Domestic drama: Lee Strasberg's family continues the legacy of instruction, despite some friction
By By CHARLES McNULTY
Nov 22, 2009 | 12:00 AM
The Method is dead. Long live the Method. ¶ Spend an afternoon with David Lee Strasberg, the ambitious 38-year-old son of legendary acting guru Lee Strasberg, and you just might walk away with the idea that something revolutionary is going on at the Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. That would be overstating matters. This family-run school with flagships in West Hollywood and New York still finds its raison d'être in what Strasberg himself identified as the training of the actor's internal skills. But the vision of the Method being articulated at the institute, observing its 40th anniversary this year, seems to have little to do with the stereotype of sweaty, mumbling actors wallowing in the muck of unhappy childhoods. ¶ Dressed in preppy clothes that hint at his undergraduate days at Brown, Strasberg fils, the institute's CEO and creative director (whom I'll refer to as DLS), says that the Strasberg approach -- the best known of the American adaptations of the Stanislavsky "system" commonly grouped together as the Method -- is less reliant on psychobabble than most people believe. The words "Oedipal Complex" never pass his lips. But more interesting is the way developments in neuroscience keep cropping up in his conversation. Don't bother telling him about the toy your parents didn't buy you, but do engage him on the subject of conditioned reflexes and the neuropsychology of smells.
Acting training is a lucrative industry, and DLS has something his father, who died when he was 11, was sometimes criticized for lacking: a business acumen that recognizes the opportunities in a global brand. Armed with an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management and a wealth of administrative experience (he worked for then-Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan as a member of the Economic Development team after the 1994 Northridge earthquake), DLS is particularly excited about the opening in 2010 of a Strasberg Institute in Mumbai, India. This is the first of no doubt other international ventures, which he sees as a vital engine of growth now that a long-term arrangement with NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, an affiliation that provided roughly 20% of the institute's students, is coming to a close. ("Curricular economics" rather than artistic differences is the cause, says Elizabeth Bradley, the department chair of drama at Tisch.)
DLS doesn't like to talk about numbers, but he did share that the L.A. and New York schools collectively employ more than 50 faculty members to train approximately 600 students. Part-time tuition for two four-hour, 12-week acting technique courses runs about $1,900, while full-time tuition costs a little more than $15,000 annually. (Let's leave aside the institute's filmmaking program, though it's no doubt a major source of revenue as well.)
Given his druthers, he'd rather talk about his acting classes, the difficulty of dealing with damaging Method caricatures and his fidelity to the fundamentals of his father's teachings. "The articulation may be different," he says, "but the basic principles are the same."
Long past its heyday, Strasberg's Method still has an integral place in 21st century acting training. The art of acting is a perennial mystery, but the techniques developed by Strasberg have withstood the test of time, even if most experts believe they need to be supplemented by other modalities. Yet a question lingers: How have things artistically evolved under the leadership of DLS and his mother (Strasberg's third wife and widow), Anna, a coquettish former actress who co-founded the institute with her husband as a way of providing an institutional framework for Strasberg's highly coveted private classes?
Talking to the Strasbergs -- and I spoke not only to DLS and Anna Strasberg but also to John Strasberg, the son Strasberg had with his second wife, Paula, and a veteran acting instructor who's no longer associated with the institute -- can seem a bit like watching one of those mid-20th century family dramas in which Method actors let their idiosyncrasies and tics fly. Conflict and contradiction peek out of a facade of domestic tranquillity the way it always will when an inheritance -- be it intellectual or financial -- is at stake.
"If it isn't broke, don't fix it," Anna Strasberg says, not necessarily disagreeing with DLS' updated take on the training but clearly wanting to preserve the appearance of orthodoxy. Yet for many, Strasberg's training has a few noticeable cracks. Director Arthur Penn, whom Foster Hirsch, the author of “A Method to Their Madness: The History of the Actors Studio,” called the "Studio's resident intellectual," concisely spells out the pluses and minuses: "The Method gives acting a truth, an honesty, a sense of a character's inner life, all radiating from the actor's genuinely personal core; its pitfalls are self-absorption at the expense of the play and a lack of preparation of other areas of the instrument."
A change in acting
The institute and the Actors Studio, it should be noted, are separate institutions. Strasberg was the artistic director of the Studio from 1951 until his death in 1982, and it is here where his influence on members such as Kim Stanley, Rod Steiger, Geraldine Page, Paul Newman and, later, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino brought about a sea change in American acting. Twice weekly for many years, Strasberg would preside over sessions, in which members, working on scenes, would receive feedback from the high chieftain. But the Studio wasn't designed to develop talent the way a conservatory can.
"The institute," DLS explains, "was a way to formalize my father's private acting class." But Strasberg's fame came from the Studio, and it's not always easy to keep the two realms discrete, especially when touring the institute's West Hollywood outpost and noticing how the names of such luminaries as Marilyn Monroe and James Dean have been used to christen rooms.
Trickier still is the question of how a widow with a skimpy acting résumé and a son who seemed groomed for a career in politics can be qualified to pass the torch to a new theatrical generation. Their authority is derived, they say, not just through their name but through their "intimacy with the legacy" and their access to the tapes of Strasberg's sessions, which they control and consider the "bible" of the teaching.
