“When I think of home it is New York and the Actors Studio. That is where I can exist in the human race” — stirring words from none other than Marilyn Monroe, just one of a glittering list of actors who over the years have worked their craft in a modest former Presbyterian church in Hell’s Kitchen.
James Dean. Ellen Burstyn. Al Pacino. James Baldwin. Jessica Tandy. Marlon Brando — these legendary artists and many more forged a powerful theatrical community at The Actors Studio — now celebrating its 75th year. Monroe’s affiliation with the Studio occurred through co-founder Cheryl Crawford. In early 1955, Crawford arranged for Monroe to meet Lee Strasberg, and the Some Like It Hot star (the subject of a controversial new biopic, Blonde) began attending classes as well as taking private tuition with him.
The only scene she ever put up at the Studio was from the play Anna Christie by Eugene O’Neill — but colleagues in the audience were said to be enraptured. In 1962, after studying under Lee Strasberg for seven years, Monroe wrote “The most important thing in my life is my work… The Actors Studio is my home.”
As the Actors Studio reaches a milestone anniversary, W42ST chatted to Artistic Director and working actor Beau Gravitte about the organization’s storied history — and where it’s going in the next 75 years.
“Hell’s Kitchen is our home,” said Gravitte. “It’s our connection to the West Side, and the cool thing is, for 75 years we’ve been operating as a completely non-commercial theater that sits in the most commercial neighborhood in the world — we’ve survived that, and we’ve maintained our presence in a way that I’m proud of.”
The Actors Studio was founded in 1947 by members of the historic Group Theatre, a collective of acolytes of Russian acting great Konstantin Stanislavski with little ambition beyond creating a laboratory for actors to practice their craft away from the watchful eyes of press, producers and the public. The brick Greek revival building on W44th Street has been home since 1955.
Founders Cheryl Crawford, Robert Lewis, Elia Kazan (and later, master acting teacher Lee Strasberg, known as the father of Method Acting) strove to build a system where artists could choose their own material to explore in weekly sessions, moderated by them and by other members of the community, as a salon for feedback and creative experimentation.
“It’s like a gym for actors,” said Gravitte. “You design your own workout. We don’t offer classes and we are not a school — although there’s a lot of learning going on. We’re a collection of professional actors who come to this place to do things and try things that we don’t get to do out in the world.”
The Studio does have an educational wing of sorts in its partnership with Pace University MFA program established in 2006, in which students at the downtown university learn from Studio members and are given the chance to audition for the collective upon graduation.
The Studio model — a place to act in peace — proved popular, and created a need for an audition-based entry. “It’s very difficult to get into the studio,” said Gravitte. “But once you are in, you’re in for life and it’s free — we’re unique in that way.”
A member since 1983, Gravitte experienced the impact of the studio firsthand. “I was a young actor in New York, helping a friend audition,” he recalled. “I didn’t really know about the studio, and he did. I helped him in his preliminary audition, they passed us to the finals and asked me to audition. I got in, and it was the start of a remarkable journey.” Gravitte would go on to join the Studio’s board in 2005, become its Associate Artistic Director and then Artistic Director in 2017.
Much of the impact over his decades-long affiliation came from the opportunity to act among and learn from long-standing masters of the craft. “Every day was like a discovery down there,” he said of his early sessions. “As a member you are allowed to attend sessions where there are masters moderating, and I learned most of what I know about acting from those.” He added, “I also would go to the Playwright Director’s Unit and I’d sit up in the balcony with my notebook and look over at Elia Kazan and Arthur Penn talking about Hamlet. I was aware at the time that it was special, it was a gift.”
Many of the 20th century’s greatest stars flocked to Studio sessions, knowing they could work without prying eyes. “The studio has always been a very private place, because we want the actors that are up on stage not to be worried that the word’s going to get out about their work,” said Gravitte. “We want you to be able to try anything and we’ve got your back, and it stays in the room — so that the work is extraordinary, or can be, because the risk is high. We are in service to each other.”
For some of the Studio’s most well-known members — which include the likes of Brando, Monroe and Dean, as well as Paul Newman, Lorraine Hansberry, Sidney Poitier, Anne Bancroft, Steve McQueen, William Greaves and Cloris Leachman and living legends like Al Pacino, Julia Roberts, Jane Fonda and Jack Nicholson — privacy was “all part of the allure”, said Gravitte. “Famous people sometimes have an image to maintain, but they want to work privately — who doesn’t want that kind of privacy?” The collaborative environment at the Studio breaks down the barriers of “famous, not famous, semi-famous — we don’t see that when we get in the studio — it’s just actors. It’s just another actor sitting in front or behind me, and all of the other stuff gets checked at the door,” he added.
While the Studio has carefully preserved its private environment, there are hundreds of archive photos of its members over the 75 year history — mostly documented by famed photographer Roy Schatt, known for his work depicting James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman and many others who graced the halls of the Studio. He became good friends with James Dean and taught the actor the art of photography.
Schatt was given permission by Lee Strasberg to photograph actors in rehearsal or observing sessions and managed to capture the frisson in the air in some of the Studio’s defining decades of developing Method Actors. In 2015, Westwood Gallery in New York premiered an exhibition of his work, including a selection of photographs taken at the Actors Studio that had never been exhibited before. The images provide an invaluable record of the Studio’s art in practice.
