Honing and Honoring

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It's 6:45 on a Monday evening in Los Angeles, and while many Angelenos are arriving home and unwinding after a day of work, at the intersection of Santa Monica and Hayworth, the work is just beginning. There is nothing particularly notable about this West Hollywood corner, but as the clock inches toward 7, a small, lively group is gathering here. Some polish off cigarettes; others grab snacks at the 7-Eleven across the street. Some are busily discussing the work at hand. These engaged, motivated individuals—mostly young, many from other countries—are students at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute.

Dedicated thespians have gathered like this for decades, before class, on East 15th Street in New York City, where the institute was founded, and here in Los Angeles, where its West Coast branch opened shortly thereafter. Styles have changed. Social behaviors have changed. Wars and regimes and inventions and lives have come and gone. Through it all, the Strasberg Institute has remained a mecca for those with a passion for the craft of acting. And all those we spoke with say they came here not to get discovered or to become famous or to make contacts. They came with one pure goal: to become better actors.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the institute boasts a history that links it to the father of Method acting, Konstantin Stanislavsky, and an impressive list of remarkable alumni.

From Russia With Love: A Brief History

In 1923, Stanislavsky brought his Moscow Art Theatre to the United States. In attendance at one of those performances was the young Lee Strasberg. For Strasberg, the moment was a turning point. He'd seen acting before, but never so powerfully human, so deeply connected to honest behavior and emotion. Not long after, it became his chief mission to train actors to present greater truth in their work.

Strasberg began by studying with two of Stanislavsky's students. Then, in 1931, he co-founded the Group Theatre. In 1951, he became director of the legendary Actors Studio. And in 1969, he founded what is now the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. Building on Stanislavsky's work, Strasberg became the country's foremost teacher of the Method—and revolutionized the study of acting for generations to come.

"He absolutely was a wonderful teacher," says his widow, Anna Strasberg, who took over the running of the school after his death in 1982. To his students, she adds, "He said, 'Don't lean on me. Because if I fall, you'll fall. You have to take responsibility for your talent. You have to learn how to use the work, and then you have to do it.' He made them respect themselves. And what happened is, people respect actors much more now than they did in the past."

And Strasberg loved actors. He was notoriously tough on them, but he loved them. "One time," says Anna Strasberg, "Lee was getting an award. I forget where. And they couldn't find him." After searching backstage and checking all the banquet tables, they finally asked her. "I said, 'Are the waiters actors?' And they said, 'Yeah, why?' I said, 'Well, go look for the waiters.' And that's where he was. He was chatting with the waiters."

40 Years Later…

Today the Strasberg Institute is run by two heirs to the legacy: in New York by Anna's sister, Victoria Krane, and in Los Angeles by Lee's son, David, who—to everyone's surprise, including his own—returned from a successful "civilian" career to carry on his father's work.

The younger Strasberg speaks with great passion on the subject: "The idea of the Method is: What are actors doing when they're acting well? And what isn't working when they're not acting well? We want an actor to believe with such conviction that that belief translates to their audience. So they find some truth that is distinctly theirs, and it's shared through the lines, through the behavior. That's what Method acting is. And I think that is what every great actor has done when they've acted well."

Jennifer Esposito ("Spin City," "Crash," "Samantha Who?"), a self-confessed Strasberg Method junkie, agrees: "It's more real; it's more grounded. It gets really specific. And it's those little specifics that make great actors—those specific things that they bring to a character. The actors we always talk about, they all studied Method acting." Even now, in the heat of a rising career, Esposito enthusiastically reminisces. "I love that place," she gushes. She loved it so much that her longtime instructor and mentor George Loris had to kick her out and into the "real world" of professional show business. Even now, she relishes opportunities to go back and lecture at the institute.

The education offered at the Strasberg Institute appears to have remained vital and relevant in the four decades since its inception, owing perhaps to a philosophy that accommodates new ideas. It's a philosophy that, David Strasberg tells us, was urged by his father: "He would say, 'If I tell you to do something and you can't do it and it doesn't work, then who cares that Lee Strasberg said it? You can't keep using something that doesn't work.' If there's something that's more effective for an actor, we will do it." But "we haven't found that yet," he says. "And that's where we always hang our hat. We always say, 'The work works.' "

Current NYU senior Danny Jolles is part of the new generation of actors at Strasberg, and living proof that the work still works. "It's a very practical method," he says. "I do a lot of comedy, and even there the Method is always something I can rely on. It was the first method that made sense to me." Following in the footsteps of so many great actors, he says, is an honor and an encouragement. "It makes you believe in what you're learning even more."

