Lydia in Moscow

Lydia, a junior President’s Scholar majoring in theatre studies in Meadows School of the Arts and Spanish in Dedman College, is spending fall 2010 in Moscow, where she is studying with the Moscow Art Theater.

Going home

How does one go back?

At the end of Tolkien’s The Return of the King, Frodo says to Gandalf, “There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same.” Although Frodo speaks especially to the long struggle, the long battle against evil that nearly killed him and that has left him with deep, incurable wounds, and my own journey to Russia and the Moscow Art Theater has left me with none such wounds, I must admit I feel as Frodo does.

There seems to be no real going back. Because the home that I left, and to which I return, is not the same. It has been only one day, but my whole world feels upside down. I don’t even know how to explain to my family or my friends just how different, how different it is being, how different I, how different the … how different. That’s it.

How does one go back? My heart and my body and my soul long for MXAT, long for the training, long for my teachers and their passionate love for their students and the theater to which they have committed their lives. And yet, my heart is delighted to be home. My eyes revel in the beauty of the Colorado plains and the regal mountains that always have enraptured and always will enrapture me. My nose smiles upon the smell of crisp clean Colorado air. My limbs find ease and simplicity in walking the neighborhood streets, free from businesses and cigarette butts, free from people. But I miss those people. Alas, the paradox is hard. I can’t change it. I want to be in two places at once.

I went to get a haircut today and told the nice lady that I had just come back from studying in Moscow. She asked “Moscow, Idaho?” Somewhat stunned I grinned and said in as non-condescending a voice as possible, “No, Moscow, Russia.” She had spent most of her life in Idaho, so I could understand perhaps where she was coming from. But later, after I spent a few minutes describing our program, she said “It’s still a communist country, right?”

Oh dear. I mean, I suppose I can’t expect the woman who cuts my hair to understand the deep spiritual and personal growth that I have undergone in the past 3 months, but the very fact that I can’t explain myself is both wonderful and incredibly frustrating. I cannot fit my experience in a box! hooray! It was so amazing that it fits no real limits! I cannot fit my experience in a box. Well shoot. How do I collect myself enough to give some kind of idea of what MXAT is like? What Russia is like? I was just like them, ignorant and full of misconceptions. So how can I make sure not to get sad when people don’t get it? I am learning. I am learning how to come back. How not to say goodbye, and yet how to say hello to the world that I find myself in at the moment. Because I can only live wherever I am.

How does one go back? Step by step I suppose. Just being here is already a new journey with its own difficulties.

“It started out as a feeling, which then grew into a hope … which then turned into a quiet thought, which then turned into a quiet word … and then that word grew louder and louder, until it was a battle cry … I’ll come back, when you call me. No need to say goodbye … Just because everything’s changing, doesn’t mean it’s never been this way before. All you can do is try to know who your friends are as you head off to the war. Pick a star on the dark horizon and follow the light – You’ll come back, when it’s over, no need to say goodbye. You’ll come back when it’ s over, no need to say goodbye ……… Now we’re back to the beginning, it’s just a feeling and no one knows yet. But just because they can’t feel it too doesn’t mean that you have to forget. Let your memories grow stronger and stronger, until they’re before your eyes. You’ll come back, when they call you. No need to say goodbye. You’ll come back, when they call you, no need to say goodbye.” (The Call – Regina Spektor)

Going home means going back to one home. But I am learning more and more each day that this world is not my home. Or rather, there are many places that I can call home, and that each of them only reflects the real home that my heart longs for. Narnia, heaven, life with God in eternity with all of the most beautiful parts of life here on earth … I want to go home. But while I journey there, I am going to allow myself to learn to be where I am. For love is born in waiting.

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Five ft.

Last Friday I found myself for a second time in the middle of a crowd on Tverskaya Street near the statue of the dude who founded Moscow, opposite the mayor’s house. My friend Rachel and I were walking home from MXAT when we recognized the austere uniformed militia blocking off the main road, but still letting pedestrians through; the real event was still yet to come, it being the arrival of a leftist political activist of some sort planning to share his thoughts on the right to vote.

russia1.jpgLast time this crowd introduced me to another side of Russia, and of life, that I had never experienced prior. Hundreds of press members gathered in the square with their cameras and their badges hanging around their necks like extra appendages. They greeted each other with the familiarity and cavalier manner reminiscent of an office holiday party, and we, the odd Americans standing to the sidelines, wondered what on earth was going on. We waited … and waited. And waited. And every once in a while the reporters would gather together in clumps, or take pictures of the scene around them, or briefly converse with and film people who were there to see whomever it was we were all collectively awaiting. Then. A red jacket. Reporters flocking. Flashes splashing in and between seconds. An old man with half his head shaved and the other half streaming long gray threads began to speak.

