Artistic Director's Blog

Lefty on the Right Coast

November 30, 2011

The Studio’s professional company, the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company, recently made its West coast debut. The Lab presented Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty at the Art of Acting Studio. This production was a landmark occasion for me. As the Artistic Director of this burgeoning company, it is a dream come true to see the Lab Theater present work in Los Angeles, and, at that, an important play directly related to our Group Theater roots.

To this day my mother still tells stories about being a little girl backstage at Group Theater rehearsals and opening nights. She was present for her step-father Harold Clurman’s impassioned speeches about the American theater. She remembers Clifford Odets with great affection. She was there – at the beginning of an exciting chapter in American theater history.

As I watched a performance of Lefty I felt the strength of Odets’ words and sensed that a long line of theater artists and others were peaking over our shoulders – Clifford Odets, Harold Clurman, Bobby and Sandy and Gadg; Stella and Phoebe and Ruth. It seemed crystal clear that the contribution that the twenty-one artists made to the Los Angeles Theatre scene would have made the Group Theatre proud. Perhaps more importantly, it made a difference to the audience in the here and now. Perhaps there was a young person in the audience, who, like my mother, would recall the theatrical exuberance and political courage and engagement of the artists. It occurred to me that our audience might include an emerging artist who, in five, ten, fifteen years will continue to carry the tradition forward.

That Odets play reverberates in important ways for a modern audience, seventy-five years after its debut in New York, is quite extraordinary. The run at Art of Acting Studio ended with a special performance. Under the leadership of director Don K. Williams, the company quickly rehearsed the show for a new space and played out-of-doors at the Occupy LA encampment. At the end of the show the audience joined in with the legendary final battle cry of “Strike! Strike! Strike!” In the subsequent weeks the studio received a foundation grant to continue to support more work like Lefty. The foundation requires that we match the grant dollar for dollar, a prospect that has me incredibly excited and inspired for the next phase of the Harold Clurman Lab Theater’s growth. The cast of Lefty, led by Katherine Brandt, is championing a Kickstarter campaign to raise an additional $10,000 to bring the show to New York for a limited run in 2012.

Reflecting on these past several weeks with Lefty, I’m filled with a sense of purpose and audacity. It feels to me that we are living in a very interesting time. Perhaps, like our theatrical ancestors, we are on the precipice of a great social movement, one that is specific to our time and to which we have something valuable to contribute. It feels important to remember that to remain vital as an arts organization with deep roots in the past, we must nourish the branches that extend far into the future and have a fierce engagement with the present.

As we go forward into this great unknown – keep the fire burning!

Combining the Art and Biz of Acting

July 1, 2011

(This article was published as an editorial in Backstage on April 28, 2011)

In his Business of Acting column “Turning Pro” (April 7), Jeff B. Cohen puts forth some important tips for young actors on how to transition from being a student of acting to being a professional actor. He draws attention to a truism: The art of acting and the business of acting are often at odds; in order to get work, or even agent representation, one must learn to “sell oneself”—that is, represent oneself as a business. This includes understanding one’s type and how one is seen by agents, casting directors, and producers. Actors must also, in Mr. Cohen’s words, “constantly push, market, schmooze, cajole, and fight to be noticed.” All this is undeniably true and covered in any responsible actor training program’s “business of the business” class, usually in the final year of training.

However, in my opinion, Mr. Cohen overstates his argument when he claims: “Acting classes are great at teaching you how to succeed in the ‘show’ of showbiz. But much of what they teach does not help with, or in some cases actually hinders, an actor’s success in the ‘biz’ part.” Such a position sets up a false choice for a young actor. It implies, “I can either be an artist who doesn’t work or a salesman who does.” It thereby encourages young actors to sacrifice the cultivation of themselves as actors and human beings for the sake of commercial success.

This in no way corresponds to anything that I have experienced in my 16 years as the artistic director of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York and the Art of Acting Studio in Los Angeles, or the lifetime I spent before that in and around the business. I’ve never once heard an agent or casting director complain, “This actor is far too sensitized, open, and artistically enlivened. He should study less Stanislavsky and read more Variety.” In fact, I hear the opposite. Agents, casting directors, and producers want what the public wants, craves, and needs—that is, human beings. Actors are human beings who train themselves to reflect for humanity what it means to be human. Actors therefore serve a vital role in our society and in civilization as a whole.

I sense sincerity in Mr. Cohen’s article and in Back Stage’s decision to publish it. However, his fear that actors will be confused by Stella Adler’s statement that “One way to enliven the imagination is to push it toward the illogical,” or that Lee Strasberg’s observation that “Acting is the most personal of our crafts” will in any way hinder young actors’ ability to make lives for themselves in the business, is not only misplaced but a complete misunderstanding of what actors are and what they need. Actors are smart; they are capable of distinguishing the difference between inspirational teaching and their marketing of themselves. Furthermore, an actor’s artistic impulse—often cultivated and nurtured by a strong teacher or school—provides the fuel that propels him or her to work, which attracts agents, casting directors, producers, and, ultimately, audiences.

