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Lee Strasberg: Method Man

Marlon Brando.

The following is guest article by Neal Weaver that touches on the theatrical history of New York City.

“In the 1950s, Lee Strasberg was probably the most controversial figure in the American theatre. To some, he was an almost worshipped figure, and his students tended to be fanatical acolytes. For others, who hated him, he was the guru who transformed actors into introspective navel-gazers, mumblers, and erratic, unreliable creatures. Neither camp was accurate, but he was never an easy man to define or pin-down. But now, more than half a century later, he seems to have won his fight to make  actors better trained, more honest, and more secure in their craft.

For many, Strasberg became the embodiment of The Actors Studio, just as Marlon Brando became the quintessential Actors Studio Actor. But both impressions are wrong. Strasberg was not the founder of the Studio, That honor belongs to Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis and Cheryl Crawford, who founded the Studio in 1947, as a non-profit workshop for professional and aspiring actors to hone their craft, away from the pressures of the commercial theatre. (Kazan called it “a place for actors to get in out of the rain.) Strasberg assumed the leadership only in 1951.

Strasberg was born in 1892 in Budzanov, Poland. His family emigrated to the U.S. in 1909, and settled on NYC’s Lower East Side. His first exposure to theatre came when a relative gave him a small role in a Yiddish-language production. He went on to join the Chrystie Street Settlement House’s drama club, and the Clare Tree Major School of the Theater. But his great revelation came when the Moscow Art Theatre toured to NYC, under the direction of Constantin Stanislavsky, and he discovered a deeply committed acting ensemble the like of which he had never seen. He was galvanized by Stanislavsky’s “system” of acting, and began to study with Stanislavsky’s students, Maria Ouspenskaya and Michael Chekhov. (Ouspenskaya had acted with  Moscow Art Theatre, but later wound up in Hollywood, where she became an advocate for the “system.” When she was filming A Song to Remember, she had a farewell scene with actor Philip Dorn who was playing her orchestral conductor son. The director found the scene too slow, and asked her to do the same thing in half the time. She complied easily. A reporter who was on the set asked her how a Stanislavsky actress, deeply concerned with motivation, could respond so readily to a technical direction. “It was very simple,” she said. “I just told myself the taxi was waiting, and the meter was running.”)

Meanwhile, Strasberg was pursuing an acting career. A few human anecdotes survive from that time: we know that he auditioned for the musical revue The Greenwich Village Follies with the song “My Wild Irish Rose,” and in a wildly unexpected bit of casting, he played lecherous Persian peddler Ali Hakim in Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs, which was later adapted into the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!

Lee Strasberg.

Strasberg first seriously embarked on what would become his later career when he joined with director Harold Clurman and producer Cheryl Crawford to found the ground-breaking Group Theatre. Photos from the Group’s early years show that the three directors were almost painfully young: but despite his baby-face, Strasberg became the company’s acting teacher and coach, and he shared directing duties with Clurman, while Crawford attended to practical matters, and refereed any fights that broke out—and there were plenty of those.

Strasberg directed the production of Men in White that established the company’s reputation, but he hated the work of Clifford Odets, which later became the emblem of their success. It took a mutiny by the actors to bring about the production of Odets’ Awake and Sing, And finding his authority rejected by the company was a serious blow to Strasberg’s ego.

Elia Kazan, an actor with the Group, described Strasberg’s teaching at that time: “He carried with him the aura of a prophet, a magician, a witch doctor, a psychoanalyst, and a feared father of a Jewish family.” This description remained pretty accurate, throughout Strasberg’s life and career.

The Group lasted several sometimes glorious years, mounting several justly famous productions   and some disastrous ones, before succumbing to the economic pressures of the commercial theatre, and the many internal emotional fault-lines that marked the Group from its inception. When it failed, both founders and members rejoined the commercial rat-race, teaching and mounting numerous productions, till the founding of the Studio gave Strasberg the secure niche where his talent could grow and flower.

Elia Kazan.

I was able to observe Strasberg at close range during my years as stage manager of the Playwright’s Unit, and later as a member of the unit, and my position enabled me to attend the acting classes and the Director’s Unit, both helmed by Strasberg. (And as director of the Studio he signed my pay-checks. And I was able to view his. I was making $40 a week. He was paid $260, which struck me as fairly modest considering the importance of his role.) He was, in some respects, easier respect than to like. He could be imperious, arrogant and remote, though he did have his warmer moments.

Those were the days when the major movie studios, which supplied much of the Studio’s funding, were forced to divest themselves of the theatre chains which provided them with secure markets for their product, and television was making inroads in the movie business, so they had curtailed their support of the Studio, which had to face a new financial insecurity. Actor Franchot Tone, who came from a wealthy family, took up much of the slack, but he could only do so much, so the search for funding was constant. I was in the office one day when Strasberg arrived, and Gillian Crowe, the secretary, said, “Lee, we just got a check in the mail. For ten thousand dollars. From Elizabeth Taylor.” He was both thunderstruck and delighted. He stood there beaming, and muttering “Elizabeth Taylor…ten thousand dollars!…ten thousand dollars…Elizabeth Taylor…” He was always star struck so this was extremely gratifying. (Some members took exception to his fondness for stars, complaining that they were sometimes granted membership in the Studio, regardless of their talent or lack of it. But Strasberg justified this by saying that it was important to instruct those who were getting the jobs, regardless of their basic skills.)

