestly. Since then, our scene has taken an upward step-wise direction, improving more and more with every rehearsal. My work and training in this scene has been absolutely invaluable, and I know I will take it back with me to the states, infusing my future work with everything I'm learning here.

Two weeks ago, instead of our regular Movement class, we had a lecture with Andrei Droznin, the creator of the Movement technique we study, and one of the leading figures in Russian Stage Movement in history. His lecture was among the more inspiring and motivating classes I've taken here. The man is 70 years old, but looks like he could be in his late 40s. His natural movement, even just walking into our class or gesticulating as he spoke, was entirely devoid of tension and connected to his entire body. His main point was that an actor must find contact between his body and his soul, and that this was the basis of his Movement techniques and philosophies. "If you lift an arm, you should be entirely inside your arm," he said. He explained that Stanislavsky's idea was that an actor's body will answer and express the inner life of his character, but that the problem is that an actor's body may not be ready. Thus, an actor must develop strength and flexibility to his utmost potential and explore all aspects of movement, so that his body may be ready to perform any task. "Freedom for an actor must be cannot be attained with a primitively trained body." He expressed his dismay of living in a world where we don't need our bodies (as technology progresses, we use our bodies less and less), and he suggested that we do everything we can to FEEL LIFE, our surroundings, the multitudes of sensations that reach us, and to integrate movement into our "daily biological schedule." With enough training and concentration, every gesture we make can be fascinating to an audience. One of the more awe-inspiring moments of the lecture was when Droznin told us: "Someone once asked me, 'What is it to be an actor?' And I replied, 'Well, it's to.....................'" and suddenly he merely began moving his arm slowly across the air, holding extreme focus and exuding a vibrant inner energy. Our attention was held so sharply, and we sat at the edge of our seats watching him perform the simplest movement. His instant engagement was amazing to watch. What a privilege to be able to learn from such a master. We all left that lecture with new-found inspiration.

Our movement training remains incredibly physically demanding. We are working on back-bends, splits, hand-stands, cartwheels, one-handed cartwheels, back handsprings, and some of the most painful stretches imaginable. But our teacher's philosophy is "pain must be pleasure" and as long as you're stretching correctly, you must accept the pain with joy. One day, however, we had a fencing class with MXAT's fencing teacher. We learned basic body and sword positions, advancing, retreating, cross advancing/retreating, and changing sword positions. Within minutes, we were catching swords that were thrown to us in the air, and performing basic duelling with partners. I can tell you with honesty that there are few things cooler than staring your opponent in the eye just before advancing with your weapon.

If I had to give a mantra to describe Russian training, I would say it's "Just do it!" (though I think Nike already has that copywritten). Most of one's biggest obstacels involves merely conquering's all psychology. So, while safety is essential, sometimes it is less exaggerated, and I think that allows for more growth. For example, rather than giving us an hour safety lecture before our fencing class, we immediately jumped right in, and had swords being thrown at us. Thinking can be one's greatest enemy, and when you are forced to not think, you merely act and respond. If the instructor sets up too much of a careful and "safe" atmosphere, emphasizing the dangers and potential hazards of the training, students can become more fearful and their fear will block their progress. However, if you "just do it," (safely of course, but without fear and psychology), your body will naturally follow and prevent itself from harm. I never would have attempted a one-handed cartwheel or moving handstand in my life if my Movement teacher Natasha hadn't said "Stop thinking. Just do it." The same goes for acting training: intellectualizing can be helpful, but I find the greatest work can be achieved by just throwing oneself into his work blindly. An actor must learn to get out of his head and into his body, and thus his instincts will take over, and his acting will be much more natural and honest.

So, now that we're at home stretch, with only two weeks left in our journey, we are preparing for our final exams. We will be putting together a presentation of all of our scenes, an open Movement class to show our movement progress, a concert of songs we have worked on in singing class (I am singing a piece from "Jesus Christ Superstar"...ironic, I know, for a Benshlomo to be singing the role of Jesus), and a dance recital (we have worked on four dance pieces in class...a Russian folk dance, a gypsy dance, a Charleston, and a Greek folk dance). I will do my best to get a video recording of all of our performances. After our final exam presentations, we will be evaluated by all of our teachers. It will surely be a lot of work, but I know it will be well worth it. I just can't believe that we're almost at the finish line.

Anyway, that's it for now. I will probably send a final installment as exams pass and I reflect on this entire experience. I hope you are all doing well and enjoying life as much as I am! Please write and let me know how you're doing. Until next time...

