Open Class: Stanislavski Continues at the Moscow Arts Theatre

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The first thing I noticed about Moscow is how big everything is: The buildings are massive, the roads huge and the beards impressive. The next thing I noticed is the total lack of English, that is, the lack of even a Latin based alphabet. Now, this might sound obvious, but for those of you who don’t know, Russia uses a Cryillic alphabet which is very beautiful but very different from our own. Again, this may all sound pretty obvious but it surprised me just how much having a different alphabet would affect me. I’ve been travelling quite a lot this year but Russia is the first place I’ve been that I was unable to at least guess the road signs. Every now and again a word might jump out at you, but it’s rare. This turned out to be rather daunting and somehow exhausting. It makes things such as taking the Metro an intimidating task, but more about the Metro later.

What also didn’t help, was the amount of horror stories one hears before going somewhere. Endless warnings were given us about how harsh everything is, how we shouldn’t smile and how dangerous the streets are. All these things travel with you, and you enter the country on guard. Well, surprise surprise, it turns out that most of this is wildly over exaggerated. Sure the streets are dangerous; as dangerous as any big city. It is true however, that no one really smiles! At the beginning of the week we took part in a cabaret of sorts. During the introduction the hosts made comic remarks about the “Russian face” – a sort of lifeless, fed up expression. They told us we could use this anywhere we went – and it seemed kind of true. Our hosts then made jokes about how foreign men could find and woo Russian girls: “Hello.” Says one of the hosts pretending to be a foreign man approaching a Russian girl. “Ah!” cries the other, taking on the role of the female, “Ah! I love you! Please!” He (she) thows himself onto his knees and embraces the other around the waist. “I’ll be the best wife you can ask for! Just please, take me away from this country!”

But it’s harder for girls to meet Russian men we are warned: “Hello.” Says the foreign girl. “Oh! Oh you are beautiful! Please take me with you! Get me away from this country!”

In this humour, one can sense a bitter irony, I suspect that as much of a joke as this was, a small amount of truth can be found in it.  Perhaps more so for the older generation, as younger people felt a bit more free and weren’t so fond of the “Russian face”.

This “Russian face” was very popular indeed on the metro, and as promised, I’d like to spare a word for the Metro.

I’m pretty sure this was the station next to my hotel

It. Is. Amazing. Words cannot describe it. You’re on an escalator and already you begin to notice how big everything is, how high the ceilings are, etc. You get to the bottom, walk around a corner and notice hundreds of chandeliers lighting your way!

The Moscow Metro was first opened in 1935 and is apparently the third most used underground rail system in the world. It was made over a large number of years and was delayed by WW2, also, the art deco style at some point met with more Soviet themes. Then in the cold war, more stations were opened to act as shelters in the event of a nuclear war. Due to all this, every station seems to have its own distinct and individual style, and whilst one can defiantly notice that what we’re in is a glorified bomb shelter, you cannot help but marvel at the architecture. The trains themselves are fantastic, again from different times. My favourite ones being these wonderful art deco things that must date back to the 40’s or 50’s. They threaten to slice you in half if you don’t clear the door in time, and they rattle along quite noisily. I really could have spent hours going from station to station looking at the decor. Interestingly there is a book called Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky in which people are forced to live inside the Moscow Metro system after nuclear bombardment. I’d quite like to read it.

How cool looking is the Metro map?

Moscow, as a city, didn’t feel especially hospitable, what it is though, is beautiful and fascinating. I really felt like it was a city of opposing elements, in certain parts of the city you can really feel hung over Soviet influences fighting with more capitalist elements. As everyone knows, Russia has a fascinating, rich and tragic history, and all this is immediately noticeable in the city. Remnants of the past are to be found everywhere. Architecturally the city is stunning, as I said the buildings are huge and beautifully extravagant, some of the more wondrous buildings can be found in the marvellous Red Square, such as St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin. Monuments and statues from various moments in history are scattered throughout the city. For me, some of the most impressive pieces were left over from the Soviet era; large, imposing statues of Lenin, fantastic tributes to the working classes, etc. I wont try to describe much because it really all has to be seen first hand. I can not overstate how fascinating it all is though.

Monument to the conquerors of space

My favourite thing I saw in the city, and probably my favourite piece of architecture ever, was located near our hotel (and more on the hotel in a bit!) in Prospect Mira. It is called ‘Monument to the conquerors of space’ and it’s a 110 metre tall, titanium spaceship taking off. The monument was built in 1964 to celebrate the achievements of Soviet space exploration. But actually, it wasn’t the spaceship that impressed me so much; around the base of the monument are two absolutely stunning murals telling the story of space exploration. It’s almost like something you might dig up in an ancient tomb, albeit a bit more sci-fi. The images are rendered in sharp, almost comic bookish style, which was typical of Soviet art. It depicts scientists working on new technologies and astronauts climbing stairs into the heavens, all under the watchful eye of Lenin. It’s completely fascinating and totally beautiful. The monument was located in a park, which was all space themed with metal statues of the solar system and constellations, etc. Even our hotel was called The Hotel Cosmos.

