A Year Abroad at Moscow’s Best Acting School

Selection_547In September 2014 that distant idyll of my first year at university came to pass. The time had come to pack my bags, bid farewell to civilisation as I knew it and to embark upon a series of misunderstandings and adventures, be they delightful or disastrous. A time otherwise known as the Year Abroad. I suppose the easiest place to start is at the beginning.

After months of listening to my excruciatingly organised fellow linguists at Cambridge discussing (or perhaps self-congratulating would be more accurate) their Year Abroad internships at prestigious law firms, news agencies and financial advisory firms, I decided it was time to bring my own, still non-existent but imperatively distinguished, work or study placement to the table.

But since my head was blessed with neither scientific nor mathematical genius I applied for none of the aforementioned, allegedly respectable internships. Instead I applied and was accepted to do the course of my sincerest dreams, the first year acting course at the University of Theatre Arts in Moscow, known more simply as GITIS.

The beautiful lemon-meringue coloured former palace that, for nigh-on 150 years, has housed one of Russia’s most venerable theatre institutes, once belonged to an illustrious noble family and sits majestically behind the protective walls that line Malyy Kislovskii street in central Moscow. I found out about this aged and esteemed institution, alma mater to a host of illustrious alumnae including Olga Knipper, Anton Chekhov’s wife, and Vsevolod Meyerhold, a wonderful actor and theatre director of the early 20th century, through..well, um, google. Gotta love the internet. So after sending in a resumé of past theatrical endeavours and a letter in pitiful Russian, no adjective will ever suffice to describe how I felt after being admitted to this most extraordinary school. Especially since a chance surf on the internet had led to my discovery of its existence.

Fast forward to September 1st and the first day of GITIS had arrived. I passed the pretty girls in stylish coats and the boys reciting Pasternak with the odd glance at their mobile phones, standing before the gates of the University, and made my way to the entrance hall where our timetables could be found. And there it was. First year Acting Course, Class Director: Golomazov. Mondays to Saturdays 9:30am – 10pm.

Right. Now, I wasn’t working in a bottle factory in Irkutsk, I had nothing to complain about really. But it was now that I understood that characteristically Slavic sense of discipline. And I didn’t look back. Two weeks into the course I had learnt a lot already, even if more about my ability to make an absolute fool of myself than anything to do with acting.

The school takes a highly holistic approach to acting and classes therefore consist of acting, history, movement (where the stoic spirit of Soviet Fizkultura lives on!), musical theory, speech, dance and rhythm class. In our acting classes, as well as playing terrifying drama games that involve us dancing solo to the class in the style of a garlic or a tree, we present our ‘études’ or observational sketches. This, ostensibly simply, entails finding a subject, animate or inanimate, imitating it and finally presenting your sketch to the class. I say, ostensibly simply, because no matter how much rehearsal or self-confidence coaching you’ve allowed yourself, nothing can prepare you for the agonising butterfly disco that takes place in your stomach every time you open that classroom door, ready (or not) to present your ‘étude’.

Of course my first idea for the infamous étude was to imitate a starfish. And, unsurprisingly, I was duly compensated for my ridiculous idea with a mighty helping of humiliation and utter embarrassment. But in Russia, there’s no time for niceties, and utter humiliation and harsh criticism are the best ways to grow. My classmates, in contrast, bewilderingly talented and creative, have dreamt up all sorts of wacky études on amorous candelabrums, ravenous piranhas, a dad hurriedly trying to dress his grumpy toddler in the morning, snacking hamsters, aged clowns, conniving rats, a snobbish hair-comb and aggressive camels to name just a few. Their humility and genius never fail to astound me.

And as seemingly banal, though undoubtedly amusing, these études may appear, they have taught me more than life at a hedge fund ever could. I have been taught to be an individual. “Acting,” one of our beloved teachers remarked, “is a striptease of the soul”. I’ve learnt that what makes things truly interesting is when you put yourself, who you are, into something. Another thing I’ve learnt: that takes courage. But as our wonderful and strong-spirited teacher, a former actress herself, noted, “Without bravery, there is no art”. And in a similar vein, my favourite comedian Simon Amstell often proclaims, “Why be timid?! Death is approaching!” And it’s perfectly true. Our existence on this earth is a bizarre and ephemeral thing, and our acknowledgement of that fact should give those of us lucky enough to have what we call freedom a lot of courage.

Are the students here different to those in the UK? Yes and no. The relationship dilemmas, the banter, the gossip, the pranks and mischief still continue unaffected by geography. But whereas the phrase “Homosexuality? Well, it’s just not normal” would earn you a slap in any reputable institute of higher education in the UK, (why?) in Russia, it would (generally) be accompanied by unanimous nods. Similarly, the cry “May God be with us!” (C Богом!) during a group high-five before presenting an étude would more likely label you as the freaky fanatic than the average classmate in England. These things aside, my classmates have shown me a warmth and friendliness I never would have expected. High fives, hugs, kisses and fist bumps abound on campus and the students’ endless patience with my initially elementary (to say the most) Russian has never failed to amaze me.

It has been an immense privilege to study with the some of the most open-hearted and gifted students I fear I might ever meet. And Moscow has shown itself to be a city of bemusing conflicts, a microcosm of larger Russia. Young creatives, with eyes to the west but their hearts in their homeland, have developed a growing art, music and fashion scene over the past fifteen years which undoubtedly makes the city an exciting place. I am endlessly saddened, however, and somehow amused that Moscow’s metro seems fit for a king whilst you won’t go a day without seeing dozens of homeless people, often elderly, roaming the streets, a whiff of intoxicated breath in their wake.

Many things here remain problematic but, despite centuries of western misconception, there is and always will be an abundance of beauty and idiosyncratic charm to this vast country that is known only to those foreigners with a curiosity to explore and a hunger for adventure.