The first time Woodstocker Lola Cohen taught acting in Russia, the classes were held at Anton Chekhov’s dacha outside Moscow, in the house where he wrote The Seagull. Cohen then directed 15 students from all over the world in a production of The Seagull on the verandah of the same house, looking out over the pond that figures so prominently in the play.
Since then, she has been to Russia four more times, most recently this summer as a Fulbright Specialist, teaching a Method Acting Master Class at the Russian State Institute for Performing Arts in St. Petersburg, the oldest State theater school in Europe. It seems fitting that Cohen, who studied with the renowned Lee Strasberg, would bring techniques that derived from Russia’s great acting teacher, Konstantin Stanislavski, back to the land of their origin.
Cohen’s career began almost accidentally, when she toured with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, leading to a role in his film about the tour, Renaldo and Clara. At the age of 28, she decided since she’d enjoyed making the film, she would study acting. She ended up at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute.
“Lee said on daily basis, ‘There would be no Strasberg if there wasn’t a Stanislavski,’” recalled Cohen. “Lee built upon those discoveries of how to solve the actor’s problems: the problem of anticipation, the problem of how to repeat your good work, how to live a part, how to not emphasize the lines and ‘indicate’ feelings but actually re-experience emotions.”
As a class assistant, she helped videotape Strasberg’s lectures for the last five years of his life. “The students making the videos were not professionals, and it was not possible to view them because they were a mess,” she said. In the 1990s, aware that these tapes were languishing and disintegrating at The Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, she decided to try to preserve their contents.
She had just moved to Woodstock after 17 years in Los Angeles, and she was going into New York City two days a week to teach acting at the institute. She would arrive at 7 a.m. with big yellow legal pads, putting in time before class to replay the scratchy videos and transcribe every word. “Lee didn’t know what periods and commas were,” she remarked. “It was just nonstop lecturing, with effusive energy, and he would go off on tangents.”
At a teachers meeting, she was asked to read aloud a section of her transcript. “The teachers were stunned,” she said. “It was like Lee coming back from the dead. Someone suggested it should be a book.” After eight years of transcription, followed by a complex editing process, she published The Lee Strasberg Notes (Routledge, 2010). More recently, she wrote The Method Acting Exercises Handbook (Routledge, 2016), to expand on and clarify exercises for her students at New York University, where she teaches acting to undergraduates. She has also directed productions of Jean Genet’s The Maids and Lewis John Carlino’s Snowangels at the Strasberg Institute.
The Russian connection came from a Christmas Eve party where she introduced herself to a man standing alone in a corner. He turned out to be Viktor Melnikov, who had studied with Michael Chekhov, another descendant of the Stanislavski tradition. “We have so much in common, coming from the master,” said Cohen. “And Viktor was the director of the Chekhov International Theater at Melikhovo, where Anton Chekhov had his dacha.”
Melnikov invited her to teach at Melikhovo, and her Russian adventures began. “I love the Russian ethic of the actor as an artist,” Cohen said. “Actors are treated differently there. They’re respected. The students are so passionate and knowledgeable and driven. You could inhale their excitement.”
Each time she returns, her classes are larger. This year in St. Petersburg, she had 30 students, including professional opera singers, dancers, and people new to the work. One student has gone on to perform with Cirque du Soleil. She also teaches in Moscow, as well as at venues in Denmark, Lisbon, Copenhagen, and Milan.
Russia does not have a celebrity culture like the U.S., said Cohen. “Of course, actors would like to be famous, but they are most interested in cultivating their art form, sharing their own humanity with the audience. They’ve read all the great books, and they know painting and music. It’s in their DNA. There’s art and culture in your face wherever you go.”
She loves to go to the homes of artists and writers — Pushkin, Gorky, Bulgakov — that have been preserved as museums. At the Stanislavski house museum in Moscow, she can see the door knocker the director and teacher used to rub for good luck on his way to the theater, the table where he and his actors sat after he had heart trouble and was no longer allowed to walk to the theater.
What better inspiration for an acting teacher!