And just a very quick word on the hotel. If you have seen the film Day Watch by Timur Bekmambetov, then you have seen our hotel. You know the bit when the car drives across the side of the building before crashing though the windows – that’s our hotel! And that’s about the coolest thing about it. It was built around 1980 by French and Soviet architects for the XXII Moscow Olymics. The place was huge, our room being located on the 22nd floor, it was also, for lack of a better phrase, a bit tacky! The sort of place for wealthy businessmen looking for cheap thrills and expensive entertainment. Everything was overcharged and the place was teeming with prostitutes, who actually seemed like nice girls but they didn’t bother talking to us, I presume because of our unkept, slightly scruffy attire. I think they were probably catering to a different (read: richer) class of man. Either way, it was an experience, and it was very kind of the Moscow Art Theatre to put us up there. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a proper hotel like that before.

Now imagine it flashing around the sides and top every night…

And look at this, almost 1000 words in and finally I mention the Moscow Art Theatre! Now lets talk about the actual reason I was in Moscow in the first place!

Anyone who has studied acting or performance should have heard of the Moscow Art Theatre. It is the theatre that was founded by Constantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko in 1898. The theatre was first created as a place to break away from the melodramas that were popular in Russia at the time, and to instead showcase a more ‘naturalistic’ theatre. It goes without saying, that here, for the first time, shows were put on regularly using the Stanislavski acting method. The MAT soon became one of the most well known and respected theatres in the world. Obviously it’s not quite that simple, and the theatre had many ups and downs, but I’m not going to go into its history right now.

When you walk into the MAT there is a family tree of all the people involved, from Satislavski and Danchenko all the way up to now. Just glancing over this makes you remember just how important this theatre was and just how exciting it is to become part of its history. One can find on this family tree impressive names such as Anton Chekov, Mikail Bulgakov (whom we visited the house of…and it was wicked cool) and Vsevolod Mererhold (personally my favourite theatre practitioner) just to name a few.

This year the MAT are celebrating their 150th anniversary, and as a part of these celebrations they decided to hold a week long festival earlier this month. Invited to perform in the festival were 9 schools from San Francisco, Italy, France, Hungry, St Petersburg, Poland, Germany, the MAT itself, and of course England. Our show ‘Pages from the Book of…’ based on the life and work of Bruno Schulz, was selected to represent England in the festival. The festival itself was given the name ‘Open Class: Stanislavski Continues’. By calling it an ‘open class’ the MAT are attempting to open a forum for discussion in which each of us could watch one another’s work, discuss and see what is being done on the world stage. There was no competitive element to the festival like in the Istropolitana Projekt in Bratislava, instead we were just encouraged to meet other theatre people, discuss ideas and see how Stanislavski’s ideas have evolved, changed and been adapted over time. Suffice it to say, it was a huge honour to be a part of such a prestigious festival, and it was uber-cool to perform on a stage in the MAT!

Some of the work was great as well. What surprised me was how little of it was naturalistic in style, I was expecting to get there and be one of the craziest things on stage, but actually this wasn’t at all the case.

Without a doubt the best thing I saw, was a show called “FUTURISMVISIONS” by the school in St. Petersburg. The work was developed from a class project and made up of 22 etudes based on Futurism poetry. Linking these was a fantastic band made up of industrial, found (may I venture to say MERZ) objects, which set up the world perfectly. Here, we were presented with an industrial hell in which the upper classes were the denizens and victims of war its public. This was 3 hours of abstract Russian poetry which had me on the edge of my seat the whole time. Obviously, I didn’t understand a word of it, but the visual, musical and performative elements were just stunning. Luckily, I know enough about Russian history and Futurism to grasp onto some of the basic ideas if nothing else. Even so, this was one of the finest performances I’ve seen in a while.

As I said, it was an honour to make up the English contingency of this festival and I was very glad to see how well our show was received. As usually happens I had people approaching me saying “Where’s my father?” which always makes me very happy. You see, in the show my character is forever searching for his father with little to no luck, so this has sort of become my catch phrase! In general, people were very appreciative of the show and seemed to enjoy it greatly.

Also, on a slightly unrelated note, a lovely hungarian girl approached me and told me that I am the spitting image of her fiancé! So much so, that she had to double take at me when I walked on stage. So, not only is there a Slovak Jack, there is also a Hungry Jack out there in the world somewhere. Also, one of our guys found his Russian double and the likeness is really very strong. This always seems to happen when we travel abroad!

Anyway, if you would like to know a little more about the Open Class: Stanislavski Continues festival and about old Stan himself, here is an interview that the head of my school Michael Early gave on Russian TV. There is also, floating somewhere on the Russian digi-sphere a news report with me being interviewed! Although I can’t seem to find it right now I know it exists, because it was on the Russian Channel 1 at about 10am! We saw it on the hotel lobby tv! How very exciting.

In fact, this whole trip was very exciting. I never thought I’d go to Russia, and god knows I never dreamed I’d be performing in the Moscow Art Theatre! I really cannot thank the organisers of Open Class and of course Rose Bruford College enough for making this possible.

Now, I have realised that I’ve spoken about this show quite a lot on this blog, and hopefully, will do many more times. However, many people who don’t know me and haven’t read any of my older posts probably don’t know what I’m talking about. Obviously I can always link you to our website, but I think it might be nice to have something a little closer to home too, so, in the next few days I’m going to make a new page on this blog about the show and the company. Maybe I’ll continue to do this with other projects too, and make this blog a little hub for myself.

Next time I’ll hopefully have news about my other theatre group The Same, But Different, and some novel related news.

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