US actors make Russian theater their own

The 'Studio Six' group of young American actors enjoys honing its craft in a society where theater is venerated.

The newest studio group to emerge from Russia's most famous theatrical school is staging an excerpt from "The Cherry Orchard" at Moscow's Fitil theater. In this version a shirtless, gyrating Yasha sweeps a gasping Dunyasha into his arms and woos her in American-accented English.

It's probably not what Anton Chekhov had in mind when he penned his masterpiece about a slightly mad aristocratic lady struggling to save her family estate, but the Russian audience appears to love it.

"It's like seeing something intimate through someone else's eyes," says Marina Romanova, an advertising executive. "This group of actors seem to be ours, but they're not ours. They are something unique."

This group is Studio Six, a dozen young actors from performing arts schools in New York and Detroit who adopted Russian lifestyles in order to study for four years at the legendary Moscow Theater Arts School, cofounded a century ago by Konstantin Stanislavsky.

After graduating earlier this year, they became the first company of foreigners - and the sixth in history - to be granted the status of a "studio" attached to the Moscow Arts Theater, where Mr. Stanislavsky developed the acting method that took the US by storm when he visited New York in the 1920s.

Generations of American actors, including Marlon Brando, James Dean, Geraldine Page, and Robert De Niro, have sworn by the Method, which emphasizes an actor's responsibility to be emotionally felt and believed, as opposed to merely being recognized or understood.

"We all had some Stanislavsky training in the States, and when we got here we started asking, 'where is the method?,' " says Brent Bradley, a Detroiter who plays the bare-chested Yasha in the group's rendition of "The Cherry Orchard." "What we found out blew us away. In Russia, the training isn't based on Stanislavsky's books. It's a living, evolving system. A totally different kind of theater from what we have in America. We just wanted to be part of that."

In a recent variety show, Studio Six displayed what they've learned to a packed Moscow theater, performing outtakes from plays by William Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and, of course, Chekhov. Shifting from English to Russian dialogue, they offered their own skits spoofing Moscow life and two of the group, Raphael Schklowsky and Adam Muskin, delighted the crowd by singing a famous Soviet war ballad together with the Alexandrov Red Army Choir.

"They are Americans born and raised, but they are absolutely Russian-trained actors," says Alexander Popov, the company's Russian director. "This is something that hasn't been seen before."

Members of the company say it wasn't easy. Six of them, graduates of Manhattan's LaGuardia High School for the performing arts, arrived in Moscow five years ago as teenagers with no Russian language skills.

They had been encouraged to come by one of their teachers, Marat Yusim, a Soviet-era emigré to the US. Later several alumni of Wayne State in Detroit joined them. "We just landed here, we didn't know what to expect," says New Yorker Karen Tararache. "You could say some things were difficult."

The group was thrown into a regular dormitory with Russian students, some of whom teased them at first as "tourists." They took their classes through an interpreter and struggled to adapt to the very different, and often alien, rhythms of Moscow life. "They worked every day from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and it was hard for them, especially in the first year," says Mikhail Lobanov, one of their professors. "Now most of them speak excellent Russian, and they know our classical literature very well. I'd say the experiment has been a success."

It's sometimes hard to tell whether they're Russified Americans or Americanized Russians, says Mr. Lobanov. Members of the group say they've been happy to play the role of "cultural bridge" during their time in Moscow, performing for the US Embassy and the Russian-American Business Council. "Americans and Russians are always doing this, trying to find reasons to get along," says Nicki Kontolefa, a New Yorker. "That comes naturally for us."

Following graduation the group has decided to stay together. Last summer they performed three Eastern European plays at the Artsland Festival in Boston, after which the Moscow Arts Theater invited them to become Studio Six. "When you're part of a theater here in Russia, you're part of a family," says Mr. Schklowsky. "We'd like to bring that home to the US."

Integrating with Moscow theater life has given some of them a critical view of the US entertainment scene. "Culturally, America lags behind," says Vasanth Santosham, from Baltimore. Alesia Georgiou, a New Yorker, adds: "It seems like people go to the theater in America, and pay those obscene ticket prices, just to see the stars and the special effects. It's like they're buying a packaged experience. In Russia, the actors and audience do it together."

Studio Six has a fully-booked winter season of performances in Moscow and, after that, they're not sure.

"Eventually we'd like to have our own theater in the US and work with it the way we've grown up here in Moscow for the past four years," says Ms. Tararache. "Further down the road, we'd like to start our own school to train new members of the ensemble. It'll take a lot of determination and hard work, but that's where we're coming from."

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