American Actress Speaks About Theatre, Sex and Salads in Russia

PHOTO by Yevgeny Gusarov / Afisha.Daily
Jordan Fry, an American living in Moscow, has piercing eyes and amazing clarity of thought

She loves Russian theatre, Moscow's churches and women's fashion, but not hypocrisy or moralising. These, as well as other differences between Russians and Americans are highlighted in her monologue for Afisha.Daily.

Jordan Fry

Where from: New York City, USA Occupation: Actress at the Meyerhold Centre (TsIM), plays in SousKefal band

I heard about the MKhAT (Moscow Art Theatre) program for foreigners through friends. I was 18 when I first came to Moscow and spent three months here. I went back to the United States, but soon realised that I couldn't live without Russian theatre. Our theatres are very financially orientated, directors only receive funding for the projects that will make the money back, and people mainly go to musicals. American theatre has become entertainment rather than art. In Russia, you have much more diversity, and the teaching of acting goes much deeper. So I knew, I couldn't live without Moscow. I met the right people and found out how to start studying under Ryzhakov.

At first, I spoke barely any Russian, but it wasn't particularly necessary during the three month course. We were helped by interpreters, so I only knew how to say "hello" and "chicken" at the cafeteria. I couldn't remember the words for "fish" and "beef", so I had to eat chicken all the time. Those three months seemed a pleasant and safe adventure to me: our hostel was filled with Americans, everyone spoke English. Of course, when you went outside, you found yourself in Russia, but then you came back home, and it seemed like America. But when I returned to Russia, to study at the Moscow Art Theatre, the real Russia showed up, and it was really hard. It's always like that for immigrants, you feel incredibly lonely to begin with.

I went to church quite often back then. I should mention that I grew up atheist and my parents have never been religious. But for some reason, I felt better when I was in church. There's a small monastery with a beautiful garden on Petrovka Street where I liked to sit. Sometimes the old ladies would say something to me, but I wouldn't understand. I wore a scarf on my head to blend in, behaved politely, and usually no one noticed that I was a spy.

Five years ago, everything looked different in Moscow. Now it seems like the government wants people to experience the world around them – the city is being rebuilt with all these bikes and pedestrianised areas. The authorities are trying to make it look like Europe. Five years ago, the streets were quite dirty; I don't miss them, but it's sad that the world is becoming homogenised.

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On the other hand, I'm still surprised by one thing. In America, a lot of attention is paid to the city, to sidewalks and benches, but people look awful – they don't take care of themselves, wear bad clothes. In Moscow it's the other way around – people walk through dreadful blocks of flats and unattended courtyards wearing Prada and Gucci. You're fashion addicts! I often say to myself, looking at Muscovites, there's no way that can really be comfortable! You love the red lipstick and leopard coat look, for sure. I actually like ostentatious people. I'm not sure I'd become friends with these girls, but they're interesting to look at.

At first I was shocked by how you drive your cars, like there are no rules at all. But nowadays I like the fact that there's less pressure from the law in Russia. You can argue that you have corruption because of this, but we have it too! We just lie about it all the time. Maybe I seem naive, but I like how people are honestly speaking about dishonesty – it's easier like this.

Here's an example: I recently ran away from the police in Moscow, even though I would never dream of doing it in America. It was like this: I had a very important meeting, and the subway across Tverskaya Street was closed, so I decided to wait until there were fewer cars on the road and run across it. On the other side of the road there were people who were apparently planning to do the same thing. But there was a policeman nearby who gestured at me not to do it. In gestures, I apologised and explained that I had no time to wait. Then he got angry and started to approach me, just like in the movies. He had almost reached me when the cars stopped and I ran. Of course, he didn't chase me. I understand that it's bad not to obey the police. But, on the other hand, if I want to run in front of cars, then it's my decision. We live in a society with too much control. It annoys me, that I can't think and make decisions for myself.

