Energy and beauty: Eight weeks of adventure in a Russian theater

“But as I’ve said, once you enter the space of performance, you must accept whatever happens. You have to accept the flow of energy that is behind you and below you and around you. And so I accepted it.” –Marina Abramovic

Over the past two months, I signed up for classes at a local theater and learned an unbelievable amount about energy: sensing it, transmitting it, and understanding its importance in art and life. When we did exercises each week, everything was transmitted through energy. I witnessed people communicate actions with only their eyes; tell stories without words; identify other members of the class- while blindfolded- after touching only one part of their body. In the midst of this, I became much more aware of my own presence and energy, which I was unconscious of before. I often felt completely exposed in class, sensing that the director and other students could see me transparently for who I was and what energy I gave off, which was both incredible and terrifying.

I wish I could say I mastered what we were taught and am on the way to becoming an actress. Far from it. I feel like the past two months blew the lid off my rational mind and planted the seed for a different way- more direct and energetic- of experiencing the world, but if anything, I’m barely a beginner. So here is my best shot at describing an experience that I’m still in the middle of understanding myself, that deserves to be put into words but probably can’t be.

In Paris/The Waiter and the Slut

One afternoon this summer as I walked along the Upper East Side, I ran into a man I had met over a year before at a party. Oleksiy picked me out of the crowd and walked over, completely friendly and open. He seemed totally energized, totally lit up while we were chatting, and mentioned that he just came from the Russian Arts Theater, which was putting on a production. The enthusiasm that ran through him as he described the theater was enough to pique my curiosity and convince me to see the show.

I went to the last performance of “In Paris/The Waiter and the Slut” unsure of what to expect and totally unfamiliar with the plots or Russian authors. In the end, what captivated me more than the stories themselves was how they were told. The show had moments of intense darkness- prostitution, vulgarity, hopeless despair, hatred and violence- that somehow didn’t feel dark or heavy at all. In scenes where characters pointed guns at one another or grabbed and abused each other, the room was filled with raw, physical energy that I had never felt in a theater before. In contrast, the most delicate sexual or intimate moments were never stated outright, but beautifully insinuated with silhouettes, clever gestures, music…In short, it was thrilling, and I left feeling surprisingly light.

When I related this to Oleksiy, he understood immediately, and he credited much of the result to the director, Aleksey. “He is brilliant. He sees barriers to expression immediately and helps to tear them down.” Soon after this conversation, I saw that the theater was offering eight weeks of acting classes each Monday night. Since I was feeling stuck and frustrated at that moment in my life, I figured trying something new and breaking down internal barriers would be good for me.

Chekhov: It’s not dark, it’s a comedy

“The actor, who must consider his body as an instrument for expressing creative ideas on stage, must strive for the attainment of complete harmony between the two, body and psychology…First and foremost is extreme sensitivity of body to the psychological creative impulses…The body of an actor must absorb psychological qualities, must be filled and permeated with them so that they will convert it gradually into a sensitive membrane, a kind of receiver and conveyer of the subtlest images, feelings, emotions and will impulses.”- Michael Chekhov

We were introduced to the foundational techniques of the Russian Arts Theater through two Chekhovs: the writings of Anton Chekhov and the acting techniques and philosophy of his nephew, Michael Chekhov. Each person read one or more Chekhov short stories and had to present the summary, as well as the initial, main, and central events, to the class. The initial event is the event that brings all of the characters together and was almost always the hardest to crack. Although I (used to) consider myself a thoughtful and detail-oriented reader, the search for the true initial event often involved researching Russian history, reading about Russian religious holidays and traditions, and when that was insufficient, “you must dream about the characters!” Aleksey told us.

