The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute is built on a history that stretches back to the 1920’s, decades before it was officially founded in 1969. In 1923, Lee Strasberg, then a young actor just beginning to find his way in what was quickly emerging as a new American theatre culture, sat in the audience for the performances of Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) during its legendary American tour. For the first time, the American theatre witnessed the extraordinary artistic possibilities of ensemble theatre as effortlessly realized by these Russian masters. When the MAT’s American tour finished a year and half later the American theatre would never be the same. For Lee Strasberg – who would soon become one of the theatre’s most influential voices – Stanislavsky’s example inspired his “life in art”.
The insights and information Strasberg gained from Stanislavsky’s MAT guided him as he contributed his own insights to the development of the actor and the American Theatre—taking Stanislavsky’s “system” and building what would eventually be called “The Method.” In time, Lee Strasberg’s work would travel the world and revolutionize acting and directing for both stage and film.
In 1925, the growing influence of Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre on Lee Strasberg’s thought brought him to the doors of the recently opened American Laboratory Theatre. The “Lab”, as it was affectionately called, was founded by Maria Ouspenskaya and Richard Boleslavsky, two former actors of the Moscow Art Theatre and (more importantly) founding members of the Moscow Art Theatre’s First Studio (heavily rooted in Stanislasvky’s ‘System’. Both were among the leading exponents of the ‘system’ with Ouspenskaya being a graduate of the first carefully designed curriculum based solely on the ‘system’ at the Adashev Studio in Moscow (1909-1911). Ouspenskaya and Boleslavsky remained in the United States after the MAT returned to Russia as they hoped to introduce the ‘system’ to American theatre practice. Of the many students who passed through the “Lab’s” doors, it was primarily Lee Strasberg who carried the “seed” his teachers planted into the heart and soul of international theatre and film practice.
In the mid 1920’s, Strasberg began his professional journey, initially as a young actor in Broadway’s Theatre Guild, then as one of the first important directors in the American theatre and, finally, as one of the world’s premier acting teachers. Strasberg’s early work as the director of the Christie Street Settlement House’s drama division on the Lower East Side of New York City gave him the opportunity to experiment and perfect as a director and teacher the lessons he had learned from watching the MAT and from attending the Lab. Lee Strasberg was part of the exciting cultural ferment being created at that time on New York’s Lower East Side by the recent waves of Eastern and Southern European immigrants. These men and women along with their children were poised to profoundly change the “New World” they now claimed as their adopted home, particularly in the performing arts. Almost from the start, Strasberg showed an uncanny knack for releasing an actor’s innate talent and for using the ‘system’ in ways Stanislavsky himself would not fully understand and use until years later. Although Strasberg did not call his highly successful approach ‘The Method’, this is where what became known as ‘The Method’ was born.
In 1931, Lee Strasberg, along with Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford, gathered together 28 actors to create what would become the single most influential theatre in the history of the United States: The Group Theatre. Members of the Group Theatre included such notable actors as Stella Adler, her brother Luther Adler, Ruth Nelson, Morris Carnovsky, Robert (Bobby) Lewis and John Garfield; as well as, the future film and theatre director, Elia Kazan and the soon to be noted acting teacher, Sanford (Sandy) Meisner (in fact, Sandy Meisner often joked that he was Lee Strasberg’s oldest professional student). The Group Theatre was based on what was once called a “true” theatre or a “real” theatre or as the Russians say “a theatre family”: a permanent company of actors, sharing a common aesthetic and craft devoted to plays embodying the experience of “the life of their times”. Strasberg was the Group’s primary director during the first six of its ten-year existence. In that time, he was solely responsible for teaching The Group’s acting company, training them in what were still at that time considered the wildly experimental techniques of the Stanislavsky ‘system’. Strasberg’s success was such that even today the Group Theatre is considered the finest ensemble of actors to have ever existed in the American theatre—and it existed in the middle of Broadway.
With the Group, Lee Strasberg’s work as a director and teacher focused on six of the many elements of the actor’s craft which would come to comprise his mature ‘Method’: improvisation, affective memory (sense and emotional memory), scene analysis/given circumstances, interpretation, imagination, and relaxation. These elements were employed during Strasberg’s rehearsals with the Group Theatre acting company and in the special classes he taught for the members of The Group. Outside the Group, a demand was growing for Strasberg’s special skills as a teacher of acting and throughout the 1930’s Lee Strasberg continued to develop his ‘Method’ with both young inexperienced actors and Broadway professionals.
