A British actor’s view of theater training in Russia

Christopher Hancock is a graduate of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Chris volunteered with Sputnik in 2010, supporting us in our realisation of the 1st Russian Theatre Festival. We asked him for some reflections on his time training in Russia, compared to his training in the UK:

Ask any British drama student to sign up for five years in training and you might find yourself with a very short list. The same cannot be said for Russian institutions where half a decade of drama training is not uncommon.

The students at the St Petersburg State Theatre Arts Academy arrive as teenagers from all corners of Russia. The Academy’s focus is very much on raw talent as I found out when I trained there for three months. Whether you grew up in the modern metropolis of Moscow or a communal barracks in Siberia the academy is open to train those who are willing to learn. The majority of students scratch a living during holidays in order to attend the long school days, often 10am to 10pm. This is indicative of the focus and perseverance required to survive as an artist in Russia. Russians make no apologies for their reverence of the craft. The profession is highly respected and worth taking extremely seriously. This approach can be as refreshing as a roll in the snow for us British actors who tend towards self-depreciation and sometimes belittle the true value of our vocation.

In Russia even the language around drama training is more reverential. A number of the teaching practitioners attain the status of “Master” through a lifetime of experience in their chosen field. Each group of students proceeds through their years of training with a “Master” at the helm and he or she is afforded total respect and, as I witnessed in some classes, something akin to awe. Quite a difference from experiences I had during training where some teachers were openly criticised and elements of the training, such as dance, were not viewed as integral by some students. In Russia respect is assumed and demanded from students. In the UK it is hard-earned.

The over-riding similarity between my training in St Petersburg and here in the UK at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School was the focus on the technical and the practical. A fundamental belief that if the voice, the body and the mind are encouraged to be supple, at ease and reactive then the nebulous “acting” will just happen of its own accord. One of my favourite aspects of my training was a healthy scepticism toward any one method of acting. I think British institutions largely see methodical approaches as foreign and unhelpful in that they suggest that acting can be achieved through mastering a process. It is ironic that the American school was heavily influenced by Stanislavskii and yet from my experience contemporary Russian drama training shies away from rigid acting exercises or approaches and instead focusses on preparing the body and the voice to inhabit any given text.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Russian drama academies are different from their British counterparts. After all, they are each the product of societies with extremely different cultures and moral values. What we can do is learn from the commitment shown to their art by the Russian students. Whether it was those who struggled through ballet for five years of training or the hours devoted to long-form improvisation, sitting around in a pretend Siberian cottage, pouring tea and performing menial tasks. The students and teachers alike demonstrate their conviction that training for a life in the theatre is a noble task. This is something we too can unashamedly embrace.

by Christopher Hancock

Christopher is a recent graduate of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He grew up in Manchester and went to study Russian at Cambridge University.

His theatre credits include The Good Soul of Szechuan (Bristol Old Vic Studio); Time and The Conways (Circomedia Bristol); See What I Wanna See (ADC Theatre, Cambridge) and Me and My Girl (Cambridge Arts Theatre).

Twitter: @ChristoHancock

  • About Us

    Sputnik is a British theatre company dedicated to sourcing, translating and producing new Russian drama for British audiences.

    There are several strands to Sputnik's work including:
    - producing new Russian plays in the UK
    - programming and organising the Russian Theatre Festival in London
    - developing Russian playwriting through commissions and exchanges
    - outreach work bringing drama to disadvantaged young people
    - cultural events with Russian literature and music

    Why Russia?
    Russia has a history of theatrical innovation. Russian playwrights have played a significant role in shaping modern European theatre.

    Contemporary playwriting in Russia has been going through an important and innovative period since 1991 with a prolific output by predominantly young dramatists.

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