In the 1930s, an explosion erupted on Broadway. It was called the Group Theatre. Founding members of the collective included Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, Robert Lewis, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman and Sanford Meisner, all names that changed the vision and future of American theater.
Although the Group lasted but 10 years, some of these legendary acting gurus are still active, and some have been honored by having their names attached to local theaters. One of these is Sanford Meisner, founder of New York's internationally renowned Neighborhood Playhouse. He is 90 years old, and still creatively involved in North Hollywood's year-old Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts.
According to the center's artistic director Martin Barter, who has been associated with Meisner since 1985, Meisner attends all board meetings and frequently oversees rehearsals. The Meisner torch burns brightly in Barter's vision.
"We call it a center," Barter said, "not a theater, because the theater is only one part of the vision. Hopefully, it's like a think-tank, a Meisner think-tank, where we can take Sandy's work, the teaching part of it and the professional part of it into the next century. We try to honor his work, keep it pure, and yet also get it more public."
In addition to furthering the precepts of Meisner's acting techniques, Barter also seeks inspiration from the teachings of the original Group Theatre, particularly the emphasis on writing.
"The biggest thing for us," he said, "is the writing. Without good writing it's really hard to do what we want to do. I would love to do mostly socially conscious plays, but we lack the writers to write them. Lynn Mamet, David's sister, is writing us an extremely controversial play about interracial adoption, which I'm very excited about."
Barter is also excited about the Center's current production, opening tomorrow night. Under the umbrella ". . .Into the Fire," it comprises two one-acts with social import. One, Bart Baker's "Going Out of Business," is a black comedy about four friends deciding whether or not to burn their failing restaurant for the insurance money. The other, "Dark of the Woods," is a thriller by Scott Davis Jones, called "a political and philosophical battle of the sexes."
One of the center's playwrights--like "a young Quentin Tarantino," said Barter--had critical success with a play at the center, but is now directing movies.
"I've already lost him," Barter said. "You know, one shot. It's hard, especially in this town, because there's so much possibility for film. It's really hard to keep a writer, to write five years for the theater. But I'm willing to take a risk on people, because that's the only way we're going to find a new Clifford Odets."
Barter is quick to define the role of artistic director. The main function, he said, is to provide creative vision, to pick the plays, the directors and the producers. He has to make sure that the artistic approach, Meisner's approach, that is, is maintained.
One of the advantages at the center, he said, is that all of the actors have been trained in the same way.
"That makes us unique," he said, "in that everybody has exactly the same working vocabulary."
* ". . .Into the Fire" at the Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts, 5124 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 23. Tickets, $12. For more information, call: (818) 509-9651.
New Noise in Glendale: Glendale's classical theater company, A Noise Within, has announced its 1996-97 season, which begins in September with Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," directed by Dan Kern in his directing debut with the company.
The season will include Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," directed by artistic co-directors Julia Rodriguez Elliott and Geoff Elliott, who also staged this season's highly acclaimed "Great Expectations."
The fall season will conclude with William Wycherly's restoration comedy, "The Country Wife."
The group's new annual production of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" will be seen at the Alex Theatre in December, followed by the spring repertory of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale," Pirandello's "Right You Are! . . . If You Think You Are," and A Noise Within's first venture into musical theater with Kurt Weill's "The Threepenny Opera," in the superior 1989 Michael Feingold translation.