I am not sure how much he was able to say in the 30 seconds of free speech he cherished before the blue-garbed militia broke through the crowd of press members, picked him up, and began to forcefully take him behind the barricade that the green-garbed militia had begun to make toward the back of the square. Todd said something very appropriate: “This is not a place we should be right now. Let’s go.” And we left.

We found out later via the Internet that that particular day had been declared a “Day of Anger” where citizens were encouraged by activists to join others in the square in voicing their frustrations with the Russian government. The term “shut up” has new meaning for me now.

Thus, to return to my more recent story, Rachel and I found ourselves once again walking home along Tverskaya. Similar atmosphere: holiday party for the press, just outside, in the cold, and across from the Mayor’s house. We decided to wait again, just to see what might be happening. During one moment of our quiet English conversation, a Russian woman bluntly took out her camera, pointed it at us, and with flash and without shame, took our picture. Rachel and I were a little surprised. We shared a few seconds of awkward tension with the woman before I asked her “Otkuda?” which means, “where are you from?” She answered that she was from a city outside Moscow, and then asked us in broken English where we were from. HA. Sneaky lady, as if she didn’t know already – hence the picture. But she was able to explain to us a bit of what was happening; a leftist political activist was coming at 7:00 to talk about the right to vote. She said something to the extent of “but we know that it won’t be successful.” According to my prior experience with protests in Russia, I could imagine exactly what she meant.

So Rachel and I waited; we were joined by our friend Grady after 10 minutes or so, when he saw us standing as he walked home. Gradually more and more people arrived, many carrying sheets of paper that read “Enough terror!” – each with different faces of government officials on them as well. The people carrying the posters were often stopped by the press and asked questions. Boom mics and cameras were everywhere. And once again, there we were, the awkward Americans.

russia2.jpg In spurts the reporters flocked to different mini hotspots of action, one being four older men who began to sing as a quartet while they held their little posters. But the real action began when someone, truth be told I have no idea who, arrived just down the street from where we stood. The flood of people spewed past us to meet him, and then past us again as he made his way closer to the center of the square. Flashes and microphones popped with the excitement of a red-carpet event, but as the militia began to walk slowly in, toward us, and in a very strong, intimidating line, my stomach dropped.

The barricade had begun. Imagine a living wall closing in, step by step. A wall made of firm, male faces whose tongues speak a language that you do not know, and whose figures speak a threat that does not require words. If I had been five feet closer to the crowd, I would have, without choice, been forced into the wave of publicity and bystanders caught by the strong current of these men. But I did not. I was five feet free. And I realized that the message that the policemen had been droning through their megaphones the whole time we were there, which began with, “Esteemed Citizens…” was probably something to the extent of “Esteemed Citizens, you remain here at your own risk. If you choose to stay and support the activities taking place here, know that you will be barricaded. Again, Esteemed Citizens …”

First of all, I don’t entirely understand Russian. Second of all, I am not a Russian citizen. But still, I was only five feet free of a being caught inside a human wall. In Russia. I am not familiar with that kind of fear. I watched the men pick up the man who had been speaking, and forcibly move him back behind the press. I remembered the red jacket, the old man, his half-head-of-hair and his feet off the ground the same as the man before me.

We tried to leave via the side streets, but the soldiers had also blocked off the street, and were telling people to exit another roundabout way, but eventually we attached ourselves to the person by person stream that was threading itself obstinately through the men, and made our way toward home.

Fear. Freedom.

I take these words for granted.

Anatoly Smeliansky, the head of the Moscow Art Theater School, gave a toast at our Thanksgiving feast yesterday. He spoke about how much he loves our American holiday and the taking of time to realize just how much we have to be thankful for. According to him, “in Russia also unfortunately because of the history, we don’t know for what we should thank Him. For Christmas? For, for what?” His playful laughter on the word “WhAt?” brought many a chuckle in response, haha.

He continued, “I hope, actually I am an optimist, and, actually I have something to thank God for, what he gave to Russia, He gave Anton Chekhov to Russia. He gave some beautiful great actors who were my friends, and most of them are not alive. He gave great directors and set designers and so on and so on – it’s enough actually. How many great things do you need in your personal life?” His gentle face and the twinkle in his eye smiled at us as we laughed. He looked down briefly, and continued, saying that though Americans vary from state to state and tradition to tradition, and although the president can be bad, or certain people can make poor decisions, as a whole, “America as a country, unbelievably beautiful.” And perhaps the reason for this, is because “in the States you probably got the most important thing which people could get in any country; You got freedom.” Hearing him say that familiar word brought tears to my eyes and a new weight to my heart.

“You got Freedom.”

How often does one hear a word redefined in an instant with simply the use of itself?

I will never forget the image of these men being picked up by blue-clad soldiers. I will never forget what it can mean, in just the mildest sense, according to history, to be denied the right to speak. Just over 20 years ago this country was under the reign of communism. Dwelling in that fact makes my head and my heart spin. There is still so much territory to regain here, and truly, all over the world. Most Americans grow up being taught to be thankful for freedom, but do we realize to just what extent we should be?

