THEATRE MOVEMENT BAZAAR'S JOURNEY TO RUSSIA - Day Five

Day 5:

St. Petersburg

Day off-

I woke this morning to moments of last night's performance experience tugging me awake. My gut pulling from the rise and fall of adrenaline. My heart soaring from the roller coaster of so many emotions. But mostly the vision of Tina Kronis, our director, with tears streaming down her face as we exited the stage, stays in my mind. Her return to Russia where all of this was born - the artist has come full circle.

My spirit is full, and I feel an overwhelming gratitude as I slide into my jeans to head down to breakfast at 9 am. The hotel had asked us all to come down at that time because they wanted to present us with something. I am a little unsure as to what the custom or presentation will be and why, but bed head will not do, so I don my headscarf.

After we've eaten our breakfast, they bring out a most exquisite pie-type/filled bread with a gorgeous latticed crust. It is stunning and with my love for baking - I can appreciate the amount of time and effort that went into making this lovely sweet.

It is filled with sour cherries and berries of many kinds, candied ginger pieces and currants. It is surprisingly not sweet but tart and glorious.

There is a young girl, probably 9 or so, having breakfast with her grandmother, who has been eyeing us and the pie. I offer her a slice and she looks to her grandmother who nods and then to us with a ferocious nod. I give her a slice as well and she shares with her grandmother.

Today is our day off.

Vladimir will take us for the day to tour St. Petersburg. So we take our leave with expressions of thanks and race off to get ready.

We have a very busy day ahead of us and will be gone for the whole day, so we pack and dress accordingly.

We pile into a large van/small party bus. We drive across the river and into town. We stop and pick up Vladimir's actress friend, who is a professional tour guide, and who will give us her tour of the town. She jumps into the van, and from word go she clicks into tour mode with her ‘'to your left” this…and “on your right” that. It was clear to me within the very first block that I had a choice. Try to keep up and immerse myself into every single detail or sit back and relax and let the city wash over me.

My favorite is when Vladimir interrupts her. He adds in his own details about the city he grew up in. Every so often the two of them argue in Russian about the path we will take and why their way is going to get us there better.

Such a conversation occurs as we try for more than twenty minutes to get close to the Church of the Spilled Blood. We discover that the streets to it are actually blocked off and two blocks away is as close as we get. It is very big and fancy and looks like the sister to St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow. It marks the spot where Alexander II was fatally wounded in an assassination attempt in 1881, hence the name.

We stop at a grassy park area just the other side of the river, where we are reminded to watch our wallets. I walk to the edge of the bridge and look across. The Neva River is about as wide as the Mississippi River, if not a little wider. There is a light breeze that blows through my hair and face, convincing me of it's beauty. With it's taste of the ocean it whispers:

This is a perfect moment.

You will remember it, and for the rest of time you will search for this breath that contains the most ions you've ever inhaled.

There were little tourist carts set up and a coffee hut that was shaped like a giant coffee cup. We only had 15 minutes but I took a look at the Babushka dolls. I had promised to bring one home for my mother.

Now is as good a time as any.

But then you have to carry it…

I end my inner conflict by picking the one that has the 8 nesting dolls.

Every block, there are impressive buildings with sculptures and monuments. Entire bronze brigades of horses carrying Generals or chariots exploding out the top of a shopping center or theater. There was this one horse - the artist used the backside of the horse's anatomy to sculpt the outline of his wife's lover's face - forever cast by betrayal as a horse's ass. That one was my favorite. Between the Summer Palace and the Winter Palace and the American Consulate and the home where Pushkin died, my mind boggled.

We go to St. Isaac's Cathedral.

I've been to a lot of cathedrals, and they are designed to invoke awe, but this place is simply next level. The most impressive aspect is the lapis and malachite pillars. I've never even seen a large piece of either the blue or green stones. I've only seen them in jewelry, and these are floor to ceiling and carved into the shape of pillars. Never seen anything like it. Every inch of wall is covered in a spectacular ode to Russian Orthodox versions of the story of Jesus, but I gravitate toward these tablets in the middle of the cathedral.   They stand about 8-10 feet tall, and, under inspection, reveal a mosaic of tiles that make up the picture.

We head to a lovely modern café with colorful tiles lining the floor and walls and stairs. I have an affinity for masterful tiling. It wafts over me as a feeling of order out of chaos. I have potato leek soup with smoked trout and a salad with pepitas. All is right with the world.

I step out to the bathroom, and when I return, our group is gone.

Aw, come on guys. Again?

(There was a night in Shanghai when we went on a river boat tour, and I was too busy taking photos to notice that the boat had stopped, my group disembarked, and the boat started off again. I ended up getting a cab driver who used his horn instead of his brakes, and I met everyone later at the hotel, so I guess it was fine.  But seriously?)

I ask which way to the Hermitage and start walking.  If I walk swiftly I can catch them. I see Doerr hurriedly walking back and catching up with me.

He asks me: Again?

I shrug my shoulders, and we catch up with the rest of the group.

The city square is massive. There is a giant angel on a spire in the center and the Winter Palace where the Hermitage is housed.

 

The Hermitage is a museum. A world renowned museum.

I could do an entire blog just on the Hermitage and my experience there.

But, suffice it to say that now is the moment when I will have to go off on my own. It's just how I roll. I've got to do my own thing. I sneak into the exit of the museum and go backwards. Somehow I end up going down a hallway filled with art crates. And I find a secret corner of the museum where I spend an hour staring at Siberian horse bridles that were decorated with wood carvings of deer antlers and saddles with the most elaborate inlaid designs ever.  From the 11th Century.  I see only 3 people.

On the way out, I catch up with the group as if we'd been together the whole time.

We go off in search of a river boat cruise.

We hop on a bus which is packed. There is a woman who sells tickets but she is at the other end of the bus and has to navigate herself through the entire bus at every stop to get to everyone who needs to purchase a ticket. This seems like a bad method for ticket distribution.

