Manja Benkow was a theatre pedagogue, lecturer, reciter and translator of Russian literature. She introduced Stanislavski’s system to Swedish theatre pedagogics.
Manja Benkow was born Maria (Mascha) Arkadyevna Epstein in Vilnius, in the then Russian Empire. Very little is known of her family, childhood and youth. In 1917 she moved to Moscow to complete her university studies. She later studied for the famous actor, director and author Konstantin Stanislavski at his Moscow Art Theatre and qualified as a pedagogue and director in 1922. She was later employed there as an actress.
Manja Benkow moved to Stockholm where she married the photographer and sculptor Moses (Moisé) Benkowitz in 1924. The couple later took the surname Benkow. The marriage lasted until 1943. That same year, Manja Benkow started a school for stage education, Benkow’s Theatre Studio in Götgatan, Stockholm. She was the first in Sweden to use Stanislavski’s “system”. It focused on concentration, voice, physical skills, emotional memory, observation and dramatic analysis.
Manja Benkow was also a diligent lecturer on Konstantin Stanislavski and she translated his An Actor’s Work from Russian to Swedish in 1944 as well as his great autobiographical work My Life in Art in 1951. She also translated shorter Russian works like Maxim Gorky’s Vassa Zheleznova, Vassili Schvarkin’s Someone else’s child and Konstantin Simonov’s Pod kastanami Praga. She did these translations for Radioteatern in 1947.
That same year, she became the leader of the youth theatre Ung Teater that was later expanded with Nya Studion. There, many future actors and actresses received their basic training in role analysis, deportment, stage presentation and voice technique. Lissi Alandh was one. For her own theatre school, she translated for example Anton Chekhov’s Vedma and Samuil Marschak’s A new year’s tale. She translated Sergei Aksakov’s A family chronicle and Aleksandr Pushkin’s The queen of spades and other short stories that were included in Tidens ryska klassiker, a collection published in Swedish in 1948.
As a poetry reader, Manja Benkow was often heard at poetry evenings in the cultural life of Stockholm. She chose poems by among others Hans Arp, Olof Lagercrantz, Ebba Lindqvist, Hjalmar Gullberg and Harry Martinsson. With her slight accent, she read slowly and with empathy; ”almost withdrawn”. During the latter part of the 1940s, she introduced Russian marionette theatre as a popular entertainment and art as well as the Chinese theatre in a series of lectures at Stockholm College, later Stockholm University.
When the hundredth anniversary of Stanislavski’s birth was celebrated in 1963 at the Stockholms Stadsteater Studio, Maja Benkow introduced the event by talking about ”the master of the stage” and her personal memories from his Moscow Art Theatre. During that year, she gave a number of lectures on his stage method. She was also employed as a teacher and director by the Stockholm adult education institutions: Medborgarskolan and Arbetarnas Bildningsförbund (ABF). For example, she led a two-year theatre course. Manja Benkow continued to travel around the country for the ABF as a lecturer and reciter even after her retirement.
Manja Benkow died on 8 September 1976 at 78 years of age. Her obituary was headed by the Star of David.