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event musings: the group theatre

The Group Theatre & How it Transformed American Culture

Co-curated by Ronald Rand & Mel Gordon
Featuring Ellen Adler, Laila Robins, Wendy Smith, John Strasberg, Fritz Weaver (and others)
Monday, June 4, 2012
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center in Elebash Hall, The Graduate Center, CUNY, 365 Fifth Avenue

summarized and reported by Martha Wade Steketee

(L-R) Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford. Image as published in “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1941” (1990) by Wendy Smith.

We assemble in the lovely Elebash Hall of the CUNY Graduate Center this cool June Monday to celebrate, analyze, synthesize, rhapsodize about, and contend with the art and the legacy of the individuals who came together out of hope and vision and the need to make a new kind of American theatre. As one commentator says: this was “the last time the avant garde merged with Broadway theatre.” We have come together to parse that statement and celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Group Theatre. What a day it is.

The celebration events have been planned by experts on the people and legacies of the Group Theatre. Ronald Rand writes and shares the legacy of Harold Clurman and his colleagues and was a student of several of the Group members. Mel Gordon writes and teaches about Stanislasky, the Group members, cinema, and related topics.  Wendy Smith, another expert who has written on the Group and several of the Group personalities is present throughout the festivities and takes an active role in the final panel of the day. Consistent with the Group members themselves who created theatre, acted and directed productions, and became teachers — the experts are themselves teachers.  This is not a static kind of knowledge. It lives and breathes and begs to be shared and debated and passed along.

The afternoon portion of the program gives us an hour-plus on three of the charismatic characters essential to the founding, short life, and lasting legacy of the Group: Lee Strasberg (1901-1982), Stella Adler (1901-1992), and Harold Clurman (1901-1980).

4 June 2012. Mel Gordon at the podium and Lee Strasberg in 1982. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

Lee Strasberg. We are welcomed with a section of a 1982 interview with Lee Strasberg conducted by co-host Mel Gordon.  (And I feel the first rumblings of my conviction that repeat foraging adventures into the archives and interview footage held by Professor Gordon — and from which he draws for much of the day’s video content — would be a thrill.)  As with all the archival interview, screen test and other footage we are shown this day, one is both energized and frustrated by the need to edit for time. Gordon goes on to provide several slide demonstrations — on the Group exercises, and on the main plot points of the Group’s first and wildly successful play  Men in White (1933). ( I provide a summary of the history and plot of this political medical melodrama in a 2010 blog entry on a reading by a young company dedicated to producing the Group Theatre’s work called Regroup Theatre.)

(L-R) Morris Carnovsky and Lee Strasberg. Image as published in Wendy Smith’s “Real Life Drama” (1990).

At this point one might legitimately have feared that the day was to be entertainingly filled with academic slideshows, to be passively consumed, notes dutifully taken.  The brilliance of the event curators’ vision, however, is to break up this style of information delivery to bring the events, the style, the substance of the issue at hand — acting and exercises and the people who embodied them — to life in several ways.  In our first example of instruction by physical illustration, Mel Gordon and acting teacher Robert Ellermann read and perform a reading of an affective memory exercise transcribed from 1932 involving Lee Strasberg and a young actor in rehearsal to take over a role for Franchot Tone.  Strasberg presses the actor over and over to feel to recall useful memories of place and time and feeling, and to get the actor to articulate what he sees and feels.  “Speak in the present tense please,” Strasberg repeatedly prods the actor. “Talk as if it’s happening now.” These “sensorial details” are used, we are told, to establish the inner rhythm, to bring change to a character.

4 June 2012. John Strasberg on the edge of the stage. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

We also learn about the legacies through teachers who embody them. The Strasberg family is represented in words, and projected images, and in the presence of Lee’s son John Strasberg, himself now a teacher, who first speaks to us during this section of the program.  Taking his seat at the edge of the stage saying that he is “not a big fan of the fourth wall,” Strasberg provides a few choice quotations.

  • “I grew up in the middle of an artistic movement.”
  • “They were examining what great actors did naturally … not a mechanical process.”
  • “American theatre is defined by intensely personal involvement.”

