The Books: A Player’s Place: The Story of the Actors Studio, by David Garfield

Daily Book Excerpt: Theatre

Next book on the acting/theatre shelf is A Player’s Place: The Story of the Actors Studio, by David Garfield

I bought this history of the Actors Studio (the only of its kind) when I was heavily involved there myself, and studying with the author of the book, David Garfield. He ran a playwrighting/directors class, and of course actors were involved too. David Garfield was (and still is, I am sure) a humorous, intelligent man, and a fantastic teacher. I loved his class. He really knew his stuff, but he didn’t make a fetish out of it. At the end of the day, technique is all well and good, but you need to get up and do it, you need to have the confidence to make a scene happen, to remember the audience, to understand script analysis. The class could be quite raucous, lots of funny talented people, and Garfield handled it all with aplomb and humor. He was great.

I bought a used copy of his book at The Strand (and he signed it for me, a lovely encouraging note).

The story of the formation of the Actors Studio was well-known to me, because I had been studying the place since I was 13, 14 years old. I had read Kazan’s massive autobiography (he was there at the beginning, although he eventually left and it became Strasberg’s baby). The names were mythical to me. Bobby Lewis. Elia Kazan. Lee Strasberg. Cheryl Crawford. Sanford Meisner. These were the people who had formed the Group Theatre in the 1930s, and when the theatre folded in 1940, all of these talented people began their quest, separately, to train American actors in the vein of Russian actors. Acting training had been mainly elocution and gesture, dance classes, and singing classes, and then you learned the job by DOING it. That is still one of the best ways to learn the ropes, but in the meantime, training is a good thing – especially if you are an actor who is out-of-work. And, naturally, most actors are out of work most of the time. Keeping the wheels in motion, through classes and scene study, is essential during the fallow periods. The Actors Studio was formed in that spirit. It would be a safe place for actors to come and work on scenes, and get training, a place where (unlike everywhere else) they would not be judged, they could work in peace, they could also try stuff that they would never be allowed to try in the real world, work on parts they would never be cast in, stretch, grow, all that.

The way the Actors Studio is set up to this day is that twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, there are open sessions at their building on 44th Street. There is a moderator. Sometimes it is Estelle Parsons, sometimes Lee Grant, sometimes Ellen Burstyn – I was there once when Harvey Keitel was the moderator. Or Arthur Penn. The moderator runs the session. Two scenes are done in each session. You have to sign up beforehand. You can do whatever you want. You can do an acting exercise, you can do an improv, you can do a scene where all you do is work on the sensory elements … it’s not meant to be a performance. Then the moderator runs the discussion afterwards. The actors declare “what they were working on”. It should be specific. “I was working on the character’s drunkenness.” “I was trying to get a feel of the humidity.” “I was working on the fact that my character has a bum leg.” Whatever. And, ideally, the comments should be a response to what the actor said he or she is working on. (It rarely goes that way. But the moderator tries to keep everyone in line.) If you are a member of the Actors Studio, these sessions are free. People are either asked to be a member, or you audition to be a member.

I’ve seen some scene work there that blew the top of my head off. And of course the building is steeped in history. It’s a converted church.

They have a Directors Unit too, and a Playwriting Unit. Sometimes they do performances. I was involved in a production of Odets’ Awake and Sing there, I was basically a glorified stage manager, but it was a great experience. Anne Jackson was playing the mother (the role played by Stella Adler in the original Group Theatre production), and her daughter Katherine (a wonderful actress as well) was also in the production. It was opening night of Awake and Sing when I got to meet Elia Kazan, a moment I will never forget.

David Garfield’s book is the history of the Actors Studio, and there was much in it (especially the later years) that I did not know. People loved the place, they hated the place. It had been formed by a small group of people, but eventually Strasberg was the one running the show. People loved him or hated him. It could be very clicque-y.

It’s a very interesting story. This, as far as I know, is the only history of the Actors Studio ever published.

Here is an excerpt about the first meeting of the Actors Studio, formed by Bobby Lewis, Elia Kazan and Cheryl Crawford. Not a Strasberg in sight. It also tells of the joint classes run by Lewis and Kazan, and their different techniques. The book is full of fantastic anecdotes of those early days.

Excerpt from A Player’s Place: The Story of the Actors Studio, by David Garfield

On September 12, 1947, The New York Times published an announcement of the formation of “The Studio,” thereby initiating the organization’s official public record. The rationale for calling the workshop “The Studio” was clear. In some ways it resembled the Group Theatre Studio, which had been organized to train young actors in the acting techniques of the Group. The Group Theatre itself began as a “Studio” of the Theatre Guild. There were of course the famous studios of the Moscow Art Theater, epecially the First Studio during the period it was headed by Vakhtangov, whom Kazan, Lewis, and Crawford so admired. It was not in fact until January of 1948, when New York State issued a certificate of incorporation, that the workshop was officially named “The Actors’ Studio, Inc.” (The apostrophe in the workshop’s name was eventually dropped.) Among the early members, the organization was often simply called “the group”.