This Thanksgiving, I am not only thankful for the amazing opportunity that I have had to study in Moscow, which has truly changed my life, and not only thankful for the incredible friends that I have made from all over the world via my travels here, and not only am I both thankful for and in love with all of my teachers, to the extent that my limited Russian will never express to them as much love as I have in my heart for their incredible souls, and not only thankful for language and the ability that we have as people to communicate at all, and not only thankful for a warm place to sleep at night instead of the cold Moscow streets, and for food to fill my hunger, and not only thankful for my amazing family, and for the God who saved me from myself a long time ago, but thankful for freedom.

Liberty is a gift within five feet of being taken from you.

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‘It is impossible for anyone to know me as well as he does’ – Oleg

My first experience with Chekov was reading “Ivanov,” his first full-length, complete play, while I was at a theater program at Boston University the summer before my senior year of high school. I was to learn Sasha’s monologue and perform it for my acting class. This monologue just so happened to be Sasha’s complaints about how bored she was with life, with the people in her life, and with everything. And I, Lydia the actress, could identify completely because I was so bored out of my mind with Sasha’s monologue. I didn’t realize this connection till a week or so after I had begun working on the text, but suddenly everything became clear; Chekhov writes normal life, normal struggles, universal little things that are big things when they actually happen to us. His is the drama of life, ordinary as it may be.

Being in Russia and studying Chekhov is one of the most incredible opportunities I could ever imagine. I have seen about five shows at the same theater where all of Chekhov’s plays were produced, and I have seen the set designs and the chairs that were used. I am taking classes on the same street where Stanislavsky and Nemirovich Danchenko argued about whether or not to even produce “The Seagull” in the first place. It had been a catastrophe in St. Petersburg. Stan said no, N.M. said yes, and finally Stan fell in love with the play, and it revolutionized theater as we know it. To this day, the emblem on the MXAT curtain is a seagull. A seagull also marks the door into the theater. And I walk past that seagull everyday. Woah. It’s like my own life is just as dramatic as Chekhov’s plays within the ordinary routine of it all.

We discussed with our teachers a few weeks ago about why we like or don’t like Chekhov, and for the most part all of us students said something about loving how universal his characters and their struggles are. People dream, love, eat, sleep, walk, cry, laugh, live and die and worlds collide. As my teacher Sasha said, “Life is sad and tragic, but what’s the sense to cry? Let’s laugh about our tragedy.” That is how Chekhov gets away with calling his plays comedies when they seem so tragic in our eyes. It is the comedy of the human tragedy, the comedy of how much everything means when ultimately it ends in death. So let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

Perhaps I would add to Chekhov’s vision of the world the notion of God. Chekhov was an atheist, and so he saw life as ever drawing near the point of completion. I see life as ever drawing near the point of fulfillment. Yes, life is tragic and we can laugh at the tragedy, but we can also rejoice in the beauty, because it points us to something more, something deeper. I believe that Chekhov was searching for that something more, but he could not believe in God. He chose not to. I laugh and love not because it doesn’t mean anything, but because it means everything.

I wish Chekhov and I could sit down and have a chat over tea. But I suppose I will simply have to study his plays, see his perspective, delight in the brilliance of his writing, and add my other-worldly perspective to the universality of his characters. That sounds weird re-reading through it. Oh well, I can’t get my thoughts straight. There is too much to think about.

Chekhov. Boom. Point world.

My teacher Oleg said that his first impression of Chekhov was, “It is impossible for anyone to know me as well as he does.” I know what he means. Chekhov understood people, all different kinds of people, and he wrote them into his stories and his plays. I feel close to Chekhov’s characters too. And I think I could say the same of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien – it is impossible for a writer to know me as well as they do. Narnia and Middle Earth are where my heart belongs! But in the end, I cannot deny that Oleg’s statement makes me think of who knows me better than anyone else in the world. It’s God. It is impossible, or it seems impossible for anyone to know me as well as He does. In my epic-ness; in my desire for adventure and for a role to play in the grand battle of good and evil; in my longing to be romanced, loved and cherished; in my desire to love the world and its people with all that I am. He knows me.

I can’t shake the notion that it’s all connected.

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Checking in

Why, hello, world wide web. How are you?

I wrote the following post a week and a half ago, but I think it still merits posting. It has taken me a while to finish it as things have been crazy busy as ever here!

Lydia.bmp The past week was one of the most hectic weeks of my experience in Moscow thus far. On top of having classes Saturday through Saturday, I saw five different shows: Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” (Saturday), “Othello” (Monday), Bulgakov’s “White Guard” (Wednesday), “King Lear” (Thursday) and a show called “Masquerade” (Friday). I must admit I was rather ready for a break from the theater come this past Saturday evening. With little time to reflect on what I have seen, it becomes difficult to separate each of the shows into the very unique and individual experiences/reactions they provoke. I want to take some time to reflect on each of them.

