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MFA program opens Studio’s doors

More than 1,000 applicants have already piled up for the Actors Studio’s three-year Masters of Fine Arts program for the 1998 term beginning in September at New York’s esteemed New School for Social Research. Conservative estimates put the expected total of applicants between 3,000 and 4,000. The School of Dramatic Arts will accept 80 of them.

If they graduate — 77 did this year in the inaugural class — they join a membership of less than 900 and their names are counted among a tradition that invokes the names of Brando and Clift, Streep and Bancroft, Poitier and De Niro, Jane Fonda and Julie Harris.

Passport into industry

“The Actors Studio master’s degree becomes a good professional passport in the industry,” says James Lipton, dean of the School of Dramatic Arts and vice president of the Actors Studio Board. “The students are what it’s all about — their futures are the final piece of the puzzle.

“They give three years of their lives and become burdened with loans. They must adhere to the two most important craft words in the profession to get through — passion and commitment. Jack Nicholson auditioned five times before he was accepted by the Actors Studio, Dustin Hoffman six times, Harvey Keitel kept coming back, 11 times” — in decades prior to the studio’s affiliation with the New School.

The MFA program, which was initiated for the 1994 school year, germinated in ’93 when the studio’s board of directors mulled the notion of opening its doors “not to let the world in, but to let the studio’s process out,” Lipton says.

Curriculum forged

Then-studio president Paul Newman and current president Arthur Penn along with seven other members — Ellen Burstyn, Norman Mailer, Lee Grant, Carlin Glynn, Peter Masterson, Robert Wankel and Lipton — forged the extensive curriculum, from vocal training to playwriting workshops, stage design to accent reduction, body movement to seminars focusing on members discussing craft and careers.

Penn sees the Actors Studio’s evolution into the larger academic whole of the New School as a boon for the theatrical arts in general.

“In America, theater doesn’t have a strong institutional base,” Penn says. “What we represent is one side of whatever institutional base is there. Theatre in America has to be kept vital. We all made a good living in the movies, the theater and television. This is part of giving something back, helping in our way to cure the fabulous invalid a little bit.”

Since its founding in 1919 in Greenwich Village, the New School has been a haven for pioneers in political, philosophical and social thought, embracing avant-garde techniques and promoting with a faculty of self-governing scholars an egalitarian and scientific approach to higher learning.

Lofty alumni

Alumni and faculty have included composers Aaron Copland and John Cage, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, poet Robert Frost, philosopher Horace Kallen, psychologist Max Wertheimer and its former longtime president, Alvin Johnson, who had been a longtime associate editor of the New Republic. Its schools include the Parsons School of Design, Eugene Lang Liberal Arts College and the Mannes College of Music.

The New School had done its own pioneering in the dramatic arts with Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop from 1940 to 1951, where Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg taught for the first time and Brando and Tennessee Williams, Walter Matthau and Shelley Winters, began their stage training.

A controversial German Marxist whose techniques grew from observing fellow trench soldiers in World War I, Piscator helped revolutionize the Berlin and Moscow theaters prior to World War II. Piscator stressed that drama is “a serious art with serious moral responsibilities,” according to the history, “New School,” by Peter M. Rutkoff and William B. Scott.

By drawing on its more than 800 members for instructors, the Actors Studio’s curricular methods dovetail to the New School’s traditions and Piscator’s legacy.

“That longtime tie between the New School and the Actors Studio has been relinked,” says Jonathan Fanton, president of the New School. “The dramatic arts are deeply rooted in the history of the place. And Piscator had the notion that actors and writers benefited from rubbing shoulders with other students deeply interested in social and political issues, that that activity contributed to their development as artists.

“The flip side is also true of the MFA program — the presence of the drama school has made our university a livelier place, picked up the spirit of the place in a really good way.”

The studio’s aspiring actors, writers and directors use as a template for their three years the famous “system” described in Constantin Stanislavski’s books: “An Actor Prepares” for year one, “Building a Character” for the second annal and “Creating a Role” in the graduation year.

Among the innovations of the MFA has been the establishment of the Actors Studio Free Theatre on 42nd Street, which presents new American plays, currently Jack Gelder’s “Chambers,” about the Alger Hiss-Whitaker Chambers trial and directed by Penn.

Common bond

“Because the creators of this program share a common legacy and technique,” Lipton says, “and because every one of the program’s teachers of acting, directing and playwriting is, by definition and mandate, an experienced and distinguished life member of the Actors Studio or closely affiliated colleague, this program possesses a unique coherence and continuity, as its students are taken scrupulously from A to Z by these masters of craft.”

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