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The Method to Their Business

After a career in government, David Lee Strasberg joins the family firm as CEO of the acting school his father started and founder of a new theatrical company.

November 12, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

When David Lee Strasberg was a boy, his parents asked him and his brother to sweep the floors at the family-run theater and acting school in West Hollywood. But then someone--probably one of their parents' friends "who wanted to make nice with the Strasberg kids," recalled the now-grown Strasberg--pointed out that people known as janitors were paid money for sweeping floors.

So the Strasberg boys asked to be paid too.

Well, said their parents, first you'll have to fill out job applications.

The boys did, and they got the job. Strasberg doesn't remember now how much he was paid. But he felt as if he had joined organized labor, he said.

That's a lesson some might have expected, considering that his father was Lee Strasberg, co-founder of the legendary Group Theatre, which produced such pro-labor efforts as "Waiting for Lefty" in the '30s. However, Lee Strasberg was hardly an advocate for "Lefty" within Group Theatre circles, historians have reported.

A more pertinent lesson for the young Strasberg was that theatrical work doesn't necessarily involve acting or directing or writing. This conclusion didn't immediately sink in, he said, but "things really do come full circle."

Although he is not an actor, a director or a writer, David Lee Strasberg, now 29, is the chief executive officer of the acting school his father started, the Lee Strasberg Creative Center. Recently, he launched a new theater company at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre at the center's West Hollywood branch--the same place where he once swept the floors.

The company is called the Group at Strasberg, in conscious homage to the earlier Group, although on paper the two Groups don't look very similar. The first one was an ensemble, known for work with a distinct political perspective. The current Group is not an ensemble, and its first season of three plays is eclectic, with no apparent political bent.

The initial production, Craig Wright's "Molly's Delicious," which opened Oct. 27, is a small-town play in which "everyone is charming," Strasberg said. It will be followed in March by the premiere of Kate Robin's "Stigmata and Other Symptoms," about a teenager with an eating disorder who battles with her father and sees eccentric visions of Jesus, Mary and the saints. The final play, in May, John Mighton's "Possible Worlds," follows two detectives "through inner and outer space, tracking down a serial killer," according to the Group's season announcement.

Strasberg acknowledged differences between the two Groups. But he said they share the intent of "bonding people together with the aim of creating new work, in an environment where everyone makes a contribution, including the audience."

Of course, Lee Strasberg is less famous for his work with the Group Theatre than he is for synthesizing the Method, the famous program of training actors that dominated mid-century American acting. Although he wasn't one of the founders of New York's Actors Studio, which was the fountainhead of the Method, he joined it soon after it was established. In 1951, he was named its artistic director, and he remained the dominant figure at the Actors Studio until he died in 1982.

The Lee Strasberg Creative Centers--in West Hollywood, New York and, for a 10-year period, in London--were designed as a way to make Method training more accessible than it is at the highly selective Actors Studio. Students "can come in thoroughly untrained," said David Lee Strasberg, although many of the students do have considerable training elsewhere. "The main criterion is their level of commitment."


The younger Strasberg's own training in the Method was spotty, and for many years he didn't have a strong commitment to the theater. It wasn't because of lack of access. As a child, he often observed his father conducting sessions after school, and his home life featured appearances by the likes of Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino. His third birthday party was on the Dominican Republic set of "The Godfather Part II" in which his father was acting--his primary memory of the event was of a guitar-shaped birthday cake. Through the fifth grade, he attended the United Nations International School in New York, where he was given the flexibility of traveling with his parents to distant countries, where his father was lecturing.

When he was 11, Strasberg and his older brother Adam portrayed brothers in "My Prince, My King" at the Actors Studio. In the play, the characters' father has a heart attack. Strasberg remembers that his performance wasn't very good, and there was one mildly traumatic moment when an artificial branch of a Christmas tree failed to budge as planned. But a much greater trauma soon followed: During the run of the play, Lee Strasberg died, at the age of 80. David Strasberg was "decimated," he said, though he also remembered that performances of the play went on even after his father died.

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