I have already discussed “The Idiot,” so I will not spend too much time dwelling on this particular show. But I do want to add that it was one of the most visually stunning performances I have ever seen. The idea of “Director’s Theater” is very strong here: the notion that the director can take a text and do pretty much whatever he wants with it. In the States we have for the most part moved away from director’s theater and into playwright’s theater; all artistic decisions made by director, actor, designer, etc. must be grounded in the text. Obviously productions will vary in the approach they take, but director’s theater lends itself to a lot of decisions made not necessarily because they make sense, but sometimes merely because they are beautiful.

As a foreigner who speaks only chut chut pa Russki (a little bit of Russian), I am of course limited in just how much of the text I can even understand, but symbolism transcends linguistic barriers. And though I may still not entirely understand why the particular artistic choice was made, I am still moved by it, and my thoughts are aroused. Suddenly huge swinging doors and mirrors and plates smashed into the stage floor and the repeated dance-like choreography of one character stabbing the woman he loves touch me and I “get” the general gist of the story. Director’s theater may not always be true to the text, but it is stunning to watch.

“Othello” was another example of director’s theater. Huge sailor hammocks hanging from the catwalks doubled as the sails of the ship and the clouds that hang over the island on which Shakespeare’s characters find themselves. Two men dressed somewhat like sheep shook enormous water containers throughout the show such that the sound of waves was always present, and the director never let you forget that you were near the ocean. At one point Desdemona was running back and forth between two chairs here and Othello’s, and though it may not make sense in my description here, it worked brilliantly onstage.

There were so many little details that are beginning to escape me because I did not record them soon enough. But let’s just say that while this show was quite striking, it was not necessarily compelling. I loved the production values, and the acting was quite good, but the end was rough – it was also the most self-indulgent Othello suicide I have ever seen. It took 45 minutes for him to kill himself after he suffocated Desdemona, and those 45 minutes were filled with flower pots, and little toy ships, and lots of beautiful images, but the power of the plot was lost in the overkill use of symbolism. There must be a balance between the two.

whiteguard.bmp I absolutely loved MXAT’s production of “White Guard.” I believe that this is the show that I have understood the most of all of the shows that I have seen thus far in Moscow. The music simmered in with a soft melody reminiscent of a jewelry box, and hung in the air for half a minute before the curtain slowly opened to reveal an off-kilter ramp stretching up stage left and down stage right. On the right stood chairs, tables, candlesticks; and on the right, the emptiness of uncertainty. Snow fell. And the snow-globe-like atmosphere led us into a story of love and revolution.

The acting was spectacular. The main actress was so strong and feminine at the same time, and the handsome man who courted her with his comedy and dire need for her love captured my affections as well. Although I suppose I am not the first person to fall in love with a MXAT actor, I am pretty sure that that is a normal occurrence. The chemistry between these two actors was tangible, and all of the other actors who lived within the world of comedy and tragedy, hope and fear completely and totally committed themselves to the world that I could see from my little seat in the aisle. All of the jokes about vodka were entertaining too. Those I understood! I desperately want to find a copy of this play in English, because it is brilliant. Someday perhaps I will be able to read it in Russian as well. Ultimately this was a story of worlds in the balance, lives clinging to those most dear, losing them anyways, and moving on with hope. It was hilarious, compelling, inspiring, and tragic all at once. I LOVED it.

The good words of my fellow classmates led me into “King Lear” with high expectations, which truth be told were not entirely met or unmet. This production at the Satirikon theater was another example of director’s theater, and with the exception of Rikon, a famous Russian actor and MXAT teacher who played Lear, I was not all that impressed with the actors. There were good moments, but I felt they were stuck between too many attempts at being edgy or original.

It’s always hard to judge considering the very important fact that I do not really speak Russian and cannot always understand the juxtaposition of certain vocal and physical choices with the text, which, if were I able to understand them, might suddenly become pure genius to me. But, nevertheless, this production did not inspire much in me, neither disappointment or excitement. I came away from it feeling slightly bland.

Dead tired and with no desire to see a show, much less walk all the way to the Vakhtangov theater in the bleak cold wind, I found myself seated at the back of the house with my head not against the wall where I thought it would be (asleep) but rather enraptured with the performance of Lermontov’s “Masquerade.” The circular stage was covered with “snow,” and snow was falling from the catwalks above the stage, and I felt like a little girl back in Colorado in the middle of winter. The story of the play itself I did not entirely understand, but it was BEAUTIFUL. And SO FUN!! One of the actors who played the “fool” of sorts spent the first 20 minutes rolling up, slowly but surely, a large snowball, and at the end of the play the audience got what they had been waiting for – the biggest snowball they had ever seen! The size of a large truck!

