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Russian Evolution

Cal State Fullerton associate professor Svetlana Efremova teaches American acting students to tap into emotions.


The Cal State Fullerton course catalog calls it Theatre 463: Acting III. It's about learning to play the classics--Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare.

Maybe they should rename it "From Russia, with tough love." With Svetlana Efremova as their teacher, the dozen seniors in the course are learning, to their delight and occasional discomfort, that in the theater there is no gain without some pain.

Last week, the agenda was a single scene from Chekhov's "The Sea Gull," in which an aging stage diva, Arkadina, makes a last-ditch attempt to dissuade her lover from dumping her for a much younger woman.

It was quite a mountain for a 21-year-old actress to climb. Sarah Orr, tall and pink complected, is a novice, not a diva, and never in her young life has she known what it is to fight madly to hang on to someone she desperately needs. In her first tentative, passive take on Arkadina, she was clearly in over her red head. Efremova (pronounced "e-FREYM-ova") was going to have to push to get this student up the slope. And she was prepared to do just that.

"In Russia, metaphorically speaking, they used the whip," the stylish Efremova says a while later in the cubbyhole office she shares with a dance teacher. She speaks in a charming accent and with animation and passion that show none of the effects of middle-of-the-night awakenings to soothe her 3-month-old firstborn.

Now in her second year as an associate professor at Cal State Fullerton, Efremova spares the whip but not the prod as she translates for gentler American sensibilities the sometimes harsh methods she was schooled in some 20 years ago at the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) Academy of Theatre.

She grew up in the Siberian capital Novosibirsk, the daughter of a member of the Soviet "technical intelligentsia," an engineer who worked on weapons.

She studied intensively to be a concert pianist. Then, when she was 15, a Russian star, Alisa Freindlikh, came to town with a traveling repertory company. Efremova watched her, and everything changed. Within a year, having surmounted 250-1 odds during auditions, she was enrolled at the Academy. There she endured eight-hour acting classes while learning the famous method of Konstantin Stanislavski--who starred in the original productions of Chekhov's plays--from a teacher who had been taught by Stanislavski himself.

The four years of rigor paid off. Efremova says she graduated to a privileged life as a member of the Leningrad State Theatre: a private dressing room, her own dresser and makeup artist, two months paid vacation. It was a luxury--the only drawback being that, under the Soviet system her pay as a leading actress doing 35 shows a month was no better than what the understudies were making.

Gorbachev and glasnost arrived. In 1990, Efremova's company got to tour the United States, performing and giving workshops. Soon after, she got an offer to teach at Muskingum College in Ohio. She was free to go--and with signs that the Communist old guard was going to fight to overturn Gorbachev's policy of "openness," she went.

"If you taste freedom--I start liking it. I thought if Communism will win, I don't want to be there."

In Ohio she met and married an American actor, Patrick Reed. Next she enrolled at the Yale School of Drama. She relished her first encounters with edgy American plays by the likes of David Mamet and Sam Shepard--modern American works having been banned in the Soviet Union. Her biggest thrill, after extensive Shakespearean acting in Russian, was getting to play Ophelia, Desdemona and Cordelia in the original English.

Two years ago she and her husband moved to Southern California, seeking the film and TV roles an actor needs to make a decent living. They didn't materialize, but Efremova made a connection at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, where she debuted last year in "Tartuffe." She returned in January in the role of a sexy, languorous house cat in a tight-fitting furry body suit in Jose Rivera's "References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot." Efremova says that her rounding belly--she was 5 1/2 months pregnant with baby Veronica when the show ended--made her feel even more feminine and feline. Another role at South Coast awaits, starting Oct. 31, as an English noblewoman in a 19th century period piece, "The Countess."

This week, teaching by example, Efremova will play the turbulent sister, Masha, in Chekhov's "The Three Sisters," leading a student cast in a Cal State Fullerton theater department production. She has introduced some Russian songs and dances into the show, and taught cast members the proper way to drink vodka: not by sips, but with a big puff of breath to gird oneself, followed by a single, bottoms-up gulp.

Efremova says she will have to brace herself a bit for the role, which she will play through Sunday; another actress takes over after that because Efremova will have begun rehearsals for "The Countess."

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