Thursday, May 26, 2011


The light is here. The city is embarking on the annual Bacchanalian time called White Nights.  At this point the sky is still a cobalt blue at midnight.  "Magic Hour" - the late afternoon side light film directors covet  - lasts about six hours.

Nevsky Prospekt at 8:00 pm
We've just finished a really busy period of teaching, rehearsing and performing.  Producing theatre in Russia is an adventure.  What they lack in organizational skills or fathomable management, they make up for in passion.  What is clear is that without Volodya's insider know-how we would have been sunk for sure.  Our posse from America arrived and settled into either our apartment (Julsci and Bill) or Soul Kitchen Hostel (Dan and David).  We had one five hour rehearsal with everyone and then an hour or so to tech in each of the theatres we played.  Surreal experience of teching in the Dostoyevsky Theatre as the lighting director's toddler alternately nursed while his mom tried to set levels, or banged on Dan Dukich's drum.  All happening with Butoh, Performance Art, Dancers and Clowns sharing the space.  Three or four languages....Felini-esque.  Really great time had by all and I am so excited to report that I ran our light board in both theatres, making up and composing light as we went, live.  It was thrilling and now I dream of completely changing my career to Lighting Designer.
A lighting designer that NEVER goes on ladders.
And also doesn't need to know anything about electricity or cables.
Igor and Volodya rehearse at the Academy
Does that kind of lighting designer exist?
The shows were very successful and we all agree that playing this show to Russians is the way to go. They know this story of Mayakovsky and Lily Brick as we know about Yoko and John.  It's their national story and they care about it.  The work on making it all Russian text was worth it.  The audiences both nights ended up clapping in unison to beg more bows from our confused actors.  We are already making some plans to bring the entire show back to a theatre here next year. So that was great fun.  The workshops at the Academy also ended on a high note.  Our Open Class was well attended and the students demonstrated how far they have come and presented the work as I babbled about it to the audience, with the expected Russian seriousness and commitment. They are a great group. It is very clear that our way of working is just so different from what they are getting in their regular courses at the Academy. I feel in some ways like their corruptor but I also constantly stress that this physical and non-realistic approach does NOT replace the solid Stanislavsky training they are getting. In fact, it enhances it and hopefully will infect their more traditional work with more life.   I want so badly to bring them to the U.S. to mix with and meet my UMN students. My UMN students could use some help with the basics of realism.   As I told my Russian students, "many of my American students, if left to their own devices,  rarely even play humans."

dan and i doing Chapin with dolma
David and Dan stayed an extra four days after the festival. We took them to the Cat Cafe for Georgian food and we all went to Peterhof on a "fast boat" to see the Summer home of the Czars.  The boys enjoyed the boat ride and we all enjoyed the fresh air after the dust of the city.  
just a little country house...

In THEATRE news:  Went to see Lev Dodin's productions of Uncle Vanya (transcendent) and King Lear (horrendous). I love going to the Maly Theatre to see anything, especially with Peter Cemak, my favorite Maly actor. I am attempting to see Dodin's new Three Sisters in June.  I hear its "DARK".  Can't wait.  Yalies: David Chambers was just here too for another project and we got to hook up briefly a few times.  He seems great as always and it was a trip down memory lane to walk these streets with him again.

missile carrier at train museum. spooky
boys on old soviet train
In family news: Boys are done with school. We pulled them out a month before end of year so they could just live here a bit without pressure of the daily grind. We're "homeschooling" -- this means we basically sleep til noon, do five pages in a study book a day, read at night, watch the bird nest out the kitchen window and visit museums in between cooking, fighting, doing nothing, playing and going to shows and museums in the city -- works for us.  We went to the most amazing Train Museum.  hundreds of Russian trains from the past two centuries parked together where you can CLIMB ON THEM!  No safety or caution signs.  Just disgustingly dirty, awesome old trains to explore. It's a boy paradise.  The soviet star emblazoned on all of them. Even one that carries a missile...with the missile still in it! Wow.  

I celebrated my birthday and since it falls on Cinco de Mayo we did a Mexican theme.  Burritos, Chili, Salsa and Guacamole. Plus a LOT of tequila.  Really fun to feed this food to Russian friends, who are unaccustomed to the flavors. Igor and Olya serenaded me.
Improvised burritos using Lavash bread
We prepare now to rest.  We are planning a journey either down South to the Bulgarian coast or over to Europe to visit some friends new and old.