The first meeting of The Actors Studio was held at eight o’clock in the evening on Sunday, October 5, 1947, in a dusty, dingy room on the top floor of the Old Labor Stage at Broadway and West Twenty-Ninth Street. Almost twenty-five years earlier, when the building was called the Princess Theater, Richard Boleslavsky had given a series of lectures on the theatrical and acting theories of the Moscow Art Theater there, emphasizing his own connection with the Stanislavski tradition and thereby establishing his credentials as teacher and lecturer on the subject. It retrospect, it seems a happy coincidence that The Actors Studio – in a sense the grandchild of his teaching – should have begun its life in the same place.

As if to emphasize the new organization’s links to the Group Theater past, John Garfield, the onetime Group apprentice turned movie star, was put to work greeting people at the door. The evening had the special excitement of a theatrical occasion as the eighty-odd members and various theater personalities gathered to hear the three founders explain their hopes and expectations for the new Studio. Among the guests were directors and writers, including Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, who agreed to participate in the activities of the new workshop.

Kazan told the assembled actors that membership in the Studio would be a two-way street: pointing to the door, he reminded them that it opened both ways. He did not want them to think of the Studio as a private club. The members were expected to work, not to dawdle. If they missed two classes in a row, they would be asked to leave. Only professional commitments would serve as an excuse for missing sessions. Working members were expected to contribute two dollars a week toward the basic expenses of the Studio. The preliminary aim of the work was explained in these terms: “We want a common language so that I can direct actors instead of coach them … so that we have a common vocabulary. It’s not a school. Actors can come and actors can go. It is a place to work and find this vocabulary.”

The tremendous enthusiasm aroused at that first meeting was quickly channeled into creative work the following day when the Studio set up operations in the old Union Methodist Church on West Forty-eighth Street (now the site of the parking lot for Mamma Leone’s restaurant). Classes were held on the top floor of the building in a small room that had a little stage, while the actors dispersed to various parts of the church to rehearse scenes. That first year, Lewis’s class met three times a week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Kazan’s class met twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. – a schedule that would become the traditional meeting times for the Acting Unit of the Studio in the decades to come.

For the next eight years the Studio lived a gypsy existence, moving from location to location, until it came to rest, permanently, in its present home on West Forty-fourth Street. From the Union Methodist Church, classes were moved to a dance studio on East Fifty-ninth Street for a few months, beginning in January 1948. This hall, like the two previous meeting places, was torn down within the next two years. In April of 1948, the Studio found semipermanent quarters when it moved to the fourteenth floor of 1697 Broadway, the CBS Building at Fifty-third Street (now housing the lobby of the Ed Sullivan Theater). The coffee shop on the first floor of the building became a regular hangout for Studio members. Classes continued at this address for four years – until June 1952 – when a series of further moves began.

The location at 1697 Broadway was found for the Studio by Dorothy Willard, who supervised the renovation and construction of the space. Miss Willard, who served, together with William H. Fitelson, the real-estate broker, on the original five-member board of directors at the Studio, helped support the workshop financially and administratively through its crucial early years. She had first been associated with Kazan during the thirties when she put up twenty thousand dollars for the Group Theatre production of Casey Jones, which Kazan directed. When the Studio received its charter as a nonprofit corporation from New York State in January 1948, she, along with Fitelson, was one of the five signatory members. (The others, of course, were Kazan, Lewis, and Miss Crawford.)

During that first week at the Union Methodist Church, Lewis conducted a kind of general orientation for his group. On Monday he discussed why the actor should become familiar with the rules of his art – how, in fact, the theater compared with other arts as to “rules” and “forms”. Wednesday was given to a discussion of the actor’s “intention” and how characterization should grow out of intentions. On Friday he discussed the rehearsal period; the following Monday, he spent on the selection of plays. By Wednesday of the second week his students were ready to work. Among the very first scenes presented – in various stages of preparation – at the Studio were Tom Ewell and Jane Hoffman in The Adding Machine, David Wayne and John Forsythe in Another Part of the Forest, Stephen Elliott and Anne Jackson in They Knew What They Wanted, Kevin McCarthy and Elizabeth Ross in Love on the Dole and Jay Barney and Joy Geffen in One Sunday Afternoon.

Busy as Lewis’s class was at that first location, it was not until the move to the dance studio on East Fifty-ninth Street that the real work began in earnest. A number of the actors, including Marlon Brando, presented their initial scenes there. The first ongoing project at the Studio was also begun on East Fifty-ninth Street with the continuing work of E.G. Marshall and Herberg Berghof on Kafka’s The Trial. Nancy Walker came to the Studio a couple of times when it was on the East Side and wanted to join, but Lewis felt she was already a complete talent and did not need the Studio. He had definite ideas, just as Kazan did, about whom he wanted in the Studio. Early in 1948, he would go so far as to reconsider a number of his original selections and take appropriate action.

