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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow's Method Magic




The revolutionary acting technique created by Russian theater legend Konstantin Stanislavsky may now be an integral part of acting school curricula all over the world, but few thespians beyond Stanislavsky's native Russia get the opportunity to study the method in the land of its origin.


But a group of graduate theater students at Harvard University can consider themselves among the lucky. For them, studying the method in Moscow is not only optional, but mandatory.


Under the auspices of the renowned American Repertory Theater, thirteen students from Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatrical Training are currently in residence in Russia. They are not only studying Stanislavsky's art, but applying their skills in a production of "Don Juan, or Love of Geometry," a modern twist on the classic that is currently playing at the Moscow Art Theater, or MKhAT.


"You don't see a writer or a painter or a poet made to do their craft every night at 7 p.m., but an actor must call up inspiration on schedule," said Alexander Popov, administrative director of the program. Through his adoption of a series of movement, voice and sensory exercises, Stanislavsky taught actors to do just that.


"During the Cold War, we couldn't communicate the method to the United States except through middlemen, and the method got scrambled. It wasn't until the mid '80s that we could finally talk as theater makers and not as Americans or Soviets," Popov said.


It was then that Popov, while studying on an internship at ART, came up with the idea of bringing American actors here to work with Russian instructors. He and his colleagues collaborated on the plan, but it wasn't until this year that the Americans finally made it to Moscow.


The group performing in "Don Juan" is the second to have come to Russia, but the three-month study program - during which the students stage an English-language production at MKhAT - is now a regular part of Harvard's two-year master of fine arts program.


"We chose 'Don Juan' because international plays [are] something rarely done here, and it's been 25 years since 'Don Juan' was staged in Moscow," Popov said.


Those involved in the production are not only exposed to Stanislavsky's revolutionary technique, but to other cultural differences. "Russian actors are more expressive than American actors," said Dimetrius Conley-Williams, who plays the title role. "Here, everything is just a bit larger ... like, in the U.S. we call it a 'performance,' but in Moscow it's called a 'spectacle.'"


"In the U.S. we're more conservative, and it comes across in our acting, whereas it's in [the Russian] culture to be more direct," said Denise Williams, another Harvard student.


But Popov insists "you'll find more similarities than differences" between American and Russian actors. "Talented people are alike around the world. In neither Russia nor the United States is acting a lucrative profession. It you want to look at their salaries, you need a microscope. But the dedication is the same."


One of Popov's goals is to give the American students what he calls "a solid ground" to take back with them. "In Russia, theater is a cultural and social phenomenon. These students see that plays share the front page with politics, that actors get 20-minute stage calls, that people who can't afford a car still come to see theater. It is so important for them to see that what they are doing is needed."


"When you're at a dinner party in the States and you tell people you are an actor, it's with a hint of apology," said Sophia Fox-Long, who at 23 is the youngest in the Harvard program. "Here, it is an honorable profession, and you don't have to keep proving theater as a valued art - it's already a foregone conclusion."


"Don Juan, or Love of Geometry" is playing at the MKhAT School Theater through Nov. 15. Tickets are 50 rubles. For reservations and information, call 292-4167.