Thesps of the world unite

Institution represents no less than revolution of American stage, film

“Like it or lump it, the Actors Studio has literally given birth to the clearest, most carefully defined, most virile approach to the player’s craft the American theater has produced.”

When New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr wrote that appreciation in 1957, it was clear that, as far as the highest seriousness of American stage and movie performance was concerned, all roads went through the Actors Studio.

To a great extent they still do, even if the Studio’s brief foray into production ended with “The Three Sisters” in London, a 1965 Krakatoa-sized disaster that still smolders in memory, and even if a lot of that seriousness has curdled into self-parody. The roster of actors, directors, playwrights and teachers who have passed through the Studio make up a Who’s Who of American artists. At its height, the work that came out of the Studio gave us a passionate, even harrowing feel for the dark, complicated, treacherous undercurrents running through contemporary life. In re-examining modern acting, it redefined our views of experience.

Founded in September 1947 (though incorporated the following year), the Actors Studio drew on the formidable energies of its predecessor, the Group Theater, which had developed the ideas of Stanislavski, Michael Chekhov, Richard Boraslevsky and Eugene Vakhtangov in an effort to scrub the actor clean of artifice and give him a means of dealing with a dramatic situation in a way that was demonstrably felt.

Theater of the proletariat

There were other ambitious and iconoclastic groups, the Provincetown Players and the Mercury Theater among them, that wanted to bring life and art back into a theater they thought over-commercialized, over-gentrified and stale. But the Group, founded by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford in 1931, was more in tune with the working-class passions roiled by the Depression. The Group self-destructed in 1941, but when Elia Kazan returned to form the Actors Studio (along with Crawford and Robert Lewis) and Strasberg came back to teach, that smoldering disenchantment and fervid dissatisfaction — seen emblematically in the early work of Marlon Brando — was still there.

As interpreted by Studio alums, the plays of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, William Inge and, later, Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, Jack Gelber and Israel Horovitz, brought a prominence to American drama in the second half of the 20th century that the musical occupied in the first. And it was perfect for the interiorization of the movies.

Kazan’s work alone was epochal. Onstage or in film, he directed “The Skin of Our Teeth,” “One Touch of Venus,” “Jakabowski and the Colonel,” “All My Sons,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “On the Waterfront,” “Viva Zapata!,” and “A Face in the Crowd.” He won an Oscar for 1947’s “Gentleman’s Agreement.” Most of his players were drawn from the Actors Studio; indeed, that was its raison d’etre.

Mention the name Actors Studio now, though, and most people remember just two things: the Method — as typified by Brando and James Dean at their most wounded — and Lee Strasberg. And not always fondly.

Origin of the Method

The American version of the Method first percolated into a more or less coherent approach during the Group Theater days, but even then some didn’t see merit in it. Watching the Group in its pained transports of Stanislavskian self-discovery, Laurette Taylor wondered aloud, “Why must they make acting such a malady?” Over the decades, it went through so many interpretations and permutations that Stanislavski himself gave up on it. “If it doesn’t work for you, don’t use it,” he told Stella Adler, who made a desperate pilgrimage to the feet of the master. She was certain Strasberg had it wrong, a conviction that led her to go out on her own as a teacher.

As Strasberg defined it, the Method was “a dramatic technique by which an actor seeks to gain complete identification with the inner personality of the character being portrayed.” Along with standard preparation and rehearsal tools, the Method added relaxation, concentration and affective memory exercises to the mix. When it worked, it led to performance that was fresh, vivid, utterly in the moment, captivating for actor and viewer both. When it didn’t, it degenerated into a confused, messy solipsism that was a trial for everyone — including the audience — who had to wait while some poor soul fumbled around in search of his “motivation.”

“It was only a tool,” says Oscar winner Martin Landau, who is on the Studio’s West Coast executive board. “Directors are result-oriented. It takes the actor longer to free his imagination and find out how to get there. It was never intended as an end in itself.”

As liberating as it could be for the actor, the Method did nothing to help his speech, his movement, his knowledge of style or his period sense — indeed, it became clear before long that the Method was best suited for contemporary realism and little else. To his credit, Strasberg knew this, lamenting that there was nowhere for the American actor to go for lengthy and complete training. And that was before it was singled out as license for neurotic self-display, and the Studio itself as a house, as Celeste Holm put it, of “cabalistic pomposity.”

Strasberg himself is almost as hard to pin down. An immigrant auto-didact who spoke only Yiddish until he was nearly 8 years old, he steeped himself in theater from childhood on and developed such an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject that, later in his life, the New York Public Library would call on him for loan of his books. He had what some called “a jeweler’s eye” for acting talent. It was more like a laser, intensely penetrating and extremely narrow, relentlessly focused on scorching out anything that stood in the way of emotional truth.

He saw in young actors what they didn’t always see in themselves, and his twice-a-week classes became legendary, the hottest ticket in the country for ambitious actors on both coasts.

He was also a cruel, icy martinet who could be stunningly tactless and was, by most accounts, socially at sea in situations he couldn’t control.

Some, like Ellen Burstyn, attribute their success to him. Kim Stanley has offered the more general view: “Sometimes I hate the sonofabitch, but he knows more about acting than anyone in the world.”

In both the history of the Group and the Actors Studio, Kazan reportedly proved to be the more scurrilous and destructive, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes in the name of self-interest. But it was Strasberg’s narrowness, his unwillingness to let the Studio become a producing entity and gain firm organizational and financial footing, that ended its growth. When it found its moment, it let it pass.

“In the ego struggle between Kazan and Strasberg,” director Jose Quintero recalls, “America’s chance for a national theater was lost.”

Its own aesthetic may have done it in as well. “It’s been particularly good for movie actors who don’t get to play the trajectory of a work,” says New Yorker drama critic John Lahr. “The other side is that it isn’t up to the actor to interpret a work, it’s to be whatever it is the writer envisions. The Method can create a sub-text that simply isn’t there. And it’s led to a limit on American drama by being a drama of the self, not of a society. A private, interior style isn’t called for in playing Brecht, for example.”

Great art entities seldom outlive the personalities who created them, unless they’re forward-looking. The Studio survives now by being hooked up to the New School in New York. Strasberg died in 1982, Kazan is in his 80s; their students and followers have diffused through movies, the theater and television. The irony is that the conditions they rebelled against — over-commercialization, banality, the actor as commodity — are back in force, stronger than ever. We need a new revolution.

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