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Chatting to Stanislavski - almost

I’ve been talking to Professor Anatoly Smeliansky, Head of the Moscow Art Theatre School and Associate Artistic Director of the Moscow Art Theatre. He was in Moscow and I was in Kent so thank goodness for Skype, which allowed me to see him as well as hear him. Quite a privilege. As one drama school principal quipped on Twitter: “OMG! That’s almost like talking to Stanislavski himself!”

Well Stanislavski, of course, died in 1938 having, as Smeliansky pointed out to me, done much of his groundbreaking work, including the founding of Moscow Art Theatre in 1898, in pre-revolutionary Russia. But he continued to work and innovate - still changing his mind on his deathbed - under the Soviet regime to such an extent that he was, in Smeliansky’s words “almost canonised” because “like the Pope in Rome he could do no wrong.”

And that, Smeliansky argues, is no good for drama because it is stultifying. “We have to find ways of building on the legacy of Stanislavski’s ‘method,’ which in Russia we call ‘the system,’ but continuing to experiment using the ideas of Stanislavski’s later followers, such as Michael Chekhov,” he says, adding that “Every teacher has his own key with which to unlock students.” And he has many excellent inspiring teachers at Moscow Theatre Arts School well able to “translate theories of the past and make them contemporary.”

It has, I was told, taken a very long time to rehabilitate free drama in Russia. Even after Stalin’s death in 1953 nothing could be opposed under Khrushchev. “It wasn’t really until 1988 when we got Gorbachev - great friend to Moscow Art Theatre and a good personal friend of mine - that theatre was allowed to move forward and was no longer subject to censorship and acts of political repression,” says Smeliansky, who went to Moscow Art Theatre fifty years ago to begin to publish Stanislavsky’s papers. “Before that you could do nothing like that and it is only in the last two decades we have become completely free to assess his legacy and to allow drama and theatre to evolve.”

My interview with Smeliansky was triggered by the forthcoming Routledge/Stanislavski Centre Annual Lecture 2011 at Rose Bruford College. Smeliansky will deliver a special lecture on Stanislavski and the Contemporary Theatre on Tuesday 22nd March 2011, at the Rose Theatre at the college - part of a series of events planned to help mark Rose Bruford’s Diamond Jubilee.

Smeliansky is a visiting professor of Rose Bruford College, and a member of the Advisory Board of The Stanislavski Centre, which was founded at the College in 2007, in response to an original idea of the College’s former principal, Professor Jean Benedetti, himself an internationally recognised authority on Stanislavski’s work. The Centre combines research and scholarly activity with a facility to host and promote lectures, workshops, seminars and performances which explore and develop aspects of Stanislavski’s work and legacy in a contemporary international context.

It’s a congenial interview and I’m humbled by Smeliansky’s masterly command of English which leads him to tell me that he didn’t begin to speak it at all until he was in his fifties. “I lecture a lot in English-speaking countries and in Moscow I’ve got students from all over the world, including 45 Americans, so I get lots of opportunities to work on my English,” he says cheerfully.

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