A Letter From RussiaLetter from Russia, July 1994
Dear Lorraine, 7/26/94
I am almost done with the first part of my workhere in Russia with the Interstudio Theatre in Pushkin. All week I have been working onmaking costumes for
The Seagull and Night (a Chinese show). This is what my life is likehere: First, I get up really late because I have a slightly skewed schedule. I have beenliving in St. Petersburg with Milla, a Russian artist/designer who is renting me a room, Isleep in Mila's bedroom/storage room and Mila sleeps in her living room/art studio.
Thisway she can work late into the night after I've turned in, and I can get up at anobscenely early hour like 10 o'clock and not wake her after a night's drawing and Yoga.Mila is a really cool artist, hippie chick, new age granola type, whose flow of ideas andartwork make me look dull and slow by comparison. Mila is also engaged to KarlKalen, theactor-student-punk I've told you about, back at the
University ofAlaska, and all partiesconcerned (including my self) are trying to get Mila's visa blessed by the state dept soshe can come to Fairbanks asap. On the walls of Mila's studio are endless drawings offlames and faces and trees and leaves, many "painted" with the black smoke of acandle flame.
here in St. Petersburg, as well as other photos of last summer's "Russian AmericanTheatre" events. On one wall is a costume made of old potato sacks and broken mirrorswith a tree of life painted on it and burlap fringe hanging from the arms and hem.
Everywhere else in the room, in the hall,in any spare space are frames, empty ones for future use, and full ones, and dozens of oilpaintings, many with mirrors attached to the canvas. In "my" room are the lessartistic stored items, plus my junk, and my art supplies. My friend Anatoly managed tosave one of my two suitcases I left here in Russia last summer, and it was the one withall my art supplies. Between what I had left from last summer, and what I brought thissummer, and what Mila has, we are both in total artistic bliss. Mila really liked the artsupplies her friend Gwen gave me to bring her too. Also I am finding some Russian stuffthat Mila hasn't used before and we are experimenting with that too. Russian white glue isessentially Phlex glue, so I can make acrylic fabric paint out of it mixed with pigment!On my walls I have poster size enlargements of my best photos (most obviously of UAFstuff), and new cartoons of babushkas.
have put up cartoons that teach me Russian. For examplethere is Snow white's stepmother next to the hall mirror saying "Mirror,mirror on the wall..." and cartoon balloons over the sink saying "Hi,I'm the sink!" "And I'm the soap!" and so forth. This amuses Milano end. My Russian study continues very slowly at best, but I am much betterthan last year. I sometimes can manage whole sentences now. In the morning Iwake and shower and wash my socks and stuff from the night before. Then, untilyesterday I spent 1/2 hour laboriously pumping water for the day with a fancyAmerican $150.00 water pump from hell. Today I didn't have to however, becauseyesterday I bought a Russian made American designed water filter for $3.50 thatis designed for the local water and faucets, and it simply fits onto the tap anddoes all the work with water pressure. After 1000 liters it stops flowing andyou replace it. It even comes with a St. Petersburg Dept of Health approval!Best of all it just screws onto the tap in two seconds whenever you need it."Kaif" as they say here, which is about like "cool". So Ieat my vitamins, drink some sterilized milk, and maybe eat a banana. Then takethe express bus to Moskovsky Metro for 40 minutes to meet my car pool. Moskovskyis under this big square with a giant statue of Lenin in the center. Like theBronze Horseman (statue of Peter the Great) it is too damn big to move when thepolitical wind changes, besides, in a country littered with bronze Lenins, it isone of the best looking ones. His 3 story high bronze frock coat flaps in theair like he is leaning into the winds of change, with proletarian cap in hand,and vest buttons straining across his chest with the exertion. At the moment heis leaning into the wind coming from the Coca-Cola billboard opposite him. Allround the edge of the square are dozens of kiosks selling everything fromWalkmans and condoms to potatoes and piva. Kiosks are much neater cleaner andbetter organized than they were here two years ago. They are also much moreprevalent. Two years ago each square had five or six, now maybe 150 are around Moskovsky. Moskovsky also is home to one of the biggest dept stores in the city,as well as several large food stores (one of which sold me my water filter).Each day I go to Moskovsky about an hour early to do shopping for either home orwork, drop off photos at the Kodak booth, change money, and just window shop.This is how I find $3.50 water filters and 50c bottles of Phlex glue. I usuallybuy a cold 17c Coca-Cola in a cup, and then go to the curb to meet with my carpool of directors. It is true that I have said that all theatre directors arescum (they can't help it), but I really