In 2005, when Theatre Arts Professor Diane Benedict was approached to develop a study abroad course for her students, she had just returned from a year-long sabbatical, teaching at the world-renowned Moscow Art Theater (MXAT). Having also spent time as a Fulbright Scholar there, Benedict was intimately and deeply familiar with the master acting techniques taught at MXAT, and knew how much her LMU students could benefit from that experience.
The four-month program starts in Bonn, Germany, continues for a month in Moscow, Russia, and culminates in a professional production at the Schauspielhaus in Bonn. Taught by European theatre experts and the LMU faculty who chaperone the trip, students are immersed in a conservatory-style course format, which includes in-depth theoretical and intense practical approaches to Stanislavski acting methods at MXAT and Brechtian Epic theatre techniques in Bonn.
“By teaching my students these classic methods in addition to what they learn on-campus at LMU, it ensures that they will have a wide variety of techniques to pull from depending on the medium in which they are acting,” said Benedict. “As actors, we are called upon to inhabit so many different types of characters over the course of a career, and having such a rich educational experience allows our students to tailor their approach to each role and truly stand apart. I’ve never seen a single student come back from this program without being a much more developed artist.”
Students have a truly immersive experience as part of this program, and one that will stay with them throughout their lives. As part of the conservatory-style instruction, students are in classes six days a week, from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm, and the students often go to shows after class is over in the evening. The group stays together throughout the whole semester, strengthening their relationships and creating a true ensemble.
But even outside of the rigorous academic aspect, for Benedict, one of the most transformative characteristics of the program for the students comes on a much more personal level due to the culturally immersive experience. They live with German families while in Bonn, and stay in the newly-remodeled dorms at MXAT in Russia. Free weekends are often dedicated to travel and exploration, either with the whole group or in smaller sets. Benedict finds that as a result, students often return to LMU with a much more macro view of the world, and have more compassion for the differences in people.
“By removing them from their comfort zone, these students are often faced with things that they never could have imagined on the bluff,” she said. “Even just going to a store, or asking for directions can be a challenge in many instances when travelling. By working through these challenges, and learning how to communicate when you can’t use words – it shifts the whole paradigm of how these students look at the world, and gives them an understanding of how miscommunications due to cultural difference do happen all the time. In today’s world, understanding these differences is crucial, not just as actors, but as global citizens.”
The capstone project performance is the culmination of the program, and involves a full stage production in Bonn following a month of full-time rehearsals. This year’s play was written and directed by Benedict, and celebrated and told the stories of warrior women throughout time, such as Sophie Scholl, Harriet Tubman, Zenobia, and many others. The images in the slideshow above are from that production.