To Russia with Love: Nicole Kontolefa’s Journey

about nicoleWhen I became a contributing writer for The Write Teacher(s), I knew I wanted to stretch myself with my writing and my topics. My hope over the next year is to visit other cities outside New York City with the intention of seeing theatre. So far I have been lucky to meet many artists who have performed abroad. Since I Am Me is opening this weekend, I wanted to share my article with you.

Originally published on September 11, 2014 on The Write Teacher(s).


Happy Fall, Friends!

This month we travel east of Edinburgh to Moscow.  My friend, Nicole Kontolefa, is performing her one woman show, I Am Me, in two languages – English and Russian.  It’s a site unspecific one woman show that she developed in Russia. Nicole Kontolefa  was born and raised in NYC and is a graduate of the only American Class of the Moscow Art Theater. She is the managing director and a founding member of Studio Six Theater Company – the sixth studio to be born out of the Moscow Art Theater School. Nicole also performs with other theater companies, performance artists and is developing new solo performances. Her favorite places to play have been at The Chekhov International Theater Festival, Baryshnikov Arts Center and the New Stage of The Moscow Art Theater.

My knowledge of Russia is very basic: the history I learned in school, the wonderful community in Brighton Beach, and Stanislavksi and Chekov. I studied at the Actor’s Studio Drama School where the core of their MFA program is presented by Stanislavski‘s books, An Actor Prepares, Building A Character and Creating a Role. As a young and inexperienced artist (specifically, director), I was so hungry to learn the roots of  “The Method” formerly known as the “System”. As I allowed myself to be immersed in this new world,  I fell in love with the short stories of Anton Chekhov. I wanted to visit and actually had a passing thought of visiting Moscow. Now that I am writing about theatre for Beyond Broadway and my circle of international artists is getting bigger, I want to know more and want to share it with everyone. Nicole was eager to share her experiences with me.

Malini: Nicole, what is the theatre scene like in Moscow? How does it differ from the US in your experience?

Nicole: It is very vibrant and robust I would say. There is a lot of theater going on all the time. The biggest difference I would say is that while in America the playwright is often the deciding factor for seeing a show,  in Russia it is the director. Theater is a director’s medium there so you can get imaginative and wildly different stagings of the same play going on at the same time just across town from each other. Also, the repertory system allows plays to live longer. A great production can run in rep for years. As an actor it’s amazing because one night you’re doing Shakespeare the next Chekhov the next a contemporary play – it keeps you on your toes and allows shows to grow over time. My class played Our Town once or twice a month for two years and by the end of that run, the show was more rich and alive than anything we else we had done. This is feedback I got from someone who saw it at the beginning of its run and then saw the very last show.

Malini: Your show, I Am Me, was written by  Alexandra Chichkanova who was from Nizhny Tagil but lived in Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains region. Were you able to visit other cities in Russia and explore?

Nicole: I have been to St. Petersburg to perform – a beautiful city and Kolumna – a pretty small city to perform as well. Pretty similar differences as when you travel to big and small cities here. People are a bit more welcoming and exciting when you come to their small town. I met an acquaintance in Yekaterinburg this June when I was there and she was just so surprised to be seeing an American friend in her home town. Moscow is definitely very different than the rest of the country. Maybe that’s why I felt at home there though. Like New York – it is not a quintessential example of the culture but it still is a big driving force in the country. I’m not sure that makes sense…. I also did the Trans-Siberian railroad through Siberia down into Mongolia into Beijing. Amazing trip. Amazing trip  to Lake Baikal and feel the great expanse of the country.

Malini: Did you get a sense that theatre and the Arts are an important part of the culture?

Nicole: Yes. Absolutely. And importantly, for artists I think, it is a respected and appreciated profession. It is not looked down on as a selfish or capricious pursuit. It is considered great and important work to be an artist. I rarely feel that way here outside of creative circles. I think it leads to an insulated creative community. And that stinks!

I am finding that the more I talk to artists who have worked beyond our borders, the more I am really yearning to take a year off and do a world road trip. I even wrote a blog about it. Are any of you performing in Prague in the near future?

Visit Coming Soon right here on The Write Teacher(s)’ site for more info.

Live, Love, Learn,

Malini & The Write Teacher(s)

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