like these guys. There is our leader anddriver Roman Vinderman who looks like a 50 something dress extra in The ThreeMusketeers complete with curly salt and pepper hair, goatee, big floppy shirtsand a nose to match the name. He reminds me of a cheerful version of my friendAnatoly (if that isn't an oxymoron), and he speaks good English. He is the onewho is doing scenes from Chekhov's Seagull with puppet doubles shadowingsome actors. He is also amazingly easy to work with, and does work in Siberia inthe winters. Then there is my Chinese guy from Shanghai Drama Institute (with anunpronounceable name kind of like Hui or Shoui or Xui), he is nice too, but hekeeps adding and changing things daily so that Seagull is getting the short endof the stick. He is the one who saw our ex-UAF student Megan (who went to Hawaiiand then China to learn Chinese theatre when last heard from) in Bejing, doingChinese opera and said she was very good. It is so amazing that I, fromFairbanks, should meet a man in Russia, who comes from Shanghai, who saw in Bejing, Megan from Fairbanks doing Chinese opera. The theatre world is soincredibly small, it's just astonishing. He is real good with the actors, andhis rehearsals look really fun. He's pretty tall and big for a Chinese guy, andseems about my age. He speaks moderately good English and better Russian. Everyday I hear him extract a Russian lesson in the back seat from Sergei, my thirddirector, and I've been getting a little bit each day just listening in. Sergeispeaks no English at all, and so with that safety buffer between us he flirtsshamelessly with me and vice versa. He is a hand kisser, and a classic nerd. Hewears wool coats on 90 degree days, suspenders, and a tie. What is more, he isactually cold if someone opens a window! On bolshee lizard. (He is a biglizard.) He too is 50 something, and teaches in Ekaterinberg in the winter. Heis helping Roman with Seagull, does hand movement workshops, and I gatherfrom his Russian "lessons" with my Chinese guy, is also a voice anddiction coach. The Chinese guy has a very strong Chinese accent in Russian thateven I can detect. It is funny listening to Serge roll his rrrs like gravel eachday for his benefit. There is something rather jolly about our car pool eachday. I think all of us regard our jobs in the light of a summer vacation, and sochill out accordingly. Also the car ride allows us to work out our problems witheach other in a neutral space before work, and bond and all that crap. All of usare also from out of town, so we trade secrets like the water filter, and publictransit tips. Bizarrely enough, despite my poor Russian, I seem to be the leaderin this regard! At work I've been put in the puppet making workshop, which is atruly cool space to work, however it has it's problems. Mainly, no cuttingtable, no ironing board, no clean anyplace to put anything down, and no hangersor racks to hang things up. The place has a bunch of work benches with toolracks against the walls, and a round coffee table and chairs in the center.There is also a TV, usually on in the corner. Once or twice in the afternooneverything stops for a tea (and snack) break. I have trained my volunteerassistant Masha
to not make me tea or coffee, and so she always makes sure that one cup ofboiled water is saved for me to drink plain. I was irritated by the interruptionof these breaks at first, but now I really like them. They give me a chance totry kitchen Russian on the puppetry students who don't speak English. The roomis perfect for craft work, but hell for sewing. The sewing machine is a Russianmade version of a 1900 hand crank Singer, and vastly inferior to that which itis trying to copy. There is one spool each of white and black thread, eightpins, two hand needles, and two pair of small snippers. I supplemented this witha cheap pair of shears I bought in California, some pins I'd hoarded from lastyear, safety pins and snaps from Gostiny Dvor, and two seam rippers bought atSuper Babylon. Masha found elastic and some hooks, so we are fully, if barely,operational. I also brought my trusty glue gun and some fabric paint, but I onlybring and use these when all other options fail me. At Moskovsky I've found afully stocked Finnish fabric store better than Pacific Fabrics, but tooexpensive for my budget. Better is a little hole in the wall about a block awaythat sells cotton chintz for 35c a meter, and wool for $2, with a very limitedselection. This is where I've got fabric that couldn't be salvaged from oldcurtains and drops. In all I've kicked out maybe $20 for the two shows wherecurtains would not do. The shows are simply student projects that are at the endof a three week summer session. Interstudio won't start work on their newmainstage show (The Tower ofBabel) until Spring. This is apparently what the mixup is all about. When Ihad Mila ask Almira when I could work with her on the new show, she thought Imeant this summer, not this year and said they weren't doing shows only classes.Interestingly, I found out about the true situation by listening in, as best Icould, to a coffee table meeting with