Strasberg spent the early 1940’s in Hollywood as a director of screen tests for young actors the film studios were interested in signing to a contract. It was said that at least 80% of the actors Strasberg coached and then screen tested were hired by the Studios. By 1947, Lee Strasberg was back in New York to participate, and ultimately emerge as a leader, in what was soon to become the “Golden Age” of Broadway and the American theatre. Plays considered to be some of the major works of the 20th century appeared during this time; the works of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Horton Foote, William Inge, Clifford Odets and Edward Albee just to name a few. Elia Kazan, Strasberg’s former student from the Group Theatre, established himself as the outstanding director and leading artistic voice in American theatre and film with such classics as the stage versions of All My Sons, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Kazan’s movies included among others the film version of the before mentioned A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as East of Eden and On the Waterfront. Kazan’s work created a new star, a man whose acting would quickly define the future of film acting and personify the artistic values Strasberg’s ‘Method’ represented – Marlon Brando.
Behind the scenes of this golden age on Broadway, a new group was emerging as a transformative force for the American Theatre—the Actors Studio. Created in 1947 by Elia Kazan, Robert (“Bobby”) Lewis with the administrative assistance of Cheryl Crawford, The Actors Studio was a place where actors, directors and playwrights could work on their craft away from industrial pressures. By 1948, Robert Lewis had resigned from the Actors Studio and Elia Kazan began to look around for someone to lead the Studio. He recognized Strasberg as “that natural phenomenon – a born teacher” and sought him out to join the Studio. Strasberg accepted the invitation to join in 1948 and in 1951 he was named Artistic Director of The Actor’s Studio, a position he held until his death in 1982. By the mid-1950’s, Lee Strasberg’s name was synonymous with the Actors Studio. Moreover, the Actor’s Studio and Lee Strasberg had become synonymous with a very specific way of working with actors to obtain truth, reality and organic theatricality in performance; a way of working coined in the press as ‘The Method.’
Under Lee Strasberg’s inspiring leadership, the Actors Studio became one of the preeminent artistic movements in international theatre and film. This was partially due to the brilliant young actors who were drawn to the work of the Studio and who soon emerged as a new generation of film and theatre stars – James Dean, Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page, Susan Strasberg, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Maureen Stapleton, Julie Harris, Shirley Knight, Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Shelley Winters, Patricia Neal, Eli Wallach, Rip Torn and Ben Gazzara to name just a few. But something more fundamental was involved; the work and craft underlining their success was in no small part due to the training they received from Lee Strasberg. At the Studio, Strasberg turned his attention from the creation of an ensemble and a theatre, to the development of the individual actor’s talent. His work focused on the freeing of that talent from unnoticed social and/or personal habits of behavior that, in effect, restricted or masked the organic expression of thought, feeling and desire in acting. It was during this time that Strasberg developed special exercises and procedures for tackling these actor’s individual habits. These are the now famous “Song and Dance” and “Private Moment” exercises. The future of ‘The Method’ would see the expansion and deepening of Strasberg’s understanding and procedures for eliminating the unnecessary restraints, the often unconscious habits of non-expression, placed on the actor’s talent and imagination.
In 1963 and 1973 Lee Strasberg was invited to the former Soviet Union (today’s Russia). These trips provided Strasberg with the opportunity to investigate the evolution in theory and practice of the Stanislavsky ‘system’ in its home country. What Strasberg discovered became a subject of great concern for the rest of his life. From Lee Strasberg’s informed point of view, much of what was essential in the training and application of the famous ‘system’ had been lost and discarded amid the political restraints placed on the arts by the Soviet Union. To Strasberg, it appeared the largest part of this ‘lost’ material centered on the understanding, training, development and application of Stanislavsky’s discovery of affective memory (sense and emotional memory). The conscious training and artistic inspiration provided by affective memory in the work of the actor was conspicuously absent in the former Soviet Union. Without extensive repetition of these individual elements of the ‘system’, (or what Stanislavsky called “train and drill”) the special quality that defines ‘system’ based acting is difficult if not impossible to create. All of Stanislavksy’s exercises build towards the use of affective memory (sense and emotional memory) which allowed the actor to experience what Stanislavsky described as perezhivanie or (re)experiencing. This element of (re)experiencing, through the use of affective memory, is the source of truthful acting and what gave Strasberg’s Method it’s special quality.
