Thursday, December 23, 2010

December 23, 2010: Home.

Three months of Moscow cold, of 6- and 7-day work weeks, of doing what I'm passionate about 24 hours a day, of forging and strengthening a network of incredible friendships, of challenging myself beyond any limits, of exploring a city that was closed for years, of finding myself, of missing Steve.  I'm home, and I'm found and I'm lost and ready or not, I'm taking another step forward in this thing we call life.

In Moscow, I learned:

That anything is possible.  My acting teachers often started notes or suggestions with "it is possible..." and that applies everywhere.  It is possible to make a different acting choice -- to be joyful even when my words are sad, to be large with my gestures even if that feels foreign at first, to create a dialog out of a monologue.  It is possible to learn to dance ballet at 30 years old having never taken a dance class before.  It is possible to learn to stand on my shoulder.  It is possible to communicate in Russian even though my vocabulary is under 100 words.  It is possible to be simultaneously lonely and fulfilled, frustrated and proud of myself, found and lost and found again.

These last 3 months in Russia have been some of the hardest of my life, and some of the most artistically and personally fulfilling.  I learned that there is a deep well of strength within me that grows even stronger when I ask for help.  I learned that I am never alone, and that when I surround myself with good people, I become more confident and I have more to give.  I learned that when I am a part of a healthy ensemble, I share in each person's successes as if they are my own.

I'm terrified and excited to figure out how to take what I've been learning and apply it to the beginning of my professional career as an artist, while I continue my process as a student of the arts.  Now it's time for me to create a career for myself as an actor and a teacher and a continuing student.  I have a lot to share, and as I figure out how to do that, it will be challenging and rewarding and worthwhile and POSSIBLE.  If I don't find immediate success or gratification, that doesn't mean I have to give up on my dream in any way.  It is possible to find different paths toward my goals.  It is possible to be a working actor.  It is possible to live my dreams.  It is possible.

I've enjoyed blogging so much, I don't think it's going to end here.  If you're interested, keep an eye on this site.  I think I'll create another blog connected to this one: Jenny's Adventures as a Working Actor :)

~~ April 16, 2011: here it is: ~~

Sunday, December 12, 2010

December 12, 2010: The Pleasure of Communication

Lydia is making cake balls (chocolate cake rolled with cream cheese and dipped in melted chocolate) and singing along to 90s music in the kitchen.  Darren and Greg and Donovan and Rachelle and Katie are having a design project party across the hall.  Kelley and Rebecca are practicing ballet in the hall.  It snowed 4 inches today so the nighttime world is glistening quietly, as yet undisturbed by the daytime traffic.  I’m safe and warm in my little Moscow dorm room, here for one more week, and I think I’m going to miss this place.

I was supposed to go to the zoo today with Ilya, but we ended up having a final rehearsal for our scenes at school instead.  So yesterday I called her to let her know I couldn’t meet her and ask for her address so I can write her postcards when I get home.  I wrote out a script for myself, then went downstairs to ask the lady at the front desk to let me use the phone.  There are 3 main women who work at the desk buzzing people in and out.  We call them the Babushkas (grandmothers), although they’re not actually that old.  One of them has dark hair and a round face and always smiles and greets me as I pass.  Another wears short gray hair and a grimace, and sits a little like an ogre protecting a drawbridge, although I’m sure she’s actually much nicer than that.  The one who was there yesterday has orange-ish brown hair with mousey brown roots.  Her lipstick matches her hair, and the plastic frames of her thick glasses match the roots.  She rarely smiles but nods solemnly in greeting, as though I’m entering a church (it makes me want to curtsy to her, but so far I’ve resisted the urge).  When I got to the lobby I asked to use the phone:

Me: “Ya dumayu telefon v maya komnata ni rabotayet.  Mojna esposavat eta telefon?” (I think the phone in my room doesn’t work.  May I use this phone?”)

Babushka: “Yes.  I help.” 

