Earlier this year, Millersville's Amanda Fernandez went to Moscow to study Russian and enhance her skills at the Moscow Art Theater, birthplace of the famed Stanislavsky method of acting.
But not all the lessons she learned were on the curriculum, or even in the classroom.
She acquired a greater fluency in the language, to the point of thinking in Russian. She embarked on a new direction as an artist, one she hopes will merge the best of both American and Russian clowning. And she learned the importance of "living, and of surviving, no matter what happens, and learning the skills of coping with whatever comes."
"No matter how many problems we have over here, the Russians can [top] us," she said. "Since the Communists lost power, it's like they've uncapped a volcano, and people have just gone crazy over there. They haven't learned the difference between freedom and anarchy yet."
At 26, Mrs. Fernandez is a graduate of both St. John's College in Annapolis and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Clown School in Florida. A professional clown, juggler, stilt walker and actress, she is represented in this area by Poppin' Magic Productions.
She was one of several American students enrolled in a 14-week program at the Moscow theater between March and May, sponsored by The National Theater Institute and the Connecticut College of New London, Conn.
When she told people where she was from, Mrs. Fernandez said, "I might as well have said Disneyland. America, to them, has no problems. It's a fantasy place, just the most magically possible place on the earth."
The visit had a rocky start, partly because of culture shock and problems with the first Russian couple she stayed with. They were senior citizens, she said, unable to understand the cultural shock she was experiencing, and at the same time they were dealing with food and fuel shortages and the social upheavals of the time.
But they parted amicably, and she moved in with another, more cosmopolitan family, the Sinolnikovs ("the greatest Russian people in the world") for the duration of her stay.
Mrs. Fernandez soon expanded her studies at the Moscow Art Theater, which she called "some of the most amazing theatrical training in the world," to include working part-time with an independent professional group called the Theatre Klownov (The Theater of Clowns).
Initially, her American-style clowning did not go over well. But things improved after an instructor put her in touch with Theresa Durova, a member of a prominent circus family in Russia, who helped her to understand clowning, Russian-style.
The Russians, she said, are very minimalist. They "prefer to use very little makeup, and try to take the person as he exists and put him into very strange and unusual situations."
Just juggling, for example, or simple slapstick pratfalls, is seldom enough for a Russian audience. So she caught their interest by "doing something very strange, like a dance routine on stilts that just blew the Russians away. Eccentric theater -- and that is the word they use -- is really what the circus is all about in Russia."
As an American clown, Mrs. Fernandez says, "I prefer the complete transformation of the persona, which includes what the Russians call 'the big makeup,' with the big wig and the big funny feet, all the traditional aspects of covering yourself over and bringing the character out through those things."
Even with all its problems, Mrs. Fernandez said, she grew to love Russia very much, and hopes to return one day to visit. But for now, inspired by the Theatre Klownov, she has one particular dream.
"I'm working on the idea of starting up a small community circus here, she said, "because we have some incredible performers here in the county, as good as any in Russia, but they've never had the outlet to be able to really explore their art."
Among these artists, she said, are "clowns, people who can juggle and acrobats, among others. We can give children a chance to see something that's really wonderful and beautiful, and that shows that people can accomplish something out of the ordinary.
"There's a sense of wonder and possibility offered by the circus," she added, "and maybe by a smaller one more than any other, and that's why I think it would work really well in Anne Arundel County."