My core collection of books about acting starts with my high school “The Stage and the School” which is illustrated with photos taken at Jefferson High School in Portland, OR., in the years I was a kid in Melba Day Sparks’ dramatics program (Class of ’57). The shelf continues with the texts acquired in Alvina Krause’s acting classes. (Class of ’61). Now I own textbooks Marshall Mason (classmate), Robert Benedetti (near classmate), David Downs (later AK student) and two theorists, Peter Brook and Richard Hornby. I’m excluding from this book roundup some arcane stuff about performance and so on that more properly belong to philosophy.
I include the years because in those decades a Great Shift in theatre was underway, driven by a Great Shift in technology and society as a whole, both triggered by the one-two punch of world war and economic reconfiguration as much as anything else -- unless you think maybe the shift came first and triggered the war. Be that as it may, Richard Hornby in his book “The End of Acting: a Radical View” (1992) describes something I witnessed without comprehending. It wasn’t the end of acting: it was the end of one way of looking at acting. And the world.
Realistic, proscenium-framed, script-based, repertory/ensemble, audience theatre was just ending as the dominant medium of theatre. Rising in replacement was film and valuing of highly emotional, often improvised, acting controlled by editing as much or more than by directing; often a critical (oppositional) witness against authorities and often cross-cultural; watched by individuals in homes; possibly staged in the round or with audience and actors mixing; possibly unexpected street performance. This coincided with a shift from emphasis on groups of actors to individuals, often with a concentration on personal success -- Big Names.
Swept up in this was the end-career of Alvina Krause and her last generation of academic students. The juggernaut of the university, reframed in terms of the Big Money Corporation that values athletics as an essential and research as pursuit of profit, simply eliminated her world, snuffing all objections. AK’s career, which had begun in the semi-religious oratorical world of Cumnock, was now thrown up against the psychoanalytical émigre mystique of Lee Strasberg. To her admirers she was the truer teacher of the “Method” theories of Stanislavsky. Her name still appears on CV’s as a mark of quality and achievement. Privately she disavowed Strasberg whom she felt pushed people towards madness, an accusation sometimes leveled against her! As far as Stanislavsky was concerned, she said that every good actor develops a unique personal method.
Hornby describes Strasberg’s version of Stanislavsky with these points.
- Strasberg never studied with Stanislavsky, never met him, nor read him in Russian.
- What he learned was from the American Laboratory Theatre in New York where Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, emigrés from the Moscow Art Theatre, were the teachers. This was in the Twenties.
- Strasberg was not an actor. Stanislavsky was.
- Strasberg directed very little. He was a classroom theorist. Stanislavsky was a stage man.
- Neither Strasberg nor Stanislavsky was good at dramatic literature, but the latter had a strong partner, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, who was an excellent advisor at the Moscow Art Theatre. Strasberg had no such partner. The closest he came was Harold Clurman at the Group Theatre, who pushed Strasberg to appreciate Clifford Odets. When Clurman left, Strasberg developed an opposition to literature and pursued the personal reality of the actors, more like a therapist.
- Stella Adler actually went to Moscow and interviewed Stanislavsky, whose theories and methods had gone on developing. When she came back and tried to tell Strasberg, he denied her version. The Strasberg Method did not evolve.
- However, the Strasberg Method is more subtle than it is usually portrayed, and for actors who understand it, the results are remarkable.
- Hornby feels that one Strasberg concept that DOES jibe with Stanislavsky is the necessity of relaxation. (Krause often asserted this.)
- Stanislavsky does not go beyond the idea of imitating reality, enlivened by remembered personal details of the actor. Strasberg accepts the entering of personal reality, which is, of course, possible to do on film but not during a stage performance.
- In sum, Strasberg’s method is NOT based on stage work. It is classroom exercises, much glamorized by the American star system, the great emphasis on individuals and their daring to be extreme. But it was an energizer for an active theatre scene and served experienced actors, who already had their stage techniques (esp. voice and movement) internalized enough to be automatic.
Something parallel was happening throughout the humanities: writing, painting, music, dance, and even religion -- a movement towards individual experience and away from technique or tradition; a valuing of emotion over reason but at the same time a great leap in technology and science that exploded the powers of human beings. Stage theatre was confrontive, experimental, jesting, cruel, and spectacular.
That’s a far cry from the original roots of universities in the teaching of medical and religious dogma. Academia was thrown for a loop until they hit upon the idea of an Master of Fine Arts, a separated stream of learning with its own credentials and ability to generate tuition. The high theatre idealism of the first half of the century -- the valuing of the whole company, the respect for traditional humanities canons and criteria -- was replaced by personal ambition. The NU School of Speech was completely re-organized and re-named the NU School of Communication.
I often think that the most accurate description of the sequence of events we sometimes call “history” is the cautionary tale of Simple Simon who always knew what to do for the LAST thing that had happened though it always turned out to be a disaster for the PRESENT thing happening. You remember? He worked as a farm hand for barter. When paid off with butter, he put it under his hat to keep it safe on his head, but it was a warm day and it melted down his neck and face. So his parents told him next time he should put his barter in a bucket of cold water, but the next time he was paid off with a puppy, which drowned in the bucket. So the next time -- told he should have tied the puppy to a string and led it behind him -- he was paid with a sack of flour which he dragged behind him on a string until a hole wore in the sack and all the flour leaked out. For a relatively short time -- though it included WWI, the Roaring Twenties, the Big Depression, WWII, and the Cold War -- AK’s methods of teaching acting were in sync with stage theatre. Strasberg was (maybe without quite realizing it) dealing with actors for film. It was a kinder revolution than the one Stanislavsky suffered in Russia.
So what is the present and the near future? A bucket of cold water or being dragged on a string? It looks to me like a mix. For those who are still “middle-class”, theatre is spectacle and escape, the Broadway musical. In some places repertory/ensemble lives on. But I see the world turning back in a chilling reality loop to the theatre of protest-surrealism. IPhone witnessing to the return of oppression and violence. The minority people I know are participating in non-threatening high school dramatics and cowboy movies. But that’s good preparation for something far more intense that they can’t see from here. No script yet. Prepare to improvise.