This episode becomes something of a horror story and a cautionary tale, so proceed at your discretion.
Over the past two episodes, J has been sharing some of her experiences whilst on placement at a Moscow based theatrical academy.
So far, we have largely examined dramas that occurred off-stage, but she also revealed that life in her class had equally unwelcome occurrences.
Mad for Stanislavski
To put all of her classroom experiences into context; the methodology under which J was taught originated predominantly from the teachings of Stanislavski (“They loved him!” she reveals). Thankfully, J fills me in:
“It is all about relating and responding to others externally. It’s about ‘Actioning’: playing actions on another person”. So, all clear now?
A quick look at Heather May’s Stage Crazy! Blog, reveals the following:-
“Actioning, in a nutshell, is the choosing of a verb (action word) to think of subconsciously during the delivery of a line to another actor. One line, one sentence, one breath – one Action.”
The set up
“The school had two interpreters per class,” J tells me, “because no one (amongst the English students) spoke Russian, except at ultra-basic levels -and none of the Russian tutors spoke English!”.
Everything verbal had therefore to be routed backwards and forwards through two exceptionally busy individuals whilst class and lecturers looked on in alternating anticipation. Truly: the death of spontaneity.
“Improvise with an end in mind,” came one (of many) instructions in this shortened round of Chinese whispers. Then another (to softly chiming alarm bells in J’s head): “Why don’t you use your feminine attributes! Cry!” came the instruction. That’s right, because women are supposed to cry, yes? That’s what they do. Such assumptions quickly started to grate against J’s contemporary western outlook, though she claims: “The Russian women signed up to this mentality.” Whether condoning it or not, they appeared to accept its reality.
In the context of dramatic experimentation and the overarching respect for senior tutors, worse indignities could be visited upon students without question or contest. These would of course be unacceptable -and borderline illegal- in any other context.
Here though, it was only a ‘dramatic exercise’, and one that the students had willingly signed up for, after all. Some practices certainly stretched any reasonable definition of the word “education”. No longer confined to the street: predatory creepers could even run the classroom -and with the perfect alibi. The nightmare of every daughter’s father.
“The worst story involved ME!”
The blatant, unwanted attention of one (very) senior Russian lecturer (let’s call him ‘X’) was a particular problem for J. She warns me of the cringe-worthy nature of some of the class activities, starting with such harmless (though outwardly incomprehensible) instructions as: “stand above yourself and look down”. But, so far, so good.
Decorum took a definite detour however, when he chose J’s “centre of energy”, which -he decided- would be her chest. The “exercise” required that she should lead with this particular region of her anatomy, pointing “it” outward throughout her improvisation/interpretation. Worse was to come.
“I wasn’t doing it right!” (X decided), “so the whole class had to sit down whilst I had to push my chest out and answer weird questions!”. These involved choosing something from nature to “be” in front of the class. Her friend had performed this task earlier and wisely (or just: fortunately) had chosen a tree: “So,, he just stood there!”.
Should have chosen a rock
“I chose a wave” she tells me “and rolled about the floor.” Then, in front of the whole class and two weary interpreters: “he started talking about the sexual energy of the sea, giving notes through the translator -and then he started cracking jokes”. And with this, a line was crossed.
“What would I give to be in the sea right now!” said X with a resounding clang as J continued to roll around – without protest from herself or anyone else present. J reveals that Russian students were taught to respect the ‘guidance’ of revered senior lecturers without contest -however dubious the behaviour. It was ingrained in the psyche, expected from the outset and usually accepted by the participants. A conspiracy of silence, perhaps?
“Because this was a dramatic situation, it was accepted, but it was open to abuse,” she reveals. The unwanted attention would continue, as her stress began to show and X became worryingly more ‘hands on’. She continues:-
“I was picked on when I was angry or even crying! Next he criticised me for bad posture, pulled my shoulders down as I sat on a chair, and then he pulled my back straight.”
Encore and epilogue
Breaking point for J came with an incident that transcended all possible justifications of dramatic licence: “He put his arm around me!” J stared wide-eyed at an ever-present interpreter -also female- who translated X’s words: “If only I was 40 years younger!”.
J protested to her; no doubt indignant that a woman could condone such behaviour by her very presence and tacit participation, to be met with the icy response: “This is how it is”. At that point J fled and was found crying in the toilets. Enough. Somehow, though, J’s outburst finally got through to X and he ceased his pursuit.
Much later, back at J’s London drama school she would complain about X’s behaviour to the staff. The twist in the tale is quite simple: they knew. X was the oldest teacher at the Russian school, “Who was known for being a complete lech” -in J’s words. She also claims that his behaviour was not considered abnormal (!) for the spheres in which he operated. “Every year he picked a girl to hit on” she learned. “That year it was me!”.
“Why didn’t you tell me?!” she exclaimed, aghast at the actions of her London tutors who had knowingly sent her into the lion’s den. Why indeed?