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Tina, After Anton Chekhov Stories

I’m presently sitting in the audience at the House of Actor in Moscow watching a play after Chekhov stories.

My overall impression is very positive, although there were a few times during the play when I thought it was possible to find another solution, way of conveying the same idea, but in a more powerful manner.

The story follows two brothers trying to get their money from a Jewish girl whose father took money from the elder brother. She’s got no intention of giving the money, but instead uses all her charm and “cynicism” to get both brothers infatuated with her. To use her own words, people blame the Jews for the perils of this world but the only ones to blame are not Jews but Jewish women.

This is not a racist story, on the contrary, this is a story of pre- and misconceptions dissolving, melting in the heat of femininity, whatever its nationality. Young actors, Schepkin School of Acting graduates, are giving brilliant performances, dancing, singing and portraying their characters. A special note goes to David Russell who is American yet decided to make a career at the Russian stage. A part of me is grinning that now, after years of Russian actors mastering their English there is an American who’s reading Russian lines from the stage. But at the same time I’m reliving the same feeling of pride for someone who mastered Russian and can actually act in my first native language. That alone makes David very good.

A Licedei Mime, Felix Agadzhanyan Dies in St. Petersburg

One of the father-founders of Licedei, a pantomime theatre, Felix Agadzhanyan died unexpectedly in St. Petersburg. He was 56.

Together with Vyacheslav Polunin, Agadzhanyan was one the first five members of Russia’s world-known pantomime theatre. He joined the troupe at the age of 19.

The video below was made in February 2012 at the School of Modern Vocal in St. Petersburg where Felix gave a master class in pantomime. Sadly, this seems to be his last video.

About Licedei and Vyacheslav Polunin

Jerzi Grotowski: Training and Rehearsal

Jerzi Grotowski, a Polish stage director and theatre philosopher, even got to study at the Lunacharsky Institute of Theatre Arts for two years in 1950s. Although they evidently didn’t miss him going (for health reasons), they later were immensely proud to once have had such an outstanding student.

In the video below is a recording of Grotowski’s rehearsal with his actors. As Slava Polunin explains, Grotowski with his “poor theatre” was a gateway to the theory of Stanislavsky, albeit from a side door:

I got acquainted with Stanislavsky through Grotowski. I found interesting this phenomenon of an artist’s fantastic self-sacrifice during the performance that he had already finished calling so by then. There he fell into hysterics, he revealed his subconscious, even some very intimate parts of it… Once again, this is where one needs intuition and consideration. I followed Grotowski to see, whether an actor can perform tragedy, burning himself down and trying his physics. By means of the clownery as the most relative of the arts, I wanted to reveal the real human pain. And eventually I came to Stanislavsky via Grotowski. I have realized that psychology and clownery can co-exist.

The rehearsal follows some sort of physical training. One doesn’t need to watch very attentively to see that Grotowski was in formidable command of his physique, and every gesture is so beautiful that you contemplate it as a thing-in-itself, an ideal form. Somehow in this video Grotowsky reminds me of Jacques Brel and Mick Jagger, he brims with romantic expression and passion for his “thing”.

Grotowski’s central idea was that of a ‘poor theatre’, the theatre that concentrates on an actor as a centrepiece of the performance, and that abandons excessive stage decor and costumes in order to deliver the essense of a play. Already in 1950s-60s Grotowski compared theatre with a “leisure venue”, similar to a sauna or a restaurant where for a certain fee an actor sells his gift to the adience – very much like a prostitute sells her body. Grotowski’s idea was also to liberate theatre from continuous comparisons against the opportunities of Cinema: theatre offered a very different experience, and so should have been left to develop in as much austerity, as was possible.

Read more: Jerzi Grotowski’ biography at Jason Bennett’s Actors Workshop;


Laziness: Actor’s Labours Lost

Fresh from reading a summary of Keira Knightley’s interview, I’d like to say that I, too, haven’t been watching TV on a daily basis since 2008. Even though we had TV sets in our Moscow flat, we were never dependent on them. Before I had the Internet and YouTube I caught a lot of classical films on TV, so I don’t complain.

