The Soul of the American Actor

INTERVIEWS with ARTISTS

PHYLICIA RASHAD

BILLY CRUDUP

CAROL LAWRENCE

ANDRUS NICHOLS

MARTY RAYBON

ALONZO KING

JAKE LANDERS

KERRY GILBERT

YI-MIN CAI

MICHAEL SHANE NEAL

TONYA S. HOLLY

CAROLYN PALMER

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INTERVIEWS with ARTISTS

PHYLICIA RASHAD

BILLY CRUDUP

CAROL LAWRENCE

ANDRUS NICHOLS

MARTY RAYBON

ALONZO KING

JAKE LANDERS

KERRY GILBERT

YI-MIN CAI

MICHAEL SHANE NEAL

TONYA S. HOLLY

CAROLYN PALMER

Spotlight On
International
Artists


Essays

Ingredients Of A Creative Life: Sketches Summer 2017

The Method Acting Exercises Handbook

The Laboratory Instinct

All People Are Famous: Instead of an Autobiography

“CREATE! How Extraordinary People Live to Create and Create to Live”

Films That Make a Difference

Witness to Spirit: My Life with Cowboys, Mozart & Indians

My Life and Art

A Healing Art: How Eurythmy Lives in the World

Dramatic Circumstances: On Acting, Singing, and Living Inside the Stories We Tell: Teaching Through the Lens of Neuroscience

Chasing Light: Notes on Creativity

Changing Ourselves to Change Society

An Excerpt from DAH Theatre: A Sourcebook

I Can Resist Everything Except Тheater: the Work and Role of The Macedonian Centre — International Theatre Institute

Real Life Drama

“A word does not start as a word – it is an end product which begins as an impulse, stimulated by attitude and behavior which dictates the need for expression.”
– Peter Brook

“The power of art is the power of truth.”
– Julian Beck

“The key to the mystery of a great artist is that for reasons unknown, he will give away his energies and his life just to make sure that one note follows another... and leaves us with the feeling that something is right in the world.”
– Leonard Bernstein

“In the long history of man, countless empires and nations have come and gone. Those which created no lasting works of art are reduced today to short footnotes in history's catalog. Art is a nation's most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a Nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.”
– President Lyndon B. Johnson

“If you take the trouble to really listen (to the music) with your soul and with your ears - and I say soul and ears because the mind must work, but not too much also - you will find every gesture there. And it is all true, you know.”
– Maria Callas

“An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.”
– Langston Hughes

“Each of us have a gift given us freely by the universe. And each of us with every breath gives something back.”
– Kim Stanley

“We all bear within us the potentiality for every kind of passion, every fate, every way of life. Nothing human is alien to us. If this were not so, we could not understand other people, either in life or in art.”
– Max Reinhardt

“All kinds of art serve to the greatest of the arts - the art of living on earth.”
– Bertolt Brecht

“The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.”
– James Madison

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
– Martha Graham

“You have to live spherically — in many directions. Never lose your childish enthusiasm — and things will come your way.”
– Federico Fellini

“If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and make a change.”
– Michael Jackson

Real Life Drama

What was the Group Theatre’s significance? Some of the answers are fairly obvious: In their best plays — “The House of Connelly,” “Success Story,” “Awake and Sing!,” “Paradise Lost” — the Group brought the tumult of life in the 1930s onstage, reconnecting the theater to the world of ideas and action in the society around them. “Waiting for Lefty” was more than a play. It was a historic event; actors and audience literally tore down the walls between theater and real life, performer and observer, artists and ordinary people, asserting for one thrilling moment a unity of emotion and belief that is the greatest joy the theater can offer. Their two biggest commercial hits, “Men in White” and “Golden Boy,” weren’t quite at that level, but they were superb productions of scripts that defensible compromises for the sake of getting their message across to a larger audience.

Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford & Lee Strasberg

Some of the Group’s failures, despite their artistic imperfections, were as interesting and important in tenor own way as the successes. “1931” — captured the terror of the early Depression years; “Gentlewoman” expressed the agonizing ideological uncertainties of one of America’s most politically charged decades; “Johnny Johnson” was a warm-hearted piece of Americana and an important syllogistic experiment that suffered more than the Group’s internal problems than any basic flaw in its conception. The post 1937 plays marked a retreat from the Group’s earlier intensity, but “Casey Jones” and “Thunder Rock” were both worthy attempts to grapple with important issues of the day, “Rocket to the Moon” was Odets’ most psychologically profound drama, and “My Heart’s in the Highlands” was a triumphant exercise in sheer theatricality. The Group’s record of productions remains an example of how good work a theater with a well-defined credo and commitment to continuous activity can create.

“REAL LIFE DRAMA” by Wendy Smith

It must be admitted that many of the Group’s most famous efforts haven’t aged well. It’s possible to read “Lefty” and still be moved by the passion, but it’s doubtful that it could be performed with any credibility. The other Odets’ plays can be done, as witness a lovely public television version of “Paradise Lost” in the 1970s and an English production of “Rocket to the Moon” with John Malkovich, but too often they’re turgid and stagy, with the actors and the directors unable to find any living significance in scripts written fifty years ago.