Apparently I like river boat tours-especially at my favorite time of day. That golden time when the sun is at that angle that makes everything gorgeous. I get to put my feet up and just take photos and feel the wind on my face. The weather couldn't have been more perfect. I look to the rest of our group spread out over the boat and smile at the sight of everyone having their own experience with the city.   As the tour guide continues her tour completely in Russian over a speaker, I can see that her deep melodic vocal rhythm has lulled both Elizabeth and Jesse asleep in the seats next to me.

Somewhere between the warmth of the sun kissing my cheeks all day or the moisture in the air that nourished any part of me that could've been parched, I fell in love with the cracks and spots where the city shows it's age and can't hide it's wear and tear.

After the boat ride I stay behind on my own for a dinner. I go to the Soviet Café where Vladimir had tried to take us the other night but it was too full. It has a red bicycle with flowers in a basket chained to the stairwell that leads down to it. Russian comfort food. I have the Chicken Kiev with mashed potatoes and cranberries. They bring dark rye bread that I cannot eat and I spend a fair amount of time removing the breading on the Kiev. It is worthwhile and there is a Russian War movie from the 50's on the TV. This place reminds me of Gorky's which used to be a 24 hour Russian Restaurant in downtown Los Angeles that I spent a good portion of my nights.

I feel at home even though everything feels familiar but not.   Even though the people look like me, but not. Their clothes, their hair, the way they walk. Like me but not-in ways I simply can't find words for.

This is a riddle that perplexes me. I'm not sure I will ever fully understand how St. Petersburg grabbed a hold of me demanding that I love it. Courting me with all of the riches the world has to offer and impressing itself into my soul.

You don't have to leave tomorrow.

Yes. I do. I have to go to Moscow. Tomorrow.

But Moscow cannot give you what you want. St. Petersburg has everything for you.

I wouldn't have even come if it were not for Moscow. I must go. I must.

You can go but it will not love you the way I can.

You think you must-but remember that I said this to you first.

You will never forget me and I will never let you go of you.


THEATRE MOVEMENT BAZAAR'S JOURNEY TO RUSSIA, Day Four

Day 4:

Show Day

St. Petersburg, Theater Buff

A nerve wracking day.

 

To say that all of us were a little tense would be an enormous understatement. There is quibbling. Our show is so tightly choreographed that the slightest shift can throw off the whole train. We had a chair issue. This chair thing, with up to ten moving chairs in play at any time, can derail everything. A moving oscillation that, if it doesn't land right the first time, it won't ever be right. The stakes are huge and the fears about the chairs are just a representation of how huge.

Why couldn't I have been an accountant? Or have a regular job? One that doesn't require that I stand in front of thousands of people and bare my soul. But sometimes there is a simplicity in it that cannot be found anywhere else but through the eye of the needle. Sink or swim, we were going to do this show.

I've got my headphones and my Dior ultra dark fancy eye make up. I don't have time for perfection - I have time to smudge and breathe and smudge and line and wand and line and spray and jewelry and hose and girdle and dress and spray and blot and wig and pin pin pin…pin--  Good god there are so many pins, but tonight it goes on right and tight and this show is going to happen and we are going to give it to them our way. And love it or not, they will come with us.

The house is packed. 400 plus.

Sold Out.

First bell. I sneak off to the back stage area behind the scrim. Do my preshow ritual in the blue of backstage.

Second bell.

The cast files into the backstage area. We have our huddle. Vladimir comes by with bubbling enthusiasm.

Break your legs!. He cheers to us.

Break your legs!

We choose him for our show mantra. Our prayer to do the show for. But first, we breathe…together. 1, 2, 3 Vladimir!

3rd bell and preshow announcement.

I assume it says turn off your cell phones but nothing about photography because as long as you don't flash you can take photos all you like. Perhaps it says, be nice to the Americans. Let's all be on our good diplomatic behavior. They've had an easier history and as a result feel entitled to be treated special. Whatever it says, they start clapping. Their enthusiasm matches that of Vladimir.

The air is electric as time evaporates and the lights go down and me and my two sisters take the stage and sit as one.  The music starts and…

We are off. I make a little mistake in the opening dance, nobody but me knows…and maybe the pen of our director, and the rest of the cast who just saw it, but it doesn't matter. No feathers no fluff. (Their version of break a leg)

Stick in there.

We finish the dance and there is applause.

If there is applause after the dance, then they want to be with us. And they are.

What transpires over the next 90 minutes is that indescribable ephemeral thing that is exchanged between the performer and the audience. You were either there or you weren't. Me and my castmates and that audience. It is magic.  To try and put more of a name on it would be tantamount to finding words for your first love or the first time you knew you were free. It's sacred. It's an intimacy that is shared.

Come curtain call, I am in tears. I mean, I already am because of the play and it's the end of life as all of us know it. But then comes the clapping - the rhythmic clapping Russian audiences are known for. We have our dance reprise, and then we say thank you to the audience, and then we are joined by our director.  It is a tradition for the director to join us onstage. Tina Kronis, this is your moment. To come home and stand on a Russian stage again. More tears.

And then come the flowers. Patrons come to the edge of the stage and hand us flowers. I've never received flowers from someone I didn't know before.

One woman comes with only 3 roses.

One for each sister.

I kneel down to receive my yellow rose.

I am crying. She is crying.

This woman takes my face in her hands.

She kisses me on each cheek saying:

Spasibo, Spasibo.

I say:

Thank you, thank you.

I have no idea who this woman is, and all I saw of her was her eyes as she kept kissing me on each cheek. I had been so worried that I couldn't comprehend the extent of Russia's history and what it must've been like to grow up there that I had to surrender the whole idea and just speak from my heart and try to touch another person's heart. She was my proof. The language of the heart will always win out across any barrier.

If I never stand on another stage ever again, I will always have that moment.

After the show there is a tradition of being hosted for a reception.

It is just a reception for us, given by the producers and the theater staff and those who worked on getting us there without even knowing us. There are fancy little cakes and bubbly drinks with fruit and mint and perogi-type delicious dough balls encasing meat.

There are toasts. This elderly man who has apparently run this theater for 50 years gives a toast. I can't remember everything that was said, and I'm sure all of us took something different away from the night and his speech but it was something to the effect of how important Chekhov is and the gift of seeing ourselves in his writing and such.

