HISTORY OF PLAYHOUSE WEST

Reprinted from a 1995 Article by Robert Carnegie

A reviewer of Sidney Lumet’s new book, Making Movies, made mention of the fact that Mr. Lumet had an excellent memory when it came to those with whom he worked that did a good job but conveniently forgot the names of those with whom he had difficulties. This was gracious of Mr. Lumet and is the example we would like to emulate in this short history of our theater.

In point of fact, The Actor’s Studio was founded in October of 1947 by Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, and Robert Lewis two months before A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway. It was Streetcar of course that made a star of Marion Brando. In the book, Tennessee Williams & Elia Kazan: a Collaboration in the Theatre by Brenda Murphy, the following point is made about the casting of this play: “It was Selznik (the producer) who suggested Kim Hunter for Stella, but the rest of the cast, as was to become typical for Kazan, came out of his newly established Actor’s Studio, which he was to treat as a kind of permanent company, drawing on it for both plays and films throughout the forties and fifties.” (page 20). Kazan was a member of The Group Theater. He learned there that the best acting was created by an ensemble that worked together and shared a common vision and technique.

The Group Theater was disbanded in 1940 but Kazan knew that if he was to succeed as a director he needed to re-create in some measure the approach of The Group. His effort to do so was The Actor’s Studio and his reputation drew into it the finest actors of that time. But over time, and as a result of a lot of effective press agents, these early students of Kazan and other teachers, such as Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, have all been claimed as Actor’s Studio actors, and by inference, protégé’s of Lee Strasberg.

We were surprised, at this late a date, that still the misinformation about the Actor’s Studio and its founding is being promulgated by Mr. Lipton and others. We have also heard of late a degree of misinformation about us and our theater and we felt it was time to set the record straight so that those who work with us can know of a certainty from whence we come.

CLARIFICATION

It struck us while watching a series on television entitled “Inside the Actor’s Studio” how history can become perverted for the advantage of those who are in a position to benefit from the misconceptions. In an interview with Alec Baldwin, which was a part of this series, the moderator, James Lipton, said that “Alec Baldwin studied with Lee Strasberg who founded The Actor’s Studio.” This is a famous bit of rewritten history and has been intentionally imbedded into the consciousness of almost the entire theatrical world. The falsity of his statement can be easily discovered by simply reading any theatrical history book like Kazan’s, A Life, or A Method to Their Madness by Foster Hirsch. That such a misleading statement, which is so easily disproved, would be made on national television is testimony to how far people in institutions will go to further their own agendas.

Brando himself corrects this in his autobiography: “After I had some success, Lee Strasberg tried to take credit for teaching me how to act. He never taught me anything! Sometimes I went to the Actor’s Studio on Saturday mornings because Elia Kazan was teaching, and there were usually a lot of good-looking girls. But Strasberg never taught me acting. Stella did, and later Kazan.” (page 85).

I had studied in New York for a five year period with the Head Acting Teacher at The Neighborhood Playhouse. This was my first experience with the approach of Sanford Meisner, having worked previously for years with Stella Adler and later with Harold Clurman, the Founder of The Group Theater. Now that I was in L.A., this teacher of the Meisner approach, who lived in New York, asked me to help him set up a summer class in L.A. where he would vacation in the summer.

As the Founding Director of Playhouse West we must first give credit where credit is due. After moving from New York to Los Angeles as a result of film work, one of the first actors I looked up was Jon Voight. Asking him for advice, the primary suggestion he made was get a group together and find a way to keep working seriously at my craft. He said this is what he did when he first moved to L.A. after starring in Midnight Cowboy. This planted a seed which came to fruition shortly thereafter.

It has often been said of L.A. actors that they’re not as serious as New York actors. This is a generalization, and has some truth in it, but the people we worked with were most enthusiastic, as if they had been yearning for a kind of serious structure or discipline to which they could apply themselves. Without making any effort to expand the size of our group, word began to travel, and before we knew it our class was getting bigger. Early members of that class included the D.J., Jay Coffey, who was working at KIQQ at the time, and has since moved to KEARTH, and Francesca Carppuci, who also worked there and has gone on to be a music reporter for Channel 7 news in L.A.

When the six week course ended and my teacher friend returned to New York, the class was enthusiastic enough about the work they were doing that they wanted it continued. The driving force behind this effort to keep the class going was two Playhouse graduates, Cheryl O’Neil and Norah Foster. Cheryl made arrangements for a free meeting place at the offices of the radio station, KIQQ, where she worked, and I was selected to run the classes due to my extensive background and friendship with the teacher who held the summer session. We met Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings on a regular basis. The graduates did their own brand of advanced work and scenes and the newer people continued their training from the ground up.

This event confirmed one of the founding principles behind Playhouse West, a principle I had realized in New York. The actor must continue his training, just as the singer and dancer continue theirs. The traditional way of teaching the approach of Mr. Meisner was based on the routine established at The Neighborhood Playhouse. Students would work for two periods of 8 months with a summer break and then that was the end of their training.