Sasha having a popsicle with Neptune
45 year old me under tequila effect
Victory Day came and went as did fireworks from our balcony...our favorite room in the house now that summer is here.  We begin to feel homesick and at the same time can't believe all we want to do in the next six weeks.  Also really worried about the scale of this city and how we've gotten used to it. Minneapolis will seem small....just getting prepared for culture shock and also actively planning the next trip here next spring.  Hope this finds you all well. Please write or leave comments as we miss you all so much.  Lisa
Dan and David feeling the love across from hermitage
Russian word of the day:  свет "Svet" Light.

P.S. please check out Daniel's blog if you have not yet. It's quite an informative read.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Palaces, War and Vitamin D

looking across the melted Neva at the Hermitage
the Hermitage, one of our "neighbors"
bear hanging out at Hermitage
We are about half way through our time here. Being this far north is such a treat this time of year as the sun is staying with us until past 10:00 pm already.  A daily baptism of Vitamin D.  The mood lifts, the skin is grateful. By 9:00 it's a pink light that is just so surreal. White Nights are on the way...we've been excited by the green grass, flowers, birds and tree buds.  Also the public clean up has been impressive.  Daniel reports "at school, we never get to play outside in winter time but we get to play outside at spring time!  We are also going to be gardening starting next week".  The boys have the next two Monday's off from school for May Day and May 9th which is Day of Victory (WW II).  There will be parades with tanks etc and that should be interesting.  One not so great thing about spring here is the mosquitoes.  Both boys have been bitten and Sasha had his school mates convinced he had chicken pox (Mission: to be sent home early. Result: thwarted by mom).

Boys eating Ice Cream at the Hermitage on an early spring day
As I walk around town, I am truly awed by the architecture.  The grandness. The colors and design.  Now that the canals are melted and flowing one can truly imagine life a hundred years ago.  Russians are funny about public life.  The boys are both concerned about how "cold" Russians seem in public.  We've tried to get them to stop calling it "mean" as it really is just a different performance of self in public. There is no pressure to smile here at strangers.  There is also a tendency to speak quietly when outside, something we are NOT good at. So, we are often the loudest, weirdest, smiliest people on the street, just letting our American freak flag fly.  I have stopped being in any way embarrassed although I will not dare to speak for Volodya on that.  We went on a trip to the aquarium here and it was great fun.  The boys were impressed.  The fact is, most Russian museums for children are still sort of old school compared to those in America where "interactive" is old news and expected. The Aquarium and one other small science museum we found are exceptions. Clean, well lit, and planned, they were both a treat.
Volodya, sister Lena and Mama Ludmilla

We celebrated Easter with the family. Sadly, on Easter morning I badly scalded myself with boiling coffee in an accident involving a French Press and apparently too many coffee grounds.  The result was 2nd degree burns on chest, belly and wrist. Terrifying I must say.  All healing now but the wounds have been slow to mend in some spots.  Other than that, Easter was fun.  Russian's have, since the fall of Soviet Union, become more "religious". It's only in quotes because Volodya feels at least some of it is simply fashion, not a Great Awakening. But anyway, every other person wears a cross now, something that would have been "frowned upon" 20 years ago.   I want to visit the synagogue but am told its quite orthodox and for a woman alone it might be tricky. The Jewish story here is still something that deeply saddens me. 

our students at the Academy being weird
We have finished our class with the student group at the Academy except for an "Open Lecture/Demonstration" we will present to interested students and faculty on May 17th.  I have really enjoyed this group of students and their hunger for working in this new way.  I have fantasies of bringing them to America next summer for some cultural exchange with my UMN students.  They have so much to teach each other and I'd love to facilitate that kind of meeting. Indeed it was such an exchange that led me here in the first place so I know it's value first hand.

some of my class of faculty. Igor is far right
Zhenia, our babysitter!
a bridge near Nevsky Prospekt
The class with the faculty has been great but more difficult due to more entrenched habits in the teachers (of course) and a more varied skill set physically.  But there is a core group of them who have been amazing to meet. In fact, one of them, Igor will be playing Marinetti in our show in May (replacing the irreplaceable Stephen Pearce!).  He is a wonderful actor and physical Decroux trained performer.  Yesterday we went to his home for a "meeting" about the show. The meeting was mostly eating food he and his wife Olga (Growtowski trained performer) made for us, laughing at his stories of his army days in Siberia and hearing Igor play about 10 different instruments.  Privately, Russians are the most generous hosts I've ever encountered.  It was lovely and I look forward to working with him very much. The pressure of the festival grows as we look for instruments, lights, costumes etc and we are eager for our gang to get here, hopefully with all their luggage, computers, creativity and bodies in tact!