"You could've been Russian with your understanding of the play and its nuances and its humanity. And now we raise a glass to you. You are now Russian and have a place to come back to."

Now to load out the show and pack it up for Moscow.

When we left the theater we discovered a few people who had waited outside for us to come out. This is now at least 2 hours later! There is a woman who doles out flowers and candies to us and then later sends me a Facebook request. We passed the front of the theater and there are 3 or so older couples who say hello and holler "Thank You & Spasibo!" to us from across the courtyard. It appears as if they have been sitting and chatting and waltzing and enjoying the late night dusk and breeze that lightens the evening air.

Some of us stop for snacks at a 24 hour grocery.

We found everything from fresh fruit I've never seen before to cheese and snacks and these weird cookies which were like a strawberry meringue, to crab-flavored chips that were  refrigerated.

Back at the hotel we all converge on Caitlin and Elizabeth's room - they seemed to have the most space - to toast from the vodka that had been given as an opening night gift and to share snacks. There was a giant bag of these chocolate candies of various flavors of cherry, orange and coffee.

We toast and laugh and enjoy. I went to my room to see if I could reach super-hubby Jeff.

The sun is finally at its lowest, and it appeared to be night. For at least 2 hours it will be. Until the sun rises again at 3:30 am.

I will take advantage of this darkness for a restful sleep after a job well done.

 

 


THEATRE MOVEMENT BAZAAR'S JOURNEY TO RUSSIA, Day Three

DAY THREE

Theater & the Theatre

When I finally wake, it is 9:30. Ear plugs are amazing things.   I slept through Kendra getting up and pumping 3 times and showering and heading off to breakfast without waking me up.

I throw on jeans and a scarf around my hair and go down to breakfast. The gal behind the buffet asks me something in Russian. Not only am I barely awake but I really should have learned to speak some Russian before I came on this trip. In very careful English she says:

Room number?  Ah, yes. 202.

Spasibo.  Thank you.

I love a buffet in a different country. I have absolutely no idea what I am going to get. An egg soufflé type thing that I can't quite figure out.  It is fluffy and cut into rectangular squares and for the next 2 weeks I eat it every where - I never do figure it out)

A variety of pork breakfast items. Hard boiled eggs. Yoghurt.

Beautiful cabbage salads of a few varieties, and pastries. Good Lord. Gloriously flakey, unique, filled and topped pastries of many varieties. None of which I can eat.  Save it for the blog about food.

As I leave the hotel for the theater, I am very pleased that I downloaded my Here We Go app recommended in Money magazine. Offline maps - yes! We are outside of the city center but it is still quite bustling.  Giant apartment buildings that kind of look like the projects - but only in their uniformity and size. A cat comes towards me and acts like he wants to be petted and then darts off through a tiny portal into the underground of a building. There are flower pots hanging below the street signs.

All of the streets are marked in Cyrillic only, however the map has the street names in the English alphabet, and they don't match.

 

Theatre Buff

Theater Buff. A large austere building with a beautiful, inviting courtyard.

I go to the stage door and there is a man just coming on shift as he puts on a tie. I point to my Track 3 t-shirt and he motions to wait. I type on my google translate I am here to rehearse and again he motions to me to wait. He hands me a wrapped candy instead and puts on his security guard jacket. The candy is a caramel kind of something with nougat chunks. Tasty. He takes me to the lobby. Shows me the pictures of artists on the wall. “Famous” he says. He takes me to the theater and sure enough I find our crew. I say thank you.

Spasibo. Dasvedanya.

There is a gold mantle on the stage. It is a huge step up from our previous mantles. This one looks like it goes in a house. Off stage right is a giant birthday cake. I wish we could use it but Olga would have to wheel it on stage.

We go down to a rehearsal room that has mirrors and ballet barres. We have a long warm-up. It takes a good full hour before my body, that has spent the previous 30 hours straight seated, wakes up.

We rehearse and work a few spots. Lunch up to the 6th floor.  I have the cold borscht and whitefish with eggplant and rice with dill. There are all of these beautiful fresh veggies cut up to nosh on. Cucumber, red peppers and radish and what appears to be flat parsley.

There is a compote drink that is sweet but I am not sure what the fruit/veggie inside it is. Would taste great on ice with some fresh mint.  I will not have ice for the next 14 days.  For the same reason that you can't get ice in Mexico, or China or many other places in the world.  Because you shouldn't drink the water.

Vladimir is our producer. I met him for the first time at the airport. He sits at the last table that is set only for one. I ask him if I can join him as we at the 3 sisters table have had more than one meal together. Vladimir is originally from St. Petersburg. You can see a sense of pride in this fact. The same kind of pride you can see in the people on the street.

He tells me that he has lived in the US since he had to leave in the 1980's. He was given the option to go to another country or go to jail.  I can see that he misses it.  He has been producing mostly music acts. This is the first play he has brought to Russia. Quite a risk. He will stay on after us to tour a jazz band.

It turns out that the American Consulate is actually the one hosting us. They found the money through grants and endowments.

(When we meet them later there is a fascinating conversation about how it all works and how it has shifted with our current administration. The mandate has become that public affairs and culture aren't a priority and 30% across the board-across the world is expected to be cut by the end of the year. They don't usually bring plays over here but this has been in the works for a couple of years now. Quite a risk.)

I ask Vladimir how people feel about Putin. He says that critical-thinking people have never liked him. But he was very popular in the beginning.   He says that people are realizing how corrupt things really are.  The night before we arrived there were hundreds of people arrested from the square in St. Petersburg and the Red Square in Moscow. People, mostly young people, had flooded the squares protesting corruption. He says the young people don't have any fear of the government like the previous generations do. He hopes that they won't have to and they will be able to shift the tide.

I ask Vladimir how Russians feel about Americans. Do they hate us?

