By Andreas Manolikakis
The Actors Studio was founded in New York by Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis in 1947. For more than six decades it has been devoted to the service and development of theatre artists –actors, directors and playwrights. To a select number of theatre professionals, mainly actors, the Actors Studio offers free Life Membership, with no fee or tuition required, which entitles them to a unique opportunity to explore and improve their craft in a safe, laboratory environment with colleagues with whom they share the same process of work.
The roots of the Actors Studio go back to the Group Theatre (1931-1941) whose work was inspired by the discoveries of the great Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski and his best student Eugene Vakhtangov as revealed in the legendary productions that the Moscow Art Theatre toured in America in 1923. In fact Stanislavski’s dedication to his book My Life in Art (1924) reads: “I DEDICATE THIS BOOK IN GRATITUDE TO HOSPITABLE AMERICA AS A TOKEN AND A REMEMBRANCE FROM THE MOSCOW ART THEATRE WHICH SHE TOOK SO KINDLY TO HER HEART.”
When the Moscow Art Theatre ended the American tour, several members of the theatre stayed behind and trained artists, including Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman and Stella Adler, who would go on to form the Group Theatre along with other artists such as Elia Kazan, Sanford Meisner and Robert Lewis. These artists studied, explored, developed and improved the work of the Russian masters with extraordinary results that were unique in the history of the American theatre and a new kind of acting was born.
After the Group Theatre closed, in 1941, many of its members went their separate ways. Elia Kazan has stated that one of the principal reasons he created the Actors Studio, in 1947, was in order to preserve and develop this new American acting. He wanted to create a not-for-profit organization that would provide a laboratory, a private workshop in which the professional actor could work on his or her craft, far away from the commercial pressures of casting, rehearsal and performance. It was to be a place that would offer its member-artists an ongoing training, a continuity of work and the feeling of an artistic home like they had at the Group Theatre.
At the Studio, it was eventually decided that membership should be achieved through an audition process of preliminary and then final auditions, where the only requirements are talent and the possibility of improvement.
In 1948, Lee Strasberg was asked by Elia Kazan to join the Studio as one of its teachers and in 1951 he became its Artistic Director, a position he maintained until his death in 1982. Strasberg’s deep understanding of the Stanislavski System and the reformulations of Vakhtangov, together with his own personal discoveries and improvements on the acting process, provided the foundation on which the Actors Studio based its work.
At the same time the work of Elia Kazan as a theatre and film director demonstrated in the most powerful way the extraordinary results of the deep and personal process of acting espoused by the Actors Studio.
For more than six decades, the very existence of the Actors Studio, the principles and values that it represents, the methodology of its work process, its consistency and long life have established the Studio as a unique theatre organization and a guiding light for actors, directors and playwrights around the world. For many it is considered the temple of the acting process.
Today the work that is done at the Actors Studio continues the Stanislavski-Vakhtangov-American approach, and most of the leading members of the Studio today have studied with more than one of these great American teachers: Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner and Robert Lewis.
Currently, Ellen Burstyn, Harvey Keitel and Al Pacino serve as co-Presidents of the Studio. Ellen Burstyn serves as Artistic Director in New York, while Martin Landau and Mark Rydell serve as co-Artistic Directors in West Hollywood at the Actors Studio West branch, which opened in 1966. The Actors Studio is governed by a Board of Directors comprised of members from both coasts.
After 62 years, the Actors Studio continues to thrive because it is needed. Goethe has said that: “The actor’s career develops in public, but his art develops in private.” The Studio provides its members with this special kind of privacy, along with a group of colleagues who share the same passion for what Studio members refer to as “The Work.”
In spite of the presence of the Actors Studio over many years and its extensive influence in America and worldwide, there still persist many misunderstandings of the Studio, its mentors, its philosophy and its process. These errors most often arise from discussions by some academics, theoreticians, historians and even by some theatre professionals who attempt to analyze and interpret a process of work that they have never learned through serious practice. The work of Stanislavski, Vakhtangov and the Actors Studio was arrived at through deep and lengthy practical experiments that elude rational analysis by non-practitioners.
In 1994 the Actors Studio entered a major new phase with the creation of the Actors Studio MFA (Master of Fine Arts) Program in acting, directing and playwriting, in order to bring the Studio’s Method into a university setting. In September 2006, the Actors Studio Drama School moved to Pace University in downtown New York City, which also is the home of one of the Program’s most visible teaching platforms, “Inside the Actors Studio,” hosted by James Lipton.
Andreas Manolikakis is a Board Member of the Actors Studio and Chair of the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University, New York City.