Thursday, December 13, 2007

Experience in Moscow: Part 6 (Final Blog)

December 13, 2007

Dearest Friends, Family, and Faculty,

Well, all things must come to an end, and so my journey abroad has finally reached its pinnacle. In just four short days, I’ll be back in sunny Florida, reflecting on this surreal experience. All of our final performances are over…all we have left is our evaluation meeting and reception. Then I’ll have two days to just chill out and do some last minute exploration. I plan to: visit Novo Devichy, the cemetery where some of Russia’s greatest artists are buried, including Konstantin Stanislavski and Anton Chekhov; go to a “banya,” a Russian sauna where you steam for hours and get beaten with branches (apparently, it’s good for circulation)…which should be a very interesting and very Russian experience; take a tour through the Kremlin, which is essential to any visit to Moscow; and see RICHARD III once more on my last night here. I’m sure I won’t get much sleep as we’ll be celebrating and mourning all night long, drinking to our health and sorrows like true Russians.

Anyway, here’s the final chapter-by-chapter update on the rest of my experience in Russia:


Melikhovo: Other than our trip to St. Petersburg, we’ve only been inside of Moscow. Between classes, rehearsals, and performances, we’re always so busy, and with only single-day weekends, it’s nearly impossible to find the time to travel outside of the city. So, it was especially exciting two weeks ago when it was announced that we would be taking an excursion to Melikhovo, a little village about two hours outside of Moscow, home of legendary playwright Anton Chekhov’s estate.

That Sunday, we traveled by bus to Melihovo, and got to see a little bit of Russian country-side on the way. We also experienced the deadly Russian cold, the kind that, even through two layers of gloves, burns your hands with a freezing chill.

Even so, the trip was incredible. We strolled leisurely around the village, saw quaint little country houses, visited a tiny Russian orthodox church and cemetery, walked along a glittering frozen lake, and best of all, took a tour of Chekhov’s country home. Like the Stanislavski and Meyerhold apartments, seeing Chekhov’s home really humanized the writer. Just seeing the desk on which he wrote THE SEAGULL, his personal book-case stacked with world literature, the kitchen with the authentic Russian samovar, the family photos and portraits…one can’t help but feel the energy of that place. Chekhov would spend most of his time in Melikhovo writing, basically inventing modern drama. Without Chekhov, there is no modern drama, no realism in the theatre. So, for an actor, this was like visiting a holy place, traveling back to the origin of one’s art.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling too well that day. I think some of the Russian food was disagreeing with my digestive system. But luckily enough, I had Marianna, the head of our studio, to suggest a traditional Russian remedy: 50 grams of vodka with half a teaspoon of salt. Apparently, such a mixture is good for any illness. “If my dog was feeling sick, I would give him the same,” she said. Gotta love Russian medicine!

On the bus-ride back, Marianna and some of her Russian students who joined us on the excursion, introduced us to another Russian tradition…telling fortunes via Pushkin! Basically, you choose three pages and lines at random from Alexander Pushkin’s epic poem “Eugene Onegin” to tell one’s fortune. When I asked, “So, is this just a Russian superstition?” one of the students gave me a serious gaze and said: “Eugene Onegin never lies.” So, as I chose three random lines, Marianna revealed three things about me according to Pushkin: 1. I am very popular, and the people who know me want me to visit them; 2. I will write a song or poem for a girl from another country; and at the third fortune, Marianna and her students gasped and stared at me for a few seconds, giggling, then Marianna said: “You are a very dangerous man. It says that you are a heartbreaker.” While this tradition can be quite hilarious and might be seen by some as silly, to me, it is merely another illustration of the nearly spiritual respect Russians have for their artistic and literary history.

The Gypsy Car: Just a quick story that I thought was worth mentioning. A few of us were running late to class the other day, so much that even the Metro wouldn’t get us there in time. So we resorted to an alternative form of transportation that we had learned about awhile back, but never ventured to try. We walked a block along Tverskaya St. and stuck out a finger, but not to hail a taxi. A few seconds later, a random civilian car pulled over and offered to drive us to MXAT for 200 rubles, making it 50 rubles each (about $2…the same as one subway ride in NY). It’s a way for someone to make an easy buck: as long as you’re driving down Tverskaya, why not pick up a pedestrian and give them a quick ride? It’s basically short-distance hitch-hiking. I have to say I was a little nervous the driver would be a psychopath who might kidnap and murder us, but in five quick minutes, I was at MXAT, as opposed to the 30 minutes it takes to walk. So for two dollars, it was worth being a gypsy for one morning.

