Two days ago, I sat in the spot where, it can be claimed with some justification, modern theatre was born: the main auditorium of the Moscow Art Theatre. It was here that Stanislavsky’s “System” of actor development was put into effect (the beginning of so-called “Method Acting” and the foundation of all modern Western acting of the 20th and 21st centuries). It was here that Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” received its world premiere 110 years ago, arguably the most influential play of its time, the beginning of modernism in the theatre. For a director and acting teacher like me, this is holy ground. As I sat in those wooden seats, our generous tour guide (a dramaturg and educator who has worked at the theatre since the 1950’s) pointed to a seat on the aisle a few rows away from me. “That was Stanislavsky’s seat when he was directing,” he said. Then he pointed to a box seat to the side of the stage, currently covered by a curtain. “That was Stalin’s box.” Quite without warning, I found myself choking up; the sense of history was palpable, the legends who haunted that space filling the seats around us.
It almost didn’t happen, though. We only had a short time for a tour of the theatre, and we’d spent about 45 minutes in the lobby, packed with photographs of famous actors, directors, and playwrights who’d worked at MAT, listening to their stories. Our guide started to lead us back out to the street, when my colleague, Sharon Green, blessedly asked, “Would it be OK if we saw the theatre for a moment?” Our guide hesitated. “We are previewing a new play tonight.” The “new play” turned out to be Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” “But I think you can see it for a moment.” And he ushered us through a curtain into the auditorium, where the huge steel set for “Streetcar” rotated on its revolving stage to present us with its full facade. We had to leave after ten minutes or so because they were about to have a rehearsal where they still had yet to stage the last scene of the play. For a second, both Sharon and I stayed in our seats. “Could we stay?” Sharon asked. “I’d be very happy to just sit here and watch rehearsal all afternoon.” But, alas, it was not to be.
The next night, I stepped into a side box at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg to watch a fabulously entertaining piece of Orientalist ballet frou-frou. The sets were incredible, the music stirring, the theatre romantically grand. I felt like a character in “Anna Karenina,” like I should be carrying on a furtive love affair with a stranger who’d just wandered into my box, or disinterestedly scanning the opposite boxes for signs of scandal. It was a magical evening.
These are once-in-a-lifetime moments for me, extreme wish fulfillment. I also learn from them: about my still resounding passion for my craft; about the power of spartan simplicity, whether it’s the clean scenic line of a steel balcony or the surprising emotional weight of a dying ingenue’s extended arm along a marble column; about the unconsidered connections between two very different kinds of Stalin-sponsored performance; or about the joy of experiencing and digesting these moments in the company and amidst the stimulating conversation and debate of my generous fellow travelers.