TPAM Lab in St. Petersburg about Tovstonogov and his method
By Marie Kilsgaard Møller, stage director from Denmark and participator at the TPAM
|Fotograf: Alexander Scheck|
On a rainy September day I received a Facebook message from a Russian stranger. It was an invitation to participate in an all-expenses-paid Directors Lab in St. Petersburg. I couldn’t believe it. Through Facebook!? Well, it turned out to be serious, not spam, and suddenly – after an intense last minute visa process – I was on my way to the land of “no free speaking” and “no homosexuality”, and all the other negative things I’d heard about Russia from the Danish media. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared, however. Actually these creative Russian artists seemed very open, honest and free!
STINKY BUT NICE HOSTEL
So I had no idea what to expect. There was a thick air of smoke in Hello Hostel where we were to live, eat and work. The producer, Dasha was there to receive me. She was as nice as I’d imagined from her kind emails. I was the first of seven directors to arrive, which allowed me a few hours to prepare. We were working on Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot adapted by the famous Russian director Georgy Tovstonogov.
I was to share a room with an Austrian director, who was herself very upset to be living with another person. Even though the hostel was dirty and there was stinking smoke everywhere, the people were nice, understanding and welcoming. I felt respected and was pleased to be a part of the project.
|Fotograf: Marie Kilsgaard Møller|
On the first day we had a big meeting with the Artistic Directors Liza (who had invited me on Facebook) and Aleksander (whom I knew from New York), all seven international directors, the Russian actors, producers, set designers and critics.
After a short introduction we had to pick a scene! A hat was sent around and each of the seven directors drew a note with the name of the scene we were to stage. Ten minutes later the rehearsals started! We had a room and a group of young, recently graduated actors. My set designer told me he had to be away for 4 days. Okay. (What could I say…?) Everything happened so fast.
The first rehearsal was crazy! It was like an exercise in underpreparedness. I spent the time getting to know the actors through conversation. I also scheduled a short exercise wherein the actors performed the entire scene for me without any rehearsal. Only one out of four actors spoke English. Luckily I had a nice, young interpreter who is studying to become a producer at the theatre academy.
“Did you read the novel?” “Are you aware of Dostoyevsky’s first title of the book?” “What do you think the story is about?” “Are we going to talk about the characters?”
The Russians were obviously testing me as a director – right there on the first day of the lab. I tried to answer as openly as I could, since I really didn’t know what to do with the scene I’d picked.
Suddenly I realized that the actors ONLY had a Russian manuscript! “Are you going to do the whole scene in Russian?” “Okay...” I don’t know what I had imagined, but I was surprised. How could I possibly direct, let alone understand, a Russian text? My goal for this process became to make the scene understandable for an international audience – even me.
DOSTOVJETSKY AS CURRICULUM
In the Russian school system, students learn about literature, especially Dostoyevsky, from a very young age. Everybody knows him and people refer to his characters as if they were celebrities! I, however, was a total stranger to this world.
Luckily we all had the opportunity to attend lectures (how to understand Dostoyevsky, for example) and we even went on a Dostoyevsky city-tour. I realized that in Russia it is very common (almost mandatory!) to interpret the main character in The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, as a Jesus figure. This notion disgusts me. I don’t like to lay religious overtones onto everything. Religion damages the world enough as it is. For me, Prince Myshkin could just as well be Nelson Mandela. Or a normal person – a part of the audience! And that was what I made him! I wanted to find a way that Tovstonogov’s 1957 adaption of The Idiot could become a story about our time. To me, the problem of every character (except for Myshkin) is that they are selfish! Selfishness is a big problem in today’s world. And it is only made worse by social media and television reality shows. So that became my story – and a second goal: to make The Idiot relevant for today’s audience – and to inspire people to be less selfish.