Where I lived between 2003 and 2008, they had their TV on from 6.30 in the morning till 11.30 at night. Admittedly, people who watched it had little else to do, and I don’t mean it offensively. But I don’t know if I can describe my joy when I moved out into a flat that had TV sockets but no TV set. I never even thought of getting a TV. I could listen to the music I liked, watch the films I wanted on my laptop, without the obtrusion of TV ads and news reports. Most importantly, when I wanted it – and after nearly 5 years of noise I wanted it a lot – I could sit or lie down in complete silence.

So, if people start watching less TV, or at least start alternating TV rendez-vous with other activities, we will all be better off.

I cannot quite comment on Knightley’s revelations about orgasmic nature of theatre acting. Even though it may sound silly at first, it is something that can be contemplated. I am sure there are film actors who would compare their work to the Tantric sex whereas a work at the theatre would be as daunting as fulfulling a marital duty… but let’s leave it there for now.

What sparked the post is the note jotted down by Anton Chekhov, the famous Russian playwright, about Sarah Bernhardt, the famous French actress. I wanted to quote it, but, directed at Russians primarily, it could sound too didactic, and the last thing I wanted was to lecture people on laziness. It is natural to be lazy from time to time; it is when laziness becomes one’s modus operandi, then it is a danger. Below is Knightley’s quote:

Do you know what it is? It’s that I’m the laziest f**ker in the entire world. It’s true. And stagnation is always really, really imminent. I can literally just sit and not do anything for hours and hours and hours and if there is something completely mind-numbing to do, like surfing the internet or watching c***py TV, I’ll do it and then I’ll feel s**t about myself. So I try to get rid of it“.

And here is what Chekhov said:

A gigantic, mighty labour shines through each stage of her act. Had we been as hard-working as she is, what we could be able to write… Our actors, lest they be offended, are terribly lazy. For them, learning is worse than the bitter reddish… Had they worked as hard as Sarah Bernhardt, had they known as much as she does, they would go far!

Chekhov’s words are over a century old. I suppose I should be pleased that laziness is no longer pertinent to Russian actors only. But what about art?

A Brazilian Popular Song, Love and Poverty, To Robert Burns’s Lyrics

I have noticed over the years that, unless someone who lives abroad is a serious Cinema student, Russian (and Soviet, especially) films are largely unknown in the West. Films by Andrei Tarkovsky will be known because a few of them were made when Tarkovsky had emigrated, and can be compared to films by the nouvelle vague directors. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson couldn’t remain unnoticed, given the worldwide popularity of the sleuth’s character. Hamlet by Kosintzev is once again a part of the global fascination with Shakerspeare’s tragedy. The Cranes Are Flying by Kalatozov had won a Palm d’Or at Cannes; War and Peace by Sergei Bondarchuk, Moscow Doesn’t Trust Tears by Vladimir Menshov, and Burnt by the Sun by Nikita Mikhalkov, had all won Oscars as Best Foreign Films. Yet a massive number of films made in Russia and Soviet Union remain behind the language barrier.

What may not be known, or fully realised, is that, in spite of the “Iron Curtain” hanging, Soviet directors managed to adapt foreign authors to screen. This was one of the reasons why, during the release of 2006 version of Quiet Flows the Don, I couldn’t understand or agree with the negative attitude to “foreigners” who were playing “Russians”. Russians had played so many foreigners, with good taste, too, that it only made sense to give “aliens” a chance to prove themselves. If not adapting the actual foreign classics, Russian directors were nevertheless attracted to foreign culture, and I’d hope to show, how they managed.

One more undeniably unique trait of Russian cinema of all times is a song. It could be a single, or a series of songs, but on many occasions it was an important component in the film. Clearly understanding the metaphoric, figurative nature of a song, directors and editors used the existing, or commissioned new, songs to highlight a certain idea.

The extract below is from one of the best-loved Soviet comedies, made by Viktor Titov, Hello, I’m Your Aunt! It is a version of a hit farce Charley’s Aunt by Brandon Thomas. The play was a hit in England where it was originally performed, and was subsequently staged and adapted internationally. What you will see in the video, is a complete improvisation, led by Alexander Kalyagin who these days runs his own theatre company, Et Cetera. The music by Vladislav Kazenin was written to the poem by Robert Burns (translated by Samuel Marshak); the original text by Burns is after the video. One thing Samuel Marshak, one of the best Russian translators, was often able to do was to preserve the original metric style of the poem. Therefore, if you want you may try and sing Burns’s original poem to Kazenin’s music.

