In October 1991 I found myself in Moscow. It was a couple of months after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were still barricades in the streets and it felt edgy but also exciting. At one restaurant a man in an orange suit and orange shoes sat at the next table on his own and the waiters took special care of him. When he finished I noticed there was no bill and his car, equally flashy, was outside the front door.
I was travelling to Ukraine to study the Stanislavski system of acting. Two weeks of living in an old Moscow apartment had me raring to go. Creepy crawlies moved whenever I opened the cutlery drawer – I was ready to move on.
I arrived at Moscow’s internal airport where I was to meet an American called Zan – a professor of drama at a US university. I spotted him immediately. I presumed bottle green tracksuits with white stripes and spotless white trainers were not usual Russian clothes despite the man in the orange suit.
I introduced myself and for the next hour heard the highly detailed story of his life and how important his work had been. I don’t think he once asked about me. All this was surreal as around me was an entire cross section of the Russian people. Faces that you don’t generally see in the west. Eventually our flight was announced but we were directed to a VIP area. It turned out to be a small room with no chairs. There were three, obviously wealthy, women with impressive fur coats and hats and a man who stood up very straight and did not move. Then we were directed down some stairs to the tarmac. There was a long queue of what would easiest to describe as working rural people, headscarves, hats, live chickens in coops, bags, and cases. An airport bus drew up and the doors swished open.
We VIPs were directed onto the bus and off we went – a roundabout route weaving between many planes until we drew up at what was presumably ours. The entry was from beneath the body and on reaching the aisle all the seats were flat on themselves – obviously an ex-military aircraft. We were directed to seats at the front beyond a thick red rope. There was then a long wait filled with more of Zan’s life story until suddenly with a hustle and bustle and the rest of the passengers arrived. I had the feeling they had walked to the plane.
There then followed the most hair-raising journey of my life. It seemed to me that the plane lifted off and rose almost vertically into the air. Impossible I know but it seemed that way to me. This was several months after a flight had crashed in Russia when the pilot had left the plane on autopilot while he went back to speak to passengers. I longed to be on the ground again and was already fearful of the landing. All the while Zan droned on and on. At one point I decided to visit the loo at the back of the plane. Bad idea as there were people sitting in the aisles.
The plane seemed to plummet vertically down with a similar feel to the take-off. We landed and came to the stop. The cockpit door opened and the pilot with his tie askew and beads of sweat pouring from his face ran down the aisle to get off first.
We had landed in Lviv where we were greeted by giant puppets and interviewed by the local TV station. I was famous apparently. Zan seemed in heaven. Our destination was a town called Ternopil. On arrival I discovered Zan, and I had rooms next to each other and shortly after he asked me to “back him up” as he called it with the management. At reception I heard him demand some retiling for his shower and complain about the fact that three light bulbs in his mini chandelier were not working! This really was a case of “west” not really meeting or appreciating the difference of “east” in any way.
For the next two weeks Zan hardly spoke a word while it turned out to be one of the most wonderful learning experiences of my life. I came away understanding what Stanislavski is really about.
On the last evening I stood on the steps of the hall and watched the sunset. Every minute an open-topped truck travelled by full of sugar beet. I realised the logistical operation that gave Europe its food. Truck after truck after truck completely regulated.
I returned to Moscow via an 18-hour train journey – my eyes open wider to what theatre could do and to the scale of Eastern Europe and what it gives to the world.
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