The Actors Studio – History

History of the Actors Studio

The Actors Studio was founded in 1947 in New York City, by Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis. Lee Strasberg became Artistic Director in 1951, and remained so until his death in 1982. In New York, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel and Ellen Burstyn are Co-Presidents. In West Hollywood Mark Rydell is the Artistic Director and Martin Landau and Mark Rydell are the Executive Directors.

The Actors Studio is a theatre workshop for professional actors, directors and writers, chartered as a non-profit, educational, tax deductible corporation. (The term The Actors Studio is a registered trademark.) No fees are charged and donations are voluntary. The Studio is supported by Benefits and a Board of Directors. The Studio in West Hollywood is the West Coast branch of the Studio in New York. Neither is a school for beginners. Actors are admitted on the basis of talent.

The above founders created a place for professional actors where they could continue their development and to experiment with new forms of theatre.

In 1967, the west coast branch of The Actors Studio was born. The following year the Studio acquired the use of the William S. Hart property by an arrangement with L.A.’s Recreation & Parks Commission. The Studio undertook a refurbishing program at an initial cost of $20,000. The garage was converted into an 84 seat theatre workshop. The main house became rehearsal space, office, library and caretaker quarters. An additional $10,000 was spent on heating, air conditioning and general maintenance in 1984. Ralph Alswang, the theatrical designer, supervised the alterations. On December 4, 1989 the William S. Hart Park became the property of the City of West Hollywood. In 1997 there were additional refurbishment costs to the Studio of $64,000 and we are currently a 70 seat theatre. These latest refurbishments renewed and continued the unique and productive relationship we have with the City of West Hollywood.

Currently we have over 1,000 members on both coasts. The Studio is culturally diverse and maintains a policy of non-discrimination. Any professional actor over 18 can apply for an audition and theatre professionals have come from all over the world as guests. The impact of The Actors Studio has been acknowledged world wide.

In the beginning there was Konstantin Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre. (For more information about Stanislavski, refer to the books found on this page). The work of Stanislavski and his company brought new meaning to the term “life on the stage”. It had been developed from years of discovery and experimentation by Stanislavski, who had dedicated himself to a lifelong search aimed at formulating an approach to realistic acting that could, in essence, deliver the mystery of “creative inspiration” to those not born with artistic genius.

Pushkin, Russia’s original literary hero and the father of the native realist tradition, wrote that the goal of the artist was to supply truthful feelings under given circumstances, which Stanislavski adopted as his lifelong artistic motto.

“No one knows what will move his soul, and open the treasure house of his creative gifts,” Stanislavski was to write in My Life In Art. “The creativeness of an actor must come from within.”

How to enter into and to stimulate that inner self became the theme of Stanislavski’s epic quest.

How does an actor act? In simplest terms, that was the question that haunted Stanislavski. Actors before Stanislavski had of course thought about how they work but it was the rare actor, then as now, who could be articulate about it: the actor’s art, after all, is in speaking other people’s words.

Admiring the work of the great actors he had seen and eager to learn their secrets, the young Stanislavski discovered that for the most part the great actors carried their secrets to their graves.

“If the ability to receive the creative mood in its full measure is given to the genuis by nature,” Stanislavski wondered, “then perhaps ordinary people may reach a like state after a great deal of hard work with themselves — not in its full measure, but at least in part.”

How can the actor learn to inspire himself? What can he do to impel himself toward that necessary yet maddeningly elusive creative mood? These were the simple, awesome riddles Stanislavski dedicated his life to exploring. Where and how to “seek those roads into the secret sources of inspiration must serve as the fundamental life problem of every true actor.” — A Method To Their Madness.

Stanislavski’s work literally stunned the theatre world in America.

When the Moscow Art Theatre visited America, two of its company members, Maria Ouspenskaya and Richard Boleslavski (Acting: The First Six Lessons) defected, choosing to remain in America, and began teaching at the American Laboratory Theatre. It was there that a young Lee Strasberg immersed himself in Stanislavski’s “System” as taught by Boleslavski.

Eventually, driven by a burning desire to weave this revolutionary approach to the actors’ art intrinsically into the fabric of the American Theatre Experience, Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman (The Fervent Years) and Cheryl Crawford founded the Group Theatre (1931-1941), still considered the best of all of American theatre companies. (For an invaluable history of the Group Theatre, read Robert Lewis‘ book Slings And Arrows), and Clurman’s book, “The Fervent Years” linked above.

The Group Theatre was the first American company fully trained to perform as an ensemble. Among members invited to join this remarkable company were Robert Lewis and Elia Kazan (joined in 1932, becoming a leading actor).

The Group Theatre finally dissolved in 1941, for reasons ranging from finances to “artistic differences”. It wasn’t until six years later that the original founders of the Actors Studio decided it was time to “fan the spark” before the fire died out completely.

Fifty young professional actors were invited to become members. Robert Lewis conducted meetings for the advanced members, and Elia Kazan held sessions for beginners. By the end of the first year, Lewis resigned. During 1948 and 1949 several teachers kept the classes going, among them Sanford Meisner, Daniel Mann and Elia Kazan.

It is not surprising, then, that the longstanding association between Strasberg, Crawford, Kazan and Lewis, would lead to Strasberg’s invitation to join at the Actors Studio in 1949. Before long, he became the sole teacher of actors there.

By 1951 Strasberg was appointed Artistic Director of the Actors Studio, a position he retained until his death in 1982.

Special thanks to Foster Hirsch for permission to quote here from his extraordinary book A Method To Their Madness: The History Of The Actors Studio. Salted with rich detail, peppered with intuitive insight and sweetened with crystal clarity, this book is highly recommended reading.

Some of the information on this page has been condensed from the book Strasberg At The Actors Studio: Tape Recorded Sessions Edited By Robert H. Hethmon. This book is highly recommended for a detailed understanding of how Strasberg conducted his sessions. The editorial comments by Mr. Hethmon are most insightful.

Lee Strasberg On The Actors Studio

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