THE TOVSTONOGOV METHOD
“Does Georgy Tovstonogov have a method?” That was one of the main questions the lab wanted to ask. Indeed yes! He has! But for the first week and a half it wasn’t clear what it was. Not until Irena Malochewskaya summed it up for us in a very structured and mathematical kind of way. When I arrived I had no idea who Tovstonogov was, but when I received the program for the lab I realized that I knew Malochewskaya! I had read her book and taken a course about the method of physical actions. In Russia they call Tovstonogov’s method “The Method of Active Analysis” and the method of physical actions is a part of that! Since I was already familiar with the method and respected it very much I became one of the more curious “students”.
MAKE THE METHODS YOUR OWN
It is important to have tools as a director, and Tovstonogov did well in describing them. Unfortunately, however, his method has only been translated into Norwegian, so only Russians and Scandinavians have access to this master’s world. (I highly recommend that the Russian Arts Council support a translation of Tovstonogov’s books or Malochewskayas book into English).
Tovstonogov described a method for directors – like Stanislavsky described a method for actors. No one can work successfully if they base their work on only one method. I believe it is important to have theory, to learn about different ways of working, and then to base your own work on what you like, remember and feel is working for you. You have to build up your own personal understanding and method.
WHAT I LEARNED
“Which kind of method do you use,” asked the actors on the first day. I had to tell them, “I don’t know! I have no idea. It is a mix of all kinds of methods.” Later in the lab I learned, that Tovstonogov says: “never talk about methods with actors. But keep the method in your body and bring it into rehearsal.” He also used to say that he expects actors to be ready to work by the time the rehearsal starts. Everyone would arrive a bit early to warm up. I told that to my actors one day, when I had to knock on the table to demand more discipline. Thereafter no one in my room was late and the working atmosphere was very good. Other lab directors had trouble getting their people to show up. Different interpreters were also jumping in and out of the program. I think I was lucky to have the people around me that I did. I also think it is your responsibility as the leader of the room to create the discipline. The producers of the lab can’t be responsible for that, even though some directors expected it.
I PREFERE COOPERATION
I learned from Tovstonogov that the director should always be more prepared than the actors. He or she should be one step ahead. But at the lab we didn’t have a living chance to be ahead. This created a nice and cooperative working-atmosphere. We developed and learned about the material TOGETHER by trying different methods and exploring situations. I liked the cooperation of the room, and I enjoy when actors feel they can provide their own suggestions and ideas.
This unprepared Tovstonogov-lab was both an experiment and true chaos. But it endowed me with knowledge and wonderful relationships. Also - luckily - it seemed as though many audience members enjoyed my showcase on the final day.
I saw many, very different performances during my two weeks in St. Petersburg, each varying in quality. Even though the country has a long history of theatre, it does not always present a wonderful final product. But! What makes the theatre both lovely and awful is that it can fail! You never know how it will go or how it will be.
Audiences in Russia on the other hand never fail! They are so loyal and interested. Every theatre was filled with people of all ages. The audience also knows a lot about culture – and they love it – so it seemed… this makes me a little jealous.
Even though there were parties in the evening, right outside my bedroom door, and even though Russia was dark in December nearly all the time, this lab was the best international experience I have ever had.
It was superior to all the seminars and festivals I’ve attended. Honestly, it was much better than the Directors Lab at the Lincoln Center Theatre. In St. Petersburg there were ambitious, young people arranging creative and intellectual room for all of us. There was always time to provide and receive feedback or to change plans. And even though the program was tight we were allowed private time every day. We thrust our hands into the dough, dissecting methods as we practiced them. Additionally, we had six very different colleagues with whom we discussed everything explored in the rehearsal room. “What is the role of the director?” “How can you achieve want you want?” “Why do the relations in the rehearsal room not work sometimes?” “How can you work differently and more physically?” We had wonderful discussions about directing and its methods during almost every lunch and dinner for two weeks. Throughout the experience there was an atmosphere of respect and honesty.
Four of us had known each other from the 2013 summer lab in New York. As such there was no need to get to know each other before we discussed the work at hand. Directing is quite a lonely job. This is why I highly recommend attending labs. I am grateful and happy to have had the opportunity to gain these new international colleagues - because they are worth gold!