What I Learned from the Russians

In January of 1997, while a first year student at Yale School of Drama, I, along with my full class of fellow actors and directors, under the leadership of YSD professor, David Chambers, boarded a plane for St. Petersburg, Russia. We would spend five weeks in Russia, re-staging the legendary Russian theatrical director Meyerhold´s 1926 production of “The Inspector General”, a show that ran for years during his life and was touted, by many, as his masterpiece. As a side note, the communists eventually used this production as justification to politically assassinate Meyerhold.

Meyerhold´s 1926 production of Gogol´s "The Inspector General" or "Revizor"

Here is a link to the NY Times article about the project

But, this post today is not about Meyerhold, as much as it is about how I learned about what discipline means, a lesson I learned from our Russian collaborators and fellow artists.

In my life, I have had many opportunities to develop considerable discipline. From childhood through high school, I studied martial arts (meaning “military arts”) and competed as a black belt in the adult divisions on the national level (at the age of fourteen).

I studied theatre for years prior to college and then dedicated myself to four formal years of conservatory-style training at SMU and later went to study another three in the conservatory at Yale School of Drama—all experiences that necessitated and demanded discipline of me on a daily basis.

But, it was from the Russians that I came face to face with what discipline really is.

St. Petersburg was quite a shock to the system for most of my classmates and myself. We lived for five weeks in a dirty Russian youth hostel, sharing a breakfast table each morning with revolving door of sad men, who were there to “meet their brides”.

During those five weeks, I experienced dancing Russian circus bears and trained Russian boars in the saddest circus I had ever seen. I nearly fell through a frozen canal, along with several classmates, which would have, I am quite sure, lead to our collective demise, had we not pulled ourselves out. Russian mobsters followed us after walking into a “Chinese/Russian restaurant”, apparently serving as a meeting place for their supposed shady activities. Everything about our Russian adventure was extreme.

Just as extreme, were our fellow Russian collaborators´ discipline.

One day, while doing a group theatrical warm up with our Russian counterparts (I think we were doing mirror exercises), the artist I was working with began to sway. In confusion, I watched as his yellow tinted tongue fell out of his mouth. His eyes rolled back into his head and I watched, in shock, as he collapsed to the floor in a heap.

Stunned, I moved to help him back up and was greeted by our Russian-American translator (also a then 3rd year Yalie), who quickly assured me that everything is ok, that this young artist, who for privacy’s sake, I will call “Anton”, was simply starving. That is all.

“Anton is just starving”.

“Just starving?”, I thought. Apparently, it was hard to afford both school and food.

Anton found the strength to leap back to his feet, determined to continue working. “Sit down”, everyone was telling him. Anton refused. He was not there to sit. He was there to work. Two minutes later, the situation repeated itself—again the tongue, again the rolling eyes, followed by another collapse.

Again, we said, “Anton, how about you sit down for a while”. Again, he refused, this time much more adamantly and assertively.

I was deeply moved by Anton’s passion for the work and for his drive, his discipline.

Juxtapose this with my fellow Yalies and I, each walking in with our $400 high tech winter gear and Evian water bottles, snacking on the various designer protein bars we had brought with us.

In working with Anton, my problems seemed so small, so trivial. Any complaints or grumblings I might have entertained or expressed around the hardship of living in a Russian youth hostel for weeks at a time, seemed so trite. Anton was starving and he was there to work…each and every day, without fail and without complaint.

Those experiences lead me to pursue my studies the following year with fierce determination and vigor. To complain…about just about anything, was a waste of time. Complaints only served as distraction.  Complaints and lack of preperation only served negativity, an energy that is destructive and non life affirming. I was at Yale to work and work, I did.

That five-week experience in Petersburg changed my life. It altered, not only my perspective on discipline, but also what theatre is, has been for centuries, and can be. It was during this trip that I first experienced a theatrical aesthetic that was outside of Realism, a discovery that sewed the seed of a later passion—a passion that lead me towards another life-changing experience—living in Asia for a year, studying ritualistic mask dancing.

In reflecting on the timeline of my creative pursuits and profession, I can say, without any doubt, that this Russian adventure served as a shifting point, as a transitional moment in my development—one that would serve as a basis for my other theatrical aspirations for years to come. To this day, I am deeply appreciative of the experience director David Chambers afforded me and us.

At Austin Conservatory of Professional Arts and TITAN Teaterskole discipline development plays a key role in our process of training and preparing our entrepreneurial artists for the demands and rigors of a career in the arts. It is this discipline that will help them overcome obstacle after obstacle and “show up”, regardless of what curve balls life may throw their way.

Jim Hart is the founder of Austin Conservatory of Professional Arts, The International Theatre Academy Norway, The Hart Technique and Sleeping Hero Productions, LLC.

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4 thoughts on “What I Learned from the Russians

  1. Great article, Jim- yeah I too often think of those five weeks in St. Petersburg in measures of extreme, and how powerful and life-affirming that time was…particularly when I think of the “softness” of our western capitalistic background….visiting their homes? Witnessing those breadlines against the backdrop of tinted, black Mercedes?! Living/working among the dark, dank crumbling stately mansions of czarist Russia? And this idea that for those students, “art wasn’t a ‘Want’, it was a ‘Need’ to create”….that notion of a “collective good” in their blood – to school us on the real meaning of “ensemble” – I could go on and on but yes, indeed life-changing.
    Cheers, Chris

  2. I remeber when we went to see “Cherry Orchard” at a theater there. I was the last performance of an aged actor who played Pierce. The theater was full and people were fighting to get in to be a part of the event. This you will only find in sports or rock concerts in western contries. I remember the show was 3 hours long and people were standing in the eisles all this time, weeping with emotion. I will never forget that theater experience and I can only hope that one day theater will again become a major part of our cultural life. Thanks Jim for reminding us, and bringing back this standard of work.

  3. Eyal, that performance of Cherry Orchard is my most memorable, favorite and moving theatre experience. THAT was theatre. Jim, great article and all so true. Date was January 1997. Life in St. Petersburg at that time was interesting to say the least. I remember walking back to class with Elizabeth Stephens, Claudia Arenas and Rod Fox when an elderly man dropped dead in front of us. His wife was in a panic and Rod did CPR, but the rest of the Russians just walked around his body on that frozen sidewalk as though nothing was the matter. So strange and upsetting.

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