O poortith cauld, and restless love,
Ye wrack my peace between ye;
Yet poortith a’ I could forgive,
An ’twere na for my Jeanie.
O why should Fate sic pleasure have,
Life’s dearest bands untwining?
Or why sae sweet a flower as love
Depend on Fortune’s shining?

The warld’s wealth, when I think on,
It’s pride and a’ the lave o’t;
O fie on silly coward man,
That he should be the slave o’t!
Her e’en, sae bonie blue, betray
How she repays my passion;
But prudence is her o’erword aye,
She talks o’ rank and fashion.

O wha can prudence think upon,
And sic a lassie by him?
O wha can prudence think upon,
And sae in love as I am?
How blest the simple cotter’s fate!
He woos his artless dearie;
The silly bogles, wealth and state,
Can never make him eerie,

Life Is a Bowl of Eugene O’Neills

The great American playwright, a winner of the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize, Eugene O’Neill, not only exerted much influence on American drama, but also inspired parodies. As I’m going through my bookshelves, I’ve found a collection of parodies on, and by, English and American authors. The text below, written by Frank Sullivan, makes a mockery of his great fellow countryman.

Frank Sullivan. Life is full of Eugene O’Neills

My next dramatic work will be a sextilogy, so called because it will consist of six plays all filled with sex. The acting of it will require fifteen hours. There will be twenty-four different kinds of sex in it, an all-time record. Of these, seven are completely new and have never before appeared in any dramatic work not written by Earl Carroll. Of the seven, six were discovered last spring (in the love season) by the Sullivan-National Geographic Society Expedition to the summit of Haverlock Ellis. The seventh is a new, rustproof, non-collapsible kind of sex, invented by myself after years of research during my odd moments; moments which grew odder and odder as my investigations progressed. This new variety of sex is made from goldenrod, and I call it Tooralooraluminum.

The sextilogy will concern the goings-on of a family named Baddun. The family consists of a Confederate Baddun, who is hated by his wife, Alla Baddun, who in turn is loved by their son, Earle Baddun, and hated by their daughter, Alice Baddun, who is in love with her father and her brother.

As the sextilogy opens, the Badduns are discovered having a snack of breakfast consisting of creamed henbane, toadstools, sous-cloche, and Paris-green pudding with strychnine sauce. A percolator of Prussic acid bubbles cozily on the range. The favors are special suicide revolvers which, by simply pulling the trigger, can also be used for murdering one’s next of kin.

The Badduns sit there glowering at each other. Earle is staring at Alice. Alice shudders, and buries her face in a remote part of her hand, where she thinks Earle will never find it.

