Agreat man of science is remembered by what he leaves behind. Edison gave us the light bulb, Albert Einstein, E= mc 2. Great artists leave a body of work in museums, books, recordings. Their genius is available. When a great man and brilliant teacher leaves us, the legacy is not so apparent. In the case of Lee Strasberg, we're fortunate in having many fine actors and teachers who studied with him, tapes of his lectures at the Actors Studio, and his scholarly essay on Acting in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Lorrie Hull has given us another piece in the Strasberg legacy. She was on the faculty of the Lee Strasberg Institute for 12 years, and her understanding and presentation of his work is well organized.
For those seeking easy answers to the "method," look elsewhere. This is not a "how to" book. Reading it won't unlock the mystery of the creative process, but if you ever wondered how some of our better actors arrived at their skills, this book will provide some answers. What is the "Strasberg method"?
Hull begins her book with Strasberg's primary concern; his belief that the actor must be reconditioned to function in a state of relaxation. "If there is tension, the actor cannot think or feel. Tension is the occupational disease of the actor," he said. "Relaxation is the foundation on which almost all of the actor's work is based. Many problems in acting disappear when the actor learns to relax." It is the actor's warm-up or preparation, similar to the athlete before an event. Strasberg called the actor, "The athlete of the heart."
Relaxation exercises are described in detail in the book, and misinterpretations will arise. Strasberg himself said, "I'm not sure anyone could get all my work, especially the exercise work, on paper." Another time, he said, "Don't look for rules. Creativity doesn't follow a formula." Hull describes Strasberg cautioning an actor in an exercise class. "Don't get too comfortable." He explains, "Comfort can be opposed to relaxation. In getting comfortable, one returns to habitual body attitudes that can be restricting." In an exercise class, years earlier, the same Lee Strasberg said to me, "Get comfortable! Find a position in the chair that will allow you to go to sleep." Which Strasberg do we believe? Both, of course, depending on the actor in the chair. If "too comfortable" doesn't work, you go the other way, find something else.
His genius as a teacher lay in his ability to open up or get into the actor's instrument, based upon the actor's problem. The trick was to find a way to start the creative process, or, to allow it to start. He used the exercises flexibly.
He was arbitrary; his system wasn't hit or miss. It was direct and it was specific. If the actor could accept criticism, he was sure to grow.
Subsequent chapters deal with concentration and sense memory, the heart of the Strasberg method. "The important thing," he said, "is to keep the actor's concentration not on memory, but on the sensory objects that formed part of his memory." He would suggest to his students: "Try and hear the sounds you heard or touch the things you touched, taste what your mouth tasted or feel the piece of clothing against your body. Be specific!"
The summoning-up or recalling of the emotion in this manner is called affective memory and is one of the key elements in the Strasberg method. Once an affective memory has worked, it is generally capable of working again and again in the actor's life. Bringing these Golden Keys , as they are called, into a scene is another problem for the actor and this, too, is described in Hull's book.
She includes a brief summary of Strasberg's debt to Stanislavsky, the founding of the Group Theatre with Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford, his years of leadership at the Actors Studio, and the founding of the Lee Strasberg Institute 16 years ago. What is missing from the book is the man's personality, the exciting quality of his classes and his dedication to actors and to the arts. Robert Hethmon, in his inspiring book, "Strasberg at the Actors Studio," describes him: "He exhorts, stings, cajoles, excites, denounces, satirizes, worries, advises, praises, encourages, jokes, inspires. He lets himself go with unbounded energy, imagination, and occasional passion."
He was a quiet man, shy, and slight in build. When he spoke about acting, he became a firestorm. He was passionate, inspired and inspiring. He wanted his actors to know everything; the history of painting, sculpture, music, the style of every period, the individuality of every great painter. "When you look at paintings," he said, "put yourself into them instead of looking at them."
Strasberg felt the theater should contribute to the spiritual life of the nation. He wanted actors to be part of a "profession." In his search for truth, he went beyond realism or naturalism in acting. "Natural is not enough," he said. "Natural I see on street corners." He wanted a heightened sense of reality. "Art is both more beautiful and terrible than life," he said.
He wanted self-discipline in speech and resented criticism of Actors Studio members as "mumblers." He felt critics made the mistake of confusing the actor with the role he was playing. He said it was Stanley Kowalski who mumbled, not Marlon Brando. The essential thing was for the actor to find the experience and behavior behind the words, to give them life, and the illusion that they were being said for the first time.
Some of the actors who studied with him at the Studio: Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Karl Malden, Geraldine Page, Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Sally Field. All share a common approach to their work as a result of pursuing Strasberg's method. This is an impressive legacy.
Fifteen of the 20 photographs in the book are candid shots of Lorrie Hull as if she were appearing in People magazine. One would hope the publisher might replace these photos in subsequent editions with instructive pictures of actors demonstrating the exercises.
In the 1930s, the critic Stark Young said, "The actor is the liveliest part of the theater." Today, with the addition of the big-screen movies, TV and videocassettes, this is more than ever true. Lee Strasberg devoted more than 50 years of his life to giving actors the inspiration and tools to be more truthful and "lively."
The definitive book on Strasberg's method will be published in the spring. It was written by him at the insistence of his wife, Anna, just before his death in 1982. This will be a major contribution to the world of the theater and to those who knew him, worked with him and loved him.