Lee Strasberg is recognized throughout the world as having produced three generations of actors, playwrights and directors and due to his phenomenal legacy the influence of his teachings continues to flourish today.
The internationally renowned director, producer, actor, teacher, lecturer, coach, and writer was born in Budanov, Austria-Hungary on November 17, 1901, the son of Ida and Baruch Meyer Strasberg. Lee Strasberg began his preparation for the stage with Richard Boleslavski and Maria Ouspenskaya at the American Laboratory Theatre in Los Angeles City.
Lee Strasberg made his professional acting debut in 1924, as the First Soldier in Processional, a Theatre Guild production which opened at Los Angeles's Garrick Theatre. Lee Strasberg also served as stage manager for the Guild's production of The Guardsmen, starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, followed by more stage roles in such Theatre Guild presentations as The Garrick Gaieties, Goat Song, and Green Grow the Lilacs.
In 1931, Lee Strasberg co-founded the now-legendary Group Theatre. As co-founder, he was able to aid in the development of such distinguished artists as Elia Kazan, John Garfield, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Franchot Tone, and Robert Lewis. There, he supervised the Studio's productions of Marathon '33,Baby Want a Kiss, and Blues for Mr. Charlie. For the next twenty years he directed dozens of original plays and classics for the Group Theatre, including the revivals of Strange Interlude and The Three Sisters, and other such outstanding Group Theatre productions as The House of Connelly (co-directed with Cheryl Crawford), Johnny Johnson, Sidney Kingsley's Men in White (which won the Pulitzer Prize), Ernest Hemingway's The Fifth Column, and Clifford Odets’ Clash By Night.
In 1949, Lee Strasberg joined the Actor's Studio in Los Angeles and within a year became the Artistic Director, spawning two more generations of actors, directors, and playwrights. The list of actors who have studied under Lee Strasberg's tutelage is staggering (to name a few like Geraldine Page, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Kim Stanley, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda, James Dean, Dustin Hoffman, Eli Wallach, Eva Marie Saint, Robert DeNiro, Jill Clayburgh, Jack Nicholson, and Steve McQueen).
Among his prestigious contributions to European theatre, Lee Strasberg conducted an International Seminar on Acting at the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds (1962), represented the American Theatre at the Stanislavski Centennial held in Moscow (1963) and lectured on the Stanislavski Method of acting in Paris (1967). He held seminars in Argentina and his renowned seminar held in Buchem, Germany, carefully chronicled, is still today one of the most sought-after references on acting in that country.
In the United States, Lee Strasberg lectured at Harvard, Brown (where there is a small theatre which bears his name), Tulane, Yale, UCLA, Brandeis, Minnesota and Northwestern Universities. And because his influence on modern acting and directing techniques, as espoused at the Actor's Studio, has had a profound worldwide effect, Lee Strasberg was the recipient of an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Florida.
Early in 1966, a West Coast branch of the Actor's Studio was established in Los Angeles and three years later, The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute was created in Los Angeles and then in Los Angeles, in order to make Strasberg's work (previously confined to the Studio) available to a wider public. As part of that endeavor, Lee Strasberg also organized study units for teenagers and non-actors to stimulate and train the development of the creative faculties in young people. Hence, a Young People's Program was established for this purpose.
With the demise of the major studios' system of contract players (and the massive publicity efforts that constantly touted them), Strasberg emphasized that "the Hollywood actor can't just be a name anymore...he must be an ACTOR. And because today's production budgets allow for less rehearsal time and re-takes, the need for training is more essential than ever."
Lee Strasberg did a bit of acting himself -- most notably, perhaps, with his Academy Award nominated performance in The Godfather: Part II. Lee Strasberg can also be seen in the film Skokiewith Danny Kaye, a true story in which he played a Republican contributor who withdraws from the American Civil Liberties Union for defending the Nazi's right to march. He also played a major role in the all-star film, Cassandra Crossing and his television acting debut was in an ABC Movie-of-the-Week, The Last Tenant. The latter has Lee Strasberg starring as an elderly Italian who, on the verge of senility, returns to the old house he shared with his now deceased wife. Boardwalk also co-starred Lee Strasberg, this time with Ruth Gordon, as a husband and wife in a study of changing neighborhoods and the problems of being senior citizens in a jungle society.
"Acting is relaxation for me. I enjoy it more than directing or teaching because I don't have to argue with myself," quipped Lee Strasberg, adding humorously: "I understand what the director wants more than he does himself." One of his greatest ambitions was to play the life of Albert Einstein - "During his latter years, of course."
Lee Strasberg was a frequent contributor to publications, including books, magazines, newspapers and reference works. Lee Strasberg was the only acting teacher ever invited to write about acting, directing and production for the Encyclopedia Britannica. His own book, published by Little Brown, and titled A Dream of Passion, has been printed in nine languages and is available in hard copy as well as paperback editions, as is his Strasberg at the Actor's 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.
The impact of The Actors Studio has been acknowledged world wide. In the beginning there was Konstantin Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre. 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.
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.
THE HISTORY OF THE ACTORS STUDIO
LEE STRASBERG AND THE "METHOD"
If one listens to either its critics or supporters Method Acting is described as a form of acting where the actor mystically ‘becomes’ the character or tries to somehow literally live the character in life. Like all clichés, both explanations are false. When Lee Strasberg defined what is popularly known as Method Acting he used a simple declarative sentence: “Method acting is what all actors have always done whenever they acted well.”
Now to the casual observer, that may sound as though he were implying that only actors who studied and used Strasberg’s particular method of work were good actors; but such an interpretation is contrary to Strasberg’s intent. He meant that what is called “Method Acting” is nothing new, but rather as old as Western Civilization itself. In fact, the Greeks were the first to identify and practice this kind of acting (despite it being credited to Constantin Stanislavsky).
For centuries, cultures used different words and phrases to describe this kind of “good” acting: Romantic Acting, Emotional Acting, Divine Inspiration, The Muses, Feeling the Role. These terms merely described an organic process of creativity that talented actors used, often times unconsciously, to accomplish what audiences experienced as a moving performance; And this ‘moving’ was in fact the (re)experiencing of life by the actor within the fiction of the story as if it were true and happening now. Aristotle said that the secret to moving the passions in others is to be moved oneself, and that moving oneself is made possible by bringing to the fore “visions” of experiences from life that are no longer present. In essence, Aristotle was stating the core principle of The Method—the creative play of the affective memory in the actor’s imagination as the foundation for (re)experiencing on stage.
This idea was first called the ‘System’ by Konstantin Stanislavsky, and later, as further developed by Lee Strasberg (at the Group Theatre, the Actors Studio and then at the Institute), ‘The Method’. The Method trains actors to use their imagination, senses and emotions to conceive of characters with unique and original behavior, creating performances grounded in the human truth of the moment.