Little known to the general population, the Actors Studio had another internal, elite unit rarely written about or mentioned in any of the major news outlets. The Writers/Directors Unit was the wizardry behind the curtain. And they wanted it that way.
When Strasberg was guiding The Actors Studio from the early 1950’s – 1982 in the old theater on West 43rd Street or the barn in Hollywood just below Sunset Strip, The Actors Studio was redolent with desire and competition, not just to be the best actors in the world but – the greatest in history.
Strasberg had little interest in his own popularity. He was quietly obsessed with nurturing the work; the actors’ problems, the directors understanding and the writers’ structure, setting the highest bar for all. He could be severe when he sensed hubris, indolence or a lackadaisical attitude to “the work”. There was a magical, creative atmosphere, but that climate came with a price: fierce acrimony and criticism blended with praise and encouragement creating a standard of excellence, both in the acting sessions and the writers/directors unit. From the time I became a member, as a working actor I rarely missed sessions and although almost always terrified, I got up and worked in session as often as possible. I was a private student of Lee’s for seven years but it rarely alleviated the fear of going up on The Actors Studio stage.
On many occasions I would request the key to the building, open the door off West 43rd. Street after midnight, ascend the side stairs into the empty theater. As I turned on the work lights the theater would glow like the entrance to a mammoth Grecian Urn. The high ceilings with a back brick wall, the balcony and the three lower seating sections came to life. If I could not get a scene partner to join me in the wee hours I would work alone creating an imaginary place, doing sensory work, exploring a scene or just learning lines. There were times when I felt the ghosts of the great actors of the past loom around me.
One of my scene partners and I were working on an Arthur Conan Doyle play at 2 AM. We decided to work in period wardrobe and she brought a Ouija board with her to simulate the séance scene. I found an old pipe and lit it up with strong Turkish tobacco sending clouds up to the roof. Ghosts were not in my thoughts as we put our fingers on the triangle touch pad of the cheesy plastic board. We asked questions and not much happened. Then, I asked if the late Lee Strasberg was nearby and the pad began to move. I asked her if she was making it move and she said she was equally shocked by its’ fluid glide. As we asked questions about James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, the pad seemed to fly around the board with a strange force that was undeniable. The next morning when we worked in session, we were praised for the fear we had created when the ghost appeared in the scene. She and I were not acting when Jimmy and Marilyn move around us. The Ouija board in rehearsal led us to the work that made the Studio a force in acting. Our exploration had led us to a deep sense of truth… and fear.
Form the 1950’s on, twenty – four hours a day, whether upstairs in that theater, downstairs in the green room or the library, Montgomery Clift, Poitier, Brando, Dean, Monroe, Shelley Winters, Mc Queen, Diana Sands, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward could be heard screaming, crying, laughing during their rehearsals; De Niro, Pacino, Walken, Burstyn, Keitel, Jane Fonda pulled from their inner world to reveal a reality in the imaginary circumstances of the written word, their hearts and souls saturating the walls with the sounds of sensory exercises, etudes and the struggle of exploration.
To the outsiders, “The Studio” was described as “a snake-pit-mad-house”. Those who entered the church of the imaginary for rehearsal were filled with hunger and desire to create a reality and life on the stage. There’s blood on the stage where some of the greatest stars in history rose from inside that centuries old church. During that period, with a little more than a thousand members, The Actors Studio garnered most of the acting awards beating out hundreds of thousands of actors from around the world. The Flag waves over the brick facade to this day.
The Writers/Directors Unit was our Seal Team 6 or Special Forces as sacrosanct and filled with mystery as The Free Masons when they built Washington D.C. These were the architects, the designers who laid out the actor’s playing field rarely recognized in New York City restaurants, unless it was the now defunct “Elaine’s” on the Upper East Side; the greatest watering hole for writers since Gertrude Stein and Alas B. Toklas in Paris hosted the Expats of the 1920’s.
The Monday nights’ Writer/Directors Unit was the silent power center of the Actors Studio. It was on those nights that directors of theater, film and television from around the world, the women and men of American letters walked down West 43rd street to the old church; Sidney Lumet, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Patricia Bosworth, Arthur Penn, Edward Albee, William Goldman, Paddy Chayefsky, Lillian Hellman, Beth Henley, to name just a few, were rarely hounded for autographs.
During the Writers/Directors Unit sessions the actors were not allowed in the theater unless we were acting in that night’s reading, mounted by a writer or a directed scene from a play, critiqued for that directors’ work. I would often sneak into these Monday night sessions after they started and observe like one who was discovering the meaning of life; a peeping Tom on world-class leaders.
The evenings began with the reading of a play, film or musical in any iteration of its development. The actors and a director or writer rehearsed one or two afternoons then read the material that Monday for the unit. They sat in the old theater chairs with cardboard cups of coffee; unfiltered cigarettes smoke curled about. They all wore casual clothes… and then they went at each other with cheerful abandon.