There is a pause. "Wary.  They are coming around," he says. He urges me to understand the massive amount of anti-American propaganda that is spread and has been spread over decades. I mention that our own Cold War propaganda has dominated our view for decades too. He asserts that it is not the same though. Some is warranted on both sides but the tactics and lies on the part of the Russian government are…I'm not sure I heard clearly what the next part was.  I feel keenly aware of my fixed point of view and maybe we all have one of our own country.

We finish and go back to the hotel to clean up. Vladimir is taking us into St. Petersburg to the theater tonight. The Bol'shoy Dramaticheskiy Teatr. The company is doing a version of Dostoevsky's The Gambler. It will be avante-garde and very Russian.

No, you should not have worn the cute shoes, Dylan. You should have worn the flats and you know it.

Yes, you were a genius for bringing a power bar because no, we will not have dinner before the show.

No, there is no Diet Coke in Russia.  Not before the show, not when I am still on California time and it is 3 am to me. No, none for you. And yes, it will be 10:30 pm before you sit down for dinner.

The theater is stunning.  A very well visited palace. Vladimir has arranged a tour of the theater's museum. I am blown away by the production pictures and costume watercolor drawings and the stage dioramas. The level of drama and fervor and specificity in every aspect of production is extraordinary.

While the tour director was taking us through, an entire crew of young women ushers in black blouses with long black skirts assembled in the stairway and chatted until they were silenced by the person who was obviously in charge, who then pointed at us.

During this tour, they pointed to a production they did of the American play “Our City”. Did you mean “Our Town”?

Yes, yes, yes. My apologies. Our Town. We didn't believe it could possibly work. Everyone is seated the entire play. But surprisingly, it did work. Maybe there is something to it.

One of the productions was Three Sisters and Masha's costume was on display. I got goosebumps over my entire body.

Once we finished our tour, the lobby and foyer and bar and common areas were all teeming with people. I noticed some people had bouquets of flowers. I wonder if they have friends in the cast.

The theater itself is delicious - a 500 person seating. We are all the way down in front on house right. The chairs are fancy, like dining chairs with a rococo flair and are individually linked together.

The show is a spectacular extravaganza of movement, dance, song, exploding enthusiasm and very deep monologues with the malaise of all that life's ennui can contain. It is rich and colorful and dark and mysterious and light as a feather. I have no idea what it is about as it is in Russian.

The most thrilling and informative part of the evening was the curtain call. Once it started there were Bravos and the Russian rhythmic clapping. People came down to the stage and delivered flowers to the cast. The cast went off and came back on. This went on for 10 minutes. It was such a beautiful exchange. A relationship.

Afterwards, onward to find nourishment.  To a Georgian food restaurant. Vladimir's family is originally from Georgia - the country, not the state in the US - and he assures us this will be the best food we could ever eat.  "It's just up here and around the corner," he says.

The Georgian restaurant had just closed, but Vladimir speaks to them and it turns out they will accommodate us if we can order just a few things from the menu. So, Vladimir chooses some items The owner shakes his head no. More choosing. More nos. Owner picks. Food on its way. I was happy that Kendra could advocate for my food needs. Chicken skewers as well. Done and done.

Must say it was the best chicken skewers and grilled veggies of my life.  Or perhaps I really was that hungry. All of the spices were so delicate and made the flavor of whatever I was eating come out, rather than the spices being the only thing I was tasting.

At the end of the day, I had walked 8.6 miles, half of which were done in my booties. Yes, Dylan, booties still count as a heels!

As I flipped through my photos of the day to choose a couple to text home - walking along canals, lilac trees in bloom and brilliant sculptures - I wondered about what our show tomorrow might hold for us.

Would we receive an ovation in any small part like the one we'd seen tonight?

Would we receive flowers or will they boo us out of the country because we've ruined Chekhov's crowning achievement and disgraced ourselves in the process?


THEATRE MOVEMENT BAZAAR'S JOURNEY TO RUSSIA, Day Two

DAY TWO

St. Petersburg arrival.  It is now Tuesday night.

Because you lose a day with the time difference.  It's okay, you get the day it back when you come home.

As we drive toward St. Petersburg it is unclear how long it will take us to get to the hotel.

We pass large industrial plants.  Large apartment building complexes. Extensive complexes of housing. And everything is green. Tree lined streets and streets lined with trees in the middle with trains running through the center.

There are swarms of people walking everywhere. Apparently, outside of the city there are very specific spots where the transportation stops. And then you will see people just walking the rest of the way from wherever that stop was. There are paths worn into the grass in every direction. Everyone heading somewhere.

As we near the city, traffic crawls to a stop.

St. Petersburg's traffic is terrible. I am now beginning to understand why the driver wouldn't give us an ETA on arrival. From that spot it takes over an hour to get across St. Petersburg to the other side of the river where we are staying.

St. Petersburg has over 600 bridges.  The canals are all manmade and it is surrounded by islands and rivers. It is spectacular and old. And there is a monument to history around every corner.  A city of palaces.  It feels a little lost in time but only from my eyes-it doesn't feel in conflict with itself at all.

Apparently, Peter the Great was really excited by the French and German stylings so he hired all of the best architects and engineers in Europe to plan out and build St. Petersburg to be the country's capital.  You can see it and feel it in the city's feng shui.  Walls of city blocks that go on and on in a perfect line, until the line is interrupted with something that was a mistake and they didn't want to correct Peter the Great or something was added on as the city expanded.

Once we arrive at the hotel, there is a camera crew waiting for us.  Yes, I have lipgloss handy for this moment exactly.

Yes, liquid eyeliner was definitely the right choice. And yes, eye drops, you are my best friend.

Lights on. They film us unloading our luggage. And I have mentioned before how extensive this process is.  It seems a little strange until I can see that they are filming Aaron's bare feet.  They interview our director Tina while Richard checks us into the hotel. Then they want to interview the 3 sisters, but we only have 2 sisters cause 1 sister stayed behind to wait for a lost piece of luggage and is coming after its retrieval.

Dylan Jones & Mark Doerr.

Okay the Russian man interviewing us would settle for Masha and Vershinin.

Alright Doerr - let's tag team this thing.

I can honestly say this is the first time I've been interviewed in a different language.  Vera, our host from the American Consulate, whom we've just met upon arrival, translates the questions for us.