And she got up and let me sit at her desk and dialed the number for me.  Ilya didn’t answer, and it sounded like a child’s voice on the other end of the line.  In the first part of my script, I asked to speak to Ilya, and the child said she wasn’t home.  In the next part of the script I explained why I couldn’t meet “you” at the zoo, so I quickly changed “you” to “Ilya” and forged ahead, then said “ponimaeyete?” (do you understand?).  The child mumbled something and then moved the phone to call for someone else to come and talk to me, and then hung up on me.

Slightly ruffled but determined to relay my message and get Ilya’s address, I dialed the number again.  But I couldn’t figure out how to dial out of the building, so I called for the babushka to come and help me again.  She dialed it for me again, probably wondering vaguely if I was harassing somebody, then handed me the phone.  This time a man answered.  I read him my whole script and he said “yes” and started giving me the address, at which point I realized I was never going to be able to figure out how to spell the street name in Russian.  So I called for the babushka again, waved the receiver at her and said “izvenitye, pajalusta, ya haichu adres?” (excuse me please, I want address?) and pointed at my script.  She took the phone and copied down the address for me, and even got Ilya’s last name for me, somehow knowing I needed that too.  When she hung up the phone, she read the address to me and I read it back to her to make sure I knew all the letters.  I said “spaciba balshoi” (thank you very much) about 5 times and smiled hugely at her, and she nodded and smiled back – the first time I’ve ever seen her smile.

It is immensely satisfying to communicate with people here – I am pleased with myself every time I understand when the checkout lady asks if I want a bag or when the lunch lady tells me that my meal costs 151 rubles or when the speaker voice says that we’re at the Mayakovskaya metro stop and the next stop is Beloruskaya.  The amount of focus and determination it takes to understand and make myself understood forces me to be more aware of myself and the world around me.  It’s harder to fall into habit here, and although this can be exhausting, it’s also rewarding.  So although I’m looking forward to seeing my first play in the States and being able to follow the story from the words being said, I will miss the pleasure of simple communication.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

December 5, 2010: Russian movement to keep the cold away

Two weeks to go, and it's a little hard to fathom all I have learned and all I have left to do.  Like a marathon runner in her last miles, I'm running on fumes, exhaustion, and a burning need to cross the finish line.  On December 3rd, Steve and I celebrated our 5th wedding anniversary half a world apart.  There are a million things to be grateful for here in Russia, and also a million reasons I'm ready to go home.  My heart strings are pulling me back to Steve.

Moscow is covered in snow and filled with snow-removal teams of all kinds: snow-shovelers, men dragging bags of snow off the sidewalk and into the gutter, snow plows, sweepers with brooms, men throwing sand, and even cranes lifting the snow out of monument areas.  There was a cold snap last week that slapped us all in the face with how tough Russians have to be.  For 3 days the warmest I saw the thermometer was -16 and the coldest was -21.  That's Celsius, but that's COLD.  Walking to school, I had to cover my face with my scarf in order to breathe, and my breath caused my hair to freeze to my face.  I wear 4 shirts every day, and I stay relatively warm.  I've noticed that Russians don't smile as much as Americans do, and I think it's because of the Russian winters.  When your face is frozen, you can't smile.  Cold is a way of life.

I'm going to take more pictures of my movement accomplishments, but here are a few teasers.  The hardest for me was the shoulder stand: it took me all semester to learn this, and when these pictures were taken I held it for probably 2 minutes, a personal record by far.

 me and Todd, balanced figures

shoulder stand!

me and Greg doing seagull, with Darren in the back
evidence of the cold, cold weather

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

November 30, 2010: A Picture Update

me and Ilya at her produce stand
Jacquie, me, Todd, and Kelley at the ice museum

ice sculptures

me and Todd by the Moscow river -- University of Moscow behind us
me and Oleg and Sasha, my acting teachers.  Sasha is making fun of the Russian "serious face."

