Life’s lessons come in the least likely places

When Scott Hurst left Barrie for Moscow on Friday, September 13, it was to join a Broadway production of 42nd St– incredible opportunity for an accomplished Canadian actor who not only performs professionally but who also directs and produces musical shows for South Simcoe Theatre in Cookstown.

As he left for Moscow, Scott was excited to be playing with “the big guys,” American Broadway musical producers. He was excited to participate in Russian culture in a city that is itself 800 years old, five times older than Canada. He was excited to visit art galleries and theatres, to be performing in an old venue, to be bringing North American culture to the Russian stage… an interesting experiment.

He flew back to Canada on Friday, December 13, 13 weeks and 70 performances later.

He came home much earlier than planned. A car bombing, a hostage taking in a Moscow Theatre that left 129 people dead, experiences that threatened his feeling of safety, cultural diversity that left him heartsick…

And now that he’s home, Scott isn’t sure even who he is.

And this is why I’ve chosen Scott to be my Christmas column. His message goes far beyond Christianity and the birth of a baby in a far away land, in a culture that none of us will ever experience. His message leaves North America, delves into another country and another age, and returns home, uncertain.

What Scott has brought back is incredibly diverse…

He understands how offensive the English speaking tourist must be, throwing around money like it’s water, when most senior citizens in Russia are setting up wooden crates and selling small quantities of shredded cabbage and apples to bring in revenue. His expense cheque was $180 per week. The average older Russian lives on $12 American per month. No wonder they found the theatre troupe offensive and vulgar!

So much of the translation of the songs and words and gestures in 42nd Street could not be translated. There are no Russian words to describe a honeymoon in Niagara Falls. There is no context for that kind of holiday.

For Scott, the overwhelming confusion of his time in Russia was that wrong and right have no reality; that it’s just one huge difference.

He hastens to point out that the cultural gap between the Canadians and Americans was as great as the cultural gap between North Americans and Russians.

“Russians do things on a different time schedule… it’s the sheer unavailability of things like theatre lighting, ladders, hydro power to the theatre itself,” Scott says when describing an incident that on the surface sounded like dishonesty. It turned out that his Russian production team merely agreed to what they hoped would happen, with an unspoken acceptance of the reality that it was not possible.

There’s a big difference in a people who do what they’re told to do and people who make decisions and think and act for themselves. One isn’t necessarily better than another, but existing side by side causes huge problems in compatibility.

Scott looks back at his time there with embarrassment, too. Lack of empathy for the Russian lifestyle. Lack of understanding how Russian people revere their artists, writers, singers, performers. That huge supposition that what the North Americans were bringing was the modern age, superior attitudes and all. And as Scott learned and appreciated the tremendous cultural differences, and absorbed so much of Russian magic and way of life, he cringed with embarrassment at the North American values of bigness and wealth.

He describes the hostage taking. “It was a Russian crisis; they had friends in there who were going to die. They didn’t understand our need for a prayer circle. They saw it as their problem and they soldiered on.”

Keeping his “aura” clean became a big part of Scott’s day. He learned to remain positive, to try to avoid what he felt was the toxic attitude of superiority. So many of his compatriots focussed on what IS NOT in Russia, rather than seek out and appreciate WHAT IS. So many focussed on perpetuating, rather than embracing, cultural differences.

Scott remains amazed at how quickly we choose the negative, when given the opportunity. And as he looks at his experience he sums up the challenge: ‘ it’s much easier to go to Moscow than to assimilate and live there. My expectations and lack of understanding and perspective were real hurdles.”

He comments on antitheses: a centuries old church, closed without money for repairs, sitting kitty-corner to a busy, orange Pizza Hut with all its glitter. And yet the older Russian subways with their chandeliers and mosaic art sit in splendour, no vandalism, no garbage receptacles even because people take their waste with them. This is a real statement in a society that struggles with great violence.

Scott regrets the self-imposed armour that he put on as he arrived in Moscow. He says that once he gave notice and made the decision to return to Canada, he really began to experience and appreciate Russian culture and ways.

His message? Don’t ever take anything for granted again. Get out of yourself, experience life from many angles, with many people. There’s so much more outside of North America.

His resolution for his life now? “I’ll have more patience. I’ll be more nurturing. I have a new concept of the importance of art and artists and architecture. I want to be alone on stage, participating with my audience.”

Scott’s message is one of humility, of patience, of passion…

And now that he’s back… what does he appreciate?

The opportunity to work through life’s lessons.
Personal space.
The ability to think and act for ourselves.

Thank you, Scott. For your honesty. And joy and prosperity (read health) for this time of year, when a birth represents a new beginning which we can all celebrate.