EARLE – Nice weather we’re having.
ALICE (sternly) – Earle!
EARLE – What?
ALICE – Why do you say that? You know it’s not nice weather we’re having. It may be nice weather for others, but it can never be nice weather for us Badduns. Why do you look at me like that, Earle, with desire in your elms? For God’s sake, stop looking at me like that, Earle! Don’t touch me, Earle!
EARLE – All right, I won’t – if you incest.
ALLA – Life is just a bowl of cherries.
EARLE – Mother, may I be excused from table?
ALLA – Why, my son?
EARLE – I want to shoot myself. I’ll only be gone a minute.
ALLA – But why do you want to shoot yourself, my boy?
EARLE – It’s all so horrible, Mother.
ALLA – What’s horrible, dear?
EARLE – Life, Mother, Life. When I was in the army, every mother I shot seemed to look like every other mother I shot, and every mother looked like you, Mother. And then every other mother began to look like me, Mother, and I felt that every time I killed somebody’s mother I was committing suicide and every time I committed suicide I felt I looked like every other Eugene O’Neill.
ALLA – Life is just a bowl of Eugene O’Neills.
EARLE – Oh, never leave me, Mother! You and I will go away together, away from all this, far away. I know an island in the Pacific –
GENERAL BADDUN (eagerly) – Say, is it a little short island about seventeen miles in circumference, with palm trees all over it?
EARLE – Yes, and a cliff at the southern extremity.
GENERAL – That’s the one! I know that island.
EARLE – You do!
GENERAL – I’ll say I do! Boy, if it could talk, the stories that island could tell about me!
EARLE – It’s certainly a small world.
ALICE (shuddering) – It’s a horrible world… Mother!
ALLA – What?
ALICE – Stop looking at father like that. Father!
ALICE – Stop looking at mother like that. Earle!
EARLE – What?
ALICE – Stop looking at me like that.
EARLE – Alice!
ALICE – What?
EARLE – Stop looking at father like that. And, Dr. Joseph Collins, you stop looking at Love and Life like that.
ALLA – Life is a bowl of Dr. Joseph Collinses.
GENERAL – May I have another cup of Prussic acid, Alla? Two lumps please… Thanks. My, I always say there’s nothing like a cup of good strong, black prussic acid to wake you up in the morning and clear the brain of cobwebs. Alla, are you will being unfaithful to me with that ship captain?
ALLA – Which one, dear?
GENERAL – You know – the one that’s my step-cousin or something.
ALLA – I thi-ink so, but I’m not sure. You know my memory. What’s his name?
GENERAL – Brump. Captain Adam Brump.
(ALLA takes an address book from her crinoline and consults it.)
ALLA – Let me see-ee – Bradge, Braim, Brattigan, Brelk, Briffel, Broskowitz – yes, here he is, Brump. Captain Adam Brump. But why do you ask about him, dear? Anything wrong with him?
GENERAL – No, no! Fine fellow. Go right ahead. Have a good time. You’re only young once.
ALICE (gloomily) – It’s not so. We Badduns are always Jung.
ALLA – Life gets Adler and Adler.
EARLE – Oh, Mother dear, I’m afreud, I’m so afreud. Let us go to my island in the Pacific.
(ALICE shudders).
ALLA – General, I wish you’d speak to Alice about this constant shuddering. She’ll have the plaster shuddered off half the rooms in the house if she doesn’t quit.
(Enter NORN, a maid.)
NORN – The coffin man is here, sir.
GENERAL – Tell him we don’t want any today.
EARLE – Oh, we don’t, don’t we!
(EARLE draws a revolver and shoots his father).
NORN (shouting downstairs to the coffin man) – One on the coffin, Joe.
(From below, like an echo of the voice of the tragic and relentless Fate that pursues the Badduns, floats the answering voice of the coffin man: “O.K.”)
EARLE – I’m not sorry I shot Father. He looked like a Philadelphia postman.
ALLA – Life is a Philadelphia postman – slow, gray, inexorable.
ALICE – Life is a bag of mail. And death – death is a canceled stamp.
EARLE – Birth is a special delivery.
ALICE – Better we Badduns had never been born. Here, Earle. Here is a cigar.
EARLE – Why do you give me a cigar, Alice?
ALICE – For scoring a bulls-eye on Father, Earle. Does anybody else wish to take a chance? Step right up, folks…
EARLE – Cigars. When I was in the army, every cigar I smoked looked like every other cigar. Every time I smoked a cigar I felt I was committing suicide.
ALICE – I shall go mad.
ALLA – You will go mad.
EARLE – She will go mad.
AUDIENCE – We shall go mad.
EARLE – You will go mad.
EUGENE O’NEILL – They will go mad.
EARLE (turning quickly to O’Neill) – Are you Eugene O’Neill, the playwright?
GENE – To put it mildly, Son.
ALLA – Give him the works, Earle.
ALICE – Yes, give it to him, Earle. See how he likes being bumped off.
EARLE – Mr O’Neill, on behalf of those members of the casts of your recent plays who have not died like flies from overwork, it gives me great pleasure to plug you with this thirty-eight calibre –
GENE – But –
ALLA – What is life, Gene, but one great big But?
(EARLE shoots GENE.)
ALICE – Now, come on. Let’s boil this thing down to three acts.
ALLA – One act, or I won’t commit suicide.
ALICE – All right, one it is. Get up, Father. Snap out of that coffin.

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