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Diary 5: Rehearsals

In his fifth set of diary entries, Saul Pope gets nervous about the rapidly approaching Christmas play.

Wednesday 15th December

The end of term is nigh, and I think everyone will be glad come next Wednesday when we can all take a decent break. Especially the students, it seems, seeing as only one turned up to my class today – and even she announced that she had to leave after an hour. This always seems to be a problem in Russia, as students drift away before the start of the holidays and don’t come back until February, largely because of university exams but in some cases perhaps because of severe New Year hangovers.

The teachers, of course, have worked extremely hard and are in need of the break, and I’m proud of all that they’ve all put in. Just one final push towards the play - which is changing in structure day by day as more as more people higher up the echelons decide that they want to make last minute changes - and then we’re done.

Thursday 16th December

I’ve been picked up by my wife (who quality controls all my work) for yesterday’s comments in which I suggested that some Russian students may be drunkards, especially around the New Year period. This was a comment intended entirely in jest, and one that was in fact bourn out of the British tendency to rather overdo things during the festive period rather than anything I’ve ever seen over here.

Though you certainly see examples amongst older people that match up to the western stereotypes of Russians being a vodka-sodden bunch, the same cannot be said of young people. When out and about it’s rare to see young Russians inebriated, and not unusual to see them sitting in a bar and drinking tea or coffee on a Friday night. There was never a ‘going-out’ culture during the Soviet times, with most entertainment taking place at home, so it has probably never occurred to most Russian youngsters that they could go and sink 10 pints in a local pub over the weekend.

The lack of ‘going-out’ culture has also led to a lack of pubs and bars, with most of what there is centred around St. Petersburg’s main street and aimed purely at the ‘tastes’ of ex-pats and visiting businessmen. In a poor country the young people are never rich, and Russia is no exception – another reason behind their lack of drinking is no doubt that they’ve got better things to spend what money they do have on. Finally, one look at those members of the older generations to whom drink is a way of life is enough to put anyone off big-time alcohol indulgence.

So, I apologise for yesterday’s comments. Young Russians on the whole don’t drink too much, and that is a good thing.

In the west we rather arrogantly assume that the former Communist states have all to learn from us. I think sometimes we could learn a thing or two from them.

Monday 20th December

I’ve been off sick for a few days, so there’s not been a lot happening. Except I’ve learnt that my neighbour upstairs has suddenly become an avid recorder player, sometimes even practising his scales until after midnight. It’s quite a pleasant change from the usual sounds of neighbours arguing, or the trams rattling heavily along under our window.

Despite not feeling great I made it in for the final rehearsal yesterday, which took place in the theatre. To say we’re not ready is something of an understatement, as the play keeps getting changed every time we practise and the lyrics and the music to the final show-stopping song have only appeared today. The fact that most of our audience will be children with little clue as to what is really going on onstage eases the tension slightly - the main thing that’ll impress them is good costumes and free sweets - but it’s still slightly worrying that we are so under-prepared with no time to rehearse left. We’d better just hope things will be all right on the night.

Tuesday 21st December

Final lessons today, or at least in theory. As with last week, hardly anyone has turned up today or yesterday. This lack of students is a common problem for many teachers, and one that requires you to think on your feet. Usually it goes something like this: you’ve prepared a great, fun warmer activity for the start of your lesson, but for it to work you need at least six students of the eight in your group to arrive on time. It’s time to start class, but only three of them have turned up.

The best thing to do in such situations is to chat for five or so minutes about anything – all good language teachers know how to talk about things which are perhaps tedious to them but interesting to the students. Most importantly, such teachers know how to look interested in the latest skateboard accessories or someone’s work problems, and they can always think of an appropriate follow-up question.

If no one turns up after ten minutes, it’s time to move on and forget the fun warmer for the moment (even though it took you half an hour to make it). They’ll turn up sooner or later, or else you can use it next lesson. Instead, it’s perhaps best just to start the lesson proper, unless you’ve got a little game that can be done by individuals.

The problem continues into the lesson when your tasks, dialogues and so on need that magic number of six, rendering your lesson plan almost useless. This means it’s time to rearrange everything, and perhaps even teach a totally different lesson. As has been well documented, a good teacher doesn’t only plan well, but can ‘read’ the lesson and even totally scrap the plan if it seems like it would be the best thing for the students.

Anyway, that’s the lessons over. Now there’s just the small matter of performing tomorrow’s worryingly under-rehearsed play.

Thursday 23rd December

Although it would perhaps be sacrilegious to suggest that a miracle happened yesterday evening, it was certainly something close. We spent the afternoon going through a final rehearsal, at which point things didn’t look good, to put it politely. We were missing not just cues but whole sections of dialogue, the sound engineer kept putting the wrong sounds or music on, and the final song sounded as unlike a final song should as you can get. But before we could correct anything we were informed that the audience was waiting outside, and indeed we had five minutes until the play was due to start. As the curtains closed and the audience began to filter in we were silent, but the look of concentration on everyone’s faces was immense, as if we’d collectively but individually decided that we weren’t going to be defeated on this one.

Our director’s speech to the audience seemed to last forever as we first actors waited behind the curtain. Then the curtain went up and suddenly everything clicked. We’d been awful in almost every rehearsal, but having a real audience in front of us seemed to be the stimulus that brought out the actor inside every teacher. We were received excellently, and it was according to our boss the best play she’d ever been involved with.

All in all, it was a brilliant team effort and I’m very proud of my staff. Of course, there is a down side to all this success – no doubt there will now be a Valentine’s Day play, an April Fool’s Day play, a Bank Holiday Monday play and so on. But suddenly the prospect of these doesn’t seem quite so intimidating.

I’m flying back to the UK with my wife in a couple of hours for Christmas and New Year. We’ve spent the morning scouring St. Petersburg for sterling, as most currency exchanges only stock dollars and Euro. We managed to find one hundred, which is better than the twenty we managed last year. It won’t last us the two weeks, but at least I’ll be able to get a copy of that illusive newspaper at Heathrow.

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