In class, Lewis was effervescent and witty. Like his mentors, Clurman and Strasberg, however, he was also somewhat garrulous. He become annoyed when he thought someone was not paying attention to what he was saying. Once, noticing that Marlon Brando seemed not to be listening, Lewis interrupted himself to ask: “Marlon, what was I saying?” Brando looked up from the newspaper he was reading and immediately shot back: “You stepped in what?” silencing the director for the moment. Another time, Tennessee Williams was caught whispering during one of his visits to the class. “If you want to talk, I’ll leave,” Lewis told him. Williams began to apologize, but Lewis was adamant. Either he or Williams would leave. The playwright, somewhat abashed, got up and left. As a teacher, Lewis was always ingratiating and sympathetic to his students; his criticism of their work has been described as strictly “supportive”. But he expected reciprocity from the class in the form of respect and affection and became unhappy if he felt these were not forthcoming. He grew particularly upset when attendance was down, on which occasion he threatened to quit. But the actors, who were genuinely fond of him, managed to persuade him to return.

Kazan’s and Lewis’s classes were quite dissimilar. They dealt with different material (primarily scenes with Lewis and exercises with Kazan) and gave particular emphasis to different elements of technique. Despite their generally acknowledged agreement on the larger principles of the actors’ art and their common roots in the fertile soul of the Stanislavskian and Group traditions, each man brought his unique experience, personality, and artistic interests to bear on the work. Neither one represented himself as teaching the Stanislavski Method. In fact, although there was much talk in both classes about the Group, there was comparatively little reference to “the Method” or to Stanislavksi. In one class, Lewis took pains to explain, the Lewis method was being taught; in the other, the Kazan method.

Kazan had had a good bit of experience in teaching actors, mainly with the New Theatre League, during the thirties. His approach to the subject, in both its specifics and its intensity, reflected his own strenuous efforts to become an actor with the Group. He was very strict with his young actors, demanding of them the seriousness and dedication he had brought to his own acting. He was adamant about people really working: if you did not work, you were out. He insisted on the promptness and preparedness of his students. The door was closed at eleven o’clock, and the actors had to be there, ready to present a scene or exercise on demand.

Most of the new members of Kazan’s class were strangers to each other. By way of breaking the ice at the first class meeting, Kazan asked each of them to respond to the person sitting next to them and to whom they were being introduced by describing instantly what animal that person reminded them of. When Nehemiah Persoff was introduced to Joan Copeland, for instance, she remembers “blurting out with my usual tact, ‘a baboon’!” He was then obliged to be a baboon. When the tables were turned, and he was asked to describe her, he quickly and pointedly said, “a cat!” Meowing and preening seductively, she proceeded to create herself as a cat. They became and have remained close friends from that introduction.

Whenever Kazan had to miss a class for professional reasons, his associate, Martin Ritt, would take over the session. Ritt was thoroughly familiar with Kazan’s procedures and with the special talents and shortcomings of each member of the group. In the sessions he conducted, he put a special emphasis on “sensory work”. Actors attempted to recall specific sensations and to re-create them imaginatively. These included everything from the “feel” of familiar objects to reexperiencing a complex “overall state” such as drunkenness. A typical exercise would be to thread an imaginary needle with imaginary thread – something Julie Harris was very adept at – working not for the mimetic action of threading per se, but for the “sense memory” of the process. Ritt defined the work of Kazan’s class as “exercises in imagination, concentration, faith, and a sense of truth – all calculated to make the actor a pliant instrument.”

Working with Kazan was continually exciting; his adrenaline never stopped pumping and the actors too were energized by his intensity. He constantly challenged the spontaneity and sensory awareness of actors, exposing them to many of the exercises he had learned in the Group Theatre. He would toss a set of keys at a student and tell him to improvise with them. They could become medals or finger-nail files – anything that came into the actor’s mind on the spur of the moment. In a similar “object exercise,” he would ask someone to take a hat and create a bird with it, a Vakhtangov procedure that Strasberg too had used with his Group actors. On occasion he would turn the whole class into a menagerie, the animal exercise (which he had introduced at the first session) being a powerful imaginative tool. James Whitmore once created what everyone sensed, from the way he moved, the way he held his hands together, was a seal. The class agreed that his was the most successful rendering of an animal to date. Whitmore, however, was crestfallen. When Kazan asked what was the matter, the actor dolefully explained he was a dachshund.

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4 Responses to The Books: A Player’s Place: The Story of the Actors Studio, by David Garfield

  1. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Sheila: soooooo glad you got around to this book! David Garfield was a neighbor of mine at Manhattan Plaza many years ago and I got to know him after he auditioned for a play of Garson Kanin’s that I was involved with. Very smart, funny man. I always thought he’d be a really great teacher and it’s wonderful to read your take on him. I liked being reminded of him. Am really enjoying this series. Thanks.

  2. sheila says:

    How wonderful to hear your memories of him too! He was a great teacher and that was a tough class with a lot of different sometimes competing elements. He had to serve the playwrights/directors’ needs – but he also managed to remember the actors there too, and help us with technique, or comments. It was never just a snoozefest for actors (as those playwright/directors workshops sometimes can be). He was wonderful with technique, and wonderful with his comments.

    This is a very good book too – it’s great because he has the access of actually knowing all of these people, so the anecdotes (like the James Whitmore anecdote in the excerpt) are so real, makes it seem like you are there when you read it.

  3. Jeff Zinn says:

    I too was friends with David in the 70s and 80s. Where is he now?

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