By Murdoch McBride
Say "Actors Studio," and you might conjure images of Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, or Sandy Meisner. Or perhaps you think of the ideological home for many top names in the business; and, of course, there's The Method.
If it's in your blood, get ready for a rich lesson in theatre heritage when the Actors Studio presents its 50th anniversary celebration with a festival retrospective focusing on the historic Group Theatre. If you had nothing else planned for the next three weeks, this program would fill your dance card quite nicely.
Beginning April 27 and running through May 18, Academy Award-winning actress Estelle Parsons is producing a series of readings and discussions that will offer rare insights to the Group Theatre, one of the country's, and perhaps this century's, most significant statements in the theatre. Opened in 1931, the Group Theatre operated for 10 years and staged a total of 23 plays. Its philosophy was revolutionary, heartfelt, and its influence widespread.
"They weren't looking for hits," says Parsons, referring to the fresh ideas that marked the early days when the theatre was being formed under Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg. Not long after, the Actor's Studio was started by Bobby Lewis, who gave nightly talks there for a period of six to eight months, and Elia Kazan, who started as a Group Theatre actor before moving to directing. When Lewis left the Actor's Studio, Kazan wound up offering it to Lee Strasberg.
Parsons says she has studied the Group Theatre extensively over the past six months and believes that this retrospective is one-of-a-kind. "We're going to videotape it and record it for the archives," she said. "I don't think anything like this has been done before and at this point, I doubt if it would be done again."
Great Playwrights, Great Actors
The festival comprises readings from the works of playwrights Maxwell Anderson, Sidney Kingsley, Clifford Odets, Dawn Powell, William Saroyan, and Irwin Shaw, whose works were staged at the Group Theatre. Among the plays to be featured are Kingsley's "Men In White," Odets' "Waiting for Lefty,"
"Awake and Sing," and the anti-war musical "Johnny Johnson" by Paul Green and Kurt Weill--said to be the German composer's first project in the United States.
The readings themselves will be performed by an incredible roster of talent, all of whom are Actor's Studio alumni. The current list of actors scheduled to read includes Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, Shelley Winters, Ben Gazzara, Harvey Keitel, Rip Torn, Estelle Parsons, Cliff Robertson, Lee Grant, Arthur Storch, Gene Saks, Tom Polumbo, Miriam Colon, Michael Howard, Daniel Selznick, Earle Hyman, Ruben Blades, Delroy Lindo, and Stephen Lang.
The reading series also features music written for the Group Theatre productions by composers Aaron Copland, Hans Eisler and Kurt Weill.
In addition to the readings, which will run Tuesday through Sunday, there are three Monday evening special discussions. On April 27, Wendy Smith will talk about the Group Theatre's beginnings and its philosophy; on May 4, Mel Gordon and Helen Krich Chinoy salute the achievements of Lee Strasberg, the actor, teacher and director who revolutionized acting both here and abroad; and on May 11, Joanne Woodward will discuss playwright Clifford Odets' role in American theatre.
The celebration wraps up on May 18 with a special tribute to Elia Kazan. The Kazan tribute will feature a partial screening from an untitled and previously unseen Kazan documentary; music by composer David Amran, who scored films for Kazan; as well as discussions with actors and writers who worked with the legendary director including Julie Harris, Robert Anderson, and Budd Schulberg.
"They were looking for American situations and to develop an American audience," Parsons explained, describing the early creative direction at the Group Theatre. "They wanted something different and it had to be about their lives; it wasn't just a job thing. They changed the art of American acting."
All performances in the series begin at 7:00 pm and take place at the Actors Studio at 432 West 44th Street. Admission is free, but priority seating is available for the entire series via a tax-deductible contribution of $100. For further information call (212) 757-2467.