“It is like knocking on a locked door – no one answers it,” Daria Desnitskaya, a Moscow drama school graduate, says following days of tiring auditions which have elicited nothing, not even an unenthusiastic “we’ll call you.”
“I realise I’m acting wrong all along, but I just don’t know how to show myself off to the best of my ability – I haven’t been taught how to do that,” Daria tells me as she sips a glass of lemonade in a cafe near her prestigious downtown Shchepkin drama school, or Shchepka, as it is affectionately known among its students. “I feel as though I am unprepared for professional life.”
Daria, 21, has just completed her degree and is trying to break into the theatre. She says she is ready for whatever low-end roles there are, but complains that even those are tough to land because of what she calls a “fossilised” system of teaching.
“I have this feeling that the lecturers are not teaching students correctly. They’re doing it just as they used to in Tsarist times. So we come to an audition, and people go: Jesus, why is she using this voice?”
The voice that Daria was trained to use on stage is deep and thunderous – an utter joy to mimic, and a downright ordeal to actually have to listen to. It is perceptibly phoney, reflecting an old distinction between real life and the stage, a distinction which is a trademark of Soviet theatre, but which Daria says no longer holds true today. Casting directors at Moscow’s fancier theatres are positively irked by it.
“My teachers can’t break away from this, they don’t want to change,” she says of her training.
Daria’s instructors are similarly resistant to change when it comes to modern drama. Over the past weeks, Daria’s class has been doing graduation performances – and sticking to the likes of the tried and true Alexander Ostrovsky and Moliere.
“New plays are rarely staged,” Daria says. “Shchepka is extremely conservative – it is, in fact, a small model of Russia.”
There is no job placement for new graduates either. “I was told: you’re grown up now, go it yourself,” she says. “Besides, [the instructors] all seem to be giving different advice.”
Russia obviously needs a dramatic reshuffle of the entire training system for actors. According to Daria, though, the dozens of commercial drama schools that have cropped up in recent years as well as mass culture and television inhibit progress.
“The standards for actors have changed,” Daria tells me. “Previously, the actor was an intellectual, someone who stands above the rest – but today the actor is a consumer good.”
The number of drama students is growing – the Culture Ministry puts the figure at around 4,000 in major colleges across the country – but standards for actors are not improving. Daria’s classmate, Borislav Chevtaikin, tells me that television is now “abused” by non-professional actors.
Yet both Daria and Borislav admit that if they were offered a job on TV, they would not think twice about taking it. “I’d like to say ‘no,’ but it means money,” Daria says.
Compared to anything between 5,000 rubles (about $150) and 30,000 rubles (about $890) that novice actors can earn in a theatre in a given month, pay cheques on Russian television can run up to ten times that.
As she searches for ways to advance her stalling career, Daria works part-time in a school, where she teaches, appropriately enough, acting. She won’t go back to Shchepka to do postgraduate studies or teach, though.
“I know what it would be like,” she says. Shchepka’s staid environment is no place for a young actress. When asked what would possibly attract younger lecturers to Shchepka, Daria just shrugs.
“I guess we will just have to keep on trying,” she smiles – speaking of both herself and Moscow’s many other young actors.