Do I feel like I might be a little bit Russian after doing this play?

Da. Da, da, da.  Yes. Yes, yes, yes I do.

Do I understand how important the heart of Masha and Vershinin is?   That it is the heart of the people represented in these characters?

Yes. Then I'm sure I say something amazing (my secret internal communication was this: Yes, I treasure how revered and known this is and I promise that I will take the greatest of care with the hearts of the Russian people and the iconography of Masha and Vershinin and all that they represent.)

Da.

Then - hey we knew it was coming - the question is something to the effect of this:

I watched your trailer and there was a lot of movement and dancing and song and was this intentional or just some student approach to find a new way into the work to make it seem like a re-creation. Was this on purpose?

To which I answer:

Yes, absolutely everything in the play is intentional and on purpose and I think you will find that it is a distillation of the play, rather than an outside the box for no reason but provocation exercise.

Da.

He proceeds with:

Well, I mean you are from LA not New York so…

I refrained from my speech about how vibrant Los Angeles theater is and how we have so many incredibly talented people there.

Da. Yes, we are from Los Angeles.

Doerr handles his questions with ease and grace and we have a high five.

I feel pretty proud of myself for not launching into my speech about Los Angeles theater - any restraint at all, being this punchy, is a win.   I mention this to Tina, since they are such a crucial part of this vibrancy. Tina, however has lived in Russia and studied at the Moscow Arts Theatre and provides a different perspective.

Yes, but this is Russia. They have a different relationship to theater. You can't really understand it until you've experienced it. It is an actual relationship.

Speechifying silenced. I look forward to the experience I will get to have and I say thank you.

The elevator is tiny.  Breakfast is until 10 am.

Pure luxury.

There is a step up into not only our rooms but through every doorway. It takes a minute to get adjusted as to not trip over. I remember it being the same in China - something about not being sued all the time and different regulations. The step up into the room reminds me of a cabin on a boat. There is a large, tall French window, two twin beds, a desk and a fridge. Plenty large enough for Kendra and I to room - we've certainly had smaller.

She is my roomie on most of the tours and I am grateful for her friendship. She has just left her 6-month old baby boy for the first time and she is on the floor in the doorway of the bathroom with her iPad.

Do you want me to come back? I ask.

No, I'm going to FaceTime with Doug and the baby just for a minute.

She squeals with joy as they answer and then promptly bursts into tears.

She wraps the call up early.  I give her a giant hug.  We both cry. I can't think of a harder thing to do than what she is doing.  I tell her how proud I am of her.   I make a joke about how it can only get better from here and she won't ever have to do that again for the first time. Now laughing and crying and a fair amount of snot.

We plug in our plug converters and she sets up her breast pump.

Lucky you!

This becomes our joke - the thing she says to me each time she has to pump.

I text Jeff letting him know I've arrived safe and sound and realize I am ravenous.

It seemed ridiculous to even me that I chose to bring food from Trader Joe's and my Nutri-bullet and powdered goat's milk so I could make smoothies with my protein powder. I even took cute pants out of my suitcase because the Nutri-bullet is surprisingly heavy. It is also at that moment that I realized my plug converter is only a plug converter for my Apple items. Another great reason Kendra is my roomie because she has brought an entire surge protected station.

Lucky you indeed!

But I will tell you I was happy as can be when instead of having to go find food I was able to pour some granola into a coffee cup, make a batch of milk from powder and nosh with a coffee stirrer.

It is midnight. The white nights are upon us and it is only dusk outside. As dark as it gets? I am very grateful for my eye mask and this twin sized bed.

 

Originally posted on:

https://better-lemons.com/99-seat-theater-in-la/theatre-movement…russia-day-three/

 


THEATRE MOVEMENT BAZAAR'S JOURNEY TO RUSSIA, Day One

DAY ONE

Flight to St. Petersburg - It's finally here! Bucket-list-dream-come-true day!

We, the cast and crew of Track 3, Theatre Movement Bazaar's modernization of Anton Chekhov's “Three Sisters”, are flying to Russia as the first American company invited to participate in the International Chekhov Festival in Moscow.

The Three Sisters finally get to go to Moscow.  If you are not familiar with this play-I hope you will be inspired to read it.

It will be me as Masha; Kendra Chell as my older sister/spinster Olga; Caitlyn Conlin as my younger sister Irina; Mark Skeens as my squandering brother Andrei; Elizabeth Ellson as Andrei's cheating wife Natasha; Mark Doerr as my lover Vershinin; Jesse Myers as Tuzenbach, Irina's intended; David LM MacIntyre as Solyony, not Irina's intended, but will stop at nothing until he is.

Then the masterminds:

Tina Kronis is our savant director/choreographer and her husband Richard Alger is our savant writer/technical master/everything else.

And last but not least, Loretta, Mark Doerr's wife, and Aaron Francis, our stage manager who never wears shoes.

TMB's tour group ogling an ornate building in St. Petersburg

Tina and Richard are the brains and bones of Theatre Movement Bazaar. This is my 3rd tour with them and with this cast - with the exception of Elizabeth Ellison, who is fresh to us.

I never like saying goodbye to my gorgeous husband Jeff Gardner.  I don't do it often. By choice.  And today was no different.  My husband dropped me at the fly away. We hugged as we waited for the rest of the group to show up. I slipped him a card I'd written. We kissed and said goodbye. Only 2 weeks. I wish I could see his face tonight when he finds the card I snuck onto his pillow. And the one I hid in the fridge. Might be a couple of days til he gets to the napkin that I buried at least 7 deep that says - never mind, that's private.

The first bus is full so we have to wait for the next one a half hour later. Cutting it a little closer than any of us would like. I make a point of chatting with our skycap Emmett.

It is 2:20 when we get to LAX. Our flight leaves at 4:05! Elizabeth and Aaron have been standing in line for 40 minutes already -a line that is still 50 deep in front and behind them. I finagled my way to the front of the business class line and asked if they can help us since we are such a large group with so much luggage. You see we are going to perform in Russia and it is imperative that we get on that plane.