some Germans, in German, where one of theInterstudio administrators was describing their work and upcoming schedule.Since my German is still quite a bit better than my Russian, this was trulyenlightening. Working at Interstudio you quickly see why Babel is the subject oftheir next play. Among their faculty there is Amy Greenberg of LA, as well as myChinese guy. They have French, Swiss, and German students also, and there arealways French, German and American folks dropping in. On the T.V. in the shopthis last week I watched German news with Russian subtitles showing Estonianfashion shows, a French dubbed American special on Martha Graham, Russian dubbedMexican soap operas, German game shows, Russian versions of Rostand's Cyrano d'Bergerac, and Johann Strauss' The Gypsy Baron, and TNT's Goodwill games inRussian with English video graphics. Everyone here is communicating in bits ofat least three or four languages on a daily basis. Listening to the radio is areal trip here too. Mila tunes into a station that plays an eclectic assortmentof Russian, American, English, and French rock and roll from the 50's on, aswell as a smattering of 1940's stuff like Edith Piaf, late Kurt Weill, and earlycountry western. Mostly the DJ's talk in Russian, but around dinner the FrenchDJ's come on, and on Saturday you can hear the American top 40 countdown! Strannia. (Strange.) I have, for instance, heard my first ever French languagecountry western swing song here. Ochen Strannia. (Very strange.) Shopping at thestreet kiosks, where nearly everything is imported, its even stranger. Whilediscussing my eating habits over here with my Mom by phone on Sunday, she askedwhat kind of oil I was cooking in. I pulled the bottle out of the refrigerator,only to tell her: "Well Mom, it's all in Spanish, but there are sunflowerson the label, so it might be that..." Our pasta has a "Made inIran" seal of approval on it, our orange juice has its label in Finnish,and Mila's teas come from Turkey and India. We also eat an assortment of Russiangoods, many of which now print their labels in English, or Russian and Englishin order to appear imported! 7/30/94 Well we have a break here while I completedthe student shows. Two days ago I talked Mila into coming with me to Pushkin fora break. The last few days have been amazingly polluted by even St. Petersburgstandards, due to a fire, so getting out of town is good for breathing.
Mila spent the day in the Catherine Park doing drawings of the Chinesepavilions, and I had fun with the Russian ironing board I'd bought the daybefore. You see I was getting very tired of trying to iron full length Edwardianskirts on a dirty square of cantttttttttttttttttttttttttt tttttttttttttf--------\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\====== ========555555555555 5555555555555555555555555555555555 555555lllllllllllllll999999999999999999 9999999999999999999999999999777777777 777777777777777777777777777777777yy Sorry,the Cat decided to try typing. "What Cat?" you ask. I'm coming tothat... So I'm ironing on a 2x2 square of dirty canvas on a dirty bench, thedresses get filthy and are wrinkled from the cramping as soon as I've finishedironing them. Masha my volunteer assistant is mysteriously gone as usual on a 45minute cigarette break. (I later find out that she has been making numerousalterations and improvements on the Ghost's costume because the Ghost can'texplain to me what he wants, and besides she has a crush on the tall studlyblonde Ghost) It's hot and Yuri the scene designer has decided to come in theshop and smoke, which I can't stand. Finally Masha returns just as Yuri decidesto go for a second cigarette. I tell Masha "I'll be back soon" turningtables on her for a change, and walk downtown. I find a lovely if short (heightnot length) Wooden Russian ironing board for $3.75 weighing about 15 lbs, andproceed to haul it the 1/2 mile to Interstudio. Masha is thrilled, Yuri wants toknow how much it cost (as if it finally occurred to him maybe they could use oneof their own) and Victor the nice puppet guy, helps me set it up. So that's whatI did for the day, I ironed. Masha finished the puppet costume and thendisappeared upstairs, the iron developed a spur on it that started snagging thefabric, I turn the 1930's vintage steam iron over to investigate and boilingwater covers my hand. Rather a bad burn. No burn cream at work, only at home, 2hours away. I try wet bandages made from costume fabric to no avail. Victor'swife breaks an egg and smears the white on my hand which, to my surprise, helpsme lots. And Mila and I head home. As we get to our building, at the door is thetiniest skinniest most forlorn most flea ridden kitten we've seen, yowlinghorribly. Naturally, we aren't able to leave it, so we bring it in. It falls inlove with my shoes and spends the night in the shoe box by the door wedgedbetween my black oxfords. The next morning we name her Shoe-lace, and I buy hera German flea collar and a stuffed mouse at Moskovsky. Mila stays home and catsits, but
Shoe-lace is a very good catand gives no trouble, (except for wanting to use the computer.)