Chanukkah Celebration: After the success of the Thanksgiving Extravaganza, the small group of Jewish students in our American studio decided to put together an intimate Chanukkah shindig to honor the holiday. Many of us, Jews and gentiles alike, contributed an eclectic collection of food: latkes, doughnuts, stir-fry, salads, cookies. I contributed a bottle of wine, for fear of burning down the kitchen with my spectacular culinary skills. We vaguely explained the story of Chanukkah (we secular Jews don’t necessarily know all the nooks and crannies of the stories, but we do know how to eat!), sang Hebrew songs, lit candles, said a couple of prayers, and feasted! Our movement teacher, Natasha, joined us as well as Marianna and some of her Producing students. For many of them, it was their first Chanukkah experience, so it was a joy to introduce them to something new. In chatting with them, I learned that there are actually many Jewish people working at the Moscow Art Theatre. Between Dr. Anatoly Smeliansky, Konstantin Raikin, my teacher Alexander Rezalin, and dozens of other artists and actors of the Russian theatre, Jews contribute some of the finest art when it comes to theatre in Russia. Though I don’t consider myself particularly religious, it brings me great joy to know that, despite the issues of Anti-Semitism inherent in Russia, Jewish people have nonetheless been able to rise to the highest ranks of artistry and achieve greatness in this country.


With only a week left, I didn’t think there would be time for another life-changing theatrical experience, but I’ve learned that in Russia, those experiences are not few and far between. Last week, I was lucky enough to snag a ticket to K.I. FROM CRIME, a highly acclaimed piece directed by Lithuanian-born director Kama Ginkas, considered one of the best theatre artists in Russia. I had no clue what it was about (other than the fact that it was very loosely based on Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”), and thus went to see it blindly. Little did I know what was coming to me.

When we arrived at the theatre, we were led to a dingy third-floor lobby, where a few rows of fold-out chairs were assembled on three sides. And that was it: no sets, no lights…just chairs in a bare, shoddy foyer. The audience was made up of about 40 people, and I could see on some of the faces that people were as confused as I was, and we skeptically sat in the chairs. All of the sudden, from a nearby door, like a jack-in-the-box, out popped a middle-aged blonde woman in a shabby overcoat, oversized worn boots, and a cap adorned with flowers, resembling a crazed homeless woman you would see on the street. She smiled maniacally and ran about sprightly, speaking directly to us in Russian. She sat in people’s laps, made fun of audience members, and from what I could glean, began neurotically sharing her life story, employing grand wild gestures, ranting and raving into our faces. This was beyond audience participation; this was audience invasion! She wasn’t afraid to touch people either…at one point, she spotted a man dozing off, so she immediately began staring him down, poking him, pestering him, and imitating him. She went on in this way for the first 45 minutes, speaking to individual audience members (myself included), showing us family photos, handing out little slips of paper, staring people in the eye silently for so many silent seconds (when she looked at me, it felt like she was peering into my soul). The premise of the play was that the director took a minor character, Katerina Ivanovna, from the epic “Crime and Punishment” and created this theatre piece, a probe into her history, mind, and soul. It’s impossible to describe this woman’s presence; I could not take my eyes off of her. As she continued to rant on, she would erratically explode into fits of rage, hilarious and terrifyingly pitiful at the same time. We all got the sense that she was accusing us in some way; the audience felt a communal guilt.

Eventually, she led us into a tiny white room and introduced us to her three children, who were all dressed in rags, one of them a crippled girl who was dragged around on the floor. As we were led into the room, the woman stared at me, her eyes glowing brightly, and suddenly shouted: “Mr. Raskolnikov!” (Raskolnikov is the main character from “Crime and Punishment”), and from this point on, I was a part of the play. She physically threw a woman out of a seat in the front row and offered it to me, as I was an “honored guest.” Throughout the play, she would approach me and speak to me personally, inches away from my face, sometimes screaming, sometimes begging. While I had no idea what she was saying, it felt like this woman was developing a very specific relationship with me (that is, with Raskolnikov), and somehow, I felt that I personally was the cause of her and her children living in dire straits. I was totally invested in this performance, and the line between theatre and reality began to dim.