I only started drinking tea in Moscow. Dill was just everywhere, parsley too – it's possible to say that green herbs are the taste of Russia. Your food is very heavy. I remember being surprised by your salads. In America, a salad means salad leaves, tomatoes, cucumbers, while yours have to contain meat and potatoes for some reason. In my second year here, my friend and I were making dinner and I wanted a salad. I used leaves, tomatoes, cucumbers. My Russian boyfriend came in and asked when I was going to add mayonnaise – that's how different are our ideas about food.

We've been everywhere on tour: I've been to Krasnodar, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, I've seen Baikal. I feel like I've travelled more in Russia than I have in America. Your country is very beautiful, there are great cities, but there are depressing ones as well. For me, it's important that the buildings are clean. It's rare pretty for remote settlements, and it's interesting that the condition of houses isn't necessarily linked to the amount of money a town has. In some places, of course, poverty is obvious, and people drink too much. It happens everywhere across the globe, where there's no work. We were in Ust-Labinsk, and it reminded me of American towns where people drink out of boredom and drive through the streets listening to music and feeling angry at the whole world.

In America, everyone sees the glass as half full, while it always seems empty in Russia. At home, we all believe that democracy has unquestionably won out. But you deal calmly with situations which would be regarded as the end of the world in the US. When our teachers in the Moscow Art theatre tell us that everything is awful, that it's time to leave the school and do something else, then I feel like this is the most positive thing you can hear from a Russian teacher. You have an incredible school of acting, it's unmatched by anything in America. I go to Russian performances and note that some things go well or don't quite work, but still you feel that sense of magic. At an American performance, I often think that the actors don't quite understand what they are doing on a stage.

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It's a pity that in Russia people pay so little attention to what's happening inside – Americans seem to only speak about their internal life. Everybody has a problem – depression, alcoholism, anorexia, but you pretend they don't exist. Everyone is under treatment all the time, taking some pills and powders, but going to a psychologist is considered shameful. If you do it, people think you're crazy.

So, a story: once I met a female psychologist. She suggested that I come to her office, and the first session was okay. At the second one, when the conversation turned to sex, I hinted that sometimes I date people that I don't plan to marry. After that, something changed with her. She began to shout, saying that that's why my relationships weren't working out, that I was looking for answers in bed, that it's not good, and if I continued like this, she wouldn't help me anymore. It was so weird, I thought that you could speak to a psychologist at any time, even if you killed someone. A Russian psychologist called me a whore. I cried on the metro.

Sex here is, of course, a taboo. Women wear scarves and long braids, pretending that their bodies don't exist. Everyone's still getting laid though. I pity those girls: they live in the modern world, but are taught that they need to live as though they don't. In Russia, you are expected to keep your thoughts private, no one speaks at work about how they quarrelled with their mother. Americans, on the contrary, are kind of exhibitionists. In New York, for example, you can hear people discussing their partners on the street. I think one of the achievements of the sexual revolution and feminism is the opportunity to talk about sex, your body, periods. This is an important women's right. At the same time I don't always like it when people talk about it. Why tell the whole world about your family arguments, or go into detail about who you're sleeping with and how you do it? But I won't let anyone judge me for my private life.

Once during my first year, I received two roses after a show. I went to the shops and a man in the queue asked what had happened. The whole line, about ten people, started to explain to me, interrupting each other, that you give two roses to someone after a death. In New York City, it's impossible to imagine such a situation: of the ten people in a shop, half would be foreigners and a quarter wouldn't speak English. In any case, they all would have different cultures.

My mother lives in Harlem. You can always see people of African origin in turbans and wide dresses on the streets there. They aren't shy about the way they look: every other person has only just moved to New York. I really miss that feeling in Moscow. I think, you would be more welcoming to diversity if you had that feeling. Sometimes Russians seem so naive, that they can't understand the simple fact that what's important to you, isn't necessarily important to everyone else in the world.