end of winter as Daniel plays
Ludmilla, intrepid administrator

 The bureaucracy has been startling as usual. Our new visas (they only last for three good reason) had to be prepared and submitted THREE times by the administrator at the Academy, each time re-written in hand and signed by me.  One new policy about where to register was in existence for only one way of knowing when these things happen unless you are unlucky enough to try to do business during that month! 
Sasha on tank with Russian flag

street dogs near our house
sasha thinking about war and peace
This post is too long and leaves out so much of course.  I'll leave you with photos of the pack of dogs who live on their own near our Metro stop, the Artillary museum of Weapons. 

And one video of sasha philosophizing on war and peace.

Russian word of the day:   мир. (Meer)  "Peace"

P.S. bonus photo of Peter Stein and Maria Klaus Bandauer (in wig) taking a bow at a (shhh, not very good) production during the European Theatre Prize Festival.  We saw three shows. Non very exciting...will see Uncle Vanya directed by Lev Dodin at the Maly Theatre in May which I am really looking forward to.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap. Sorry it's been so long....our internet went to "slooooowwwww" mode for several weeks. It took some leg work but Volodya fixed the problem so we're back.
To start off, I must document one sad bit of news. Volodya's father Sergei Rovinsky, died last week.  He was suffering from Parkinsons and the last few years had been very bad.  Volodya and his sister attended the funeral with Sergei's wife and family.  Volodya is fine and is glad his dad is now at peace.

lego birthday sign made by Sasha

blini eatin' at the BBQ party
On an oddly related note, we celebrated Volodya's birthday March 24 at his Mom's house then again two days later at our apartment with 6 of his friends.  It was fun to see everyone and especially cool to catch up with Anya who I worked together with on "The Meyerhold Project" when I was at Yale 1997-1999. She looks great and sends big love to anyone from the project I am in touch with (shout out to Yalies reading).

blini! how does she make them so THIN???

the "zakuska" for Volodya's birthday dinner 

See photo of the food at the Rovinsky home and Ludmilla's four grandchildren all together (Sonya, Ignat, Daniel and Sasha). For those who didn't know, Ignat has been recovering from surgery, chemo and radiation to treat brain cancer and is doing amazingly well! He is truly a miracle. I adore this kid (now 21!) who has decided to become a social worker. He's in college now, only one year behind where he would have been.  He's really good with the boys as he speaks English and is just such a gentle and patient young man.

all four of Ludmilla's grandchildren in one place
We hosted a BBQ dinner at Baba Luda's last weekend.  The BBQ (I made ribs after Volodya hunted high and low for BBQ sauce) was a huge hit.  We are so happy we have corrupted them to be partial to the cooking of the Southern U.S.  While the ribs slow cooked, the boys ate blini (of course) made by Baba Luda. Because Blini go with everything, even BBQ.  I know I mention blini a lot...I'll work on adopting other interests.

sledding at the "bar hill" at night
Sledding,  Russian style means finding dangerous, old strips of plastic someone threw out to slide down hills in the nearby park. Here they are sledding at what we call "bar hill" because the "hill" is basically the roof of a bar.  The thumping base beat makes for good back ground to sledding.  Luckily this snow is old news. The melt is on. Sun every day and the dirty snow fades to memory. Unfortunately Russians are not in the habit of keeping public places clean. The streets are full of trash. But today and yesterday, all the detritus that the receding snow revealed was being cleaned by many many sanitation workers. So, I look forward to full on spring!

our neighborhood blini stand. "Teremok"

Iguan dance will be in festival too
We have artistic news.  We (Theatre Novi Most) will be performing our show M2:Mayakovsky and Marinetti at the Bodyword Festival here in May.   Three of the TNM gang, Dan Dukich, Julianna Drajko and David Steinman will join us from Minneapolis! We are so grateful to various last minute funding helpers for making their trips possible.  The festival is a "celebration of unusual forms of dance in connection with art and literature". As M2 is about Mayakovsky's writing and is certainly "unusual dance", it seems a perfect fit.  We'll be conducting workshops in physical improvisation for this international festival too.  The website is down right now but it's beautiful and can be found at
I think we perform May 19th, so tell all your Petersburg friends.