So if you are a young actor and have taken steps to arm yourself with the techniques and artistic principals of Stella, Strasberg, or Stanislavsky, and if after reading Jeff Cohen’s article you become doubtful of the value of your training, I say, by all means “schmooze, cajole, fight to be noticed,” but never forget who you are. You are actors!!! As Hamlet says, actors are “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.” Never forget what you are fighting for: the edification and uplifting of humanity. Never forget the means by which this is accomplished: in the words of Hamlet, “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

Letter from the Artistic Director

November 29, 2010

“I know that every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor-edge of danger and must be fought for.” Thornton Wilder

If you are reading this, you are in one way or another supporting an artistic organization that seeks means to set young people free to live meaningful lives. Thanks to you, hundreds of young people participate in an environment whose emphasis is not careerism, not the superficiality of the celebrity culture that seems to corrode age-honored values, but human vitality and connectedness to community, culture, art, and nature. The premise of all the work you help facilitate by supporting the Stella Adler Studio and the Art of Acting Studio is based on the insight that growth as an actor and growth as a human being are synonymous. We teach students that theater art must be about something beyond art. It must be about humanity. It must be about life. I repeat myself when I quote our mission “to create an environment that nurtures theater artists so that they value humanity, their own and others, as their first priority, while bringing art and education to the broader community”. I repeat myself because I want to make crystal clear what your generosity helps to generate.

To say thank you seems an inadequate gesture based on your generosity. A promise is more along the lines of what is called for, or a vow. So here it goes. We promise that we will continue to fight for a world informed by values that much of our media seems to reject. We vow to nurture young people to develop ways and means to nurture their humanity and to make a gift of that humanity to the world outside of themselves. We offer a solemn but joyful proclamation, inspired by your support, to bring this spirit to a diverse population that includes students in the NYU in New York and professional Conservatory programs on both coasts as well as low-income urban youth. We cannot do this without you. The gift of your support bolsters us for the fight ahead. Our gratitude makes that fight both a pleasure and a privilege. I think of it more as a dance than armed combat. So thank you, indeed, and see you on the dance floor.


Tom Oppenheim

The Power of Art

January 20, 2010

Over the past ten years I have devoted myself to bringing free actor-training to inner-city youth. In that decade I have experienced clearly and conclusively, that theater can have an impact on a young life that goes way beyond the craft of acting. I have seen it over and again: the veritable transformation of lives, the cultivation of self-respect, of confidence, of coming into oneself, one’s voice, one’s life. I would like to share one example emblematic of countless others.

Darnell P. was a young man of sixteen when he joined our after-school program, though he wasn’t in school at the time. Three years before he came to us, his mother placed him in a foster home because she found out that he was gay. Darnell dropped out of school, dropped out of life, changed his name to Peaches and engaged in self-destructive behavior. He ended up living in a homeless shelter.

Darnell’s first year in our after-school program was difficult for him and his faculty though he had a spark, as so many of these young people do. Despite the missed classes, flare ups, despite the tough persona, the mask of the street kid, we stuck with Darnell and he with us. The year ended with a project in which he performed and that spark we saw seemed particularly bright as he left us for the long swelter of a summer in New York City, a difficult environment for any young person regardless of social economic background. We were especially encouraged by what Darrell’s guardian said after his final performance. “This is the first time Darnell has ever finished anything.”

“I don’t go by Peaches anymore,” were the words with which Darnell greeted us upon returning for a second year the following fall. We further learned that Darnell had taken his high school equivalency over the summer and enrolled himself in Manhattan Community College. Darnell still wrestled with his demons (who doesn’t?) but the transformative positive effect of actor training was gloriously present in him.

What is it about actor training that has such a life affirming effect on young people? The answers are numerous. Here are a few. Acting, particularly in the beginning, requires a robust confrontation with one’s habitual self. An all important gap emerges between the self one invents to survive in the world, often a mere caricature of a deeper, free and empowered self. Acting also demands the exercising of the inherent choice-making muscle that exists in all of us. Further, theater, an ensemble art-form, demands that people understand, respect, and make room for one another. Finally, theater gives young people a standard to reach for and fosters responsibility. All of this is true for any youth regardless of socio-economic background. However, it has particular relevance for youth from the inner-city who suffer abominable educational conditions.

Darnell is now is his third year of training. He has become a leader in the group, making daring artistic choices and cheering on his peers. He is articulate about his personal development and recently said that while he arrived at the Studio a depressed teen without direction, he has grown into a man who is connected to his feelings and inner strength. He has his own apartment, a part-time job, and is about to receive his Associate’s degree. When he is ready, he has an offer for a full scholarship to one of our Conservatory training programs. His journey has just begun and his light shines brighter than ever.