Christmas tree in front of school
Christmas tree in Red Square
Sunset looking through the sculpture garden at the New Tretyakov gallery toward Gorky Park
Building near school.  Note the temperature at bottom.  That's Celsius, but it's still really cold!!

Friday, November 26, 2010

November 26, 2010: A Russian Thanksgiving

We went all out for Thanksgiving.  Everyone signed up weeks in advance to make different dishes, and then Marissa made up a schedule of kitchen use and time for each person in the 3 kitchens available to us.  We cooked all day.  There was a debate about the appropriateness of playing Christmas music – some people thought it helped to get in the holiday mood, and others insisted you have to wait until after Thanksgiving to play Christmas music.  So we switched it up every hour or so, and there was also a really different vibe in each of the 3 kitchens, depending on who was cooking and whose music was playing.  We laughed and joked and helped each other chop vegetables and told childhood stories and banded together to keep the fire alarm from going off when the fried chicken caused clouds of smoke.

There was SO MUCH food!  For many of us, it was our first time making family recipes without the help of our parents, and we also had to improvise with some ingredients that aren’t readily available here.  But everything turned out beautifully.  We had a turkey and a chicken and macaroni and cheese and meatloaf and a giant pot of Russian cabbage soup called shee.  There was creamed spinach and tomato salad and green bean casserole and fried eggplant and frosted cauliflower (my specialty) and mashed potatoes and stuffing and cranberry sauce.  For dessert we had pumpkin pie made from fresh pumpkin, apple pie, cinnamon apples, cookies, brownies, and pecan pie.  And there was plenty of vodka, sangria, and champagne to go around.

There were between 60 and 70 of us packed into the rehearsal space in the basement of the dorm that’s about 15 feet by 40 feet.  The food was laid out on tables, but there were only about 8 chairs lining the walls – we stood to eat and talk.  It was a real treat to share this holiday with our closest Russian friends who are students at MXAT and our teachers: in attendance were both of my acting teachers, my Russian language teacher, my stage combat teacher, my movement teacher, and the head of the Moscow Art Theatre School, Anatoly Smeliansky.  Dr. Smeliansky gave a toast saying that because of Russia’s rough history, they don’t have any holidays that really mean anything to the people, and he is honored to be a part of this holiday that has a real meaning for us.  He also said that we are a very special group of American students, and more than just students he sees us as colleagues.  Our Russian language teacher Elena also gave a short toast, saying that this is the 8th Thanksgiving she has shared with the American students, and although she has never been to the United States, it is now a treasured tradition for her.

At home, I tend to take Thanksgiving for granted.  It’s just a day to eat a lot of food and see a few friends or relatives.  This year, I was reminded what the holiday is really for – it is a chance to share what you can: your time, your food, your company – and appreciate all your blessings.  It warmed my heart to be a part of such a large team effort that turned out so well and that was truly appreciated by the Russian people we’ve grown to love here.  We’re all still glowing from the success, and I’ve heard more than one of my friends say it was the best Thanksgiving they’ve ever had.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

November 21, 2010: First Snow, Holiday Season, Hamlet, and Culture

Christmas decorations are going up everywhere.  There is a giant Christmas tree at the entrance to the park just outside the dorm, and another one in the street outside school.  The fast food restaurant called Teremok by school is decked out with 2 trees, lights, and garlands.  The grocery store I went shopping at today has a decorated tree and a sign that I think says “Happy New Year.”  It snowed a little today, enough to stick to the ground.  Ilya says it’s supposed to snow for real on Friday (she put her hand up to her waist to demonstrate the amount).  I’m happy to experience the universality of Christmas celebration, realizing again that despite the language barrier, people everywhere are still people, sharing joy in similar ways.  I smiled to see a family having a snowball fight with the small amount of snow they could scrape off of a car parked on the street.  But I miss my family and my own traditions, and although I am welcome here, it’s tough to be away from home this time of year.

