Monday, October 29, 2007

A Giant Land

OK, so I realize it's been at least 3 weeks or so since I've posted, and of course it is my fault, BUT my internet was being spotty in the usual place and I had a hard time finding a new one. (Internet is harder to find here than hookers) Also, the head of the theatre had been promising us wireless in the dorms for three weeks, so I was waiting until we got it to post and now success! We took a lot of trips, so I'm going to simply describe those first, as it is midnight, and tomorrow I will point out a few things that are cultural differences. Now that we have wireless, I plan to start blogging more often, as this is also a journal for me, so I apologize for the long break and hope to blog a little more hardcore. So as Monty Python would say, "GET ON WITH IT"

1) NIZHNY NOVGOROD: I have been to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny and I have to say that by far I liked Nizhny the best. I really thought it was the prettiest, especially landscape wise. St. Petersburg was gorgeous, but Nizhny had water AND a Kremlin AND a hill. Also, I stayed with the Croxton's from home, and they were beyond nice to me so I must take time to sincerely thank them here. To describe it a little bit for you, the way one Russian told me was that there is basically two parts to the city: the part on the top of the hill and the part on the bottom. I only had about a day, so we only really hit two major parts, both on the top part of the city. The first was a long stone boulevard, which Dr. Croxton told me they had just finished renovating in about a day. There were all these shops and cafes down the boulevard, along with statues placed everywhere, and it was really quite pretty. Then we got to the end of the boulevard and were greeted by the kremlin. I THINK that kremlin in Russian means fortress though, because many cities in Russia have "kremlins", at least that's what I was told. Anyway, it was a fortress, and what you don't realize from the boulevard is that the kremlin is on the top of the hill, so you're walking through it (all kremlins have other buildings and things inside them) and all of a sudden on the other end there's a bird's eye view of the Volga river, and a giant hill leading down to the waterside. There were some great things inside the wall, a nice cathedral, a monument to The Great Patriotic War (AKA World War 2), and a bunch of model tanks and mortars, that I guess acts as kind of a playground for kids. After this, the Croxtons took me out for dinner, where I got a pork chop in honey mustard sauce with french fries. Pork is a lot cheaper/better/easier to get here than beef, so let it be known that I will be eating the biggest steak I can find wen I arrive back in America. All in all possibly my favorite weekend of the whole trip so far.

2) ST. PETERSBURG: Apparently, people call St. Petersburg the "Venice of the North" and for good reason. There is a large canal system that runs through the whole city, along with a giant river (I don't remember which one) that it is right on. There are two islands that make up St. Petersburg too, Hare Island and another (again, no names check the hyperlink) but the bridges leading to those islands retract at 2 AM, so don't get stuck! When I say Nizhny is prettier, I know that there would be a lot of argument to that from people who went to St. Petersburg. The best way I can prove that is because I took a TON of pictures, and I still don't think that they truly catch what the city looks like. When you are looking down the giant river, there are buildings lining both sides as far as the eye can see, and the rule was that no buildings could be higher than the palace (with the exception of St. Iaasac's Cathedral) so everything is at one height. (4 stories) The color of the city is yellow too I guess, as most of the buildings are yellow or yellowish in color. Our tour guide gave us a few reasons (although she wasn't clear as to whether or not they were DEFINITE reasons or just myths) one of which was that yellow is the color people here associate with being crazy, and the other was to make the city look brighter in the Spring and Summer months. There is also a "kremlin" here, that was very beautiful, and held within it a beautiful church and a torture museum, which we wanted to go to but had no time for. Highlights of the trip were certainly the Mariinsky (not a typo) Theatre, and Katherine's Palace on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. We saw an excellent production of Swan Lake (2nd time I have seen it in Russia) and MAN can Russians dance ballet. The grace and control of some of those dancers was excellent. Our teachers actually said that the Mariinsky is actually considered the top theatre in Russia, which makes sense when you also hear people say that St. Petersburg is also the arts capital in Russia. On the arts vein, I also went to the Hermitage, which is arguably (apparently) the 2nd/best art museum in the world. It was HUGE. There were like 10 separate floors/wings that all had hundreds of paintings. Our tour guide said if you spent 1 minute at each painting in the Hermitage it would take you 7 years to get through the whole thing. I spent about 4 hours in the place, and my body went into art overload. It's staggering how much art is in that building, not to mention that it used to be a palace, so the building itself has gorgeous rooms. (Complete with a golden ballroom and a throneroom) However, the Hermitage doesn't even come CLOSE to Katherine's Palace, which is by far the most beautiful place I've been in my life, and I've been to Shea AND Yankee Stadium. The palace, first of all, is HUGE/GIGANTIC/ENORMOUS, and then you back and find out there's 250 acres of land and a man-made pond behind it. Oh, and on the 250 acres, every ruler has added a few things of their own, so it's almost like a treasure hunt for buildings and monuments and bridges. Everything was peaceful and gorgeous all at the same time. Simply breathtaking. There were two churches that were gorgeous too, St. Iaasac's Cathedral and Spiltblood Cathedral. St. Iaasac's was the tallest building easily, with a giant gold dome (the 3rd largest gold dome in the world) and these giant pillars. Spiltblood is in the same fashion as St. Basil's Cathedral here in Moscow, but it's almost more beautiful in my opinion. (I will post pictures next time) We also went to Hare Island and saw where St. Petersburg started (with their kremlin) and then sprawled out of, so it was the oldest part of the city, which is a 350 year old city. We rather breezed through it though, since it was really just a bathroom stop on the bus tour, but there was another beautiful church with a giant spire that had a gold dome on the top, and a very odd statue of Peter the Great. I rubbed his left hand, so I'm supposed to come into money, but I didn't know I was supposed to also rub his right hand for good luck, and as it was described to me luck brings money and money brings luck, so I will probably end up getting neither. Also, for those of you who care, I definitely spent a healthy amount of time getting associated with Russian vodka, which still, to me, tastes like vodka. I'll bring a bottle back and we'll see.