The actors shoved a “dead man” down a hole at the end of the stage like they were putting him in the icy cold water, but he kept bobbing back up! Finally they had to tie a statue to him to get his body to sink. After her death, the main actress who was in pointe shoes the entire show (and she was exquisite) replaced the statue, took its position and froze in place, as if the snow had crystallized her for eternity.

I am finding it difficult to put into words a decent summary of the many images that have such potent effect in so instant a moment. The show was lovely. It’s another that I really want to read in English and maybe someday in Russian too. I am glad that in spite of my weariness, I went to the theater :^)

Well, there’s that for a little bit of checking in on shows. I have seen some others since then, one in particular that needs discussing, but more on that later. All right, world wide web, I am going to write some more posts. I hope you are satisfied with this one.

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“The Idiot”

I told a friend just how much I loved the five-hour Lithuanian production of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” on Saturday, and he asked me, “Why did you love it?” and, “How did you understand it?” Two good questions – I am sure you agree. Forgive me for recycling my response to him for the purposes of this blog entry. I thought you all might like to read about the play, and I didn’t want to type my thoughts again. Call me selfish, I don’t mind.

Here it is:

I read a synopsis of the novel before going into the play, and then caught what I could of the Russian subtitles that scrolled above the stage. But most important, as with all of the theater that we see here (it’s all in Russian), the inability to understand the language forces one to read the physicality of the actors, the tone, volume, pitch, clarity/lack of clarity of their voices, and the visual cues from the set/costume/lighting designs.

This particular show was so visually stunning; the set and the choices for symbolism made by the director, oh my gosh, it was just beautiful. So precise. And the acting was amAZing. Every choice, every action was specific, even if I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was – they knew what it was. Also, there is an essence of physical endurance here that I have never seen in the States. Russians, and now I think Lithuanians as well, believe that people from other countries should be able to understand the entire story of a text even if they don’t understand the spoken words.

To give you an example, when everybody thinks that this one girl is going crazy, she is seated in a chair, and sheets are wrapped around her like she is in a hospital; then while soft, sweet music is playing (there has been a lot of soundtrack like music in all of the shows that we have seen thus far), three other women begin to pull strings out from her hair and drape them over their arms, almost like the strings are her dreams or thoughts, and then one women pulls out a large pair of scissors, and as the music builds, snips one of the strings. As she does, the sound of glass shattering explodes into the music. It’s sharp and quick, like the snipping of the hair. Then the women pull the rest of the strings out, roll them up along with the sheets, and walk away. The woman is left sitting on the chair for a moment before she slowly stands and removes the chair to the back wall as new characters step forward.

I don’t know if my words can convey just how powerful this silent scene was for the audience. Truly, the only word that I have for it, and many other moments, is “Stunning.” It was like a tour-de-force blend of trying to understand and letting myself get swept away. I wish I could have understood it all. But I didn’t need to.

Seeing productions in another language is a fascinating experience. More to come on this subject.

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Brief thoughts

It’s been a while since I have written a blog. This fact is due to another fact: that I have been very very very busy! Every night I think to myself, “I need to write a blog tonight because so many things happened today that deserve discussing and sharing with people.” But bedtime comes quickly after long days of classes and long evenings of shows and rehearsals. Thus, my hiatus. I apologize, please forgive me.

Tonight I break this hiatus with some brief comments, because it is once again quite late and my weary body is telling me that bedtime is NOW, and I want to listen to my body. After all, if I cannot listen to my body, then my Russian movement classes and my ballet classes and my stage combat classes, and my acting training etc. etc. is all for naught. An actor’s body is his instrument. It must always be in check, always ready to ignite instantaneously with the energy of an canon. At least, that is what my body is learning to do. Jumping and leaping and crawling a lot in movement tires one to the point that it becomes difficult to ignite oneself, but alas, that is the life we actors lead. Always, ALLways (ALL – get it?) we must be ready, willing to come alive, willing to throw our entire ability and will into the execution of the art onstage. It’s like the marines without the combat. Unless it’s stage combat … wow, that was dumb – I must be tired.

A few days ago I had dinner with a first-year Russian MXAT student named Ianor. His English was about the same as my Russian. It was a linguistic match made in heaven – a very delightful, patched and laughter-filled heaven. I was trying to pantomime the verb “to want” – talk about an acting exercise! Not sure he got it, but we became friends, and I had a lot of fun. I have been wanting to meet more Russians here, as most of my contact has been with my professors or with the other American students in the program.

Today I was finally able to meet up with a friend of a friend from SMU; her name is Lina, and she has lived in Moscow her entire life. It was a real pleasure to get to know her, and hopefully I will see her more in the future. We met at church, at the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy, this afternoon, and went to get coffee before the service. I finally tried the gariechi chocolat (basically chocolate soup – soooooo good!). Just to show you how expensive Moscow is, I payed just over $8 (250 rubles) for a little baby cup of it! It actually ended up being my lunch, so I guess I can justify the expense.