“I think the special sauce was the Method and its way of working,” said Gravitte. “It’s really misunderstood, but it’s a way of training your imagination. Lee deeply understood the teachable techniques involved to get to a place of truth in the moment on film and on stage.”
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He added, “There’s a whole generation who have been taught by the acolytes of Lee. I learned what I know about acting from Ellen Burstyn, who took over for Lee at the studio when he passed. And what I’m doing now is passing the word on — passing the process, the method, onto younger minds interested in deepening their craft.”
The 75 years of the Actors Studio have not been without controversy. One of the founders, Elia Kazan, was a focus of boycotts and scandal during the McCarthy era. Kazan testified to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952, naming eight of his fellow actors from The Group Theatre as communists. The testimony sent shockwaves through the theatrical community and even led to the boycott of some of Kazan’s films and honorary Academy Award in 1999. Gravitte said the period was “undeniably powerful, and has affected people’s lives in a very direct way — but the institution as a whole is larger than any one person. The brotherhood and sisterhood of the Studio can weather anything. We’re a collection of artists, but we’re also just a collection of people, and sometimes people go wrong — sometimes it’s unforgivable and sometimes it’s forgivable, but as a collection of artists, we have to keep our eye on the ball.”
He added: “Ellen Burstyn once told me that when you lead the Studio, you have to be like a conductor. On one hand, you have to handle the harmonies and the music so it sounds good. And on the other hand you have to handle the dissonance as well and not be played — you have to stay in the middle of all that and balance between that. It’s easy to say and hard to do — things come at you everyday, but moment to moment, you have to maintain the balance between the noise and the music.”
All of the studio’s members “stand on the shoulders of our ancestors from the Studio’s membership and leadership,” remarked Gravitte.”They’re incredibly wise and they all understood that we are in service to each other. I’m lucky to follow in the footsteps of the people that have guided the ship through many storms.”
One of the Studio’s more recent storms was the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown of all in-person theatrical work. “It was a challenge,” said Gravitte. “We, along with everybody else in New York, shut down on March 12, 2020. We had a Town Hall on Zoom, and I remember seeing the faces, especially of our younger actors — everybody was so lost and so afraid.” Determined to keep the community together, Gravitte and the board members of the Studio devised frequent virtual workshops, readings, festivals and panels for the group to explore the uncertainty of the pandemic, ongoing conversations and works around social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement and to keep the flame of creativity alive in lockdown.
The virtual shift brought forth unexpected connections and collaborations. “We have a branch on the West Coast, and because of Zoom, the East and West Coast came together in a way that was unprecedented, and it made the studio stronger,” Gravitte said. “We all got to know each other and work with each other on Zoom, and it was a blessing in such a dark time. You’re always looking for the gift, the blessing, somewhere in this darkness. And that was a gift.”
Now, as live theatre has resumed and the Studio approaches its 75th anniversary celebration, they’re taking another unprecedented step — opening up to the public. “It’s a chance for the public to come into the studio, into the building, and see what we do,” said Gravitte. “It’s a chance for us to open the door a little bit and shine a light where we normally don’t. There are still sessions ongoing that are completely private, and all those rules are still in effect.”
One of the public-facing events is a benefit screening of the seminal Al Pacino star vehicle, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon on October 27 at the United Palace at W175th Street and Broadway moderated by Pacino (who serves as one of the studio’s co-Presidents with Ellen Burstyn and Alec Baldwin). Gravitte said “it’s been wonderful” getting to know Pacino through the project, adding: “it’s funny, after all of these years, I’ve gotten to know him better than I ever have. He’s really a sweetheart of a guy, which is surprising given who he is on-screen. He’s a warm-hearted, wise, wonderful man who’s so willing to reach out and to fundraise for the Actors Studio — his connection to Lee, and to the work is so powerful, and it’s an honor to get to know him better.”
And as they look ahead to the next 75 years of the Studio, the organization hopes to balance long-standing traditions with an eye on the evolution of the art form. “When you exist for 75 years, you’re in a search for relevance,” Gravitte said. “How are we relevant now? What’s our purpose now, and in the future? Very few places have such a storied history as we do, and that’s wonderful — we honor that. But we also have an eye on now and the future, and how we move into the next 75 years,” he added. To that end, the Studio has ramped up its outreach to younger actors at universities and conservatories, to bring the next generation of actors into the fold.
Gravitte acknowledged the Studio’s private model presented a new challenge. “We’re not built for public relations — we just now opened our Instagram account,” he laughed. “We hadn’t needed it, but for younger actors, that’s often where they get their information from. And so, while maintaining our privacy and while maintaining our integrity, we are trying to reach out in these new ways.”
And while the nature of acting, and theatrical creation is constantly changing as everything from short-form TikTok musicals to experimental, non-commercial works like Heather Christian’s Oratorio for Living Things sparks conversations about the medium’s future — Gravitte insists that behind it all is a need for solid creative technique. “Beneath, behind and inside of all of these things is the work,” he said. “What we’re doing is a part of all of that — the art of acting, that’s where we live, and that’s what fills up the bottom of all of those jars — otherwise, there’s nothing.”
He added, “I think that’s how we move into the future — we maintain the level of work that we always have, and the work doesn’t have to be sold itself. What we need to do, frankly, is spread the word that we’re still kicking ass here down on West 44th.”
The Actors Studio is at 432 W44th Street (between 9/10th Avenues) Website: theactorsstudio.org