I developed and framed a picture of me and Ilya at her fruit stand, and I wrote a little note on the back and gave it to her.  I think it made her really happy.  She will only be working there for a few more days, and then she closes for the winter because it gets too cold and her fruits and vegetables would freeze.

Last weekend 5 of us went to an ice sculpture museum.  It was magical and I have pictures, but I’ll have to post them later.  The museum was only one small room, maybe 15 by 25 feet.  Before we went in, they gave us special cloaks that made me feel like Snow White.  It was very cold inside (we were walking around in a freezer!) and the room was filled with ice sculptures.  There were warriors on horses and three-headed dragons and birds in houses and squirrels running through the meadow and a giant dragonfly and a chest of treasures and a big Faberge egg and a log cabin with fruit frozen into ice blocks inside and a photo opportunity where you could put your face into the hole so that you had a different person’s body – but it was made of ice!  We stayed inside for maybe 30 minutes, until we couldn’t feel our fingers or toes.

Last night I saw Hamlet performed by a company traveling from St. Petersburg.  It was less than 2 hours long with no intermission.  Onstage was a giant set of bleachers oriented so that when the actors were sitting on the bleachers, their backs were to the audience.  Center stage was a long set of stairs leading up into the bleachers, and at the very front of the stage was a pit with a wooden plank across it.  As we walked into the theatre, the actors were already onstage, all dressed in black and sitting in the bleachers waiting for an event to take place.  The play opened with 2 officers leading drug dogs through the bleachers, across the stage, and back out.  Then Hamlet’s friends carried him through the audience onstage and under the bleachers.  He was passed out from drinking too much, and his friends revived him and dressed him in a suit and carried him to the event, which turned out to be his father’s funeral (which took place upstage, through the bleachers, so we really couldn’t see much except the actors’ backs).  Hamlet was drunk through the funeral, making a bit of a scene (grabbing Ophelia’s butt, trying to leave to go to the bathroom, and clapping at inappropriate times).  After the funeral, Hamlet’s friends poured him more shots, and he drank until he passed out again.  Then they staged a hallucination of a ghost – the lights dimmed to blue, they used a microphone passed between them, and there were thunder sheets and a spotlight.  Hamlet seemed to me to be legitimately crazy for the rest of the show, with no “pretending to be crazy” as is usually accepted.  During the scene when Hamlet stabs Ophelia’s father behind the curtain, her father was under the bleachers and he stabbed him there, and the lights dimmed to almost blackout.  Hamlet dragged Ophelia’s father out onto the stage and only when he started stabbing him repeatedly did I realize that it must be a doll, not the actor playing Ophelia’s father.  A crowd gathered to watch Hamlet stabbing this body, and in the crowd was an actor in a donkey suit who had appeared earlier in the play within a play.  Hamlet dragged the body all the way across stage and adopted a vulgar position with the body, stabbing it even more, when Ophelia appeared.  She was already going crazy, singing her song, and when she saw Hamlet, he left and she cradled her father, then dumped him into the pit and threw herself into the pit as though drowning herself.

Much of the action of the play took place behind the bleachers, so we couldn’t really see it.  There were 2 extended party scenes like that.  The play within a play was entirely behind the bleachers, and King Claudius comes running, screaming out and down the stairs and through the audience when he is struck with guilt at having killed Hamlet’s father.  The duel at the end begins behind the bleachers and finishes in view of the audience.  The play ended as it began, with 2 officers leading their drug dogs through the bleachers, across the stage, and back out through the bleachers.

The play left me with a multitude of impressions: They cut it and completely changed it.  It’s a story of one long, drunken hallucination.  It’s a practical joke with tragic consequences.  It’s the immense frustration of seeing everything from Hamlet’s point of view – he never has the whole story, and he can never see anything clearly: thus the bleachers in the way, obscuring our view.  This impression was intensified even more for me because I was in the very last seat in the second balcony, and when I was sitting down I couldn’t see the front of the stage, and when I was standing up I couldn’t see the platform at the top of the bleachers.  The people in front of me spent about half the show standing, so I did too.  But rather than annoying me, it turned the show into an interactive experience for me, where I was struggling to get the full picture, just as Hamlet is doing.  For me, it was a dark and thought-provoking way to twist a (perhaps) over-told story, to highlight completely different ideas.

