I'm crouched on the stage, watching as three second-year students take their final exam at the Studio School, the acting academy attached to the Moscow Art Theater, which was founded by Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Nikita Efremov is performing a scene from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward. I can hardly believe this is the same 18-year-old who, just a year ago, starred in The Insatiables, a teen comedy somewhere between Scary Movie and American Pie. "It's not a work of art," Nikita said sheepishly when I asked him about it. "I had fun making it, but I didn't know how to act then."
Nikita comes from theater royalty. His father, Mikhail Efremov, is a well-known actor and director. His grandfather, the actor Oleg Efremov, ran the Moscow Art Theater for 30 years, until his death in 2000. Both graduated from the Studio School. In Russia the Efremov name is akin to Coppola or Barrymore in the United States, but Nikita downplays his lineage. Instead he puts in 14-hour days at school, and when he completes the grueling four-year program, which has an attrition rate of almost 50 percent, he will enter a world radically different from that of his forebears.
In the Soviet era generous government subsidies allowed theaters to stage lavish productions and maintain a large troupe of actors. Ticket prices were controlled and affordable, and daily battles with government censors imbued the art with purpose. After communism the economy tanked and theaters began to empty out. Now, thanks to all the new money, the theater is popular again, but not necessarily with, say, Chekhov and Turgenev. Newly arrived musicals such as Chicago and Mamma Mia! are hugely popular and most always sell out. Even the venerable Moscow Art Theater has had to resort to slapstick comedies to boost revenue.
The performers feel the play of market forces, too. Although most remain loyal to the theater, they can make far more money in film or television. And rather than wringing their hands over lost traditions, the younger generation of actors sees freedom in this. "I can't imagine that one place would consistently share my artistic point of view," Nikita says. "I'm interested in lots of things: classical theater, experimental theater, film."
Only certain films, though. "I've seen The Insatiables once," he says. "That's probably enough."