Most of the Group’s plays have vanished from the repertory, but that’s the usual fate of contemporary drama, especially in America. For every Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, or even Clifford Odets, there have been dozens of playwrights who did good work that meant something to audiences of their day but for a variety of reasons haven't been admitted into the canon of writers whose plays continued to be read and performed. (The politics of who gets into the canon and who doesn’t is the subject for another book).

The Group’s guiding principle was the desire to present plays reflecting the life of their times, which they did in the most exciting way. If most of their plays were ephemeral, thats more because theater is primarily an art of the moment than because of the Group failing. Though many in the company argued passionately that the Group should assay the classics, it’s unlikely such an effort would have prolonged the organizations’s life.

Program of Clifford Odets “Golden Boy”
original production on Broadway
starring Luther Adler and Frances Farmer

The Group’s impact on American acting was more lasting. The sincerity, realism and emotional depth of their performances were a revelation to audiences and fellow actors alike. True, their strange exercises prompted considerable mockery from more cynical theater folk — not to mention the press — which loved to poke fun at the Group’s intense seriousness — but there was no arguing with the results.

In play after play, Group actors prove that characters onstage need not be a series of conventional attitudes, but could speak, move and even feel with the quirky individuality of real people. Because they looked as well as acted like ordinary men and women, not stars, and because the plays they produced assumed that the problems of these people were worthy of serious attention, the Group asserted the dignity and importance of a class that has been previously excluded from Broadway and drew in new audiences thrilled to discover that culture was for them too.

Original prodution of Clifford Odet’s “Golden Boy” on Broadway directed by Harold Clurman

These audiences didn’t necessarily know how the Group created such a compelling sense of reality; they simply sensed the pretense of ideas and emotions that gave each character an inner life of absolute authenticity resonating under the text ad enriching it. By the late thirties, even critics who formerly disdained the Group’s arty ways routinely paid tribute to their brilliant acing, The Group had the last laugh over the skeptics. The combination of The Actors Studio, which made the Method a household name, and the world of other Group alumni who became teachers exposed a huger number of American actors to the Stanislavsky System. Different teachers emphasized different aspects of it — affective memory in particular remains as controversial today as it was in the Group — but the idea of a systematic approach to the craft of acting was firmly implanted in the vast majority of American actors.

The Group Theatre at Brookfield Center by Ralph Steiner, 1931

Emotional truth was the foundation, but it was only part of what the Group expected from an actor. Strasberg and Clurman urged the actors, and they in turn told their students in later years, to go out and read books, look at paintings, listen to music, study history, philosophy, and geography. Reading Nietzsche would give them insight into the tormented souls of O’Neill and his characters. Knowing that it was dark most of the time in Norway during the winter, that the towns were surrounded by mountains would help them feel the claustrophobia of an Ibsen play. A german Expressionist painting gave vivid physical particularity to the edgy, explosive nature of early-twentieth century German society as it shaped the world view of Brecht. The Group brought their techniques to bear largely on contemporary plays, but they had broader applciation. They gave new dignity to the acting profession with their insistence on the actors’ start as a creative artist who much bring more to the script than his ability to say lines pleasingly.

The Group Theatre, 1936

A distinguished list of productions offered over ten years; an acting technique that remains enormously influential; a new emphasis on ordinary experience — there were the Group’s specific contributions to the American theatre, and they weren’t trivial ones. To this day, no other American theater has managed to sustain the Group’s fruitful decade-long balancing act as a place where actors could study their craft, then apply the results of their classroom work in professional productions of important contemporary plays for paying audiences. The Group’s ideal of a permanent company working year-round in the theater is, if anything, appears further from reality today than it was in 1931. Given the economic conditions that now govern both New York and regional theaters, it’s hard to believe a modern equivalent of the Group could ever be created — at least, not until another Harold Clurman comes along to convince another group of actors to do the impossible.

Clifford Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty” original production on Broadway

More than their actual achievements, impressive though they were, it’s the Group’s vision of the theatre that continues to inspire. They believed true theatre was the greatest of all the arts, because it was the most human: a collective endeavor in which writes, directors, actors and scenes artists animated by a common idea worked together to create productions that spoke passionately and personally to an audience of the hopes, fears, dreams, doubts. and passions we all share. Theater was a communion for the Group, one of the most direct, exciting, and alive means of communication possible among human beings. When it was reduced to the level of an expensive entertainment, assessable only to those who could afford Broadway ticket prices, it betrayed its real purpose: to bring people together, to examine the forces within the human spirit and in society at large that shape our lives.1990

Excerpts from Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940 by Wendy Smith. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

WENDY SMITH is a contributing editor at the American Scholar, which has published more than a dozen of her essays on theatre, literature, and the performing arts. She is also a contributing editor at “Publishers Weekly,” which has published more than one hundred of her author profiles. She reviews books for the “Boston Globe,” the “Washington Post,” and “Kirkus Reviews.”


"It is a law of life that man cannot live for himself alone. Extreme individualism is insanity. The world's problems are also our personal problems. Health is achieved through maintaining our personal truth in a balanced relation of love to the rest of the world. No expression is more emblematic of this relation than the creative act which we call art. No art by its very constitution typifies the social nature of that creative act more than the theatre. The theatre, to be fully understood and appreciated, must be seen as a manifestation of this process of interchange between society and the individual. It must be judged as a continuous development of groups of individuals within society, a development which becomes richer, acquires greater force and value as it grows with the society in which it originates. Only in this way can the theatre nourish us.  - Harold Clurman

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