With love,

Etai Benshlomo

Friday, November 2, 2007

Experience in Moscow: Part 4

November 2, 2007

Dear Friends, Family, and Faculty,

Hi everybody! A belated HAPPY HALLOWEEN to you all. We actually hosted a Halloween Party at our dorm for the Russian students. While Halloween is certainly not celebrated here, most Russian people have a vague idea of what it is. And when I say vague, I mean EXTREMELY vague. We saw a flyer for a Halloween Party at a club, and their logo was a cartoon jack-o-lantern...except it was a watermelon jack-o-lantern. I guess they figure one of our traditions involves merely carving faces into any large piece of fruit we can find. When we asked our group leader how to present the Halloween Party, she told us: "Well, the Russian students really only know about the sexy Halloween, not the scary Halloween, so you might want to show them some of the scary side of Halloween." The sexy Halloween...hmm...whatever that means... So, everybody pitched in some money, we got some tacky decorations and bought some drinks and snacks, and some people dressed up (I had neither the time nor the patience to find a costume).

I hope you've all been enjoying the fall. Despite all the talk of the dreaded "Russian winter," the cold weather really hasn't hit us yet. Since I've been here, there's only been one day of snow, and as of late, it's actually been quite comfortable. In the 40's in Farenheit. So, it's been relatively warm - not the extreme frigidity typical of Russia, and while I'm sure Al Gore would be mortified if he were here, I've been quite pleased! However, the Weather report says it's supposed to snow on Sunday, so I may bite my tongue soon.

Anyway, here's another update on my life and my experience in Russia, divided into chapters for your reading pleasure:


On the same day we returned from St. Petersburg, worn and battered as we were, we were scheduled to perform in the "Kapusnik," an annual performance put on by Moscow Art Theatre students. The word "Kapusnik" literally translates to "Cabbage Party." Dr. Smeliansky, our Theatre History teacher explained: Many years ago, when the Orthodox Church did not allow theatres to play on Lent, one actor of the Moscow Art Theatre (I forget his name, but it has so many consonants, I don't think it's possible for an American to pronounce anyway) began a cabaret performance and followed it with a party. Since meat is forbidden during Lent, the actors who participated ate cabbage pies, and thus the "Cabbage Party" was born. The performances mostly consisted of comic sketches and parodies. While at first it was very exclusive, the actors soon began inviting people, and the Kapusnik became a prestigious event at the Moscow Art Theatre. Nowadays, it is directed and performed entirely by Moscow Art Theatre School students, and serves as a sort of welcome gala for new students.

We were asked to perform a short piece. The Russian students encouraged us to keep it brief, with as little speaking as possible. My acting teacher suggested that we sing a popular Russian song "Stariklon" ("The Maple Tree"), and he taught it to us. So, in putting our piece together about two hours before the performance, we incorporated the song into a short sketch. We wanted to do something comical and understandable (and avoid offending the Russians...we weren't sure about their sense of humor), so we decided to poke fun at ourselves. We began with someone in our group yelling out "September 18" (the date we arrived) in Russian. Then, we all entered on-stage in little groups, each group representing an American tourist cliche: excessive taking of photos, unnecessary amounts of winter wear, scarfing down McDonalds, staring at huge maps, unsuccessfuly trying to speak Russian, I came on with the "souvenir" group, wearing a kitschy fuzzy Russian hat (which I unfortunately purchased in St. Petersburg because I thought it made me look like Dr. Zhivago...only to discover to my dismay that no one in Russia actually wears those damned hats) and holding cheap matroshka dolls and a souvenir Hermitage commemorative picture book, with a huge smile imprinted on my face. Then, someone in the group yelled "October 18" (the date of the Kapusnik), we dropped the stereotypes and sang the song. We weren't sure how the Russian students would take it, but they seemed to really love it, cheering, applauding, and laughing hysterically. It was the first time that we felt fully and officially accepted as students of the Moscow Art Theatre...sort of like an initiation. The next day, we were told that it was one of the best performances they had ever seen American students do at a Kapusnik. So, even if we never come back here, we at least left our indelible mark at the Moscow Art Theatre.

What was especially nice about the Kapusnik was to see the Russian students let loose and have a good time. One of the acting teachers here explained to us that in acting, they always find it easier for American students to let go and be silly on stage. While the Russian students are all phenomenal actors (they are chosen from nearly 8,000 applicants), especially when it comes to serious work, they sometimes tend to have more trouble with outrageous comedy. He told us that he believes it comes from 200 years of democratic American society, as opposed to the monarchy and socialism of the Russian past. Even today, Russia is by no means a free country, and that part of the "Russian soul" can prevent an actor's complete freedom onstage, especially when it comes to silliness and fun. So, it was refreshing to see Russian students make fun of themselves and their teachers and generally just having a good time.