Now our group was made up of actors new to the technique we were  teaching and more and more graduates from The Neighborhood Playhouse who heard about this unique new meeting ground in L.A. Those of us who were graduates began work on a play written by one of our members. We were rehearsing one evening at KIQQ when Jeff received the call at the station that he had been cast in The Big Chill, the movie which was to establish him as a major star. When he got the news, Jeff mentioned that he felt it was the continual work he had been doing with us which sharpened him sufficiently to audition well enough to get that role.

During this time our group continued to multiply to the point that we couldn’t accommodate all who wanted to work with us. We had worked for over a year and no one was charged for the training. In the two years to follow this remained true, although at a certain point we had to ask for five or ten dollars a month to defray the cost of our spaces. I was earning a living as an actor and saw no reason to charge our graduates and new actors to work on their craft. So at our earliest beginnings we stood firmly against a standard Hollywood practice of exploiting actors for every dime they’re worth. And our price, although increased substantially due to my having to turn down acting work if I was to continue training those who wished to be taught, has always been on the lowest end possible.

So the founding principle of Playhouse West, its reason for being, was to provide a continual training ground for actors, not a temporary one. And in the case of Jeff, and many of the rest of us, it became apparent that our work twice a week substantially contributed to our careers. It may be a source of amusement to mention how it is we came to expand our meeting location out of the offices at KIQQ. On a Wednesday night, two students were doing an exercise. The actress doing the activity tried to throw the other actor out of the room, but that actor resisted and kicked a hole in the door. 

It was at some point early in our development that the founding graduates met to come up with a name for what we had been calling “our group.” We arrived at “Playhouse West” as homage to our roots in New York and the work of Sanford Meisner at The Neighborhood Playhouse. We thought of ourselves as the group which would try to keep alive and promulgate the technique in the hostile climate of L.A. Keep in mind this was in the early eighties before “The Sanford Meisner Technique” became the imitated rage it has since become. 

THE BEGINNING

I found a place to hold the class, put the ads in the paper, and scheduled the appointments. And that summer of 1981 a six-week introductory class in the Sanford Meisner approach was held in Los Angeles. The class was made up of some people new to the technique, but there were also a group of Neighborhood Playhouse graduates who had moved to L.A. and were hungry to touch base again with the work they had learned. Among these was Jeff Goldblum. Jeff had done a good deal of film work and starred in his own television series with Ben Vereen. But, despite all the work he had done, he wanted to reconnect with his technique.

This same approach was followed in the private classes of their teachers, of which I had been a member. But what I noticed, after I “graduated” from my two years of work in Sandy’s method, that when I would attend the plays my friends from class were doing they immediately lost most, if not all, of the work they had learned. It is for that reason that I decided to continue my training for the additional three years I was in New York, not wanting to lose, due to performance pressure, the technique I had worked so hard to learn.

The next morning at KIQQ there was an uproar, for the manager there had been contributing space for free to us and was most displeased that we had damaged his office. As a result of this we lost our first home.  There’s a silver lining in every dark cloud, and Cheryl O’Neil used her initiative and located another free space for us at a recreation building in North Hollywood Park. We used that Wednesday nights and I located a space for Saturday mornings at The Macadam Place Theater.

As a completely unique group in L.A., with a relatively new to L.A. training approach, we became very much in demand on our own merits, rather than on the basis of association with a name which has later become a calling card almost everyone uses to attract students. Our early classes, although free in charge, were as disciplined and rigorous as they are now, and only the serious could participate.

We continued with two classes a week for at least three years. Jeff was becoming a very popular and in demand actor, but always in between his films he would work with us. I was kept comfortably busy with a great deal of work on episodic television and movies of the week. There were a great number who wanted to study with us, but we had to keep the class size limited. We never advertised. It was all word-of-mouth.

Then, on a Wednesday after I had been working on a movie, I was driving to the Rec Center to teach the class. On the way there I realized I was looking forward more to the teaching I would do that night than the acting I did during the day. It was at that moment that I decided to let the classes expand and I would acquire additional space to handle the overflow. One of our members was a real estate agent and eventually we acquired our current space on Lankershim.

Even before our move to Lankershim we began experimenting with productions. I had learned much earlier in my life from Harold Clurman, who founded The Group Theater, the necessity of having a like-trained ensemble if the acting and production was to be of the highest standard. I had also always believed that a serious training ground must include public performances by its members. This keeps you honest. A class can be a kind of “hothouse” environment in which all members fall into a common language and support, and convince themselves that they’re good, when in fact they may be missing the mark entirely. The public will always tell you when you’re doing something of value.

