LAST MONTH I attended one of Lee Strasberg's acting sessions at Actors Studio. "The classes are fascinating now," I was told by a director who's studied with Strasberg. "He must feel the end is near, because he seems to be summing up."
Earlier in the week, I had come to Actors Studio for a reading of my first play, and I was invited to come back Friday for Strasberg's class.
While I am a fiction writer, new to playwriting, I was familiar with and always fascinated by the divergent teaching theories of Strasberg and his fellow acting teacher Stella Adler. While Strasberg believed acting to be the greatest art because it was closest to life, I thought his analysis of the acting process as useful to writers as actors. So I assembled on a Friday morning along with some famous faces and many familiar faces, actors one knows but can't name. The atmosphere was surprisingly friendly and informal for a place with such a formidable reputation. I was told that actors compare Actors Studio to a gym where they come to explore and work out.
The building itself is modest, located on 44th Street in Manhattan, between 9th and 10th avenues, in a 125-year-old building that was once a church. A simple handwritten sign on the main doors directs visitors to the basement entrance past offices and a lounge with more grittiness than glamor. The class itself sat in the first two rows, visitors, mostly former students, sat behind and on the sides. And where my Texas-set play had been read two evenings earlier, an actor was preparing a scene from Brecht's "The Jewish Wife," but reversing the roles so that his rendition would be "The Jewish Husband."
When the theater was filled, Strasberg entered, a short man of medium build whose movement might betray 40 years, but certainly not 80. He was white-haired, dressed in black except for a white turtleneck. He took the center seat in the first row and announced the scene.
It was a long painful scene set in Berlin in the late 1930s, the character packing his suitcase, fleeing the Nazis for safety in Amsterdam. During the scene the husband makes three phone calls, then addresses his absent wife. After the scene the actor took a seat on stage facing Strasberg.
"You cannot imagine," my friend next to me said, "what it is like sitting in that chair in front of Strasberg, facing the whole history of the American theater."
Strasberg began his critique. First of all, he said, the character considered himself to be German. He was being forced to leave what was rightfully his home. "Look at how you are sitting," Strasberg said. The actor, a large man, was sitting in an old-fashioned American sprawl. Suddenly it was evident that there had been no Prussian rigidity in the actor's interpretation. He was not thinking of the character as German, but Jewish.
There was in Germany in the late '30s, Strasberg continued, a man who taught drama at Berlin University. An eminent scholar. Harvard and Cambridge and other universities offered him positions, urged him to leave Germany. But like this character, he considered himself German, believed he was safe. He stayed and was arrested, Strasberg said.
He began to discuss the three phone calls the husband makes--to a friend, to his sister, to his sister-in-law, each revealing different facets of the character. He compared this conception to Beethoven's Triple Concerto. A difficult piece, he said. He had three recordings of it, none of them very successful. Then Herbert von Karajan had done a new version treating the concerto as chamber music, the voices in counterpoint, then reaching a synthesis. As he spoke, the intricate architectural design of the role took form. Occasionally Strasberg would himself speak a line of dialogue. The results were always astonishing in their revelation of the character. "While the words are given you," Strasberg said, "the notes you use on those words are your own."
The scene, he said, demanded enormous concentration. He went on to say that Helene Weigel, Brecht's wife, told him that once when Brecht had directed her in the role, to test her concentration, Brecht had connected the phone. When she gave her lines on the phone, her husband was on the other end telling her dirty stories.
The second scene presented that day was from Marsha Norman's "Getting Out," a play about two women leaving jail. After the scene the young actresses took their seats before Strasberg. "Why did you move around so much on the stage?" Strasberg asked the first actress. "I was nervous," she replied.
Even in the face of the lack of professionalism of the young actress, Strasberg was exceedingly kind. As a teacher his method was to advise rather than criticize, to encourage. He shapes actors, I was told, by bringing out in them what theater people call "all the colors" they are capable of bringing to a role. It is this encouragement and ability that must account for the extraordinary devotion of his former students.
Later he spoke wistfully of the fate of the American theater. Of the enormous threat of television. And for the first time in his life, he said, the American theater did not know where it was going. In recent years he had taken to videotaping his classes at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute.
As we left, Ellen Burstyn, who'd been sitting in the front row, rose to discuss with Strasberg the scene she was going to do in three weeks. The following week Elia Kazan was to present a scene he was working on.
It had been snowing that week in both Washington and New York--the week of the tragic Air Florida crash here. At least two feet of snow were piled between the sidewalk and the street. Lee Strasberg was making his way over the mound of snow toward a waiting car. In the middle, two feet above the ground, he stopped, joking and laughing with those behind him. He extended his arms and like a tightrope walker pretended to teeter there for a moment, then nimbly stepped past.