The State Theatre Academy, Makovaya St.
In teaching/academy news, we have begun the course with the teachers.  Academy web site  They are a really dynamic group and eager for the exchange.  It's interesting to talk with them about teaching young actors and directors here. The challenges are so similar! Igor is a pantomime teacher (Decroux trained) and we spoke about the kids being "plugged in to computers and smart phones so much that they forget what real life and human contact feels like" and Acting teacher Lena talked to me about wanting kids to get out of their heads but finding they don't trust their bodies at first....sound familiar?  One difference:  I often ask "how did that exercise feel to you and what did you notice?" and then there is a pause during which I wait for a response. With both the teachers and the student group, people take a while to answer me at first, as if they are not sure I mean it-- is it rhetorical?  One teacher said "that's the first time a teacher actually asked me that and expected me to answer!" She was half joking but I think there is some truth in this.  The teacher as "Master" is a pervasive icon here.  The American notion of "everyone's opinion is valid" and "we are all artists!" is somewhat suspect. In part for good reason....quality is valued here and quality is elitist.  I am elitist in some ways so I get it. The student group is so wonderful! I will post photos of these talented, young, energetic, positive, hard working students soon. As our time together is only one day a week I am focusing only on improvisation. I'm not trying to build a performance so as not to take any time away from the training.  They are growing so quickly it is dazzling.
Maxim Gorky -- our Metro stop is "Gorkovskaya"
I've been thinking about the meaning of art.  A Russian dramaturg once said to me that she thinks democracy and freedom kill art because in a free society art is not needed in the same way.  It is not as urgent. It is no longer where one goes to see and hear the truth, even in metaphor (especially in metaphor!). I'm not sure I agree completely, but there is something to this.  I ponder.  Life is harder here, there is just no two ways about it.  But it's not like it was in Soviet days for sure. Not even like it was ten years ago even with the moves toward nationalism.  One friend, speaking of Russia now, said "yes, we have more malls but less freedom". So, is the art "urgent" now?  I don't know yet.  We are seeing a bunch of theatre next week when the European Prize Festival is in town. Peter Stein's piece is one I'm quite excited to see. We saw DEREVO a few weeks ago.  Artistically stunning, with some beautiful movement. It didn't add up to a satisfying whole for us but we loved the audience! They meet the actors so bravely here.  Acting is considered such a noble way to live and the audience seems to want to shower them with love and support. It's quite moving. Bows go on forever.....

We have been in planning stages for the upcoming season of work in Minneapolis (exciting plans for shows at the Southern, Playwrights Center and Children's Theatre) so my mind has been in two places....we have been here about 1/3 of our time already and there are days of being home sick.  We miss you all!
Please write us and keep us in your thoughts.

Bonus: Russian word of the day -- кухня (Kuknia) KITCHEN

on the couch/dinner chairs in Baba Luda's house

Sunday, March 20, 2011

School Starts and Theatre Still Matters Here.

Gentle Reader:
This past week the boys both started school.  Aside from the obvious problem of making us get up early (why are we ALL so lame at this?), the reviews are mixed. Sasha is still waiting to see if it gets any "easier or more fun" and he says it has made him appreciate his FAIR School community back home more!  He is learning the complicated art of making friends across cultural barriers (note: humor translates last).  But the school is small and sweet and two of our neighbors Anatole and Lucien (sons of another American Fulbright couple Renee and thankful they are here!) also attend.  Daniel is ecstatic about his new Montessori!  He can't wait to go every day and is comforted by the usual Montessori things ("Red Rods! Pink Tower!").  It is a lovely school and we are so grateful for Maria Montessori in Daniel's world.  Here are photos of the exterior of Sasha's school, the boys with Lucien, and Daniel doing "flag work" at his new school.

Sasha walks to school but to get Daniel each day to his, we take a "Marshutka" -- a shuttle van, and two Metro rides. It takes about 45 minutes.  He's a real trooper and both boys are getting so much stronger from all the walking!  City living... St. Petersburg has a population of about 5.5 million.  Minneapolis is about 380,000. So, yeah,  it's bigger here.  All of it.  Lots of walking around curving streets with a mix of old buildings from past centuries next to modern store fronts full of designer/expensive stuff. It's a strange juxtaposition. Kind of like living an episode of Dr. Who when times collide.  This is one of my favorite old buildings in our neighborhood.  The Metro is excellent, fast and efficient. The Metro stops are really beautiful too.