As the play progressed, the woman slipped into madness and despair. She would alternately beat and embrace her children, forcing them to sing and dance for money as she viciously played the violin. She would throw her body around violently, expressing the anguish of her existence, guzzling down vodka and nibbling at a single piece of brown bread. I could feel my body cringing at these images, a true visceral and emotional reaction. The play ended with a symbolic death scene: after freezing coldly against a wall and delivering a final monologue with a cold expression of terror, a white ladder held up by a single rope, slowly descended from the ceiling. The woman hurled herself onto it, swung upon it through the air, climbed to the top, and slammed her hands furiously against the ceiling, screaming “Let me in! Let me in!” as dismal music came to a chilling crescendo. It was one of the simplest, but most emotionally wrenching images I’ve seen in theatre (and it beats the pants off of the falling chandeliers, spinning barricades, and helicopters I’ve seen on American stages).

Oksana Mysina, who played Katerina Ivanovna, gave maybe the most charged performance I have ever seen. She is a highly acclaimed Russian artist, having performed this role for 14 years in many different countries (including a brief stint in New York City). She’s also starred in dozens of Russian films, owns her own theatre company, and performs around the world. She has often been hailed as the Meryl Streep of Russia. The piece affected me on the deepest level imaginable. It’s rare that a piece of theatre can affect you physiologically, but I could feel changes in my body as I watched the play, my heart racing, my blood rushing, my insides twisting. I have never experienced something like that before; I don’t know if I ever will again. It only confirms my new-found belief that theatre can be ANYTHING; that there’s no need for fancy sets, costumes, or whatnot. We need only to feel something, to be affected. This is the kind of theatre that fills me, that makes me want to be alive and creative.


Wearing History: For the second half of the semester, we took a History of Russian Costume Design class, where we studied the development of costumes in Russia through different historical eras (and had a crack at drawing our own costume design…oy vey). While I can’t say it’s my favorite subject in the world, our final class was amazingly memorable. Our teacher pulled out an age-old soldier’s uniform, and announced that it was a costume from the original Moscow Art Theatre production of Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS, worn by none other than Konstantin Stanislavski over 100 years ago. All I could think was “I must touch it! I must absorb its power!” But better yet, she allowed some of us to try it on. It fit quite snugly on my scrawny frame (it must have shrunk since 1901, because I remember learning that Stanislavski was over 6-feet tall). Once I finished buttoning the jacket, someone asked me: “Well, how do you feel?” All I could say was: “Talented.” I only hope I gained some of the energy of that historical costume through osmosis.

Konstantin Raikin Lecture: A few nights ago, a dream of mine came true. Konstantin Raikin, the actor I’ve written endlessly about in these blogs, one of my greatest artistic inspirations since coming to Russia, held a Q&A lecture with us, sharing his wisdom, giving us advice, and generally shedding light on his work. Somehow, I managed to grab a seat right next to him, and the lecture was one of the more thrilling experiences I’ve had at school. His respect for young actors is boundless; he wisely proclaimed: “Real actors are forever students,” explaining that it’s better to work with people who WANT to know it all instead of those who CLAIM to know it all. He also described some of his working methods, mainly physical clowning as part of the rehearsal process, and a return to the animalistic roots of acting. Raikin is also a master teacher at MXAT, and we learned of the deep care and compassion he feels for his students. Dr. Smeliansky explained to us that several years ago, during some of Russia’s hardest economic problems, when actors and students were extremely poor, Raikin bought blankets and delivered them to the under-heated dormitory for his students, so that they could keep warm. I was in disbelief throughout the entire lecture…Raikin is bound to go down in history as one of the finest actors Russia has ever seen, and here I was sitting beside him, hanging on his every word. For me, it was like sitting next to Lawrence Olivier or Peter O’Toole or Dustin Hoffman or any other master of art. What a culmination to such an extraordinary semester.

After the lecture, I meekly approached Raikin and held out my hand. As he shook it, I thanked him profusely and said “Happy Hanukkah!” with a smile. Though it took him a second to understand what I had said, he giggled and gave me a pat on the shoulder…I don’t know if I’ll ever was that shoulder again!