Sorry, I had hoped to post more, but I ran out of time. More tomorrow, including pictures!


Monday, October 8, 2007

Rough Times

I will have to be as brief as possible since I have many things to do this night and not enough time to get them all done. That has pretty much been the standard here so far: classes from 10-6, then a show at least 2 or 3 times a week, and you're home by about 10PM.

It has also been trying, at times, to study with the group I'm in. As many of you already know, living and working with actors can be the hardest thing in your life when you're trying to be a normal person. Everything is an argument, everyone has the best way to do something, everything thing is either amazing or fabulous, and everybody loves everybody and hates everybody at the same time.

I want to take some quick time however, to make people aware in the States that MXAT in Russia is completely different from the idea of what MXAT is in America. The head of the theatre, Anatoly Smelianski, even talks about the "mystification" and "golden idol" that Americans make of Stanislavsky. Sure, MXAT is a very important theatre in Moscow, but there are other theatres here as well that do excellent work, for example the Bolshoi Theatre. The Russian people don't idolize it here like we idolize it in America; for example we went to Stanislavsky's house (which is a museum) and someone in the book wrote "thank you for our Mecca." And that's truly the attitude. Stanislavsky and Chekov are Gods to us, and to not respect the way they wanted to do theatre is heresy. And in all of this, where is Nemirovich-Danchenko? It's quite possible he saved the Moscow Art Theatre twice in it's history, and what do we know of him? Our teacher again compared the two to Mozart and Salieri, and he said that in most cases Stanislavsky was really Salieri, not Mozart. If I had more time I would list more examples (reactions by the Soviets to the theatre after the revolution, the fact that it is subsidized by the government actually being a bad thing, ect.) but I will leave a separate post aside for this purpose later. We know from MXAT only what we want to hear about it, because of how sacred these people are to the oldest of theatre practitioners. Everyone out there really ask yourself: why are we trying to do 80 year old Russian theatre for a contemporary American audience?

Also read True and False by David Mamet.


Sunday, September 30, 2007


I don't want to write a long post, since I'm in an cafe and really hungry.

To make a long story short, we have acting class 6 days a week for 3 hours and it really is how I wish we did acting classes in the States. Little homework, lots of classwork. Also, we have spent easily 10 days or so doing the same things, all of which we in the States would say are "foundational". For example, all actors have played the game where you "pass the clap", but probably only for one class or two. We have done that exercise everyday, or at least some version of it. We spend the first half of class doing nothing but tempo-rhythm and concentration exercises, like passing a clap in tempo and another game where we run around with our chairs and ask questions to each other and then we have to remember the question and the answer.
They have also started to make the exercises require you to focus on more than one thing at a time. For example, yesterday we played a game where two people were telling a story simultaneously, and then you had to be able to tell what the other person's story was about.

The second half of the class is devoted to "object work". It's tough to explain, but we do short etudes (no words) where we take objects and give them a life and a story. I'll explain by example, one girl did a fire extinguisher and the first part she is just waiting for fire, then she sees one and gets excited but no one comes to get her, then finally someone takes her off the wall and she gets scared, but puts out the fire and is proud of herself. That might be confusing, but I think you'll get the idea.

