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TV REVIEW : PBS Offers Three-Part Group Theatre Salute

June 24, 1989|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

It is well known these days that you don't just go out and start a theater. You need a building committee, a site search, a fund drive and many, many press conferences.

This was not known in 1931. Dissatisfied with the light-minded shows that Broadway was offering, Harold Clurman and his colleagues decided to start their own theater. They would find new plays that showed what was really going on in Depression America. They would perform them like artists, not like a stock company. They would change the world!

Their theater would not be a building. It would be a . . . group. Artistic decisions, however, would come down from the top. Clurman wasn't that much of a democrat. Money? Well--as the house dramatist, Clifford Odets, would put it years later--"life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills." Somehow, the money would be there.

It was, too--when the Group had a hit ("Men in White" in '33 or "Awake and Sing" in '35). When it had a flop, no. And it had many more flops than hits. In 1941, Clurman turned the lock in the office door and the Group was a memory.

Oddly, the memory never went away. The Group turned out so many great directors and teachers that its influence continues down to the present. Is there a major American actor who hasn't studied, or hasn't pretended to have studied, with "Lee" (Strasberg) or 'Sandy" (Sanford Meisner) or "Stella" (Adler) or "Bobby" (Lewis)?

Stella and Bobby were on hand last Sunday night at the Mark Taper Forum for a preview of three splendid PBS documentaries on the Group, to be seen the next three Monday evenings on the "American Masters" series (9 p.m. on Channels 28, 15 and 50).

If it seemed a little alienating at first to be watching a TV documentary in a theater, this soon wore off. Part of the footage on Harold Clurman was, in fact, shot at the Taper in 1978, when he was directing a laboratory version of Ibsen's "The Lady From the Sea" there.

Clurman is in fine fettle in the film, making it clear that he and Odets and the other members of the Group weren't so much reformers as romantics: yea-sayers. "Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike!"--the famous curtain line of Odets' "Waiting for Lefty"--was about striking out towards life, not just about walking out on the boss.

But there was a lot of negativity too. The Group was one of those families that become expert at getting on one another's nerves. Adler was never comfortable there: She said it was like spending 10 years with a bunch of strangers. Ruth Nelson was ready to kill Strasberg for his hectoring of another actress. Bobby Lewis recalls the uproar when Stella Adler came home from Paris to announce that Stanislavsky didn't approve of the sense-memory exercises they were doing in his name. To which Strasberg replied: "Stanislavsky is wrong."

Still, it was a rich time. Host and co-producer Joanne Woodward asks Nelson if she and the other actors were "at all aware," back then, of what an exceptional thing they were attempting--to be the first permanent American acting ensemble, our Moscow Art Theatre.

Nelson replies, nicely, that of course they were aware of it. With leadership as articulate as Clurman's and Strasberg's, how could they not be? They knew they were doing plays that mattered. They could feel themselves growing as actors.

So what, then, if most of the Group's show didn't have much of a run? Clurman admits that it was a mistake to try to run a permanent theater on a hit-or-flop basis. But so what? "Flops," he yells to the camera (his normal mode of address), "are the norm in the theater! Life itself is a flop! At the end you die! This has occurred even to me! But what an adventure!"

It was, until he died in 1981. The second documentary (July 3), narrated by Meryl Streep, reminds us of his subsequent career as a Broadway director. And the third one (July 10), narrated by Frank Langella, takes us into the studio of Stella Adler, who demands that her acting students stand up and be counted when they take the stage.

The complaint about the Group, and its successor, The Actors Studio, was that its acting tended to be too colloquial. That was never Adler's style. "It needs to be more heroic!" she keeps telling her students in the film. "It needs to be more Italian!"

When the lights went up at the Taper, and Adler herself took the stage, red hair still blazing, a woman came out to read a proclamation in her honor. She stumbled on a word. "Oh, I can't even pronounce it," the woman said.

"Yes, you CAN!" Stella roared. There were giants on the earth in those days, and some of them are still around.

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