Gordon and Strasberg reflect to close out this section of the program upon the historic transition effected by the Group.  Before the Group, according to the men, American actors-in-training apprenticed themselves to individual actors to learn their styles. The Group introduced exercises and built a sense of community goals while focusing on individual creativity and personal acting instruments.  Theatre training in America moved from individual apprenticeships to a more systematic strategy to develop and hone skills and artistic purpose.

4 June 2012. Mel Gordon standing before Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg — Harold Clurman is obscured (on screen) at left. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

Stella Adler. Mel Gordon introduces this section of the proceedings with the gift of several minutes from his own 1985 filmed conversation with Stella Adler, then in her mid 80s. She reflects from that 50 year remove on the Group Theatre’s heyday, remarking that “I was used to the big time” so wasn’t initially keen on joining the ensemble.  When asked about historical details as reported in Harold Clurman’s 1957 book The Fervent Years: The Group Theatre and the Thirties, she notes with a laugh that his book is “great literature.”  1939 audio recordings of Adler’s monologues from Success Story (1932) and Awake and Sing (1935) are played, and we are able to enjoy, soon after the time of these storied performances, the vocal qualities of this fine actress in her youth.

4 June 2012. (L-R) On screen: Konstantin Stanislavsky, Stella Adler. On stage: Mel Gordon, Joanna Rotte, Ronald Rand. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

As in the section on Strasberg, we move into another enactment — these are actors and theatre historians, of course we’ll have additional dramatic readings.  Drawn from notes and letters documenting from two distinct perspectives, we hear Stella Adler and Konstantin Stanislavsky and Herald Clurman on the topic of their 1934 meeting in Paris.  Actress Joanna Rotte comes up from the audience to read Stella Adler’s 1934 notes on her meeting with Stanislavky — “It was Herald who wanted to see him and dragged me along.”

Chart of the Stanislavski System, copied down by Bobby Lewis, as presented by Stella Adler after her time with Stanislavski in Paris in 1934. Chart provided by Ronald Rand.

The name Bobby comes up frequently by the presenters during the day — referencing Robert Lewis (1909-1997), an actor who had been part of Eva Le Gallienne‘s Civic Repertory Theatre, and was the youngest founding member of the Group. Bobby’s notes provided the basis for the Stella readings for this section of the program, and it is Bobby’s handwriting (taking down Stella’s instructions to the Group) on the famous chart of the cryptic components of the Method, which was a binding and divisive force in the Group, and among actors to this day.  Debate continues on what the components mean, who supports which element, and what is the lineage and legacy of the tradition.

The Group members were taught from this method, though Lee dismissed it, preferring his approach.  Students became teachers who went out and taught what they were good at, focusing on different elements of the Method, thereby creating a rift in the theatre and in the Method, according to our presenters.

4 June 2012. Ellen Adler shares family history. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

Stella’s daughter Ellen Adler takes the stage to give her memories of growing up among the Group members as family. While she did not end up going into the family business of acting, she lived among them, dated a number, and went on to a painting career. She is reflective about the personalities she knew well, a bit protective, and generous with her memories.

  • “I grew up in a household trembling with actors.”
  • “They didn’t tell jokes, they told stories” and the laughter was omnipresent.
  • When she was a young child (and the only child at the “adult summer camp” summer sessions of the group) she once asked her mother about Cheryl Crawford, “Is Cheryl a man or a woman?” She doesn’t report Stella’s reply, but does report the fact that the other adults soon heard about her question and let her know they thought the question was funny.
  • Stella had been on stage since the age of three, first brought by her actor father Jacob.  Stella’s mother Sara, also an actress, lived with Stella and Ellen after Jacob passed away and was visited with reverence by actors who came to the house.
  • Sara on her deceased husband Jacob: “He was a bastard” and Sara to teen-aged Ellen, as relationship advice, while pointing to her heart: “Never let a man in here.”

4 June 2012. (L-R) Ronald Rand and Harold Clurman. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

Harold Clurman. Ronald Rand introduces his inspiration and his teacher Harold Clurman. When taking class with Clurman, Rand notes, “every time you left class with Harold, you were floating on air” imbued with humor and investment in your future and your art.  As a producer, a teacher, a critic, Harold inspires generations.

