Perhaps more than any other entity where American actors have honed their craft, the Actors Studio is viewed by those who have studied there as a place of transition. Not the mythical Church of the Holy Method, as it has been darkly termed by its critics, but a setting in which fledgling artists grew into adult artists.
This notion of development, according to many Studio alumni including Rod Steiger, Susan Strasberg and Gene Wilder, counters the cliche of the armpit-scratching, throat-clearing “naturalism” that haunted the Method. This studied vulnerability, particularly in such personalities as James Dean and Marlon Brando, was what made the Studio style famous and yet distorted.
There was a quieter, less emphatic group of actors who developed under the tutelage of Studio founders Cheryl Crawford, Elia Kazan and Robert Lewis. Steiger, for example, brought his Studio years to bear on a role such as Jud in “Oklahoma!” and generated a dark, smoldering energy that was deeply radical in the American musical mainstream. Stunningly gifted young women such as Julie Harris and Kim Stanley would have emerged into stardom under any workshop or teacher, but emerged that much quicker because of training at the Actors Studio.
“The Studio gave me a good place to learn about acting, but more than anything, it saved me the time of my life,” Steiger says. “It helped me develop so that I saved five years’ worth of training I would have needed somewhere else. It’s a practical thing that I am indebted to the Studio for.”
A premium on talent
Originally devised by Crawford, Lewis and Kazan as a kind of bank from which actors could be recruited for each director’s New York shows, the Studio selected its early classes with a prime value on high talent and low student-teacher ratio. Many auditioned, few were chosen and even fewer were recruited into the Studio without audition.
“We had just finished our last class with Danny Mann at the American Theatre Wing in 1948, a scene from a stage version of Thomas Wolfe’s ‘The Web and the Rock,’ ” Steiger recalls. “He told a couple of the actors — not me, though — that they should audition for this new Actors Studio. I had been told all along that I was really good, so I couldn’t figure why Mann ignored me. And then, just as we were about to cross the street, Mann looked back at me and said, ‘Hey Rod, see you at the Studio.’ He knew I had been recruited without an audition.”
Steiger joined this 1950s elite of young New York actors, including Montgomery Clift, Karl Malden, Stanley and Brando, and found himself thriving under the intimate process of the Studio teachers. “I found I was acting defensively at first, but once I learned principles from Mann, Lee Strasberg, Martin Ritt, I heard my defensive voice get released. They told me that once I made the problems of the written character my problems, then I would become the character.”
This first wave of actors also witnessed the dramatic overthrow of the Studio founders once Kazan invited fellow Group Theater veteran Strasberg into the fold as a teacher-director. Many complained about the direction of Studio by the end of the ’40s, Steiger more loudly than most: “The Moscow Art Theater split up classes into beginning, intermediate and advanced. Under Strasberg, you had raw actors, and you had great talent, all together in a bunch. The Studio got too big, and Strasberg should have divided classes into sections according to experience. I debated with him about this class structure, but it was like arguing with your father.”
Different Studio alum hold varying perspectives on the role and impact of Strasberg, depending on when they passed through its bright blue front doors. Charter members tend to place greater value in founders Crawford, Lewis and Kazan. Later members regard Strasberg as the Studio’s mainstay. Paul Newman — whose recent largesse, Studio alumni say, helped keep the facility financially afloat — stresses the methods of Kazan, whose later impact on his film work was immense.
“There was ‘the Kazan Transition,’ ” Newman recalled in an interview on Bravo’s “Inside the Actors Studio.” “You would state the first line of dialogue, not pause, and go into the second line while still in the first beat. It made meaning much more dramatic. Little things like this were terribly important.”
The Strasberg challenge
Later Studio students such as Sally Field retain the imprint of Strasberg, recalled with both pain and pleasure: “I’ve relied on what I learned there for every acting role I’ve ever had. Strasberg wanted to knock me out of my tree. I was playing it safe and not going to the next level. He let me have it. He said, ‘Why are you here? You’re working. Do you need this?’ He was yelling at me and I was trying not to cry, but the tears came and I felt so embarrassed and Lee said, ‘You see where you are right now? That’s where you want to be in your work!’ And then I started evaluating myself. I valued that time with him enormously.”
“(The Studio classes) were tough and Lee was tough,” says Martin Landau, who like earlier Studio alum stresses the psychological elements that made up the Method, and its roots in Freud and Jung. “Basically, what the Studio represents is a conscious approach to get at the unconscious, because most people spend their waking lives repressing.”
Echoing this in “Marilyn and Me,” her memoir of her time with her father at the Studio and with fellow student Marilyn Monroe, Susan Strasberg says, “My parents believed that the most difficult thing to be was yourself. Most people trained from childhood to hide behind a thousand masks, lying, pretending, ignoring. … ‘Being private in public is what the actor does,’ my father used to reiterate.”
At the same time, actors at the Studio often disagree about Strasberg’s tendency to invite movie and Broadway stars such as Monroe to sit in and perform for classes. (In Monroe’s case, she also studied privately with Strasberg, while enduring some of the harshest criticism.) “When I go in those (Studio) doors,” says Lee Grant, “there’s no success pressure. It’s all about the work. Nobody’s a star.”
Steiger observes, however, that “Strasberg was star-struck really. I didn’t like how Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and others would be allowed to drop in on classes and observe. It tarnished the process. This led, I think, down the road to a change at the Studio, where people began to join the Studio to get jobs and make connections.”
But the original Studio ethic for Steiger still holds: “I’m trying to give a rounded picture of the place. There was a great hope there about striving for personal identity that made the Studio what it was. The greatest gift the Studio gave the actor was to be terrible, fall flat, come back and improve. The result was that the actors coming out of the Studio changed the acting of the world, by stating that the drama is happening to you.
“The funny thing was that, at the time, they didn’t know they were changing anything.”