“In lieu of private themes we had generalisation, in lieu of what was special the typical, in lieu of accident causality. Decorativeness gave way to constructedness, Reason was put on a par with Emotion, while sensuality was replaced by didacticism and fantasy by documentary reality.” — Erwin Piscator

It’s Erwin Piscator’s birthday. Even if you didn’t set OUT to learn about him, if you have done any reading about actors/theatre in the 20th century – either in Germany or in America – you will run into his name again and again and again. You get his biography by osmosis. Memoir after memoir, bio after bio, his name comes up as a formative figure. Finally he’s in your head, without you even noticing it happening, so you find yourself reading a new bio, and you think, “Whaddya wanna bet Piscator’s gonna show up here somewhere?” And HE ALWAYS DOES. He is one of the many many many immigrants who came to this country, fleeing oppression, bringing with them wealths of knowledge and experience, which they then poured into the American “scene”, transforming it forever, and for the better. Let’s hear it for immigrants.

After working in Moscow, collaborating with revolutionary artists, and not being able to return to his homeland Germany after the rise of Hitler, he came to America and wasted no time. He founded the New School of Drama and ended up training so many people in his class (a class everyone wanted to take) that you could basically track mid-century American acting through his influence: Harry Belafonte, Elaine Stritch, Eli Wallach, Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Ben Gazzara, Rod Steiger, Tennessee Williams … all studied with Piscator.

Piscator was the one who looked at one of his acting students – a recent immigrant and Holocaust survivor – and said, “I don’t think acting is your thing. I think directing is your thing.” That student was Jack Garfein, who ended up marrying Carroll Baker, founding the director’s unit at the Actors Studio, directing tons of theatre as well as 2 amazing films – The Strange One and Something Wild (for which I wrote the booklet essay for the Criterion release). Piscator was right: this guy wasn’t an actor but he had SOMEthing, and maybe directing was it. We are so much richer for Piscator’s insights.

When you boil it all down, Erwin Piscator’s influence – on actors and performers in America – can’t even be measured. It could even be greater than Strasberg’s, since it wasn’t limited to one approach or one venue.

But even beyond all that, Piscator was a hugely influential theatre director in Weimar Germany in the 1920s, and BFFs with Bertolt Brecht (who was Best Man at his wedding). Piscator ran a theatre company and put on elaborate productions of hugely controversial works by Tolstoy, Gorky, and others, often featuring rousing renditions of “The Internationale”. Sign of the times. He and Brecht were proponents of “epic theatre”, theatre meant to have a socio-political resonance (their compatriots in this a decade later in America was The Group Theatre – whose members are a roll call of those who helped FORM “modern” acting in America: Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, John Garfield, Bobby Lewis, Sanford Meisner, Elia Kazan, Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford … Piscator’s influence can be felt THERE too.) Brecht and Piscator were the philosophers of the “epic theatre” movement and also those who attempted to move the philosophy into the real world, into productions, through visionary set and production design, and lighting design, all of which can be felt to this day. Piscator had a vision for what epic theatre would look like and the set designs for his productions are out of this world. Lots of scaffolds and dizzying stairways up to higher levels …

Orson Welles was hugely influenced by Piscator’s ideas (see the designs for Orson’s famous 1937 production of Julius Caesar – it’s all scaffolds and platforms – a totally abstract space).

Piscator also would project images behind the action, which was really ahead of its time. In a 1926 production, he projected images of a clamoring crowd above the action onstage.

As cinema and photography were developing as artforms, Piscator saw the possibilities (many theatre artists ignored it, hoping it would go away, or at least be irrelevant.) Consider Tennessee Williams incorporating “slides” and “projections” into the script of Glass Menagerie, making visual the play’s themes of memory, and the porous boundary between the present and the past. He “got the memo” too. Piscator was basically a multi-media artist, decades before that term was even coined in the 60s. Three German theatre artists – Brecht, Max Reinhardt, Erwin Piscator – all so influential it’s hard to even point to the results of their influence since it’s so seeped down into everything.

What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and attend Piscator’s New York workshop.

Along those lines: It was always so meaningful for me to attend workshops run by Actors Studio people – Ellen Burstyn, John Strasberg, Vivian Nathan, etc. – in the very building where Piscator had his studio, in the very room where he taught people like, oh, BRANDO.

Stepping into that round workshop room was like stepping into a continuum, a continuum not exactly started by him, but pushed forward inevitably by his presence. He was a huge part of establishing modern theatre in this country. Stepping into that room was stepping into that flow. Piscator’s ghost could be felt. His influence continues.

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