After the performance, a party was held at a club about 10 minutes walk from our dorm. The tradition is so honored, that half of our classes were actually cancelled the next day, seeing as the party began at 1am and went on until about 6am. The party was solely for MXAT students, and I felt very V.I.P. when I was able to flash my school ID to the bouncer and be let into the club without a problem. A club is a club is a club, and it was similar to a club experience you would have anywhere else, and we really had a great time, even though some of the Russians did find our dancing quite humorous. There was also a traditional Russian kissing game, but I won't go into detail...


Now that about half of the semester has passed, I feel much more integrated into Russian life. I can read very well, I've been told I have a good Russian accent, and I can order food almost effortlessly. I've been mixing in better with Russian people, as well. I finally got Tania, the beautiful cahier woman at the cafeteria, to smile at me. For awhile, I was utterly terrified of her; if I didn't have exact change, she would give me a stare so cold I nearly turned to stone. But nowadays, we smile and laugh, and we help each other with our respective languages (she's helped me with numbers and phrases...and I taught her how to say "cottage cheese.")

Still, there are those aspects of Russian culture I will never be able to get used to. Russians love to smoke, and smoking is legal inside most buildings, and if not in a particular building (like a theatre), there will be plenty of designated smoking areas. Last time I saw a play, when I entered the Men's Room, I felt like I had entered some sort of gas chamber. There was so much smoke, I could neither breathe nor see through the thick haze. Needless to say, I held it in for awhile longer.

Russian people (especially of the older generation) are very traditional, especially when it comes to clothing. First of all, there are shoe-buffer machines in the foyers of most buildings. Russians demand clean's something they take very seriously. I can't tell you how many death stares I've received directed towards the old boots I wear, or at my converse sneakers after a long day of walking through wet, grimy streets. Also, one is always expected to hang his coat wherever he goes. There are coat-check desks in almost every building (no tips required). A few days ago, we were scheduled to see a show, and I had a few minutes to grab a quick bite at the "stalovaya" (cafeteria), so I ran up as fast as I could, still wearing my coat and hat, hoping to grab a few snacks and run. However, my plan was foiled; as soon as I requested food, the lunch-lady began screaming at me in the typical high-pitched babushka voice. I didn't understand a word, but I finally gathered that she was refusing to serve me unless I hung up my jacket and removed my hat. Sometimes I want to just be able to say "chill out," then I remember...I'm in Russia.

No matter how many times I cross paths with them, the homeless people in Moscow still disturb me. They are a very different type of homeless than in America, far more tragic and far less threatening. While in New York, most of the homeless I see I would describe as drug-addled and terrifying. Here, I would describe them as simply unfortunate and futile. The majority of them are elderly...tiny little toothless babushkas, holding their hands out and crying; there's one old man who sits at the same place every day, a scruffy white beard smeared on his face, a cigarette dangling in his mouth, and his body always quivering. Then there are those with missing limbs. I've seen several men in soldiers' uniforms with missing legs asking for money. There is an armless man that stands in one of the underground walkways with a sign around his neck (though he's usually wearing an enormous jacket, so I've wondered whether he is scamming). By far, the worst is the homeless children. I've seldom seen them, but when I have, it's broken my heart. While in St. Petersburg, I ate at a small, fast Mediterranean restaurant, and a little girl in tatters, with yellow teeth and dirt on her face, walked in and began begging people for money. The workers at the counter immediately yelled at her to leave, and she walked out with weeping in shame. I felt like I was in some sort of Dickensian nightmare. Apparently, there are very few homeless shelters in Russia, and taking care of the homeless children is high on Putin's to-do list. I can only hope that strong action will be taken to fix the problem.

We finally get a real weekend! We have classes on Saturdays, so we usually only have Sunday to rest, but this Monday is a national holiday. I'm not sure what it's called, but it's basically a commemorative Communism Day. For years, the holiday to celebrate Sovietism in Russia was on November 7th, but after the fall of Communism, the government removed the holiday and created a new one on November 5th, only two days before it, to commemorate some battle against Poland that no one (not even Russian people) remembers or cares about. So, while technically, it's not a Soviet holiday, we were told that we can still expect to see Red flag waving and hammer-and-sickle logos throughout the streets. It's hard to believe that there are still so many supporters of Communism out there, and it should be a very interesting sight.