Mel Gordon digs into his archives once more for interviews with Harold himself, actor Karl Malden (who performed in a number of the Group productions), and notetaking actor and teacher Robert Lewis

  • “We made teachers out of our bodies.  We generated ..  we made it out of ourselves.” (Clurman)
  • “You accepted what you thought was good for you and discarded the rest.” (Malden on the groups within the Group)

Gordon provides a slide show recreation to a partial recording of Golden Boy (1937) by Clifford Odets, directed by Clurman, starring Luther Adler and Frances Farmer.  The archival treats in this section are four Hollywood features selected by Gordon to illustrate how Group actors took on movie roles that essentially reprised their stage characters in Golden Boy.  Morris Charnovsky in Thieves Highway (1949), Elia Kazan in City for Conquest (1940), John Garfield in Four Daughters (1938), and Frances Farmer in Flowing Gold (1940).

Ronald Rand concludes this section of the day by reading what he notes was Clurman’s last essay entitled “The Future of Theatre.” While the essay lays out the failed attempts over most of the 20th century to create true lasting resident repertory companies, Clurman’s observations and perhaps his philosophical tendency toward hope shines through. Toward the end of Clurman’s essay we find these inspirational words:

  • “The fact is we still do not know what theatre is, how it comes into being, what it is meant to accomplish and consequently how it is to be generated. A theatre is not a shop. It is not a well-administered assortment of talented actors, directors and worthy scripts. A theatre is the projection of a spirit, a style, a technique embodying a specific cultural attitude, a social direction and meaning, a ‘face’ which corresponds or responds to some deeply rooted hope, hunger, anxiety or preoccupation of a sizable part of a community within which it functions. Its very idea of craft, its methods and its manner of organization are calculated to voice its human aim.”

The Group at Brookfield Center the first 1931 summer. Clurman at far left holding stick; Stella at far right on porch leaning forward in rocking chair. Image by Ralph Steiner.

Diary, Drama, and Legacy. The evening section provides performance, the voices of the Group Theatre members themselves, and discussion and debate over the meaning, the measure, the legacy of the individuals and their combined efforts as the Group.

Actors including Rita Fredericks, Sabra Jones, Tom OppenheimElizabeth Parrish, Ronald Rand, Joanna Rotte, Penny Templeton, and Gene Terruso read sections of the Group Theatre’s Diary from their first summer at  Brookfield Center, Connecticut in 1931.  One member each day records his or her thoughts, recollections, experiences, pronouncements. Clifford Odets wrote that “the night is a loving mother.” Stella Adler wrote “I don’t know when the work finishes and life begins.”  Cheryl Crawford noted that “it’s hard to tell the truth.”  Phoebe Brand mused on the question “should an actor feel his part?”  Lee Strasberg wished that “the actor would realize how often the director’s happiness depends on him.”

We are treated to a scene from Ronald Rand’s play about the Group entitled The Group! featuring Laila Robins as Stella, Fritz Weaver as Stanislavsky, and Rand as Clurman.  The scene addresses the 1934 Paris meeting of the trio that we have heard about earlier in the day in Stella’s filmed interview and in the transcribed notes and Stanislavsky’s letters at the time.  Here we have Stanislavsky reflecting on “the Chart, the Method of physical actions … my life work.”  And as a side treat, we are honored to watch these three gifted and acclaimed actors perform.  Following this Mel Gordon gives us some final treats from his film archive — Group Theatre screen tests show scenes from Group shows Success Story, Men in White, Awake and Sing, and Weep for the Virgins.

4 June 2012. (L-R) Robert Ellermann, Ronald Rand, John Strasberg, Ellen Adler. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

Panel Discussion. The final section of the day allows for teachers, students, family members, historians all to reflect on the disputes, the successes, and the legacy of the Group. My notes here are a combination of queries as posed and selected responses, and musings of my own.  I make no claim to full documentation here, but rather provide events of the day as funneled through my brain, resulting in themes and notes that resonate for me personally.

Q: What speaks to people across the generations about the Group?

  • Ronald Rand: Young actors miss and need the spirit that we’re a community with a circle of elders surrounding and nourishing. The group spoke about how we can live as human beings and support one another. When he teaches he sees the desire among young people to feel the passion.  “They want to taste it.”  Stella taught actors to be human beings; Clurman always said “be present.”
  • Ellen Adler: The Group ended in 1939 “but it never really ended.”  She repeats the mantra of the day: “A lot of people became teachers.”
  • John Strasberg: He was part of an epoch growing up at the Studio in the 1960s.  He was “part of an epoch.” He notes that for actors “to be successful their art needs to be deeply personal.”

