Sunday, 16 April 2017

Communal living in a Moscow theatre. 1997.

Working for the Maestro. Part II.

On my return to Moscow in September 1997, to commence work in the theatre, I was given a room in a communal flat on the first floor of the building. I was sharing with some of the actors, who were some of the best stage actors in the country, as well as stage hands. It was an early 20th century art nouveau building, with spacious, light-filled apartments. For purposes of housing they had been divided up into kommunalki. Each person or family unit had one large room, and they were large: mine, which faced the street with a triple bay window, was probably 60 square metres. There was a bed in it, and a dressing table and some other furniture. It was impossible to make it cosy, whatever configuration I attempted, so I gave up, and lived in a jumble of furniture. The large window was the best thing about the room - In the mornings would lie in bed and watch the winter light glowing through it, feeling ghastly and wondering if I could muster the energy to get up. I used the gap between the panes of the double glazed windows as a fridge: everything froze - milk, apples, cheese.

Next to me was the shower - a terrifying room - half of its tiles smashed and a shower head that refused to remain fixed to the wall. Having a shower was like a Buster Keaton routine, so I gave up after a while and washed at the bathhouse or at friends’ houses. 

There was a telephone in the kitchen, an old fashioned red bakelite one - a line to the outside world. I remember a horrible conversation I had on it. One of the other secretaries was determined to drown a litter of kittens it and called me to get Dutch courage. She was upstairs with them in another flat that belonged to the theatre, leaning over a toilet with the kittens, small white ginger and mewing. I was utterly horrified, as, I think, was she. I showed much more determination in stopping the drowning than I was showing in my work coordinating international tours.

The corridor of the apartment was wide and parqueted, tho long since unpolished. I often came in late at night, and occasionally was unable to open the front door (handling Russian locks is a specific skill). On those occasions I would have to ring the doorbell and wake somebody up. Once one of the actresses came to the door in her nightgown. She opened the door and I walked in - I turned round to see her doing a grotesque impression of me clumping up the corridor in my heavy winter boots. I was mortified. She was normally so sweet natured. She made up for it by giving me a cactus for christmas and letting me use the phone in her lovely light-filled room, to take calls from my boyfriend in England. 

Unlike us secretaries, the Maestro ate well, meals prepared by a chef that I would go and fetch for him from a kitchen on the 2nd floor. These were rice, or brown noodles, with pickles, tofu, vegetables and seaweed. The rule for us, was that we had to be in the theatre while the Maestro was. He would arrive at about midday and leave at about midnight, and those were our hours. Occasionally I would escape for an hour to a stolovaya (buffet) on the Novy Arbat - this was 1998 - there weren’t many places to eat. 

On the third floor there was a photographer’s studio. The photographer took a shine to me and took a series of pictures of me posing around the theatre in a blue fur hat and a white polo neck, eating a shiny green apple. I used to sit with him in his dark room, until I found some pornographic negatives underneath ones of a theatrical production. 'I have to earn some money,' he said to me apologetically. I avoided the room after that. 

As I had boldly said to the Maestro during our first interview that I wanted to be a theatre director, he permitted me to take part in a 2 week course with a dozen other students, from all over Russia.

In our group I remember only Elena - a kind, open-faced girl from Khabarovsk, and Nikita, a boy of my age with glossy brown hair and a moustache who had jerky movements and slightly wet, shiny red lips. He was possibly a little mad. There were lots of others but they all refused to act with me as my Russian was broken.  

Our training consisted of the following: for two weeks we had to act out the same scene from The Meno by Plato - in which a slave explains to his master what a diagonal is, through a series of questions that prompt him. Plato, through Meno, is demonstrating that the soul is immortal and contains all knowledge, because even a slave can explain the complicated and unknowable fact of the existence of the diagonal. This is done through a series of lines that the slave marks out on the floor. So, the training was not just about making good theatre, it was also meant to imbue us with some spiritual conditioning. 

We were asked to conceive of three different ways to play this, every day, for 14 days. Nobody would act with me apart from Nikita and Elena, because of my poor Russian. Nikita would come to my room in the evening and look at me eagerly and prance around with a new idea of how to do it , and we’d rehearse. Other evenings Elena would come and we’d chain smoke and talk about boys and cry. The Maestro had called Elena’s accent ‘provincial’ sending her into a tailspin from the first day. She told me all sorts of exciting secrets about her life which I didn’t remember for very long but I enjoyed hearing them.

One day Nikita dragged me across the studio by my hair. The Maestro made an extremely rare interjection on my behalf and proclaimed: ‘you mustn’t drag girls by their hair.’ It shamed Nikita and gave me a glow of warmth. I had let him do it as I was utterly confused and beaten down by his cheerful coldness, and by this time I was so thoroughly exhausted, I had lost my grip on what was acceptable and what wasn't. It was one of only two directions I ever heard the Maestro give.

At the end of the two weeks the Maestro called us into a room and talked to us for 2 hours about our work. He said we were a particularly poor group and that only twice during the two weeks had he seen sketches that had worked and conveyed the great and momentous meaning invested in the dialogue. He spoke in long, convoluted sentences. Even though I concentrated with all my might, I found him almost impossible to understand. Finally the Maestro lifted his tired, hooded eyes and looked at us piercingly saying, with a sigh, ‘in the end, the acting has to be alive.’ I wondered why he didn’t just say that at the beginning and spare us the endless talking.


I went home for Christmas. On Christmas eve I fell into a deep and troubles sleep. I awoke imagining the Maestro walking out of my room: I could see his dark silhouette - the hunched shoulders, covered with a silk scarf, his large soft nose, his stooped gait. I was aware of him sitting heavy on my soul. I decided that on my return to Moscow I would move out of the theatre. 

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