What most people don't understand is the extent of the luggage necessary when touring. The props, the costumes, the shoes - everything needed to take the show on the road. Gaff tape, glow tape, back ups of what is going to break in the trunks during transit that you won't find out about until you are at the theater and can't get a replacement. You get your one personal bag and then you check a show bag and when there are 13 of you plus a bag each that's 26 bags.

We are an extensive sprawling motley crew taking up entire aisles.

This is when I meet our producer Vladimir. In the midst of luggage and all of the global travelers of LAX's brand new International Terminal.

Once we get into the security line, I asked the security ladies if we were going to make our flight and if not, could they help us. She says that our airline never leaves on time because they always wait for everyone. I don't know if it is too early to read some cultural innuendo into this because I've never heard of such a thing.

Once we get through security it is 4:24.

They haven't started boarding yet?  Sweet!

I grab dinner and snacks since I have no idea whether there will be any food served that I can eat.  (My restricted menu-that is an entire other blog)

As we board the plane we are greeted by a crew of delightful, beautiful stewardesses in red dresses with matching scarves and shoes. Svetlana, Anatasia, & Oksana.

I am always shocked by how large a 737 airbus is. 12 seats across separated by 2 aisles-50+ rows deep…they are really big.

Our section of the plane consists of us, a group of 50 Russian school girls probably junior high school age, several groups of families at least 3 generations wide and at least a dozen infants and toddlers.

An hour or so in, Doerr can't find his glasses and while helping him look for them an Armenian woman in broken English asks what we were looking for. She had seen the glasses and placed them in a seat pocket for safe keeping. I get up to retrieve them and the flight attendant scolds me in Russian and points to the seatbelt sign.

Turbulentnost. Turbulence.

Several hours into the 11-hour flight, we fly over Antarctica.   On one side of the plane, the sun has been setting for hours. On the other side, it is a mostly still full moon and below I can see ice floes. I wonder about the separation of the ice floes and how much it's grown due to global warming. I wonder if Jeff has found that card on his pillow yet.

4 movies and 3 magazines later, we start our descent.

First sight of Moscow through the clouds is forest. Trees and lakes. A whole forest of birch trees and rivers. Then these houses. With terracotta roofs and painted green roofs and bright orange roofs.

The airport is a little confusing - customs is always perplexing. I don't like the sensation of having to be on my good behavior. Makes me feel like I did something wrong.

The signs are written in Cyrillic, English & Mandarin.

We have to go all the way to the end.  Of the airport.  And downstairs.  And then to the other end.  To wait for the bus that will take us to the tarmac to board the plane.

Funny that we had a 5 hour layover and our flight is leaving in 15 minutes?

Luckily we get on that plane too.

 

 


THERE'S A FESTIVAL GOING ON RIGHT NOW (AND IT'S NOT THE FRINGE)

HIPSTER LAMENT

CONSTELLATIONS by Nick Payne at the Geffen

Goodwin, her orange sweater and poor Leech (Chris Whitaker photo credit)

For the last two-plus years, I've been hearing what has seemed like a non-stop hymn of praise for the two-hander play Constellations by Nick Payne, which had its Broadway debut in January 2015 with Jake Gylenhaal and Ruth Wilson in the roles of the starry-eyed lovers - "perfectly-matched," as Ben Brantley wrote in the NY Times.  A metaphysical play in which two young lovers break through the time-space continuum in the many expressions of their love - and all lasting little more than an  hour?  That sounds so absolutely up  my alley. Yes, please, bring it on!  I was so sad to miss the Broadway production, but high  hopes for the Geffen production with Ginnifer Goodwin and Allen Leach.  But what a miserable letdown it was!  What an absolute bore!  The 70 or so minutes did the opposite of "fly by" - it seemed to take hours before this production was finally put out of its misery, during which time several audience members had turned tail and fled the theater, some actually running.  What happened?  Ginnifer Goodwin did.  She single-handedly destroyed what I'm sure is a wonderful play in the right hands.  Director Giovanna Sardelli must bear some blame  - first, for the tacky-looking set design and that hideous orange sweater that Goodwin's character wore, but most of all for casting Goodwin, who performed throughout in a flat voice and was completely unconvincing as both a scientist (ha!) and as a lover.  She and Allen Leach seemed more like brother and younger sister, except with less chemistry.  Seriously, this is the worst example of miscasting of a new play (or new to us anyway) that I can recall.  I was so bored out of my mind, all I could do was sit there thinking about all the great Los Angeles women who would have shined in that role: Rebecca Mozo, Kate Morgan Chadwick, Deborah Puette, Kaci Rogers, Annika Marks, Vanessa Stewart, Jeanne Syquia, Lily Nicksay - the list goes on and on, just as the play did.  Any one of them, paired with a decent actor like Mr Leech, could have been magificent.  Hell, Flo from Progressive would have brought more to the role than Ms. Goodwin did, and the play simply makes no sense - has no meaning - without a great love at its center. What were you thinking, Ms. Sardelli and the Geffen team?  What were you possibly thinking?

PROGRAMS A and B in the 2017 EST-LA ONE ACT FESTIVAL IN ATWATER

Stella Kim, Sharon Friedman and John Copeland in THE GUARD WILL ESCORT YOU TO RUFF-RUFF by Carole Real  (Photo: Youthana Yuos)

Ensemble Studio Theatre of Los Angeles's decision to stage a festival of original one acts at the same time that the Fringe is going on 15 minutes away in Hollywood raises some serious questions about planning and strategy from their leadership, especially when so little is going on in theater circles after July 4th.  Really, any time of the year would be better than right now, since who wants to compete with 375 productions just down the road?  Isn't it difficult enough to draw an audience for a festival of new one acts anyway?

In contrast to the unpredictability of the Fringe, with its big highs and lows, the EST-LA Festival offers several pleasures with a certainty and stability attached.  There is the pleasure of catching the work of veteran writers who have an assuredness about the way they spin a tale.  And there is the pleasure of watching actors - many of them veterans too - who go about their business with nothing to prove, simply enjoying the work.  There definitely is an Ensemble Studio Theatre style - basically naturalistic in approach, but drama or comedy stripped down to its essence - more comedy than drama, usually - and always providing the small casts with meaty character roles.