Those Who Can, Teach

To insure that his work would be faithfully taught to future generations, Strasberg trained teachers personally and gave them a sequence for teaching his exercises. "We are fortunate enough to have teachers who have been with us for 30-plus years," says Krane, who is the institute's president. "Teachers are encouraged to work at their craft, so that they remain fresh and vital and are not doing this because they can't do anything else."

The institute gives its instructors structure and flexibility. "We don't believe in rules here," says David Strasberg, "but we do believe in principles. And the school has stayed true to those principles." That malleability within the instruction appealed to institute alum Sarah Bradford ("The Young Victoria," "When the Devil Comes"). "What is interesting is that while the institute specializes solely in the Method," she says, "each staff member has their own belief and unique approach to teaching what they individually believe. I essentially took whatever resonated with me most from each teacher, completing my study with my own 'Sarah's method.' "

"The Method is timeless," says Ashley Bell, who studied at the New York school from 2006 to 2007. "The technique you learn offers you something concrete, something you can trust and rely on in the seemingly ephemeral field of acting." New York actor Megan Lewis agrees: "The only way you can have a repeat performance is to have a solid technique. It is almost impossible to rely on inspiration alone."

"Every actor is looking to be inspired," says David Strasberg, "just the same way every athlete wants to be in a 'zone.' If you start off inspired, great—start working. If you don't start off inspired, then you engage your craft and make sure that you reach a state of inspiration. We train actors to inspire themselves." The Strasberg Method, he says, makes good acting repeatable, "something that you can have some authority over, as opposed to just hoping something happens for you."

Getting There

Actors find their way to the institute in a variety of ways. For actor-writer-comedian Jim Dailakis, one famous performance closed the deal. "I saw Al Pacino in 'Dog Day Afternoon,' " he recalls. "I was so impressed that at 12 years old I said to myself, 'Wherever he went to learn how to act that way is the same place I'm going.' I was living in Perth, Australia. It was 12,000 miles away—literally halfway around the world! It didn't matter. I felt like this is where I belong."

Carrie Ann Quinn ended up at the institute before she knew where she was. As an undergraduate at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, she was given a choice between choosing a studio and having one chosen for her. She opted for the latter, and on her first day of classes "was promptly shipped off to a studio called the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute," she recalls. "I had no idea who Lee Strasberg was or what Method training was all about. I had no idea that there were any such things as acting methods, but after my first few weeks I was hooked. It was a natural fit for me." Instead of leaving once she'd fulfilled her two-year studio requirement, Quinn stayed for four, and today is a professor of theater at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Actor-director Sara E. Widzer, who now teaches at the institute, found her way there through a Connecticut College encounter with Anna Strasberg, who came to offer a weeklong master class for the theater department. "It was an extraordinary experience," Widzer recalls. "I was a sophomore and in the middle of what some might call that infamous 'sophomore slump.' Anna came and inspired each of us to strive for greatness, and did so by reminding us that each of our eccentricities, everything that made us different, was in fact what made us special and unique. Needless to say, this first encounter impacted me greatly. I went on to seek out a summer program at the Los Angeles institute. It was during that time that I was thoroughly introduced to what the school, the Method, and each of the amazing teachers had to offer."

Lewis studied at Strasberg for one year and continues to receive coaching. She found the institute by doing her homework. "I was researching acting schools in the city, looking for a school that would challenge me as a creative artist to the fullest and inspire me to become the best actor I possibly could," she says. "I had become familiar with Strasberg and the Method in high school. I did research on Adler and Meisner as well; however, I ultimately decided on Strasberg because I identified closely with his belief in using personal memories to draw emotion for characters."

But not just anyone can study there. "Anyone can apply," says Krane. "However, we really try to encourage students who have done their homework and want to study Strasberg's Method and are willing to go the distance." Prospective students apply by first filling out an application that requires a brief essay on why they want to study there along with two letters of recommendation supporting their decision. That's followed by a personal interview.