Today I went to 2 art galleries and a cathedral.  There was a church service going on inside the cathedral with a choir singing, and the acoustics were beautiful.  The cathedral was large and impressive with vaulted ceilings and colorful decorations depicting Bible stories, much like the cathedral I saw in St. Petersburg.  I visited the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art and the New Collection added on in 2006.  The Pushkin contained art and artifacts starting with Ancient Egypt and going through the 19th century.  It wasn’t terribly large, but there was a lot of really interesting stuff.  I loved the New Collection.  It was almost exclusively French Impressionist work, with full rooms of Monet, Manet, Renoir, Gauguin, Matisse, Van Gogh, and Picasso.  There were 3 floors that displayed pieces systematically and progressively through time, starting with about 1850 and ending at about 1980.  The museum was not at all crowded, so I lingered and soaked it all in.  Art museums (especially good ones) are a refreshing break from TV!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

November 11, 2010: Hot Weather and Hard Work

The last 2 days have been unseasonably warm:  it was 15 degrees Celsius as I was walking home last night.  Although it's nice to peel off my coat and linger outside, I somehow feel like something is wrong - like we should be bundling up and shivering and drinking tea and huddling together for warmth.  I've been away from home for 54 days, and I'm experiencing a paradoxical undercurrent of knowing I fit in and feeling loved and supported, while still feeling isolated within a crowd.  My friends have become my family.  Moscow has become my home.  I visit Ilya every other day to buy fruit, talk about the weather, name the classes I took that day, and answer her questions with smiles and "I don't understand"s, or sometimes broken attempted responses.  I saw a rat on the street and a man talking to himself, and I'm starting to recognize the old women with wrinkled faces bundled in rags who shiver and hold out dirty cups for kopecks.  I gave a man directions to Tverskaya street last night in Russian, even though he switched to English as soon as I started to speak:
Man:  "(Unintelligable Russian question.)"
Me:  "Izvenitye?" ("Excuse me?")
Man:  "Where is Tverskaya street?"
Me:  (Pointing) "Tam."  ("There.")
Man:  "Thank you."
Impressive, yes?  I'm practically fluent!

In Acting, we do etudes and etudes and etudes: in groups, in pairs, and solo.  We're starting to focus on etudes relating to our scene work, and I'm playing Liuba from The Cherry Orchard.  This week I did a solo etude in which Liuba tries to poison herself (which happened shortly before the play begins) and an etude in which my scene partner tells me my son has just drowned in the river (which happened 6 years before the play begins).  Perhaps this is contributing to my general feeling of discontent.

I struggle in ballet.  Larissa told us through a translator about her career in ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre and how her dad always said that art is equally about technique and radiance.  I'm inspired and continually awed by the fact that I'm studying with such a beautiful and accomplished ballerina, and frustrated that I'm not better at the dances.  I suppose I should be easier on myself since I've only been dancing for 8 weeks, but it's difficult to be radiant when I'm tripping over my own feet.  I stayed after class yesterday to practice a dance step again that we've been working on since the beginning of the semester.  I was sweating and crying and getting it wrong repeatedly, and Larissa was clapping the rhythm and adjusting my body and shouting "again!" and saying "maladiets!" ("good job!") even though it wasn't.  Finally she told me to stop, and I said "ya haichu dyelat" (I want to do it).  She smiled and kissed me on the cheek and told me it was OK and said we would work together again after class on Monday.  I don't know if I'll ever learn all the steps, but I hold within me a feeling of hard work, struggle, and immense care from a lovely artist who wants me to succeed.