Dr. Anatoly Smeliansky: I’ve mentioned him time and again in these emails, but I can’t seem to get over my awe of this man. At the top of his field, he’s simply one of the most knowledgeable Russian theatre historians in the world. He’s also an incredible story-teller, recounting stories about figures in history with great passion and energy. As he’s been so personable with us, I sometimes forget how important a figure he is in Russia. The other day, when I arrived at the dormitory from class, the “babushka” at the door smiled and motioned for me to come into her nook, then pointed at the television. And there was Smeliansky, my teacher, the guy whose class I take every Monday and Wednesday, being interviewed on national TV. Then today, which was Smeliansky’s birthday, when I saw and spoke to him, he casually mentioned the personal birthday telegram he received from Vladimir Putin, who’s only the President of Russia!

Anyway, last week, he gave an amazing lecture on Mikhail Bulgakov. Until then, in his lectures, he would tell us stories that were so vivid, it seemed as if he was right there – part of the history – but in this case, he actually was part of the history, and one could feel his strong personal connection to Bulgakov. Years ago, when Smeliansky was a university student, after Bulgakov had died but before he was very well-known and truly appreciated for his genius, Smeliansky worked on a thesis paper about Bulgakov. He developed a relationship with Bulgakov’s widow, who shared some of the writer’s unpublished work with him. One day, she handed him an original manuscript titled “The Master and Margarita,” which he read in amazement. Well, that book eventually became one of the most important pieces of world literature of the 20th Century, re-sparking idealistic Christian fervor in Communist Russia, even somewhat replacing the Bible. And Smeliansky read it first, and witnessed the battle of getting that book published, as well as the phenomenon it ignited throughout the world.

The man is just an incredible presence and a well of knowledge. What an honor and privilege it is to witness his lectures, to hear his first-hand accounts, to feel the history in his words. Needless to say, I bought “The Master and Margarita” immediately after classes ended that day.


Singing Concert: We began our final performances with a concert, in which we all performed songs we had been working on throughout the semester…musicals, operatic arias, jazz standards, Russian folk songs. With 35 students on the bill, the concert was quite lengthy, but entertaining nonetheless. While not everyone in our group is a trained singer (some had never sung a note in their lives), those who considered themselves musically challenged learned to have fun with their songs, rather than taking them too vocally seriously, maintaining a light and enjoyable atmosphere. I performed a song called “Gethsemane” from JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (in full costume, no less). After having been sick and unable to sing last year, it was invigorating to fully utilize my recently revived voice, and I was extremely proud of my performance. Many of my teachers and peers approached me afterwards, congratulating me on a powerful and moving performance. Dr. Smeliansky personally congratulated me, which was an unbelievable honor. My acting teacher, Misha Lobanov, gave me an enormous hug and told me my performance made him cry. It was the proudest I’ve been of a musical performance of mine in a long time, and I can’t wait to utilize that energy back in the States!

Dance Recital: Our second final exam consisted of a dance recital, put together by our instructor, Larissa Borisovna Dmitrieva. Our group performed Classical Barre Exercises, a Russian folk dance, a Gypsy Dance, a Charleston, an 18th Century Etude and a Greek finale. While we may not be perfect dancers, our energy was through the roof at the performance, and the audience went wild. My body is still aching. It was very difficult to say goodbye to Larissa Borisovna. As an instructor, she maintained a perfect balance of being challenging and encouraging simultaneously. Just her aura, her glowing presence, brought out the best in us. The woman has more love in her heart and passion for her art than many people gain in a lifetime. And I am just floored that I’ve had the opportunity to work with her…many dancers or dance teachers in America would kill for a chance like that. Just reading her official title: “Professor Larissa Borisovna Dmitrieva – Ballet teacher, soloist of the Bolshoi Theatre, Distinguished Artist of Russia, Special National Merit Award of the II Level” (and what a mouthful that is), I can’t begin to imagine the kind of honor it is to study under such a personage. After our performance and bow, we applauded Larissa Borisovna for about 10 minutes and presented her with a bouquet of flowers. And at our behest, the pianist began an allegro and she performed a swift, vigorous, spirited dance for us. And let me tell you, even at age 80, the energy and exuberance that woman has is enough for 10 people! She completely blew us away.

