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Domestic drama: Lee Strasberg's family continues the legacy of instruction, despite some friction

Although his widow and sons disagree on Method acting's techniques, the craft's principles are the same, they say.

November 22, 2009|By CHARLES McNULTY | Theater Critic
  • Lee Strasberg, photographed in L.A. in 1978, perfected the best-known American adaptation of the Stanislavsky "system" commonly grouped together as the Method.
Lee Strasberg, photographed in L.A. in 1978, perfected the best-known… (Los Angeles Times )

The Method is dead. Long live the Method.
Spend an afternoon with David Lee Strasberg, the ambitious 38-year-old son of legendary acting guru Lee Strasberg, and you just might walk away with the idea that something revolutionary is going on at the Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. That would be overstating matters. This family-run school with flagships in West Hollywood and New York still finds its raison d'être in what Strasberg himself identified as the training of the actor's internal skills. But the vision of the Method being articulated at the institute, observing its 40th anniversary this year, seems to have little to do with the stereotype of sweaty, mumbling actors wallowing in the muck of unhappy childhoods.
Dressed in preppy clothes that hint at his undergraduate days at Brown, Strasberg fils, the institute's CEO and creative director (whom I'll refer to as DLS), says that the Strasberg approach -- the best known of the American adaptations of the Stanislavsky "system" commonly grouped together as the Method -- is less reliant on psychobabble than most people believe. The words "Oedipal Complex" never pass his lips. But more interesting is the way developments in neuroscience keep cropping up in his conversation. Don't bother telling him about the toy your parents didn't buy you, but do engage him on the subject of conditioned reflexes and the neuropsychology of smells.

Acting training is a lucrative industry, and DLS has something his father, who died when he was 11, was sometimes criticized for lacking: a business acumen that recognizes the opportunities in a global brand. Armed with an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management and a wealth of administrative experience (he worked for then-Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan as a member of the Economic Development team after the 1994 Northridge earthquake), DLS is particularly excited about the opening in 2010 of a Strasberg Institute in Mumbai, India. This is the first of no doubt other international ventures, which he sees as a vital engine of growth now that a long-term arrangement with NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, an affiliation that provided roughly 20% of the institute's students, is coming to a close. ("Curricular economics" rather than artistic differences is the cause, says Elizabeth Bradley, the department chair of drama at Tisch.)

DLS doesn't like to talk about numbers, but he did share that the L.A. and New York schools collectively employ more than 50 faculty members to train approximately 600 students. Part-time tuition for two four-hour, 12-week acting technique courses runs about $1,900, while full-time tuition costs a little more than $15,000 annually. (Let's leave aside the institute's filmmaking program, though it's no doubt a major source of revenue as well.)

Given his druthers, he'd rather talk about his acting classes, the difficulty of dealing with damaging Method caricatures and his fidelity to the fundamentals of his father's teachings. "The articulation may be different," he says, "but the basic principles are the same."

Long past its heyday, Strasberg's Method still has an integral place in 21st century acting training. The art of acting is a perennial mystery, but the techniques developed by Strasberg have withstood the test of time, even if most experts believe they need to be supplemented by other modalities. Yet a question lingers: How have things artistically evolved under the leadership of DLS and his mother (Strasberg's third wife and widow), Anna, a coquettish former actress who co-founded the institute with her husband as a way of providing an institutional framework for Strasberg's highly coveted private classes?

Talking to the Strasbergs -- and I spoke not only to DLS and Anna Strasberg but also to John Strasberg, the son Strasberg had with his second wife, Paula, and a veteran acting instructor who's no longer associated with the institute -- can seem a bit like watching one of those mid-20th century family dramas in which Method actors let their idiosyncrasies and tics fly. Conflict and contradiction peek out of a facade of domestic tranquillity the way it always will when an inheritance -- be it intellectual or financial -- is at stake.

"If it isn't broke, don't fix it," Anna Strasberg says, not necessarily disagreeing with DLS' updated take on the training but clearly wanting to preserve the appearance of orthodoxy. Yet for many, Strasberg's training has a few noticeable cracks. Director Arthur Penn, whom Foster Hirsch, the author of “A Method to Their Madness: The History of the Actors Studio,” called the "Studio's resident intellectual," concisely spells out the pluses and minuses: "The Method gives acting a truth, an honesty, a sense of a character's inner life, all radiating from the actor's genuinely personal core; its pitfalls are self-absorption at the expense of the play and a lack of preparation of other areas of the instrument."

A change in acting

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