Strasberg’s classes always began in an almost ritual fashion. When most of the attendees had arrived and taken their seats, he would enter and take his seat in the middle of the front row. To his right, the Studio’s stage manager, Lee Marsh would take his place to run the tape recorder that captured Strasberg’s words of wisdom. To his left was the seat always occupied by his second wife, Paula Strasberg, who was always keen to assert her rights.  Once, when the scene to be played required extra space, Frank Corsaro, director of the scene, removed all the seats to the left of Strasberg. Paula, undaunted, took a chair from some-place else and placed it next to Lee. Corsaro, attempting to protest, said, “Paula…” She turned a baleful eye on him, and daring him to argue, replied frostily, “Yes, Frank?…” and he abandoned the field. (At one point during one of the rare full membership meetings, someone proposed some kind of special award for Paula, but the members weren’t inclined to go along. They voted down the measure. But nevertheless a few days later, the papers announced a special award was being given by the Studio to Paula Strasberg.)

Strasberg was not, of course, the only one to claim the mantle of Stanislavsky. Stella Adler was among the most militant, but there were plenty of others, including Sanford “Sandy” Meisner, Tamara Daykarhanova, and later Michael Howard, who was my teacher. The center-piece of Strasberg’s teaching was sense memory, or emotion memory, which was sometimes talked about in an almost mystical fashion, but in fact was a quite practical tool to draw on one’s own personal experience to lend depth and richness to one’s performances.

But the thing that struck me about Strasberg’s teaching was his awareness of the practical or purely technical means of theatrical expression. Two examples remain vivid memories.

In the first, actors Andy Quirk and Terry Keiser (he was the original Smitty in the Off-Broadway production of Fortune and Men’s Eyes) were doing a scene derived from a James Leo Herlihy short story, in which Andy was playing a puritanical religious fanatic, perpetually reading his Bible, and Terry was playing an orphan boy whom he has adopted after the death of the boy’s father. The kid was both gay and manipulative, and trying very hard to seduce his new guardian. The scene was powerful and very well done, and Strasberg gave it praise. “But,” he said, “there seemed to be something missing. Does anybody have any wire-rimmed glasses? Good. Give them to me… Here, Andy, put these on and open your Bible.” When Andy complied, the class broke out in spontaneous applause, because that simple practical detail crystalized the image of the rigid, inhibited man Andy was playing. (Andy was a talented actor whose career was cut short by in inoperable brain tumor.)

The second example was a historical drama set on a huge plantation in the pre-Civil War South. Franchot Tone was playing the patriarch of the plantation, and the scene was set in front of his mansion, including a wide porch with steps leading up to it. He had summoned his numerous slaves to a meeting, and they were gathered on the ground, waiting for him to appear. He appeared, and addressed the assembled company. (I can’t recall what the scene was about: it was not a very good play, though by a name writer.) When the scene ended, there was an uneasiness in the room. Everyone seemed aware that something was not quite right about the scene, but no one could pin down what was wrong, or missing. Finally, someone said, “I just didn’t believe that Franchot was the honcho of that plantation, and the owner of all those people.”  “What are you saying?” Strasberg said. “Are you saying that Franchot is a bad actor?” No. Nobody was saying that. Franchot was not only venerable in himself, he was also one of the financial mainstays of the Studio. Finally Strasberg said, “Let’s try it again. Go back to the top of the scene. Before Franchot’s entrance. As soon as he appears in that doorway, I want everybody on the stage to take one step backward.”

They did as he asked, and almost miraculously, with that one detail, Franchot’s authority was established, and we could believe he had the power of life and death over his people. Again, the class broke into spontaneous applause. Strasberg had found the single simple detail that crystallized the scene.

Those two examples are striking to me because they emphasize Strasberg’s practicality when it came to shaping a theatrical vision. They embodied that practical theatre sense that many people denied that he had. However fanatical he may have been in his teaching, in his own work he was a pragmatist, as Geraldine Page discovered when he directed her in The Three Sisters. He now talked about “results” rather than “process”—a cardinal sin among method mavens—but he actually gave her line readings, causing her to say “It was like Herman Shumlin all over again!”

Admittedly, Strasberg could be a bit absurd. He loved to perform and prove his own sensibility by talking about Marilyn Monroe after her death. Every time he told the stories he would break down and shed tears. And he told them so often that they almost seemed like his party piece. But despite his shortcomings, he was a man of enormous perception, and a rare talent.”

 

 

 

Pauline Adamek

Pauline Adamek is a Los Angeles-based arts enthusiast with twenty-five years' experience covering International Film Festivals and reviewing new Theatre, Film and Restaurants.

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