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For U.S. and Russian theater students, a state of transglobal warming

Collaborating on an original production, students from CalArts and the Russian Academy of Theater Arts discover a common language.

March 27, 2011|By Jason Kehe, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Fedor Malyshev, left, Igor Mazepa, Irene Muscara) and Michael Pignatelli) rehearse "Family," a collaborative work between students from a Russian Academy of Theater Arts (GITIS) and their counterparts at CalArts.
Fedor Malyshev, left, Igor Mazepa, Irene Muscara) and Michael Pignatelli)… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

It was only their second full day in the U.S, but the Russian exchange students were undaunted by their task — putting on a show about Sept. 11 for a group at the California Institute of the Arts that included many native New Yorkers. Any doubts among the Americans that the Russians could play an American tragedy quickly gave way to tears.

The show, with the exception of Fedor Malyshev's closing monologue by a boy whose father was killed in the attack, was in Russian, but "you could understand what was going on, through the movement, through the gestures," explained Tatiana Williams, a 24-year-old theater undergraduate at CalArts in Valencia. "We couldn't wait to get in the room to work with them and see what we would create together."

What they would create together became part of a first-of-its-kind, two-week collaboration between students from the Russian Academy of Theater Arts, known as GITIS, and CalArts students to create an entirely original, dual-language production.

Mirjana Jokovic, director of performance at CalArts, could see her hopes for the program at work after that first performance by the Russian students. "My hope was that they would recognize those moments of truth that are without language, that go beyond form," she said. "And that's exactly what happened."

The GITIS-CalArts exchange originated last year at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, where officials were trying to think up creative ways to capitalize on the Bilateral Presidential Commission, a 2009 initiative by presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev partly aimed at bridging the long-standing cultural gap between the nations. The embassy wanted to bring together people in the arts from both countries. Theater was an obvious link, given the countries' rich, equally influential traditions in the dramatic arts.

In 2010, the embassy reached out to CalArts, known for its international programs and artistic experimentalism. They were put in contact with Jokovic, a Serbian actress whose work in such films as "Underground" is well known overseas. She expressed interest in the project, "being Slav and American and loving both cultures, being a bridge already in my life," she said.

The embassy invited her to Russia to see its pervasive theater scene and acquaint herself with its preeminent acting schools. There was no intention at the time to set up some kind of exchange program, Jokovic said, but "once I was there and shook those hands and I had those eye contacts, it was suddenly obvious that it is waiting to happen."

GITIS struck her as a kind of Russian equivalent to CalArts. She saw that the school afforded its students a freedom of artistic expression akin to the way Jokovic teaches. She and Evgeniy Kamenkovich, one of GITIS' top faculty members, quickly came up with the idea for the collaboration, to be sponsored by the Center for New Performance at CalArts.

Less than a year and a delayed three-stop, transglobal flight later, nine GITIS students arrived in Los Angeles last month.

Malyshev, 20, was one of the few bilingual students among the group, which included about as many CalArts students as Russians. Early on, he served as one of the unofficial translators. But as the American students bonded with the Russians over beach trips, an Oscar party and Mariah Carey, his services were needed less and less. From the sidelines, Jokovic watched as the students developed what she termed "human crushes — this recognition of presence and awareness that we are one."

"It was strange at first," said GITIS student Irene Muscara, 27. "But then we found a common language."

Gestures began to replace nouns, "OK" became their favorite word, and music brought them together. Malyshev picked up a few slang terms, like "bottom line" and "devil-speaking."

"Yes, speak of the devil," said Williams corrected him, laughing. She and the other Americans gained a few Russian phrases as well, like "Kak dela?" (How are you?) and "spasibo" (thank you).

For the next two weeks, the students settled into a routine. They had daily four-hour rehearsals in which they slowly improvised their way to a cohesive show. Improvisation is a standard exercise in Russian theater training — not as much in America. But the CalArts students were quick to pick up the Russian style, even if they really didn't know what their partners were saying.

Malyshev, for one, couldn't get enough. "Improvisation is always a holiday," he said, "especially in different languages."

But the improvisatory exercises needed direction, some end goal in mind. As the students began to ruminate on ideas for the show, Jokovic suggested stereotypes. "There is no one in this world who wasn't at some point stamped with a certain premeditated idea of who they are," she said.

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