Scene Presentation: Never have I worked so vigorously on a single scene as I have in Russia. As I mentioned in my previous email, I have been working for weeks on a scene from Ostrovsky’s THE FOREST. Along with scenes from Ostrovsky’s THE STORM, Chekhov’s IVANOV, THE CHORUS GIRL, and THE SPOUSE, and Gogol’s THE INSPECTOR GENERAL, our group put together a showcase of scenes as a final presentation. The work leading up to the final performance was grueling but so rewarding. For awhile, I felt my scene had reached a plateau, and I was disheartened, constantly thinking: “My scene is not funny anymore, it’s boring, it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s going to be the worst scene in my group” blah blah blah. But then, when we showed it to the other half of our group (we had been split in half for a few weeks), the laughter in the audience was non-stop, the energy fed us, and the scene took on new life. Marianna complemented us enthusiastically: “There was so much sex in this scene! I loved it!” My friends wondered what I had been worried about. So, there’s another lesson I need to carry with me: Sometimes, in comedy, the play might not come back to life until it is in front of an audience…I must trust the director/instructor, and more importantly, trust myself. Watching each other’s work within our group was fantastic and really solidified our ensemble. I loved getting excited about other people’s work, and being supported by my peers. I owe a lot of this experience to my group, and I think I’ve gained a good understanding of why Russian artists emphasize the idea of ensemble so ardently. Our final performance was extremely successful; I felt I had really made strides in my scene and that the performance was a huge achievement. More importantly, I felt free and relaxed on-stage, even in front of all my teachers, administrators, and peers. However, it was all over in a flash. So much hard work for so long…and then it’s over. Still, I feel I’ve gained a new level of work ethic from this scene; it’s a memory and a process I will keep with me throughout the rest of my artistic career.


Artistically, it’s very hard to say goodbye to this place…this Mecca of the Arts, as I’ve called it before. Coming from America, it’s hard to fathom the kind of respect and adoration this country holds for the arts. For one, theatre here is state-subsidized, meaning the government funds over 700 theatres in Russia. Oleg Tabakov, legendary Russian actor and Artistic Director of the Moscow Art Theatre, is almost like a political figure (he maintains relationships with the most important government officials in Russia, including Vladimir Putin), extremely important and well-respected merely because he is an extraordinary artist. In face, the Russian government itself actually appoints every new Artistic Director of the Moscow Art Theatre. Whereas in America, what is the first thing to go when budgets are cut to education? The arts. Can you imagine George Bush ever strongly supporting any kind of art-form? I sure can’t. In America, when you tell people you’re an actor, you say it apologetically, trying to prove that it’s actually a real profession. In Russia, if you tell someone you are an actor, they may bow to you.

As for Russian people…sure they may not seem as outwardly friendly, they may not smile quite as often, and they may speak more quietly and seriously at times, but I’ve come to realize that they are just like people anywhere else. They are just living under different “given circumstances,” as Stanislavski might’ve said. Sure I’ve come across my fair share of cold gazes, but I’ve also met many wonderful, friendly, warm Russian people who made me feel very welcome here. When you visit a country with the kind of history that Russia has, you are bound to find dozens of societal and cultural differences, but I feel that deep down, people are the same everywhere. Walking down Tverskaya St. is like walking down Broadway, you see people in cafes, eating fast food, listening to their iPods, walking arm in arm with their loved ones. And sure, Russia has its problems, political and socioeconomic, but what country hasn’t those problems? Russia is still at the dawn of a new era, having emerged from the depths of Communism only 20 some odd years ago. Putin is stepping down from the Presidency soon, a preferred successor was just named, the New York Times was actually quoted positively in the Russian media last week; who knows what will happen next? What I do know is that in terms of the arts, Russia is at the top of the world.

It’s strange that I have no classes left, that I’m not rehearsing some scene or etude right now, that I’m not memorizing lines or practicing dance moves. This is like a gray area, and I feel so emotionally unstable, like a ticking time-bomb that might explode at any minute. My nerves are so jangled because I’m leaving and I don’t quite know how to feel about it. On one hand, I’m unbelievably thrilled to come back to America, to my family, friends, and school…to the English language, to American movies, to the little comforts I always took for granted (like clean, drinkable tap water!). But part of me is so content here, fulfilled, enriched. I feel safe, comfortable in my own skin, secure in my work and my art…I just feel so solidly me! But I guess the most important thing is to take these feelings back with me to the States. I never realized that, aside from learning about theatre, art, and history through this experience, I would learn so much about myself.

Thank you to all those who kept up-to-date on my journey. I hope you enjoyed reading these letters as much as I enjoyed writing them. I will never forget my experience in Moscow, and I only wish that you all have an experience so fulfilling in your lives.

With love,

Etai BenShlomo