"What we're really looking for is commitment," adds David Strasberg. "No one comes to Strasberg to be okay. The actors who end up at Strasberg really want to be great. They feel something huge burning inside of them, and they say, 'I have got to do this,' and they end up at Strasberg. If not, they go and do something else. They go to a casting seminar."

Fame, and Other Myths…

Unlike those casting seminars, and unlike some other acting schools, the Strasberg Institute never dangles the fame carrot, in spite of its long list of famous alumni. Says David Strasberg, "I always tell my actors, 'If you don't love what you're doing now, sitting in a room, working, rehearsing, exercising, struggling, failing, succeeding, then this is probably the wrong business for you.' "

Says Anna Strasberg, "I think there are those who have a mystique, something about them, and they use it. But you can only go so far on that. But I think talented actors—you can't look at them and say, 'Oh, they'll be a big star,' but you see them work and you see that hunger for knowledge. You see that hunger to be better actors, who have no choice because that's what they're born to do. You pay in actor's blood for the career, but you do it."

Jolles is clear why he's there: "You come to Strasberg to get better."

And what about the clichés about Method actors? The image most people have is of a self-involved, indulgent, inwardly focused actor who's obsessively fascinated by his own emotions and psyche. David Strasberg says that's not entirely accurate. "We're more Eastern: yin and yang," he says. "When my father was codifying his work, it was in a context where actor training was external. You were trained how to speak, how to gesture, how to look."

It was in response to that trend that Lee Strasberg emphasized the other half of the equation, the actor's inner life. "This personal element adds uniqueness to the roles, adds spontaneity, and adds a truth that everyone in the audience recognizes instantly," says his son. But "you can't just emote. You have to channel your experience into expression, into behavior. Internal work without an expressive element is indulgent and actually is disconnected from an audience. But when external skills are active without the internal core, then it's shallow and imitative. So what you really need are the two things together."

Another cliché is that Method actors always use the Method, regardless of whether they're playing Medea or the clerk whose entire performance consists of the word "Next?" Again, that cliché ain't necessarily so. "Sometimes you have a natural ability to do something and don't look a gift horse in the mouth—you use it!" notes Anna Strasberg.

Says Quinn, "The best advice I ever got at Strasberg was to take it 'as medicine'—only when you need it. If for some wonderful reason, you're on stage performing and everything is coming naturally, and the 'magic if' is magically working for you, then that's great! The Method is your backup on a performance day when you're not feeling it, your way to keep a performance fresh on a long run. But the magic is that it is not magic but all the result of rehearsal hard work."

The Next 40 Years

The artists at Strasberg say they plan to continue to faithfully carry the torch passed to them by their founder. Soon the organization will open a school in Mumbai, India, and possibly in Delhi as well. With an increasing number of films being shot there and actors there hungry to update their archaic acting techniques, present-day India is not unlike old Hollywood, and Indian actors are ripe for introduction to the techniques used by so many great film stars.

Also in the works is a book due out in March: "The Strasberg Notes," written by Lola Cohen, a teacher at the New York Institute. It's a compilation of notes and transcribed recordings of Lee Strasberg describing his exercises, principles, and thoughts on various styles and approaches.

And of course, the institute will continue to focus on the craft of acting, and the work of training actors to act better. After all this time, its beacon burns bright, drawing those who are hungry for that endeavor. "Strasberg endures," says Krane, "because we were left with a gold mine of material that was relevant when Lee developed his work and is just as relevant today."

Quinn summarizes thusly: "I believe [Strasberg] has remained popular, firstly, because it works. It works in developing interesting, fantastic, and moving actors that audiences love to see. The institute is a warm, friendly, and artistic place to be. I found it supportive, motivational, and [it] remarkably changed me—changed me as an actor, changed me as a human being—in the way I view the world and respond to it, personally and professionally. As a Strasberg teacher once said to me, 'You can become a better actor by becoming a more complete human being, and you can become a more complete human being by becoming a better actor.' That is what I learned at Strasberg: the importance of exploring both my humanity and my acting—a pretty lofty goal."

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