Those who doubt this fundamental tenet of Stanislavsky’s work need only turn to a section of a 1937 letter which Stanislavsky sent to his American friend and translator Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood – written a year before Stanislavsky’s death – which is quoted on pages 75-76 in Rose Whyman’s groundbreaking study of the ‘system’: The Stanislavsky System of Acting (Cambridge University Press, 2008), Contrary to what most people engaged by the ‘system’ believe, in this historically important letter Stanislavsky offers an emphatic statement supporting the all-important role of affective memory in his ‘system’ and in creative acting:
“As regards affective memory – the appellation belongs to Ribot. He was criticized for such terminology, as there is confusion with affect. Ribot’s appellation has been abolished and not replaced with a new, definite one. But it is necessary for me to name the main memory on which almost all our art is based. I have called this memory emotional, that is, the memory of feeling.
It is untrue and a complete nonsense that I have renounced memory of feelings. I repeat that it is the main element in our creativity [emphasis added]. I only had to renounce the appellation (affective) and to attach significance to memory suggested to us by feeling, that is, that on which our art is founded, more than I had previously.”
Strasberg’s experiences in Russia inspired him to save and deepen his understanding of these essential elements of Stanislavsky’s ‘System’ that had been eliminated by the Soviets—the importance of (re)experiencing in acting—which he believed to be fundamental to the actor’s work.
Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, Lee extended and refined the unique sequence of sense and emotional memory exercises he had developed over his long career. The individual and double or “twosome” sensory exercises of the 1930’s through the 1950’s were now expanded into what were called “threesomes”, “foursomes” and so on – the (re)creation and (re)experiencing of multiple sensory objects of attention at the same time. The “Private Moment” and “Animal” (physically re-creating an animal’s behavior on a human being) exercises were seamlessly woven into this sequence. The numerous exercises Lee Strasberg developed to consciously train and apply the emotional memory aspect of affective memory were also now part of this exercise sequence. These emotional memory-based exercises included the “Place” exercise, the “Personal Object” exercise and the famous “Emotional Memory Exercise” (often called by its older name: the Affective Memory Exercise). All the sensory/emotional work was further refined by the addition of “Daily Activities” (physical actions), “Speaking Out” and Exercise Monologues or Songs to the realities created by the affective memory-based sensory and emotional exercises. The subtle layering of the emotional and physical elements of organic human behavior (senses, feelings, will, physical actions, words, etc.) into exercises that create truthful acting, is one of the supreme achievements of Lee Strasberg’s life and work.
In addition to the evolution of the affective memory-based exercise sequence, Lee Strasberg changed the form of the relaxation exercise he had previously taught from the 1930’s until the late 1950’s. The influence of discoveries made in the latter part of the twentieth century concerning the nature of human behavior as well as Lee Strasberg’s personal interest in the ancient Chinese marshal art of Tai Chi led him to deepen the complexity and thus training goals of his relaxation exercise. He now added what he called “abstract” or unhabitual movement to the essential concentration process that leads to muscular freedom and relaxation. Sounds were also incorporated into the relaxation process. Both the movement and sounds were used to sharpen the actor’s awareness of self, eliminate emotional tension, and release them from their habits of non expression and conventional behavior.
In the late 1970’s, American movies entered what has been described as a “Golden Age” of filmmaking. A large part of this brief but profoundly influential period in Hollywood was the emergence of a new generation of ‘Method’ actors: Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Ellen Burstyn, Jack Nicholson, Sally Field, Harvey Keitel, Estelle Parsons and Robert Duvall to name a few. In now classic films such as The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, China Town, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and many more, this new generation of ‘Method’ actors – under the guidance of directors equally devoted to the depiction of the complex realities of human behavior – captured the attention and admiration of audiences around the world. Their work came to define excellence and artistry in filmmaking and film acting. Among this new generation of ‘Method’ actors was a novice film actor unlike any other novice before or since – Lee Strasberg. Beginning with his Academy Award nomination for playing Hyman Roth in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, Lee Strasberg spent the last years of his “life in art” as he had begun them over fifty years before – acting.
By the time of Lee Strasberg’s passing in 1982, he felt that his method of training the actor’s instrument could finally be called The Method. His exercises trained the actor to be imaginative and create uniquely individual performances through personal application of the exercise work. The Method preserves the complete foundational teachings of Stanislavsky – with adjustments added from the extraordinary work of the genius Russian theatre director Yevgeny Vakhtangov – while incorporating in this ongoing tradition the research, originality, experience, scholarship, discoveries, insights, imagination and unparalleled erudition of Lee Strasberg’s genius.