Church was such a treat. My friend Donovan also joined Lina and me for the service, and it was wonderful to be a part of an international community. People from all over the world attend this multi-denominational service. I hope that in the next two months I have a chance to participate in the life of the family there and get to know more people who are excited about worshipping God in Moscow. What a blessing it is to find spiritual family on the other side of the world!

moscow3.jpgBefore church this morning some friends and I toured the State Armoury collection inside the Kremlin. Silver fountains, gold incense dispensers, glass tables, enormous emeralds, pearl-flourished Bibles, silk empress dresses, velvet saddles, jewel-adorned swords, enameled dishes, diamond thrones and genuine princess carriages. Truly some of the most ornate and beautiful items I have ever seen compose this museum of treasures that the Russian Tsars and presidents collected over the years.

Being surrounded by such exquisite detail and overflowing luxury certainly encourages the imagination to flourish as far as dreams of court and royalty are concerned. How amazing it is that people actually lived that way! Of course, it was a very small percentage of the population, but the notion that anyone Once Upon a Time drank mead out of a solid gold nugget is astounding.

Whenever I go to museums I am also intrigued by the simple truth that they commemorate the distance between Then and Now. No longer do we create extravagant carriages or rifles decked in rubies. We do not drink out of golden goblets or commission the master silversmith to create a human-size clock that will stun any viewer into pondering the meaning of life before even consulting the minute hand. I do not mean to advocate luxury and excessive, pompous flaunting of wealth, but a little bit of the princess inside my heart wonders where all the fairytale magic has gone if we are just looking at poofy dresses instead of wearing them …

On the contemporary side of luxury, wealth is very obvious here. Seriously, I have never seen so many elegantly dressed women or high-heeled feet in my entire life!

moscow4.jpg I really don’t know how they do it – stilettos on these streets?? No way, baby. Russian women are talented; you have to give it to them, but from my limited time in Moscow, I have gleaned the notion that there exists great pressure on these women to always appear perfectly kept and gorgeous. Lina, my new Russian friend, seconded my opinion, as did another young woman I met at church. Appearances and money mean a lot here. There are so many crazily expensive stores here.

Today I went with Lina and another friend to GUM (pronounced Goom), one of the largest shopping malls here, and certainly the most beautiful mall I have ever been to. The minute you step in you feel like you have entered a World Fair exposition building. Clothes cost so much more than they are worth, but just walking around is entertaining enough. We got food at a little cafeteria of sorts and chatted for a while about culture and politics and the American embassy. I was thankful for a perspective on Moscow that is outside of the art scene. I want to understand or at least experience as much of Russia as possible from all spheres, not just the family of the Moscow Art Theater.

I am getting tired, and it’s almost 1 a.m., so I will chat sometime soon about seeing theater in another language, as we did tonight – “Marriage of Figaro” the play, performed in French with Russian subtitles… an experience to say the least!

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By December I will have a six-pack

Movement with Vladimir is one of the most physically challenging classes that I have ever taken. We jump and jump and jump until we can’t jump anymore; we walk like animals; we stretch our wrists, our shoulders, our arms, our legs in ways they haven’t stretched since we were babies; we do acrobatics; we do all kinds of things that are so insanely difficult and unheard of that I have to remind myself of that little phrase I commented on in an earlier post: cherez ya nye ma gool = going through the “I can’t.”

Because what my body is telling me is that I can’t…

“Lydia, you can’t bend your back that way; you can’t jump that high; you can’t leap that far; you can’t land softly on the ground like a feather falling to earth; you can’t hold yourself in that position that long; you can’t put your feet over your head like that; you can’t crawl like that; you can’t, you can’t, you can’t, you can’t, you can’t, you can’t.” I CAN. And I WANT TO. IT’S FUN!

I may not be pretty doing it – in fact, I may be legitimately ugly doing it – but I am tired of letting my body be in control of what I can and can’t do. My “will” is in charge now. My desire to play and explore the physical capacity of my limbs and my core and my inner strength are going to, by the power of my will, overtake any hesitancy or self-doubt. If I succeed in doing any of these exercises well, it will be because I am committed to doing them with joy, and doing them with all my heart.

Also, by December I think I just might have some six-pack abs to bring back with me to the States. We will find out in time just how introverted or extroverted they are, but I am definitely rooting for them to make themselves known.

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Quick, or not so quick rundown

Here’s a little rundown of the last two days:

Russian language – survival style: asking for change (Russians always want EXACT change, and get annoyed with you if you have too large of bills), asking where something is, like a metro stop or a store, and lots and lots of nouns so that you can point at things and say “eta,” which means “that.” Oh yeah baby, we’re getting real fluent. Actually, I really do want to be fluent. Russian is such a beautiful language. I can read pretty much all street signs now without taking too long to sound out the cyrillic, and I actually know what a lot of them mean. As far as forming sentences and grammar though, I still have a lot to learn.

