by Judith Pulman
My writing career began where my acting career fell apart: in Russia, at a three-month intensive acting program at the historic Moscow Art Theater, home of method acting and Chekhov’s plays. In Moscow I learned to expect to fail regularly and also learned how to keep on going on after a run of disappointing stage experiments. I have an intimate and solid relationship with failure that anchors my writing practice, yet keeps me buoyant within it.
I was trained by two of the Moscow Art Theater Ensemble’s top actors. Igor was a lumbering Georgian with coal-colored eyes and a Gogolesque haircut. Sergei had an aquiline nose that he touched as he thought through what Stanislavsky would say – and then said it. Both of them were tremendously child-like and often illustrated their meanings by making faces that seemed downright un-Russian. Both were as serious as Moscow airport police when someone from our ensemble of eleven was not. Neither thought I was any good.
We took classes from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday, in ballet, gymnastics, Russian language, Russian theater history, voice and costume design. The centerpiece of our program was our daily workshop with Sergei and Igor, which lasted three hours. Each class began with a scene by our ensemble. The rules for these “etudes,” as our exacting leaders called them, were simple: Everyone in our group had to be on stage as a character, an event had to occur in a concrete setting, and each character had to experience a palpable change in response to the event. It’s about as easy as writing a good poem – 95% of our etudes were dubbed failures.
“Ninety-five percent of all performances are failures,” Sergei said to us as he itched his nose with his middle finger. Igor quickly added, “And if you think of all the rehearsal hours spent on that unfortunate performance by those otherwise talented actors, you might also think of how many pyramids they could have built instead of putting on their ridiculous play.” To keep us from arriving miserably depressed the next day, Sergei offered, “Great plays are made in the very same manner as bad plays are. It’s a matter of luck, effort, and having both coincide.”
We saw four and sometimes five plays each week in Moscow, which added up to roughly sixty plays. But, nine years later now, I vividly remember one performance that was actually not a play, but a workshop called People and Objects. Students of a theatrical body mechanics school in Moscow spent three months aspiring for symbiosis with one object such as a lamp, a hula hoop or a rope. The scenes, which were more like dances, featured one person moving with an object to music for three minutes. The girl who stood, sat and then walked on top of a classical guitar is forever burned into my memory. She might as well have been walking on water. If three months of practice plus a lifetime of training might translate into three minutes, that is nothing short of a miracle for the witnesses in the room. Isn’t that all the success we require?
My stage moments were generally more bumbling than miraculous – though I did play a tube of ChapStick brushing up against lips for the first time in a way that would bring you to tears. That April I performed a solo etude for the class in which I found a note written by a secret admirer left on my dresser. On an impulse, I walked off the stage and out of the room to see whether my admirer was outside. For the first time Sergei and Igor applauded me. They said they especially appreciated the moment when I left the stage. No kidding. I never found out whether they liked the gesture for its theatrical or metaphoric value. Perhaps it is better left ambiguous.
I received a C grade in my acting class; it was the lowest grade I received in college. During my final review before I left Russia, those hard-balling, zealous and beautiful men had three words to say to me, “Simpler and freer.”
When I returned home, I gave up on the idea of becoming a classical actor. My impulse to fail was still strong, so I decided to try becoming a writer. I no longer perform except for the occasional reading. I receive many comments about my fine vocal and theatrical skills, and when I mention my background, people usually say that they had suspected as much. What they never suspect is how much of my training as an actor is put to use when I write and revise.
Here are nine lessons from acting school that serve me today as a writer:
Work with your ensemble
Every word, sentence and paragraph is a part of a whole, though moveable, object. Consider your cast and how you might manipulate them on the stage – your blank sheet of paper. Fire or recast the performers who aren’t working hard enough or do not add to the show. The whole effect is bigger than the parts.
Rehearse every day, except Sunday – or Saturday, if you’re Jewish.
Celebrate the three-minute masterpiece
If you are lucky enough to have success after intensive training and something comes out right, raise your cup and share your work! You’ve experienced a little miracle – don’t forget to remember it. Then, keep writing.
Immerse yourself in your art
Read as many books, galleys, poems from poetry boxes, articles, manuscripts and collections as you can. Go to readings and listen to writers’ voices. Don’t stop if you don’t yet see a mirror of your homeland in someone else’s work; when you learn what rare, real success looks like for others, you might garner a vision of how it will look for you.
Make a decision
If you have fifteen minutes to think up an etude or poem, just choose a path and walk it. You’ll end up having made something, good or not. And that’s reason enough to rejoice.
Work with the objects you have
Your obsessions, heartaches, the themes you keep returning to. Take your time to dance with them. After you play with them long enough, you’ll be able to move in a way that previously seemed impossible. Perhaps you can stand on a little guitar.
Be serious about your art and you’ll be taken seriously
Failure isn’t bad, but not trying is. But, please, don’t be too serious. Why would anyone who knows the failure rate do this if they didn’t get to enjoy the process?
Leave the stage
Then you can carry something to your work that comes from the wings and be open-minded about what you might find there. A new rhythm? Another story that thrums to be touched? Another emotion that is better suited to the scene at hand? Remember that there are as many doors leading out as there are leading back in.
Think simpler. Be freer.
Enjoy yourself on stage, when you move the pen across the page and when you fiercely type out your truth. Sure, you may feel utterly self-conscious 99% of the time when your critics watch you. Yet, when it comes down to it, your harshest critics wish you to be “free” in your work. All they really want to see is something simple.
* * *
Many of these lessons still remain over my head. Chekhov once wrote, “Art is long, life is short, and success is very far off.” Of course I don’t love rejection. But I love knowing that art is long and remembering that my critics just want me to be freer.
You don’t need to go to acting school in Russia to improve your writing – I could easily recommend many cheaper, more expedient ways – but, if you do go, tell Sergei and Igor I said thanks. And I’m writing. And I’m still failing with aplomb.
Judith Pulman coordinates the Literary Arts program at the Multnomah Arts Center where she also teaches writing and theater classes for children. In August 2012, she completed her MFA through the Rainier Writing Workshop. She has been published in VoiceCatcher6, Night Bomb Press, and received first prize in the Oregon Poetry Association’s sonnet contest. In 2011 she was formally commended by the judges of the Joseph Brodsky /Stephen Spender Prize, an international contest of Russian poetry in translation, for her version of Brodsky’s “The Butterfly.” She was raised in Northern Virginia. Learn more about Judith at her new website, www.judithpulman.com.