4 June 2012. (L-R) Wendy Smith, Mel Gordon, Fritz Weaver. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

Q: What about regional theatres with strong ensemble traditions? What about theatres like Chicago’s Stepppenwolf?

  • John Strasberg: “At some point it has to happen in New York.”

Q: Are people trained as deeply as they used to be?

  • Ellen Adler: In the Group we lived together every summer [in the 1930s]. “It was the Group, but it was a family.”  This affected the depth of the connection among the members.
  • Richard Ellermann: The Group legacy “has become a style.” “Stanislavsky was trying to understand what happened when great actors acted.”  While he noted great actors did emerge on Broadway such as Kim Stanley and Laurette Taylor, he quotes Horton Foote as saying “You didn’t see on Broadway what you saw at the Actors Studio.
  • John Strasberg: Acting requires courage and deeply personal art.

Q: Someone said “an actor needs a group and groups need other groups” — where are the other groups today?

  • John Strasberg: Now the focus on new play development and theatre building is outside of New York. “This is not a bad thing if New York is the center.” “In most other countries, for good or bad, there’s a national theatre.”  What the Group came out of … there was a need. “There has to be need if actors and directors are to go forward.”
  • Mel Gordon: The Group Theatre was successful at the time because of radio.  People were listening to storytelling differently. And Stella, Lee, and Harold were master teachers. When individuals had great teachers they were invigorated.  Today teachers have different relationships with their students.
  • Ellen Adler: Harold was “gifted with loving to be alive.” He “turned the other cheek.”
  • Robert Ellermann: “We are a culture of hyper-individualists fighting against the idea of a real permanent embodiment of American theatre … a theatre family.”
  • Ronald Rand: Trained actors at some point put on productions and were “all about the process.” He finds an enormous hunger from the students to learn more about how the Group did what it did. “It’s really up to use to get in the trenches … that’s the legacy of the Group Theatre.”
  • Fritz Weaver discusses considering titling his draft memoir Festivals I Have Opened and Closed. The laugh at this point of the evening is welcome, and his point is well taken: there are elements of growth and decay in any organization, in all festivals, in all movements.
  • [from the audience] The Network of Ensemble Theaters is a vital organization linking theaters across the country and around the world. Says this audience member: “It’s not time to mourn, it’s time to support them.”

Q: Is a national theatre possible in the United States?

  • Wendy Smith: “We had a national theatre in the United States for three years and we threw it away.”  The Federal Theatre Project existed as part of the Work Progress Administration under Hallie Flanagan — began in August 1935 and was not included in the June1939 reauthorization of the WPA.
  • Ronald Rand: He envisions a national theatre center supported by the people not by government, representing the many different cultural theatrical traditions of the country. An essay with his ideas on the subject resides on the web version of his publication The Soul of the American Actor.  Rand notes: “It’s not about money it’s about the vision.”

Final words.  Clearly these are my subjective notes on an objectively fascinating and provocative day.  Great acting, solid presentations, deep content, and deep connections to be made among schools of thought, among plays and playwrights, among the people creating the theatre and the people in their lives.  Overlapping worlds of family and commitment and needs — need to communicate, need to collaborate, need to create theatre. It seems to me that a grand next step might be to convene some of those regional long-term ensemble theatres with Group “family” such as many present in the gathering this day to discuss the Group’s legacy in concrete terms — beyond philosophy to regional reality.  Ensemble theatres, regional richness, the form and format of a “national theatre” in our rambling country, and other related topics.  Many who attended Monday’s sessions would be game to continue the conversations.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 9, 2012)

5 replies »

  1. Thanks for this, Martha, on the GroupTheatre event. it’s a lovely summation of what was a wonderful day.

  2. Ron, and all involved in the consortium : for me {I was brought to New York by Stella and lived in her home, so I was privy to much first hand history telling and transcribing} the event served as a boost of encouragement and inspiration in such a murky business as we face daily.
    They defined the undefinable, worked out the details on their own bodies and souls; and this circle will ascend in repetitions. Thank you so much.

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