restricted access 21. The Studio

From: Arthur Penn

The University Press of Kentucky colophon
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219 21 The Studio The building was not much to look at, but, like what was taught to those who studied there, the important thing was what went on inside. The address 432 West Forty-fourth Street in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City had been the Old Labor Stage until 1947, when Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, and Robert “Bobby” Lewis opened the Actors Studio. It was built in 1850 as a chapel, which is fitting, given the religious fervor with which the faithful studied the craft of acting. The religion became known as the Method, although, when it was proposed by Konstantin Stanislavski in his teachings, he called it the System. It might also be called the Process, because those who follow it engage in a lifelong exploration of self, craft, and a level of realism that didn’t exist on the stage before Stanislavski codified its creation. Konstantin Stanislavski was born Konstantin Sergeyevich Alekseyev in Moscow in 1863. He adopted the stage name Stanislavski in his early twenties, partly as a show of youthful independence but also to avoid the scandal he felt would befall his well-to-do merchant family were he to retain theirs. For while Russians loved culture, including the theater, actually getting up on a stage was too common for someone of Alekseyev’s privileged station. The young man flirted with formal acting but felt increasingly burdened by adherence to its presentational style, a convention in which one actor waited for another to finish before speaking, and then addressed the audience instead of his fellow 220 Arthur Penn performer. Actual emotion was indicated rather than expressed, and certainly never felt. It was while watching a performance of Othello in the 1890s that Stanislavski began to believe that the artifices of acting that had so burdened him in earlier studies could be stripped away so that only true emotions remained. In 1918 he established a school to teach his technique to young actors and began writing a series of papers that would become his seminal text, An Actor Prepares. Stanislavski’s troupe toured America only once—in 1922– 1923—performing in Russian, but the superiority of the acting impressed New York–based actors Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg so much that when two members of the Moscow Art Theatre began teaching at the American Laboratory Theatre, they sought to study under them. Those actors were Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, both of whom had profound and continuing influence on the development of the American derivation that came to be called the Method. Summarizing the Method can be both risky and incomplete, for it is a consuming regimen that requires both personal and professional devotion. In the broadest sense, it is a technique by which a performer calls upon personal experience, which can be painful, in order to create what is necessary for a performance. It is through training that the actor learns not only how to summon these feelings when they are needed but also to present them meaningfully to the audience.1 The Studio had its roots in the Group Theatre, which was formed in 1931 by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg. It lasted ten years before falling victim both to World War II funding shortfalls and the poaching of its talent by Hollywood . After the war Kazan, Lewis, and Clurman re-Grouped, so to speak, added Anna Sokolow, and opened the Studio. Entry entailed an audition before a group of peers followed by an evaluation by the board. Even today, only a handful of people are accepted each year, but membership and access are for life, a reassuring guidepost in such a chancy profession as acting. The Actors Studio changed American acting. At a time when The Studio 221 America itself was beginning to confront the responsibilities that came with its postwar position as a world power, the actors, directors, and writers who passed through the Studio likewise developed an attitude toward reality. Detractors, however, criticized them for their obvious stylistic differences with the past, notably their subtlety and introspection. “There was a period that the torn undershirt and Brando’s mumbling became sort of fair game for making fun of the Studio ,” Penn conceded.2 What the actors were actually doing, of course, was exploring a verisimilitude hitherto unknown on the stage and screen. The trick was not only creating it but at the same time making sure that it worked—a thorny balance of id and...


Subject Headings

  • Penn, Arthur, 1922-2010.
  • Motion picture producers and directors -- United States -- Biography.
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