The reality of Russian culture has hit the females in our group most of all. The truth is that in Russia, women are highly demeaned, and throughout history, have always been seen as inferior to men. While it can sometimes make their experience more comfortable on the surface (men are expected to move furniture, open doors, and offer their arms for women), the environment can also feel very insecure and unsafe for our girls. Women are very much objectified in this country...feminism hardly exists. It makes sense why so many women are dressed incredibly lavishly from day-to-day; the pressure to be beautiful, to look amazing and pleasing to the male eye, is sky-high. And overall, women are just not treated with equal respect as men. As it turns out, a few of the girls have brushed with some traumatic experiences of sexual harassment, on the subway and in restaurants. A meeting was actually called, for the boys and for the girls of our group separately, to discuss gender relations in Russia. As the males of our group, we decided to be more aware of the surroundings and to help remove the girls from unsafe situations. Now, I'm a little guy, and I'm not going to pick a fight with some enormous Russian brute, but making sure that no girl walks back at night alone, expanding awareness of any threats in our surroundings, keeping an eye out and holding out an arm...all of these things can make the experience better for our girls. And as an ensemble, a sort of family, we must always look out for and help each other.

Three days ago, a tragic event occured within our ensemble. One of the guys in our group, a dear friend of mine - someone I felt I had actually gotten quite close to, called a meeting in our dorm. He announced that he would be leaving us and returning to America. Several months prior, his father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and apparently, it was unsure how many days he had left. While our friend had been incredibly strong throughout the semester - he was always so funny and charming, we would never have known about his father if he hadn't told us - he could no longer stay with us. So, the school booked him the first available flight home, and he left this morning. Overall, the atmosphere was and has been incredibly emotional. My mother being a survivor of stage three cancer, I felt a personal connection to the situation. Even after knowing him only about two months, it felt like we had lost one of our family members, and class hasn't been the same without him. The humor, intelligence, warmth, and incredible talent he brought to our group has been sorely missed. However, we know he needed to leave, and I personally know that I will stay in touch with him.

Since we've been in Russia, it's been easy to get lost in the fantasy of it all, but it's these hard smacks of reality that pull us out of our fantasy world and remind us how fragile we are.


I've had some satisfying theatre experiences, but none quite so thrilling as I've had at the Theatre of Satire (here, called the Satiricon Theatre) in Moscow. Konstantin Raikin, a teacher of third-year students at the Moscow Art Theatre School, son of Russia's most famous comedian (basically the Charlie Chaplin of Russia), and nationally renowned theatre actor/director, is the Artistic Director of the theatre (which his father founded), and stars in most of their productions. In a place where theatre actors can become national celebrities, he is one of Russia's most famous and well-respected actors. I would say he is something like the Dustin Hoffman of Russia. Last week, I saw him star in Shakespeare's RICHARD III at his Satiricon. It turned out to be one of the most inspiring and fulfilling experiences I've ever had in a theatre. The unity of his body, voice, and spirit was breathtaking. He was able to make the audience break into fits of laughter and tears almost simultaneously. His contorted facial expressions, his graceful and exact movement as the hunchbacked monarch (he looked like he had been living with the deformity all his life, as opposed to just an actor playing a hunchback), his erratic and surprising behavior; all of the elements of his performance were so moving, and I watched the entire 3-hour production with a gaping jaw. The direction was so crisp, somewhat abstract, completely understandable, and dead on. The visuals were simple, but at the same time so beautiful and effective. The entire ensemble of actors, anchored by Raikin, was so well-connected and versatile. The same actors who played Richard's young child nephews who he murders, also portrayed the assassins he hires. The atmosphere was so heightened and the emotions so clear and heavy. I can see why some Russian students told me they've seen it five times. I'm actually going to see it again tomorrow.

It's amazing to me that the best Shakespeare production I've seen has been in Russian! The language was not a barrier whatsoever. Shakespeare being one of the world's greatest poets, when his work is performed in English, so much importance is placed on the language. I've seen many Shakespeare productions in America get lost within the heightened language, the story and relationships of characters thrown out the window. Here, so much focus is placed on the acting as opposed to the poetry and lyricism of the words. The words were spoken as vernacular. It's also interesting to see how Russian directors interpret Shakespeare. Having seen a good deal of Shakespeare in America, seeing it performed here really highlighted some cultural differences. For instance, a few days ago, I saw a production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, one of Shakespeare's most loved light comedies, set in a dark, terrifying, neo-Fascist world. The good characters, the heroes of the play, were actually frightening and villainous, dressed in black soldiers' uniforms and toting guns maniacally. The Watch, the comical but "moral" policemen in the play, were frightening and sadistic, and tortured their prisoners. And the end of the play, which usually ends in a happy wedding and the singing of "Hey Nonny Nonny" took a hugely dark turn when, after the lovers wed, the soldiers returned to war and were presumably killed. This kind of production is the result of a very specific culture, and one could not find such an interpretation in the States.