On the walk to Sashas school each day we pass the fire station. The fire fighters let Daniel go in the truck!

 The firefighters chopping at the ice on the sidewalk. Hard work...despite their macho exterior it seems the language of "boys and trucks' is universal and they immediately invited little Daniel inside.  His mother followed, muttering in Russia "thanks so much!" and trying not to scare them by smiling too much.

 The boys are both interested in models of things.  Medieval villages for Daniel and modern (WWII and later) Soviet and Russian submarines, tanks, planes etc for Sasha.  Epic battles happen all around our apartment all day as they dissolve the  time space continuum. Lisa feels quite outnumbered and alienated around all the boy energy (which includes a lot of snow ball fights...something she has NO interest in either) and is thinking about getting a hotel room.

Yesterday, oddly,  we went to see a Cat Show!  Volodya's school friend Ivor (pictured here after several drinks of cognac to celebrate his stunning cat's success) shows his cat "Matisse" regularly and invited us to come along. The boys LOVED seeing all the beautiful cats, hearing Ivor's "life lessons" about brothers loving and not hitting each other (ignored by boys), and the tea room snacks.

After the cat show (left... Lisa has fallen for "Matisse", a most fetching and handsome gentleman cat. The feeling seems mutual) we had a delicious dinner with Sonja, Volodya's daughter.

Volodya had all his children in one place. (No comment on which cultural wing of his offspring shows the most grace and promise....this photo shows there is no contest really).  Sonja is doing really well! Recovering like a champ from a very bad car accident just over a year ago and growing into a very talented artist and sculptor.  She makes her Papa proud. (See resemblance in photo below)

As for Lisa's work:  The teaching goes well. It is amazing to trade notions of what theatre is and what directors "do" with these young actors (they are between 18 and 23).  They are so used to an authoritarian model of the director/actor relationship which is deeply a part of the Russian tradition. They stand when the teacher enters the room and applaud after class (do you hear that UMN students??? They STAND for the MASTER... :)
I explain my notion of the actor and director as collaborators and creators of their own first they needed clarification (perhaps they misunderstood the translation?) and then they break into huge smiles and excited applause. They are very eager to build a new piece directed by me and I am eager to do it as well. I am training them in physical theatre work as I practice it and am once again amazed by the power of what can happen when a group of people commit to the moment and play together.  Language falls away, unnecessary. I am impressed once again, by the incredible discipline and work ethic of the Russian actors. Their history of excellent art has been passed down.  This country still believes in Theatre.  That is a powerful statement.  The work I am seeing by the senior students is astonishing, brave, SKILLED and inspiring.  So, I am humbled and grateful to be exchanging artistic notions with these talented and passionate students. I will teach this group and then eventually, I will be training a group of faculty in my style of working. I look forward to trading techniques with them very much.  I hope to take away even one fifth of their passion and commitment.  As for Volodya, he is making several good connections for future directing work in Russia for himself and enjoying that prospect.  I note that there are absolutely no women on faculty in major teaching positions here.  It is shocking to this American feminist.  Russia is behind America in this regard -- Women as directors is mostly a new idea and not one that all folks can comprehend. I realize I'm possibly a bit of a freak show, ambassador or canary in coal mine...not sure which.

We have not had time to see any professional performances yet. We will most certainly.  We will be seeing DEREVO next week in their new show "Mephisto's Waltz" and are looking forward to it.

Spring has sent her first messengers.  Two crows build a nest in our courtyard outside our kitchen window. Daniel and I watch them and time slows down. The melted ice and snow rains down from the tops of the 19th century curved roofs as we walk by.  We look forward to the full thaw.

Our apartment building and front door in the sun.
Lisa in the sunlight. Note: the cocky stance is the effects of a day when she actually ordered food in Russian, paid for it herself with the "monopoly money" (she still doesn't fully grasp the exchange rate) and carried on a conversation with some minor sense of dignity.  Mostly Lisa is silent and passive in Russia, still annoying dependent and clueless.  She reads, marvels and ponders.

Thanks for reading.
Extra Credit:  Russia word of the day:  Весной (Vesnoy) SPRING