There are 3 programs - A, B and C.  I've managed to catch A and B.  B is still going on and has two more shows this weekend.

Sarch McCarron and Kevin Comartin in THE DARKEST PLACE by Karen Rizzo, the darkest one act in Evening A (Youthan Yuos photo credit)

Program A had 5 plays, all two-handers between a man and a woman.  All were dark comedies of various shades.  The standout of the evening for me was Deborah Pearl's Can You Hear Me Now?, in which Caitlin Gallogly and Will McFadden played a dating couple who alternately were breaking up with each other or on the verge of proposing marriage, depending on the strength of their cell phone reception and what they thought the other person was saying.  While more a sketch than a fleshed-out play, the piece had some brilliant comedic twists and turns and was well-directed by Christopher Raymond, who had the actors walking in and out of each other's spaces in search of a stronger cell signal, which wittily dramatized the state of confusion that both were plagued by.  So Lovely Here On Earth by Mary Portser was also a noteworthy short play.  In it, Christopher Reiling appears to be interviewing Simone McAlonen for her suitability for a flight to Mars, from which she could never hope to return to earth in her lifetime.  "No problem," Simone's character replies.  But Mr Reiling's character has something else on his mind.

Program B has 3 longer one acts - more novellas than short stories: Provenance by Ian Patrick Williams, Writing to Mrs. Otts by Thomas Stringer and The Guard Will Escort You To Ruff-Ruff by Carole Real.  All are entertaining, worthwhile efforts, featuring excellent performances.  All contain deep criticisms of American consumerism, and the way business is conducted here.  All, oddly enough, take place in the past.  The first and third pieces both take place in the recent past, right after the financial meltdown of 2008.  Writing to Mrs. Otts is specified as taking place "in Baltimore in the '70s," but it felt more like the '30s for some reason.  Maybe it was the literary tone of the piece, which was leisurely and reminded me of something from Henry James by way of Nathaniel West.

Eve Sigall, Yolanda Snowball and Justin Shenkarow in WRITING TO MRS OTTS

Mrs Otts was also my favorite piece of the evening because it was the most successful for me in both creating a world and then having its main character undergo a believable and interesting change within it.  John (an excellent Justin Shenkarow) is a young man just starting out in the real estate business.  He wants to sell houses - that's where the real money is! - but in the meantime he's willing to do the grunt work of dealing with problem tenants for a landlord they did business with.  One of these tenants is Mrs Otts, an elderly woman of undetermined place of origin, who must be evicted for unpaid back rent.  It turns out the John looks remarkably like her nephew David, whose framed photo she shows him.  The two form a bond on this basis, and John finds himself much more effected by her eventual eviction than he expected himself to be.  This threatens his plans for being a cutthroat businessman, to the point that he must make a decision about which way his future will go.

Provenance is about a world-class forger being confronted by a very dissatisfied customer.  It features a wonderful and emotionally-rich performance by Tony Pasqualini as the forger, whose love of life has not been dampened by the law having caught up with his game.  Steve Burleigh does very well by the other role, but it would have been stronger if the author had delved a little further into this man's anger and who he is.  As it is, Pasqualini gets all the best lines and Burleigh too often ends up playing the straight man.  Keith Szarabajka directs with a sure hand, finding many ways to keep the action from falling into a predictable rhythm.

The Guard Will Escort You to Ruff-Ruff by Carole Real is the most ambitious of the three plays, taking place in "a large corporation in the U.S. and a factory in China, circa 2009."  The product in question here bears a striking resemblance to "Hello Kitty."  Sharon Freedman plays a temp in an office that is supposed to be overseeing working conditions in the factories that have been sub-leased to turn out the merchandise.  She is shocked to find out the conditions which the workers have to endure, and which is reported in great detail by the Chinese inspectors.  She is haunted by these reports - by the words of the inspector and the visions they conjure up - and she believes that she can convince her boss, played by John Copeland, to take some kind of action.  However, Mr Copeland's character knows on which side his bread is buttered, and that's all he cares about.  The author's anger and frustration come through loud and clear, but that doesn't necessarily make her play more effective.  Throughout Ms. Freedman does a great job in finding different ways to be hopeful in the face of constant rejection - she somehow manages to be funny and sexy even in the direst extreme of frustration.

Program C runs from July 6-16 and will feature 4 new plays:  Things That Matter, a musical by Ellin Hampton with music by Gerald Sternbach; How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall? by Nick Ullett, directed by his wife Jenny O'Hara, in a premiere 32 years in the making; My Jesus Year by Tony Foster; and Between Friends by Katherine Cortez, whose searing play about a nightclub massacre, In The Valley of the Shadow, is just completing its run in the Fringe.


ENSEMBLE STUDIO THEATRE-LA: FINDING ITS WAY OUT OF THE SHADOWS

 This Thursday June 1st, the curtain will rise on Program A of Ensemble Studio Theatre-LA's Second Annual One Act Festival at their 50-seat performance space at the Atwater Village Theatre, with Programs B & C still to follow.

Meanwhile, back in New York City, the 36th Annual one act Marathon of the original Ensemble Studio Theatre is already half-way through its three evenings, with Series C commencing on June 10.

Ensemble Studio Theater founder Curt Dempster

There's something apt in this timeline difference.  EST in NYC was founded in the late 1960s by Artistic Director Curt Dempster as a non-commercial theater laboratory.  Dempster was an intense man with an abundance of energy and intellectual discipline, as well as a deeply Protestant work ethic, who often seemed to keep his theater going through sheer strength of will.  A 2013 article in American Theatre Magazine detailed the crisis that EST went through when Dempster committed suicide in 2007, after the Board had voted to replace him as leader, following a series of financial setbacks.  It took a few years for new Artistic Director Billy Carden and new Executive Director Paul Slee to find their way back from the brink, but now EST in NYC is flourishing again, with some money and increased respect from its origination of the play Hand To God, which was moved to Broadway, and from a recent grant to renovate their headquarters in Hell's Kitchen on 52nd Street and 11th Ave.  It also helps that Dempster negotiated a contract with New York City that gave him this multi-floored space for the yearly rent of $1.