But back to Satiricon and to Raikin. Those kinds of theatre experiences remind me why I decided to be an actor. The play is not just entertainment, it's a work of art on the stage. And Raikin is the kind of actor I aspire to be, fully engaged and unbelievably versatile. Since his theatre runs in repertory, he jumps from role-to-role constantly. Before I left for St. Petersburg, I saw him in a play called COSMETICS OF THE ENEMY, a contemporary play adapted from a French novel, in an entirely different role than Richard III. His performance blew me away. The play only had two actors in it, and I had only a vague idea of the plot, but not once was I bored. Rather, I was highly inspired. Next week, I will see him as the title role in KING LEAR. He is easily among the greatest actors I have ever seen, and it is such an honor and a privelige to witness him perform. Not only that, but Dr. Smeliansky has promised us that Raikin will give us a lecture before we leave.

Seeing this spiritual level of performance, I am believing more and more that, like music, the language of theatre is universal.


We are halfway through the semester now, and classes are racing at full pace. Acting class is always the most difficult, because it can be so illuminating and so frustrating at the same time. Through the etudes and exercises we have been working on, I am discovering so much, but it's so hard organize everything and put it into practice. Every day, I feel like I have new epiphanies. Recently, I discovered the power of focus, and how concentrating my focus and attention is one of my biggest issues as an actor. I tend to get very nervous in front of audiences, especially my teachers and peers, and my teachers explained that all the energy of my focus has to be director towards my scene partner or the task I'm performing. We worked on an assignment where we had to pantomime a physical action with our hands in exact detail, and focus so much on our task that our muscle memory takes over. I decided to do a massage, and the night before and the day of, I gave about 6 massages to prepare. When I got up and performed the exercise, I felt that my movements were very exact, I could literally see the person in front of me (even though there was no one actually there), and my focus was centered so strongly on my physical task that the audience automatically disappeared without my noticing. Now, it's just a matter of training that attention and applying it to all of my work. Meanwhile, we are studying the plays from which we will inevitably perform our final scene assignments. The plays are all by the masters of Russian drama: Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, and Alexander Ostrovsky. In addition to our in-class exercises, we have been performing etudes based on those plays to get a feel for the atmosphere and characters. Next week, we should be receiving our scene assignments.

Our movement and dance classes continue to be incredibly demanding, but I am beginning to see and feel distinct changes in my flexibility, movement ability, and coordination. What I love about those classes is that the results are so tangible. While in acting, it's hard to notice one's improvement in focus, connection with your partner, and belief in circumstances, in movement classes, one day your leg will kick just a little higher, or you can hold a handstand for just a few seconds longer, or your body will stretch just a few inches further. In dance class, we've been starting to work on choreography for our final performance at the end of the semester. Besides our classical ballet work, we've been working on gypsy dances and Russian folk dances. I'll try to get it video-recorded so that those of you at home and at school can have the pleasure of seeing my new-found Russian kicks...I promise you: it's hilarious.

Another interesting component of the curriculum has been our History of Russian Cinematography course. Every week, we discuss and watch films. We started at the silent era in the 1920s, and have since moved on to the talkies of the 1930s, and are just venturing into the 1940s. We've seen classic films by Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Alexander Dovzhenko and others. It's fascinating to see how film history developed alongside political history. During dark times, the films explore horrific themes; when Communism flourishes, propaganda is rampant. I also never knew how much Russian filmmakers affected the world industry. Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" is considered one of the great films of all time, and has inspired countless American films. Some of the images we've seen in the films are very disturbing. As Russia never had animal rights laws in filmmaking, we saw cows getting slaughtered in Eisenstein's "The Strike," a metaphor for the White Army gunning down a group of demonstrating factory workers. And while not real, there were also many portrayals of children being killed, something rarely found in American cinema. This disturbing, but affective imagery is very reflective of the "Russian soul."

You know how as you're growing up, you never notice yourself changing, but one day you look in a mirror, and you are suddenly an adult? That's how I feel now...I can't necessarily see myself changing, yet in the back of my mind, I know it's happening. And I know that once I return to the States, to my comforable home environment, back to school among my usual friends, faculty, and classes, I will bare witness to the vast changes that are occuring even as I write. Until then, I am going with the flow and enjoying the ride.

Please let me know how you're all doing. I wish you all the best, and I hope to hear from you soon!

With love,

Etai Benshlomo