It was late July 1997. I had just got back to Moscow for 3 months in Kolyma, NE Siberia - the wind of the taiga and a few cranberries were still clinging to my hair. My accent had slipped into a strange provincial twang and I’d take on some slang that made my Muscovite friends go into paroxysms of laughter. I had grown plump from too much bread and moose meat and sitting around dark Siberian village kitchens, escaping mosquitoes.
In such a state I ventured into the refined cultural sanctuary of one of Moscow’s most experimental theatres.
I had been directed here by a Russian playwright who I had met in Glasgow earlier that year. I served as his interpreter for a couple of days while he was in Glasgow, where I was at university. We paced the streets - I showed him the Art School, the parks, the Art Galleries, the concert halls. He told me about his teacher - a famous Moscow theatre Maestro. He asked me what I wanted to do - I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, so I said ‘theatre’. He said ‘if you are in Moscow go to the Maestro’s theatre and ask to see him. Tell him that I sent you and ask for a job.’
So there I was sitting on a high backed sofa in a waiting room full of secretaries. ‘Is he expecting you?’ one asked. ‘No’. ‘Well you are very lucky because he happens to be here. Maybe he will see you after his meeting.’ I heard raised voices coming from a door in the corner. Beyond the glass wall beside me I saw what I presumed were actors, walking past in deep conversation. Every now and then one would open the door, say something to one of the secretaries, usually with a nod, grimace or wink towards the closed door in the corner.
The lady opposite me punctured her work with sighs - her getting up - her answering the phone - her saying something to one of the other ladies. The sigh would sometimes be followed by a peal of laughter. At this point I didn’t know that most people who worked backstage, were looking for a way out.
After half an hour the door in the corner opened - a dark haired lady with dark lipstick swept through the office and out of the glass door, an aura of stale cigarette smoke clinging to her. She was followed by a tall man with long hair, a long beard and a stooping gait. Around his neck was silk scarf and he wore a peasant tunic, å la Tolstoy. He slowly approached me, came to a stop, and fixed me with hooded eyes.
‘Has she come to see me?’ he asked the room, looking all the while at me. ‘Yes, she is a friend of one of yours.’ ‘One of mine…? Who sent you?’ ‘Um, Alexei… He said that if I was in Moscow I should come and see you. I’m looking for work’ ‘Alyosha! So, you want a job do you? Come into my kabinet, let’s talk.’
Heart beating, I followed him into his study. We sat on opposite sides of a small round table. ‘Why are you in Moscow?’ ‘I just got back from Siberia.’ ‘That is not an answer, why are you in Moscow?’ ‘I’m studying Russian at university. I want to work in theatre, I’m coming back in 2 months, perhaps you have work for me here.’ ‘What kind of work? What do you want to be?’ ‘Um, I um, want to be a… theatre director!’ I said looking at him hopefully.
The maestro leant forward and looked deep into my eyes. We sat in silence - was this a staring competition? Then he proclaimed: ‘ты очень легкомысленная девушка*. I thought for a minute - it was not a word I had had reason to translate often in Siberia - and after a pause exclaimed, ‘no, no I am not a frivolous-minded girl! I am very serious. Very.’
At this point there was no obvious way for the conversation to go. The maestro called towards the closed door: ‘Lena, Lenockha! Come here!’ A small elf like lady opened the door. She was one of the secretaries. The Maestro said to her: ‘Lena, this english girl wants to come and work here. Perhaps she could help you?’ Lena looked over at me, her eyes alight.
Lena was in charge of international affairs at the theatre. Having tested my Russian she said that if I was interested I could come and work for her as an assistant. They wouldn’t be able to pay me much but if I wanted I could live in the communal flat above the theatre.
The maestro was the enfant terrible of the Moscow theatre scene at this time, and is again today - he has recently been invited to return to Moscow after a period of voluntary exile in France. He is originally from Rostov-on-Don, before coming to Moscow to study at GITIS where he met the theatre designer with whom he subsequently collaborated and who had designed the interior of this theatre. It was nothing like a normal theatre space. Firstly, there was lots of natural light. It was a double-height basement with shining parquet floors and white walls. There was classical detailing and partitions pierced with openings to watch performances. It was a cross between a Greek temple and the Great Hall of an English country house.
Before I went back to England, there was a dinner in the theatre. I was introduced as the maestro's new follower - my foreignness giving me extra gloss. Over dinner one of the actresses asked me about my plans. 'Oh, well, I'd like to work here for the year and then perhaps go and work in another theatre, to get a sense of how it all works,’ I said blithely. There was a stunned silence. Afterwards I learnt that this was a major faux pas. The very idea that I was considering life beyond the maestro or would be interested in other theatres was an insult to him. On learning this, I shook my head in dismay, doubting I would ever get the hang of the level of servitude that was expected.
Nevertheless, one day in August, an offer of a job came juddering through the fax machine, on fine, shiny paper and signed by Lena, the Head of International Affairs at the theatre, underneath an elegant asymmetrical neoclassical wreath around which was emblazoned the name of the theatre. I was to be Assistant to the Head of International Affairs. The letter outlined that I would be provided with a room in the theatre. I sent it to my university as proof that I was working and that I didn’t need to study with the other students, which I was determined not to do. I wanted adventure, separate from the confines of any familiar institution. Little did I know I was walking into deep confinement at the theatre.
*'You are a very frivolous minded girl.'