(NOTE: Absent from the American Theatre article was the role played by the super-casting agents Risa Bramon Garcia and Billy Hopkins in the acendance of EST.  After the duo - both EST members - hit the big-time with Desperately Seeking Susan, then being with EST could pay your bills as well as feed your soul.)

EST-LA has no such helpful rental arrangement.  The company moved from Hollywood around 2009 to a situation in Atwater Village where Circle X Theater, in partnership with EST-LA Artistic Director Gates McFadden, built two theater spaces from the ground up.  The area was desolate back then, and the cars of company members and visitors were frequently broken into.  Gradually, however, the area has improved, certainly in part to the presence of these theaters, which bring audience to the neighborhood.  A developer came in and revamped the crumbling houses across the street into lofts that now sell for upwards of $1 million.  Two smaller theater spaces have been added, extending out towards the street from the larger ones, and EST-LA now occupies one of those for a fairly hefty monthly price.  The larger spaces in the back are now way beyond the means of EST-LA.

Gates McFadden

The company was guided for its first five years in Atwater by Ms. McFadden, well-known to Star Trek fans as Dr. Beverly Crusher, which she played on Star Trek: The Next Generation and four subsequent movies.  Gates was, by all accounts, an excellent director, and productions under her leadership like House of the Rising Son, Belfast Blues and House of Gold received excellent notices.  She also poured a lot of her own money into the company, so that when she resigned in October 2014, the company had to find a way of surviving without her generosity and largesse.

(I should mention that there's no current relationship between the east and west coast branches of Ensemble Studio Theatre. "They share a DNA but are two completely separate non-profit entities" is how it was explained to me.   Certainly EST-NYC provides no support, material or otherwise, to its poor relation.)

Roderick Menzies in his daily attir

Liz Ross

EST-LA has been brought back from the brink by a collection of co-Artistic Directors: Roderick Menzies, Liz Ross, Keith Szarabajka and Carole Real (who resigned in late 2016), with operate with the assistance of Managing Artistic Director William Duffy and Producing Director Kevin Comartin. All have worked tirelessly to keep the company going.  Through judicious budgeting and by having the company's members both volunteer and raise money, they can only afford to do 2-3 full productions a year, including the one-act festival.  In addition, they maintain a packed schedule of company readings, workshop productions and community outreach events that extend throughout the Los Angeles area.

One major development from the Gates McFadden regime has been a closer linking of the acting company with the playwrights unit.  Productions are now selected almost exclusively from plays by unit members or EST-members (not always the same thing), as illustrated by their one act festival, in which all the plays are by playwrights unit members except for How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall? by EST-member Nicholas Ullett, which was written 30 years ago.  I recently met with Nick Ullett and three of the other playwrights - Tony Pasqualini, Mary Portser, and Karen Rizzo - along with Co-Artistic Director Keith Szarabajka at Mr Szarabajka's home.

Mary Portser, Tony Pasqualini, Karen Rizzo and Keith Szarabajka

As Keith explained in his familiar gravelly voice - he is one of the most in-demand actors around for audio books, video games and voiceovers - EST-LA's three evenings of plays each have a common (if somewhat loose) thread.  Series A has five short plays, each with a man and a woman in a room, and has been dubbed the "Rom-Com" evening.  Series B has three longer one acts and is called the "Political" evening.  Series C has four medium-length plays and is called the "Eclectic" evening.  Each series begins on a Thursday and runs for two weekends, Thursday-Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm - except for the last weekend of Series C, when there is also a 2 pm on Saturday July 15th.

Speaking with the playwrights about their plays, it soon became clear that there will be a large variety of tone within each particular grouping. For instance, Karen Rizzo's play, Darkest Place, is in Series A, but it hardly sounds like a "Rom-Com."  She describes it as drawing on her fascination with "memory and regret," as a man and a woman meet again 15 years after high school, only to find that time has changed them and their relationship to each other in some very unpredictable ways.  Tony Paqualini's play, Already Forgotten, is also in Series A and also has surprises that are not of the "rom-com" variety.  "It's about a Hollywood talent agent," Tony told me.  "He has quite literally forgotten where he came from, until he meets up again with his ex-wife, who brings it all back."  Mary Portser's play, So Lovely Here On Earth, is also in Series A and is about a young man with the job of interviewing people for a one-way flight to Mars.  An attractive young woman comes into his office, and he tries to find out why she would want to embark on what is essentially a suicide mission.

Nick Ullett and Mary Portser.  Photo Credit: Keith Szarabajka

And then there's Nick Ullett's three-person play in Series C about the concert violinist at Carnegie Hall, which will be directed by his wife, Jenny O'Hara.  Anyone who has caught their performances at the Fountain Theatre in the two-hander Bakersfield Mist know that fireworks can be expected when these two get together.  Considering that the play has been waiting 30 years for its premiere, it seems certain that this will be a highlight of the festival.

As it happens, all the writers I'm speaking with here are also veteran character actors with loads of stage, screen, TV, commercial and video game credits.  Yet all have become dedicated writers as well, in an arena where they are able to hone their own visions.  Tony Pasqualini - well-known as an actor from over 30 guest-starring TV appearances - elaborated on this point.

"I think EST-LA has become more of a writers/actors theater than it was before, when the director had a larger role.  We're trying to find the creative balance between the writer and actors," Tony said.

Keith added that the small budgets available for EST-LA productions has brought him back full-circle to his roots at Chicago's Organic Theatre in the 1970s, that became the launching pad for such heralded actors as Dennis Franz and Joe Mantegna and for the production of the 1978 play Bleacher Bums, written by the company's actors (including Szarabajka).

Will the 2017 version of EST-LA's One Act Festival be a similar launching pad for the actors and writers?

Come and see for yourself.  The six week festival all starts this Thursday June 1st and runs through July 16th.  Click here for ticket information:  Ensemble Studio Theatre LA One Act Festival 2017.