Russian Movement – ummmmmm AMAZING. Do the words “my butt is going to get kicked in the best kind of way” go far enough? No, no they don’t, because this class, while very physically taxing, is all about knowing your body and teaching it to live in the sky. I have always wanted to fly, perhaps now is the time. I am sure more comments will come in this section in the future.

Lunch – again, Russian food is delicious, especially borshch, which is beet soup. I LOVE it. Yeah, go on friends, make fun of me and my weird food choices, but you just don’t know what you are missing! I love beets, and so do Russians. I am very thankful for the small, quaint cafeteria in MXT (Moscow Art Theater) where I can get a fantastic and filling lunch for somewhere in the range of 100 to 170 rubles (about 3 to 5 dollars).

Moscow is an incredibly expensive city, with some amazing restaurants (including this totally sketchy-looking but not actually sketchy poetry-slam like cafe that we descended into after 5 hours of walking around the city this past Sunday. That was an awesome day, let me tell you! We had a great time taking the metro to a random stop and finding our way back home through the center of the city, enjoying the parks and bridges and churches on the way). And given that there seem to be couples EVERYwhere on the streets lauding their togetherness over everyone else on the streets (which doesn’t really work since everybody else is paired up too), these restaurants would be lovely date nights-out. However, considering that I have neither boy nor money, I am quite content to learn a few new Russian words every day as I examine the menu in the little MXT cafeteria. Plus the food is really really good. And did I mention that it is cheap?

Acting – I told you about my last classes and how we have been working on etudes. Well, our recess one went so-so. We are learning from it. What did go very well was my next personal etude. I was a piece of gum! My teachers seemed pleased with the specificity with which I was able to execute a day in the life of a piece of chewed rubberiness, and truly it was a blast to do. I am learning with each day how essential specificity and detail are to the success of any character’s life onstage.

First show at MXT! – We saw a show called Ghosts written by an Italian man whose name I cannot remember. It was not Ibsen’s Ghosts. However, it was still quite fun, and quite funny, and after all it was my first show at THE Moscow Art Theater! I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rehearsal – Every night we rehearse as a group the etude that we are going to do the next day (we have acting every day for 2 and a half hours)

Late night bedtime

Breakfast – oatmeal and a mango that was just ok (I miss having Mexican mangos for breakfast every morning, so I tried a Brazilian one that I bought from a street vendor on Sunday when we were wandering around the city. It was ok, as said prior).

30 minute walk to school – we walk every morning. I like practicing reading the signs in Cyrillic as I book past people – I get into my fast walk when I am in cities, as if I didn’t already walk fast enough … You can take the metro, which only costs about a dollar per swipe into the system (the entire metro is connected deep underground. You go down these huge escalators to get to the trains, and the stations themselves are gorgeous! When the government constructed them, Stalin insisted that they be beautiful because they were the transportation of the everyday worker, and since he was the most important member of society, he should be surrounded by beauty even when going to work).

Ballet – Can I just say that my ballet teacher is quite possibly the most important, absolute tippy tippy top former ballerina star of the fomer Soviet Union? What??? How awesome does this get??? She is in her 80s now, but quite amazingly in shape. She was a former member of the Bolshoy theater, and has performed on pretty much all of the most important stages in the world. Her name is Larisa and she likes to yell at us in Russian while smiling and laughing and saying her name over and over again. I love her. I already Love her.

Though I took three years of Jazz in high school, I have never taken a ballet class until today. My first ballet class was at the Moscow Art Theater and my teacher is one of Russia’s and the Bolshoy’s most honored ballerinas! Way too cool.

I also flew, which was awesome; we did partner lifts, and I am so so so so so lucky to have some very tall young men in my class. They have to lift the girls so that their arms are straight and we at least 5 feet off the ground! Talk about a workout, boys! All you boys out there who want to both work out and get the girls, just start lifting us. Two birds, one stone. I think that may have been the closest to flying I have ever come and I cannot wait to do it again. I only hope that I do not break the wrists of my partner as he tries desperately to keep me in the air! I am a rather tall ballerina …

Russian Language – today we learned a lot of different food nouns. And I was already hungry. And I have already talked about MXT cafeteria and how delicious it is, so moving on.

Acting – Today we did a group etude where we were mannequins in a store that party once the closer has left. Lesson from today: make sure that always, ALways, the characters’ actions are motivated. What is different about today that makes it a special occasion at every moment? What is new about the circumstances? Always be questioning what makes today different from yesterday or tomorrow, and what about today demands the particular actions that we as characters chose to commit. Behavior stems from necessity.