And we've done all this everyday for at least 10 days, which is what, 5 weeks at college theatre program? We also saw a show by second year students, and it's clear that these students have a much better concept of how a story is told through physicality and movements rather than words. I remember when I was on the baseball team, our first practice we didn't even touch a baseball, and it almost seems as though the training is similar to that here: they start without words.

Finally, I would really love to open the floor to any questions you have. If I can't answer them, I will do my best to ask them in class and figure out. It will also help me in my training too, since your questions will become my questions, and it's been so overwhelming actually just being here that I haven't asked a lot. So let me know.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

First Impressions of Russian Theatre

In my last post, I realized I completely neglected to talk about the first play we saw at MHAT. It was based off a short story by Gogol about a husband and wife who live together and are both farmers, and their whole lives are devoted to each other. The wife loses her cat, and for whatever reason that brings her to the realization that she is going to die, and she tells her husband. Eventually she does die, and the husband tries to go on with another wife, but he is never happy. The play ends with the husband eventually dying, and that's the most basic outline I can give. There are servants there too, who in this production were representative of servants and anything else they needed to be (like animals), since there was basically no set just a few boxes and chests.

The play differed from American theatre in two main ways. The first were the movements. Keeping in mind that I speak ZERO Russian (I understood "dog" and "cat" through the whole show) the play was still one of the most compelling shows I've ever seen. The movements were so specific that you knew everything that I feel Americans would try to express with words. Also, there were so many more moments in the show that went without words. If I really could go back and time it, I would bet that more time on stage was spent without words than with. The flip-side of that coin could be that because I didn't understand the words, I was paying more attention to the movements, but I really doubt it. Through the acting classes I've taken so far, I've learned that the students here practically spend the entire first semester doing almost nothing but etudes, and it is really the core of the training that's done here. It is very interesting to see how much can really be expressed without words.

Another difference I noticed was the tempo-rhythm of the show. As someone who came from a musical background, I found this very interesting. There were the two leads and than a chorus of servants, who would represent both humans and animals if necessary. At one point, they were ducks, and even the duck calls that they made were done with a very specific rhythm. If it had been done in the States, a director would probably just say "make duck sounds" or "be ducks". These actors had a specific noise that they made at a specific time. Another example, there was a point where the servants were washing the floor, and they had wet soapy rags that they would throw against the floor (SMACK) and then they'd wash the floor. There was a specific rhythm though, they would throw the rags against the floor in the same intervals EVERY time. I don't know whether this is just for this specific performance or not, (which, if you haven't guessed by now was very avant-garde) but we have done many exercises in class that deal very much with tempo-rhythm.

Finally, the use of the stage. As I said, they had rags with soapy water, just throwing water around the stage. At one point, the servants were just breaking plates on the back wall of the stage. They were just throwing them over and over, they must have broken at least 10 plates, if not more. What props manager in the States would wanna replace that many plates? I did find out that the plays they do are in repertory though, so it's likely that the theatre won't see that same play again for another year, and they've been doing it for at least 5 years already. (Which is also a huge difference between theatre here and the States)

However, as wonderfully moving and beautiful this play was in all these intricate aspects, I had to once again ask myself: would the average non-actor/artist have liked it in America? Or even in Russia? It was interesting to hear that Russia is having the same problem attracting people to the theatre that America is, especially since it was my impression that everyone went to the theatre in Russia. I don't want to make any sweeping statements until I've seen a little more, but I do want to take some time in this blog to discuss what theatre is nowadays to people who are not artists, since I feel theatre has done nothing in years to address this audience.

Did anyone know how modern a city Moscow is? The giant state is of Peter the Great, and it was built in 1997. The golden-domed building ( The Cathedral of Jesus Christ the Savior) was built in 1991, and before it was built it used to be a swimming pool. In fact most of the dates I've seen in this city haven't had anything before the 1800s, although I learned today that the 1800s were when Russia had it's Renaissance, and that when we go to St. Petersburg I will see a lot of older buildings. I've posted a ton of pictures on Facebook, and I'm going to try to put them on Flickr, but it takes more time than I want to donate at this time. More will follow.


PS: Here's St. Basil's Cathedral

Friday, September 21, 2007


Hello to everyone in the States!

So it has been 3 days here in Moscow and there are so many things worth talking about I can't even decide where to begin.