In class one week, I gave a detailed summary of a story called “The Huntsman” and guessed that the initial event was the drunken wedding that united the huntsman and his wife. “No, what brought them together in this moment? That was twelve years ago,” Aleksey responded. When I paused, he walked me through the story, deeper and deeper: The man is a huntsman, so the plot takes place on the land of the gentleman he works for. His wife is there because she signed up to work in the fields. Does the husband know this? Yes, he oversees the women who sign up. In fact, his wife and the other women are carrying sickles and how do women work with sickles? They bend over. The husband, knowing this, went to watch the women work and ogle them. His wife, knowing this, signed up so she would be brought in close contact with him. And therein lies the initial event!

Of course, many of those details were never mentioned explicitly in the story, and it would have involved a deep knowledge of Russian history, an understanding of how sickles are used, and a twisted imagination to put all of the pieces together. But when Aleksey laid it out, the details seemed to fall into place and the relationship between the characters made sense.

The more we repeated this exercise, the clearer it became that knowing the initial event is absolutely vital to understanding and portraying any story. The initial event is the emotional basis of the story and propels the rest of the action forward. With a clear initial event, the subsequent action feels purposeful; without it, there is no direction to the plot.

Something else that became clear was that how actors read a story affects the energy the audience feels during a performance. I began to understand the source of the lightness I felt after watching my first performance by the Russian Arts Theater: it came from how Aleksey read stories. Aleksey always went deep into a story until he found humor, joy, and relatable humanity. There was not a single story that he considered “dark.” In fact, he often said that if an actor has joy and love at his core, he can depict any act, no matter how violent, and it will be suffused with those inner qualities.

One of the most memorable examples of this was our analysis of a story called “Sleepyhead,” about a young girl working for a couple and taking care of their baby. Exhausted and lulled by a green light in the room, the girl continuously falls asleep, is hit for neglecting the crying baby, and finally strangles the crying baby before falling asleep. Before the analysis, I heard some actors in the room calling the story, “dark,” “horrific,” and “violent,” to which Aleksey replied, “It is not dark at all.” As we discussed the story, he painted it in a new light: It was Palm Sunday in Russia (hence the green light, the exhaustion), the girl was being hit with pussywillows (or palm fronds, per Palm Sunday tradition), the baby was likely crying from hunger, and most importantly, the girl believed in all innocence that by hitting the baby once she woke up, the baby would be “resurrected.” In light of the religious context, the story not only made sense and seemed more realistic, but the darkness was transformed into innocence: no one was trying to make anyone else suffer, but they were acting out their parts in a carefully followed religious ritual. The only evil was a hypnotic adherence to this ritual, which reflected Chekhov’s own religious upbringing.

Sensation Exercises and Speaking Eyes

“I’m going to blindfold one of you and someone else will come up and touch your ass with their ass. You will say who is touching you.” This was one of many exercises we did to sharpen attention and develop our ability to sense and feel rather than think. Most exercises were based on recognizing another person through just a touch, a sound, or a flash of energy. Though I confirmed my own expectations of being absolutely terrible at this, I watched in amazement as a handful of students sensed correctly, over and over again.

One of the most stunning sensing exercises we did involved sending one member of the 20-person class out of the room. While he was gone, the rest of us were given an active phrase (e.g. “Help me!”) and an active gesture (e.g. reaching out hands out in a begging gesture). Once we understood these, we were told to sit normally and convey the gesture and phrase with only our eyes until our classmate guessed what they were. I remember watching the returning classmate enter the room and feel immediately the changed energy and the new mood. When the phrase was “let’s fight,” I remember our classmate entering the room and immediately being taken aback by the feeling of aggression in the air. Every actor I watched succeeded in this exercise in somewhere between 10 seconds to 3 minutes. The idea that someone’s eyes could not only convey a feeling, but also convey an action completely blew my mind.

