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Fifty Years for Frankel

For Gene Frankel, a life in the theatre has been as exciting and rewarding as a love affair. After 50-some years as a director and a teacher, he continues the honeymoon daily in a small workshop on Bond Street in Noho, Manhattan.

Despite the more than 200 productions and 12 theatres he has been responsible for, Frankel still finds theatre perpetually reinventing itself in his classes, rejuvenating him each time a student makes an artistic breakthrough.

"The miracle of theatre happens in the rehearsal hall," says Frankel. "It happens at the moment the actor ignites his imagination and goes soaring. They take me with them."

At the Gene Frankel Theatre Workshop, the slogan reads, "You don't get the Gene Frankel technique. You get Gene Frankel." That means you get a teacher who brings 50 years of experience and an unmatched devotion to each of his students in all of his classes. "I'm trying to teach everyone everything I know. It's hard to do that. I've accumulated a lot."

Although he has no technique that he can package and produce for each of his students, Frankel does have a formula for good theatre. He sums it up in one word: "Truth." "I don't let my actors tell lies, explains Frankel. The camera doesn't let you lie, the stage doesn't let you lie."

Truth is the goal and the hallmark of Frankel's theatre, and he has made a career of guiding his students to find it. They are asked to use their imaginations fully during their work. Frankel urges his students to find "the courage it takes to go to those places, sometimes dark places where the talent is. Some people are afraid to go there," says Frankel. "When you give them the opportunity to go to those places, then they blossom."

Off-Broadway Roots

Frankel's tutelage has touched countless actors, and led many of them to success. His classrooms have produced a wealth of talent, whose influence is seen in all aspects of theatre, film, and television. Walter Matthau, Anne Bancroft, and Raul Julia are a few of the many successes who have been taught or directed by Frankel.

Frankel's 1961 production of Jean Genet's "The Blacks" at once launched the careers of James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Louis Gossett, Jr., Maya Angelou, and Roscoe Lee Browne. Praised by critics and audiences alike, it is regarded as one of the most important productions in recent U.S. theatre history--a seminal production in African-American theatre.

Stuart Little's book "Off-Broadway: The Prophetic Theatre" lists Frankel among "those rare few who put theatre above self and made Off-Broadway the advance post of the American theatre." Frankel himself offers a simple explanation for the creation of Off-Broadway theatre: "We wanted to do theatre and we did it."

Not the type of artist to wait for things to happen for him, Frankel has made his own breaks. Among his first theatrical accomplishments were street-theatre productions during the Depression. Since that time, he has founded about a dozen theatres, each one springing from his passion for and devotion to his art.

The products of that passion have made Frankel a well-decorated director. He won the first Obie award for directing, for his 1958 production of "Volpone," and has won two since. He also received the first Lola d'Annunzi and Vernon Rice awards for outstanding achievement in theatre.

Various Venues

Frankel's success has not been without its share of disappointment. Except for his most recent address, all of his theatres have closed or changed hands. One collapsed--literally. The Mercer Arts Center, which he founded in conjunction with Viveca Lindfors, Rip Torn, Steina and Woody Vasulka, and others, fell upon itself on Aug. 4, 1973. This was the day Frankel's production of Peter Swet's "The Interview" was supposed to open.

The Mercer Arts Center, heralded as "the Lincoln Center of Off-Broadway," housed six theatres, two acting workshops, and a rock club, all of which were designed to nurture budding talent. The Center's structural collapse ended the 1,000-performance run of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Both that show and "The Interview" found new venues, but the Mercer Arts Center was never restored, and its like has not been seen since.

Frankel has directed in several countries, and in theatres of all sizes. His direction also extends to a few films and a number of "Plays of the Week" for New York's public television station, as well as other TV work. He finds that while the bulk of the business has shifted from the stage to the camera, his heart remains in theatre. "There is an excitement in the theatre that I can't get anywhere else. People who have done it always say that they prefer the theatre. There is nothing like that live audience."

While he has directed in theatres of all sizes, Frankel is admittedly more comfortable with the Off-Broadway venues. "You can do things Off-Broadway that you can't do on Broadway. I'd much rather work Off-Broadway. The audience is more discriminating and knowledgeable," he says.

Frankel's theatre has encompassed a wide variety of styles and techniques. However, he shirks away from realism. "The best of theatre is not just real. It is a flight into reality. It is the real taken and stretched to an artistic pinnacle."

Language of Acting

These days, Frankel's time is spent in the classroom. He teaches four classes, for serious actors at all stages in their careers. Many of his accomplished and well-known students still come to his workshops for instruction. He feels that all actors can benefit from training, no matter what their level. There is always more to learn, and he always has more to teach.

Frankel believes that acting is much more than entertainment, and should be treated as such. "Acting is communication and should be taught universally as a language," he says. "The ability to see truth and communicate that truth to an audience is a great achievement."

He has been helping actors reach that goal of truth throughout his professional life, and has no intention of stopping. He also works with a class of playwrights and directors at the Gene Frankel Workshop, and has four other instructors who teach classes in aspects of the industry that are not Frankel's favorites. The workshop offers classes in musical theatre, film and television, and comic acting, as well as basic acting classes. The Gene Frankel Theatre also offers Summerfest, an intensive seven-week summer-training period that explores all aspects of acting and offers seminars by celebrity guest artists.

Frankel's more advanced students are invited to participate in showcases that he directs. He feels this experience is just as important as any in-class instruction. "All the great acting schools have worked with theatres. The experience of an audience is essential."

According to Frankel, a good teacher is essential for any actor, no matter how talented the artist is. "Before you agree to do a showcase, make sure you've picked a good director, someone with theatre sensibility," he advises.

Students of the theatre: For a good director who has theatre in his very soul, look no farther than 24 Bond Street. It is there you will find Gene Frankel. q


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