I will start with the city itself, since Moscow is really a lot more beautiful than any pictures I've seen. Most people only know the Kremlin, but there are so many buildings that are just as pretty . There's a giant mall in Red Square (and I mean GIANT, it's gotta be a few city blocks long and wide, with three stories) that looks like a castle. In fact, a ton of buildings here look like they could be castles or palaces. There are a lot of signs that have flashing bulbs, so when you walk down a street everything is flashing at you and trying to draw your attention. Tverskaya, which is the road we live on, is basically 5th Avenue/Michigan Ave. (depending on which city you are familiar with) and clothing and shoe stores are EVERYWHERE.

For those of you who are reading this and will be making the trip later, start learning Russian now. Most people don't speak English, and even if they do they don't speak it well enough to really understand what it is you need. It's actually been very frustrating and scary, because there's no way to even moderately communicate with people since the languages are so different. Our professor, who speaks fluent Russia took us out to eat, and if he hadn't have been there I would have been completely lost. So many simple things I am simply unable to do because of the language barrier, it's pretty frustrating. We had to find another place to get Wi-Fi because the cafe place had cards with directions we couldn't read.

The Moscow Art Theatre itself is much bigger than I had expected, as is everything I've encountered in Russia. When I was England, everything was very small, but Russia seems to have a sense of size that is a little closer to America. (Even the cars seem bigger) I don't have any pictures of it yet, but there are two different buildings and several theatres. The "American Studio" is on the 5th floor of the building, and there are also classrooms on the 2nd and 4th floors. It's a very pretty complex, and I will post pictures as I get them. We had our first classes today, so I will talk about those more as well as they develop. I can say that having class through a translator is not the most effective method of study, as the translator would make equally as confusing English sentences.

We took a trip to the Novodevichy Cemetary, where the Russian elites are buried, to see Stanislasky/Nemirovich-Damchenko/Anton Chekov's graves. It was almost more like a museum than a graveyard, as the tombstones were all unique; they either had sculptures of who's grave was there, or statues or busts or lavish crosses. The walls were also lined with pictures and busts, it was breathtaking. As interesting was the subway ride there, as the Metro is like 40 feet underground, as they were all built to be bomb shelters in Soviet times. I will take the Metro as little as possible however, because you have to rush and squeeze into overcrowded subway cars, and when the doors close they CLOSE. I could easily see someone breaking an arm trying to hold a door for someone, it's that fast.

I'm going to try to wrap it up here, since my battery is running low and I already fried my converter so I have no way to charge it yet. So in closing, Red Square is breathtaking, (pictures of that coming as well) St. Basil's Cathedral (the building you all think of when I say the Kremlin) is 100x more beautiful in person than you can imagine, the women are beautiful, the beer is strong and can be drank at any time in any place, (I had a beer at 10AM walking down the street!) and the only thing that's cheaper here than in America are cigarettes ($1 a pack). More as things develop/as I get easier access to the internet.



Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Waiting Game

It has been a painful experience to sit here and bide my time until I leave for Russia. It seems almost like everyone has gotten started and into their daily routine except for those of us who are making the trek. It's a very interesting experience to watch other people go to college.

There has been an incredible exchange going on between two members of the theatre blog world, and I would be remiss not to point anyone who manages to stumble onto this blog over to their blog.

Thomas Loughlin and Scott Walters have been posting very interesting material that is truly worth diving into. I find it especially interesting as I am currently a theatre student myself. To anyone who finds this because I am going to Russia, I recommend spending time here and here, just to read some possible myths of the college theatre world. I think it's very important for us as young artists to enter this debate, as it is as much about our views of the theatre/entertainment world as those who are older and more experienced.

I also hope that those of you out here who read this discuss theatre/entertainment with those people you know who are not engaged in studying the subject. I think that the more we know about the people who are on the receiving end of what we do as professionals the better. I often feel that elitism has killed the theatre world, and that we don't understand enough about what the common man wants when he/she comes to a show nowadays.

Anyways, please read the hyperlinks posted above before you continue reading this blog. Maybe it will help us all at some point down the line.


PS: Thanks to another college night

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Beginnings

So just to let everyone know, there is a possibility that this blog will last for about three posts and that'll be all, I just want to throw that out there.

Should it last, what I want to accomplish is just to have something that is a cross between a journal of the experience for myself and a letter to home in the same style that my father did when he toured across part of the United States for a year.

The experience in question is the coming semester studying abroad at the Moscow Art Theatre. Hopefully I will be posting pictures and such because that'll just make this a more interesting website for all involved. More when I actually get to Russia.