Energy and Sincerity

As in the exercise we did with our eyes, everything came down to energy and the immediate sensing of energy between people. As the class went on, I became more sensitive to situations where the energy a person conveyed did not match their words or actions. In almost all cases, Aleksey would call this out explicitly. One evening, as we did an exercise of conveying what we liked about our other classmates, Aleksey called one woman out as lying. “What do you mean I’m lying? I really do think that Sarah is sensual and beautiful!” she responded. Aleksey kept pushing, and pointed to the fact that the woman she was speaking to seemed bored, unaffected. “You have to crack her. You need to say something true so that she feels it. What do you really love about her in this moment?” The woman giving the compliment began grappling with words: “Well, she’s like fire…she’s just a real goddess!” In that moment, the other woman’s face lit up in a smile. Aleksey nodded and was satisfied.

We spoke so often about sincerity, honesty, and imitation in theater, but I didn’t understand the meaning of these words for so long. For me, a lie was something deliberate, conscious. But in the theater, a lie occurred whenever ideas and actions did not match energy. And the great thing about energy was that it never lied. You could ignore it, but everyone around you always sensed it. This lesson hit home strongly when I presented my own scene.

My Scene: Personal versus Universal

One of our assignments was to write a scene from life. My own scene was taken directly from an experience in college: I ran into a sweet and down-and-out homeless woman near a diner, offered to buy her breakfast, realized over our breakfast conversation that she was crazy, and then paid the check and made a fast getaway. Since scenes in class were most often criticized as “imitation” or “lacking truth,” I felt that at least my scene would be decent. Despite a very unfinished quality to our rehearsals, it was based in reality. How could the script of something that actually happened lack truth?

It turned out I was absolutely wrong.

After we performed the scene, there was a silence and I could tell Aleksey was looking for a nice way to say whatever he had to say. “It was all imitation,” he began, which was the one sin I had hoped to avoid. He pointed out how although the dialogue and external actions were taken from real life, there was no energy underneath them. There was no reason for my character to interact with the homeless person; despite the fact that it was a true story, it was not a compelling or real story for an audience to relate to. One of the most interesting parts of the criticism came when Aleksey asked me who the characters were and what was the basis for their interactions with one another. I responded that I considered my character to be the archetype of “the Innocent,” who intends to do good, but who is confronted with the harshness of the world. “No,” he began, “your character could not be the Innocent…The Innocent does not see evil in the world. If that were truly her archetype, she would have kept giving and giving until she was broke. Personalities switch behavior and adjust, but archetypes do not because they are eternal energy patterns.”

In that moment, I felt a sudden click. I understood why despite being a true event, my story lacked energy, why it fell flat even in rehearsal. I understood the difference between the limitations of personalities and ideas compared to archetypes and energies. As Aleksey said later that night, “No one wants to hear you talk about yourself onstage. They come to hear about themselves.” When you embody a universal energy, the audience can’t help but feel it; when you tell your own story, it has to be in the language of energy and archetypes that resonate with everyone. The higher or more universal energies you invoke, the greater an audience you will reach who will feel touched by it.

Higher Beauty

The lessons we learned in class — the sensitivity to energy and orientation to beauty and joy — are in many ways as applicable to everyday life and spirituality as they are to theater. Probably because the qualities that make a truly great actor and performer are the same ones that make a powerful and empathetic human being.

This past Sunday, a friend and I went to the First Corinthians Baptist Church in Harlem to experience one of their famous services filled with singing and dancing. Midway through the service, the pastor announced that they would be baptizing thirteen individuals in “the deep waters of the Lord,” which was not just a metaphor- each individual would literally be dunked in a pool of water that came up to their knees. Once they reached the thirteenth person, a disabled man in a wheelchair who was carried on the back of his friend, the audience went crazy. The atmosphere in the room- the friends, family, and community cheering and loving this man as he was baptized- was so incredible that my friend and I both had tears in our eyes. At that moment, I appreciated that this was exactly what we were working so hard to create in theater: a love and energy that would unite a room and touch each person in it. After all, as Aleksey once told us, “You must wake up to a higher beauty, something greater than yourself, because that’s the only real basis for great art.”

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