The Institute is in the business of developing the complete actor, externally as well as internally. Still, an ongoing critique of Strasberg's pedagogy holds that it's designed more for the magnifying emotional scrutiny of the close-up than the stage. Implicit is the idea that Strasberg wasn't just to a certain extent neglectful of the voice, body and intellect but that he was also somewhat star-struck by the glitzier media. Others, however, appreciate the prescient flexibility of his training, the way it encourages regular commuting between live and mechanical mediums. Evangeline Morphos, a professor in the Film Division at Columbia University’s School of the Arts who edited Strasberg's book “A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method,” points out that that Strasberg's Method has ultimately made American theater, film and television "more character centric."
"I would argue that one of the ways we're able to have a really great art form in television today is that actors can deliver on these ongoing characters, which exist in a longitudinal time period," Morphos says. "They can do this because of the way the Method allows for the full imagining of a character's world. Also, this work influenced a whole generation of American writers, so if you're going to do American work, you need to have access to this way of working."
And what are the nuts and bolts of this indispensable if to some minds retrograde practice? "Our work is very physical, not very psychological," DLS says, trying to squelch the notion of acting instructors practicing psychoanalysis without a license. In his volubly expressed view, the body is the gateway to emotional impulses. Zeroing in on sensory awareness is a whole lot more reliable than trying to rub traumatic memories for inspirational sparks.
Anna Strasberg is more conservative (i.e., less anti-psychological) in her elucidation of the Method. Yet she too recognizes the primacy of flesh and blood: "We teach you to go back to the thing nature gave you," she says. "Anything you can touch, anything you can taste, anything you can smell, anything you can see, anything you can hear. Lee would say, 'I don't want to hear the story of your life. I don't want to hear about the incident of your boyfriend dropping you. The playwright will supply the play.' What we want to do is open up the five senses."
Ron Van Lieu, the chair of the Yale School of Drama’s acting department and former long-time head of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts graduate acting program, was curious to find out how precisely the institute develops the "accomplished technician" its website boasts of. What is the program for voice and dialect, movement, script analysis -- everything that goes into building the accomplished technique that complements Strasberg's touted specialty of invoking an actor's "own sense of truth in every role."
Van Lieu says that "this is what a student, after figuring out his or her level of commitment, needs to investigate when making a choice between programs." Although seeing Geraldine Page's performance in "Sweet Birth of Youth" as a 17-year-old from Ohio opened his eyes to "the possibilities of modern acting," he has qualms about Strasberg's privileging of private emotion over action and wonders if personalization, the saturation of a part with personal memories, will on occasion shrink a character to the size of an actor rather than encourage an actor to stretch in stature for a role.
DLS, who has a dizzyingly prolix reply for every skeptical inquiry, says he doesn't feel in any way impaired as a teacher for not having been a professional actor. In fact, he notes with a kind of anxious pride that when Lee Strasberg accepted a role in " The Godfather: Part II," clips of which play on a video monitor in the institute's lobby, "he was taking a great risk." Could the illustrious acting teacher act? The question was agreeably answered with an Oscar nomination.
The next generation
The danger, of course, in having the second generation run the show is that what was once a living technique becomes ossified. John Strasberg, the founder of the New York-based Accidental Repertory Theater and John Strasberg Studios, makes the important point that "any organization after the death of a master teacher is always going to suffer in the long run." The analogy he draws upon is that of a church that has lost its charismatic spiritual leader.
"Teachers like my father and Stella Adler brought their own unique passions and perspectives," he says. "What happens after is that there's a distillation of an idea, and often it gets very misunderstood even by those who are teaching it."
Once a critic of Strasberg ("My father's work dealt almost exclusively with the expression of feeling. That's not the same as creating life on the stage."), John Strasberg acknowledges that his father, building on Stanislavsky, "made everyone aware of deeper levels of reality beyond simply 'How am I going to play this scene?' " And he adds that though the center of acting training has moved to university programs, the system "has not produced better actors than there were when my father was at the spiritual center of a movement that revolutionized American acting."
But where does the new Marlon Brando (who resented Strasberg's proprietary claim on his talent) or Page (who called him both "cruel" and a "Zen master") go these days for training? The question stumped nearly everyone I talked to, though it seems for comprehensiveness academic programs can't be beat. Andrew J. Robinson, the actor and director who heads USC's MFA program in acting, says that for a would-be thespian moving to New York or L.A. for training, "the hardest way to put it together is in a piecemeal fashion, taking a scene class here, a movement class there. You're then forced to try on your own to make coherent sense of all this information coming at you from different places."
Estelle Parsons, former artistic director of the Actors Studio and a devoted former pupil of Strasberg, cheerfully touts her own path. "I started in community theater, did a lot of summer stock, so that by the time I was working with Lee, I had already had an enormous amount of experience about what it's like to be standing before an audience, which is something that nobody can teach you."
Currently touring in Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," Parsons -- an Oscar winner and multiple Tony nominee -- adds that not a day goes by when she doesn't reflect on what she learned from Strasberg. And those who were lucky enough to have seen her exquisitely detailed portrayal of the wrathful, pill-popping matriarch Violet Weston in "August" will understand the reason the Method, for all its historical vicissitudes, continues to have such a secure place in contemporary actor training.