Walk home from school and the Praduktuiy – After our nice long walk in the cold (it was a bit nippier today), we went to the Russian grovery store where I bought all those delightful things that will be my breakfasts and dinners for the next week and a half (because for lunch I am going to eat at … come on, you know … ). Upon reaching the counter, I think I had so far successfully fooled everyone with my very limited Russian skills into thinking that I did indeed belong, that is until I could not find exact change in my wallet, and I could not understand what the woman wanted from me. Russians like exact change. EXACT. And if you don’t have it, they get very annoyed. They stare a lot, and you feel it in your gut, and then you have to find it in your wallet which takes time, and people in line want you to hurry it up, and finally you find the change and you give it to the staring lady and you bag your own food and you exit as quickly as possible. That’s pretty much how it goes. Yup. And then you have food, so you don’t die of starvation. But you do have to overcome the fear of the praduktuiy … it’s a process.

Rehearsal - as always. Tomorrow we are going to be bowling pins, and for my animal etude I am going to be a penguin. Ah the beauty of theater – I get to spend all day acting ridiculous and loving every minute of it.

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etudes

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.

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First post from Moscow: Part II

On the first day we visited some of the classrooms and ate in the small cafeteria where the MXAT directors, actors, students, administration, designers, etc., all eat. (So basically we are all eating lunch next to Russia’s most famous and future celebrities. Woah.) That said, I had borsch (beet soup) for the first time! It is delicious and might just be my favorite soup ever. I am definitely learning how to make it for when I return to the States! Rest assured, there will be more comments on Russian food to come.

moscow2.jpgFollowing lunch we performed monologues for our acting teachers (in Russia teachers teach in pairs, so each class has two teachers) so that they could divide our large group of 31 (29 Americans, a Canadian and an Australian) into two groups. It was wonderful getting to see everyone’s work and getting to work as well. We were all anxious to begin, and today we began classes in our new groups.

I LOVE my teachers: Oleg and Alexander, who goes by Sasha. They both speak excellent English, and I am incredibly excited about their sharp, witty, demanding and nurturing personalities. We all spoke a few sentences about ourselves and our life goals in theater as well as our first impressions of Moscow before playing some ensemble-developing games.

Our homework for tomorrow: our first etude, which is a group improvisation centered around any kind of event that affects us all. We decided upon the location of a New York subway car filled with people confronted with a woman’s unexpected seizure; tomorrow we will see how successful we are as an ensemble, as improvisers and as truthful storytellers. And starting tomorrow we shall begin every class with an etude, so we have much room for both failure and success.

Anatoly Smeliansky, the artistic director and head of the Moscow Art Theater, is perhaps the third most important man in Moscow. (First is Putin, and second is Medvedev.) He has been the head of MXAT for 15 years, is the head translator for all of Stanislavsy’s oeuvre, and is the leading Russian theater historian to date. He also just so happens to be my theater history professor and one of the nicest, most compelling men I have ever met.

Standing in a room full of the photos of MXAT’s most important personalities from Stanislavksy to Danchenko to Meyerhold to both Anton and Michael Chekhov, Smeliansky said something to the effect of, “When I am in this room it is always an interesting experience for me because at least half of the people in these pictures were once my friends, and now they are dead.”

I am here, I am in Moscow, and I am so close to the history of some of the world’s most important theater artists. It’s an incredible sensation. The visitor can sense that the tradition and the legacy and the passion of MXAT and its former leaders are still very much alive.

Yesterday we briefly visited Red Square (Krasnaya Ploshchad), and it is ab.so.lute.ly. stunning. In awe of perhaps some of the most unique and exquisite architecture I have ever seen, I almost could not believe I was finally standing on those very cobblestones.

St. Basil’s Cathedral is incredible, and even more beautiful than in pictures, both because it is real in all its colorful, onion-dome glory, and because it is still standing despite the hardship it has been through.

GUM, the giant shopping mall across from the yellow Kremlin walls and Lenin’s mausoleum, is detailed and ornately expensive. The historical museum is like a red castle, full of mystery and beauty. Kazan Cathedral, which is as bright and beautiful as St. Basil’s, welcomes visitors into the square.

The sky is open, filled with clouds and more than a hint of quiet elegance. Dignity and history linger in the quiet falls of footsteps as excitement pulses in the air. I don’t mind feeling like a tourist. It’s Red Square, for heaven’s sake! I am so thankful for the next three months that I have to explore this area and the rest of Moscow.

I do not know if I can adequately express just how rich the texture of life is here. Such a blend of newness and tradition, progress and stagnation, brilliantly bright beauty and darkness, quiet stares and heart-to-heart laughter. I want to know this place. I have started to see it, perhaps a little, but I believe Moscow, and Russia, are as of yet only enticing me with their secrets, their beauties… at some point I will find myself lost with no breadcrumbs back to the way I used to think.

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