Traditionally in Russia acting classes are taught by two teachers working in partnership rather than just one. My two teachers, Oleg and Sasha, are one of the best elements of this journey to Moscow. They are truly exceptional and incredibly lovable masters with very creative English skills. They express their ideas so directly and yet so poetically, especially in Sasha’s case given the fact that his vocabulary is not quite as extensive as Oleg’s, that although their grammar may be unclear, the meaning they intend is both crystal clear and surprisingly Beautiful.
Perhaps the wisdom they offer is even richer in composition than an American could express, simply because they are not inadvertently tied to the typical way of saying things, but are rather using what English they know so specifically that never is anything “general” in their comments. It is almost magical to listen to them (and to watch them, as they are both excellent actors, or such is my supposition both from how well they illustrate their ideas and from the incredible sense of vocal and physical presence they emit at all times) in class as we discuss our work together as a group. We also laugh a LOT as we do fun ensemble-building exercises. There is something special and delightful about laughing with Russians. Especially two whom I respect so highly. I feel such love for them already and we have only had three classes so far!
In each of our classes we as a group create an etude or a skit/improvisation of sorts involving an event that affects everyone and interrupts a specific beginning or stasis and causes reactions that pull us through to a specific end. Our first etude as an ensemble took place on a Subway where different kinds of people were affected first by the stopping of the train, and second the seizure of a young woman, which was triggered by the flickering lights of the stopping train. To keep things short, I will simply say that there were two main lessons learned from this first attempt.
1) Keep things simple, make sure that there is one event to concentrate your attention on and not two.
2) Develop all given circumstances for your characters, know the details of the relationships that you have or do not have with other people on the train and the details of your own private life so well that you could write a few pages about them. Simplicity helps to sharpen the execution of the scene/piece and details help to fatten it with truth. Sharp and fat at the same time. Got it?
Our second attempt was the wedding ceremony of myself and another member of my ensemble named Darren. This wedding was interrupted by the event of my best guy friend objecting to the marriage and finally confessing his secret love for me. Our conversations lasted for hours about who we were, when did we meet, how long have we known each other, where was our first date, when did my mother die, what does so and so think of so and so, etc. that I was reminded once again of the beauty of the imagination. Remember when we were little and all we needed to keep ourselves occupied was, well, ourselves? When did we stop creating worlds? When did we stop caring about the secrets that we can make up in an instant? When did we forget that the imagination is perhaps the best creative tool that we have within our reach? Perhaps you didn’t forget, but I do believe that there are many artists out there, myself included, that have gotten so bogged down in the very important and essential technique that we sometimes forget why we ever even started playing in the first place. So, lessons learned from attempt number two:
1) Do not be afraid of duration in a scene, or in text. As a group we rushed our performance and gave the audience no chance to enjoy all of the secrets and relationships that we had developed. Do not be afraid to wait. Do not be afraid to breathe.
2) Enjoy the chance that we have as actors to share something secret and deeper amongst our fellow cast members that perhaps the audience will never even discover. That is part of the fun of our profession – that we get to play make-believe every day, and with some of the most inventive minds in the world. Enjoy being the Player that you have been trained to be. Imagine. Create. Enjoy.
We also did personal etudes today where we chose an inanimate object and using movement showed the class a day in the life of that object. We focused on movement as a sharp and specific means of telling a story and revealing a character and its relationship to the outside force, such as a human, that affects it. I chose a sweater. While my movement was specific, my relationship to my master could have been more so. I may have tried to do too much, and thus it was unclear. Next time I will be more specific, sharper (“sharpening” is one of Sasha and Oleg’s favorite words, and they are so right. Every time. Sometimes I think we American realist actors are too “in general” as Stanislavsky says).
There were some great etudes though – an umbrella, a book, a basketball, a teapot, oh they were so hilarious! Remember that part about laughing with Russians? Yeah, just imagine laughing about a doorknob’s reaction to getting a key stuffed in its gut. HiLARious! Only in acting school.
Tomorrow we are going to be kindergartners on the playground at recess when it starts to rain. These etudes are so much fun, and so beneficial at the same time. Working together as a group every night is already bringing us close, and teaching us to trust each other. Russian theater is all about ensemble, about supporting each other. We are on the journey to becoming family.