In L.A., with our own group, we determined that if we were to do a production it would really represent our work and principles in class. This meant long rehearsals, often taking place as a part of the classroom work, and an insistence that we use only our current students in productions and never have outside influences, like directors from other approaches or places, work with our people. We do it all ourselves. Just like The Group Theater or Moscow Art Theater. As a result of this philosophy we have produced some of the most exciting and high quality theater in L.A. with a resoundingly positive critical and public response to our plays.

TURNING POINT

We had, over the past years, met in so many locations we have lost count. We were at The Chamber Theater, which is on Ventura; at a theater in Hollywood, which we had to leave because it became a 7-Eleven; and we were at two theaters in Burbank. We were even at MGM Studios when one of the stars of a series wanted to work on her acting during lunch breaks. A car-full of students would go down to the lot and work several times a week in a private class there. It got to the point where we were in so many locations the students weren’t sure what the biggest challenge was, learning the technique or remembering at what location we were meeting and when.

I had also noticed a strange phenomenon in New York. There were many groups there that did productions who were exclusively trained in Mr. Meisner’s approach. From what I could see, their productions never looked like the work in class. In fact, they looked like most productions I saw. One or two good actors and the rest of the work conventional, anticipated, blocked out and forced. I even found myself in one of these productions in New York made up of “graduates.” Within two days they were blocking the scenes and following the conventional approach to play production. I immediately quit.

Now that we had our own space on Lankershim, and were doing regular productions. By 1985 our classes expanded to mornings, afternoons, evenings, and weekends. Due to the sheer volume of work which this expansion necessitated, I left my agent and retained a personal friend, also an agent, for the sole purpose of turning down politely whatever work would come my way.

I had first met him when I was 17 years old, but was studying with Stella Adler at the time. I had seen him on several occasions in New York through my Neighborhood Playhouse teacher friend. But I had not spent any serious time with him as I had with Stella Adler, Harold Clurman, or Lee Strasberg whom I observed teach for three years at The Actor’s Studio in New York. This gap in my background was soon to be remedied.

Sandy and I enjoyed a wonderful correspondence over the next year. In these letters he would speak in detail about his work. I have been told these are the last letters he wrote. The following Christmas, Sandy visited L.A. again, and we had daily meetings, lasting several hours each, in which we discussed his technique from beginning to end. I took verbatim notes on these two weeks of discussions. My teacher friend at The Playhouse told me that Mr. Meisner, to his knowledge, had never done such a thing before. I felt most fortunate, and made some serious adjustments in my teaching approach due to these meetings and the rare insight they provided me.

Mr. Meisner returned to N.Y. after the holidays, but we continued our correspondence and talks via the phone. The winters were becoming harsher to him in New York, for he was now in his late seventies. Our closeness and his visits to L.A., where he found a kindred spirit, contributed to the awakening of the notion that perhaps he could move to Los Angeles and teach there. This occurred the following November of 1987, and he wrote in a letter that we were a major contributing factor in this decision. 

Thus began almost a decade of work with Mr. Meisner. It was the most intense experience of my life due to the severity of my schedule. I would teach a class from 9 a.m. till noon, then another class until 3 p.m. Then, Mr. Meisner would teach his class at 3:30 till 6:30, in which I would take word-for-word notes, and then I would teach my final class from 7 till 10. I never missed a class, and as I learned from Sandy, I would make immediate adjustments and improvements in my own approach. 

ENTER

MR. MEISNER

Jeff, who was by now recognized as one of the top actors in films, wanted to begin teaching as well. We gratefully accommodated that desire, and ever since Jeff has been one of our teachers and greatest contributors to the school. We are very fortunate to have him. It was about this time that one of my students, who had studied privately with Mr. Meisner in New York and been recommended by Mr. Meisner to work with us when she came to L.A., invited me to her home for a holiday dinner. Mr. Meisner was visiting L.A. and was at this dinner party.

Sandy and I spent the evening talking and I had lunch with him a day or two later. He was aware of what we were doing in L.A. through my friend at The Playhouse in New York. He invited me to come to New York to teach with him there. I regretfully informed him that I could not do this. My roots in L.A., as well as my own independent drive to create something true to my own artistic vision rather than become a part of an already established institution, were what held me back. But I secretly wished there was a way I could devise to work first-hand with this great teacher.

Arrangements were made for Sandy to teach his classes here at Playhouse West so that he had a sense that he was coming to an already established home. Not all of his students were able to transfer to Los Angeles to continue studying with him, so I turned over almost the whole of one of my classes to Sandy so he could teach two full groups, one on Mondays and Thursdays, and the other on Tuesdays and Fridays. We also arranged for a house near our studio for Sandy to live in.

Whether this was due to Mr. Meisner evolving or a misinterpretation by my teacher in New York I cannot say. I am inclined to believe that Mr. Meisner was constantly improving and changing, and that I had the benefit of the accumulated experiences of Sandy over 60 years of teaching which made for innovations up to the very end of his teaching. But I also noted that when students would arrive in the class from other teachers of his technique that Sandy would make significant changes in their way of working.