She has black and tan tiger stripes, huge blue eyes, big pointy ears, a tinybody with skinny legs (one bad) and a long skinny tail like a rat. Back with me,I meet the guys as usual for our car pool to Interstudio, and we go driving offwith a crazy friend of Roman's following us in a Volvo.
Just at the point wherewe need to stop at the 50s style gas station at the entrance to the town ofPushkin he decides to pass us and follow from the front. Roman tries to signalhim to stop for the station but he decides instead to try to hook a u turn onthis skinny road. Alas, Volvos have one of the widest turning bases on the road.It doesn't make it, so instead it is 1/3 turned across both lanes straight infront of us. Ladas on the other hand have no breaks to speak of, so we smack ourleft headlight into the Volvo's back bumper (no injuries). An accident thatcould easily have been avoided if our cars were reversed, since Volvos stop on adime and Ladas turn on one. So we get to Interstudio, and start the marathon performathon. First an outdoor workshop of stretching and warmups, then AmyGreenberg's class of advanced students cavorts interestingly with maskssearching for Jungian archetypes, and doing unusually varied interpretations ofthe same generic scene script. Much applause. Then Sergei does hand calisthenicsto classical ballet music with the beginning students. Then an"installation" by one of the scene design students of candles andinteresting garbage and rubble draped with laundry lines of lacy women'slingerie. Then back outside for the scenes from
Seagull done in appropriately Russian summer woodland. The costume storage room islocked with Treplev's shirt inside, so the actor has to use one of his own thatdoesn't quite match, and Masha is one of the bigger ones so her skirt falls off as she exits (the costumes were made toroughly fit 4 different casts using safety pins as backup-unfortunately she didn't use thebackup), but otherwise it was a good performance. It was hard to video tape though sincethe performance surrounded the audience that was awkwardly perched on the bank of thecanal. Afterwards, I ran around photographing the actors in costume in stills, whileanother scene designer did a performance where he inflated a 3 story high clear plastictube, in which he stood at the bottom, naked, in the water near the deep part of thecanal, and swam about amidst the usual Saturday swimmers and divers. This was a great hitwith the general public in the canal who swam around it and cheered thunderously when itwas finished. I met the rather moist student as he was coming in the puppet shop to dryoff, and I was changing film and asked "Etot voui va bolshoy condom?" (Was ityou in the big condom?) which amused him. Then outside for more design students doingstrange stuff at the water fall. Then to the inner stairwell of the palace where designstudents had set up plastic bags of grass cuttings up on the 3rd floor, with strings downto the 1st floor. While a tape of rain noises played, the students pulled the strings oneby one so that grass rained on their heads in a steady stream enlivened with a few bigclumps. Then up the stairs to a pile of grey paper balls of old theatre posters. Pick upthe balls to throw at a naked design student facing the wall on a grey paper covered boxon the second floor. Another pile of balls to throw as you leave, then the 3rd floor wherethe used plastic bags hang like laundry on wires. Then to the 1820 era theatre on the 3rdfloor where Hussid the leader of Interstudio makes a short speech, and
Nightis performed. It's a very funny short farce done in Chinese opera style, costumes go ok. Ifinally figure out what my assistant Masha has been doing whenever she cuts out--makingthe Ghost look cool. Good work. Hussid mentions me as costumer for Night and Seagulland has me bow. I mention Masha and have her bow. This seems to help Masha's position as awould be actor, because she is allowed to take part in the next workshop as an actor. Thestage is cleared of scenery and curtains, and the handsome clowning wizard gives amovement workshop. Then a tea break, where Sergei repeatedly and jokingly kisses megoodbye, so I attack his fingers, and kiss them individually with great vigor, till wecan't move from laughing. All of this in front of a rather pretentious seeming Americanacademic type I've just met two minutes before. Then another designinstallation/performance with a room covered with blue jeans: the floor, the walls,wrapped round the Ionic pillars, etc. And a boy being painted blue by a girl dressed as anurse. Too crowded to see really. They are about to set up for a repeat of a performance Isaw before at Christmas, but Roman wants to leave, and I'm tired too, so we all head off,with the bald man in the Volvo veeringly following us like a maniac in a car chase movie,with a portrait of Lenin shoved onto the dashboard "to see what the traffic policewill say".....
So write or call me soon please. Love, Tara.