David Garfield's glossy coffee-table history of the Actors Studio is a tribute to the number of film celebrities who have studied there: ranging from those who became famous as early exponents of the method, such as Marlon Brando, to more recent alums who continue to work regularly and whose artistic achievements have been celebrated with awards, such as Susan Sarandon. Yet the method's insistence upon total immersion in the role, combined with heavy research in order to bolster the sense of lived reality within the script, seem like the polar opposite of the celebrity culture of acting that we currently endure. How did an actorly training method designed to efface the personality completely result in the nonstop glorification of the actorly personality which is modern American (and western) celebrity culture?
Although we do not normally think of The Actors Studio, and the emergence of "method acting" in New York and Hollywood, as a product of the Cold War, historically speaking it emerged in that very time period. Invoking the Cold War, though, is a useful way to approach the historical context of the Actors Studio itself -- the long standoff between the United States and Soviet Russia, which by the 1950s had begun to erupt in a series of proxy wars and public incidents -- spanning the decade from the Korean War to the public confrontations between Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev and U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon in their "kitchen debate" and the Soviet discovery of the U-2 spy plane over their territory, leading to the capture of U.S Captain Francis Gary Powers at the end of the decade (and with it Eisenhower's presidency). It is curious, then, that the original American adoption of Stanislavski -- and the origins of The Actors' Studio itself -- had, in fact, predated World War II, with the foundation of the Group Theatre in 1931 by critic Harold Clurman, producer Cheryl Crawford, and actor Lee Strasberg. Gordon calls the Group Theater "a breeding ground for left-wing directors, actors and writers who constituted the first generation of recognizably American theater and film artists" (73-4). It is true that in this period many actors were involved in political causes and were aligned with the Communist party: a good number of the writers associated with the Group Theatre (like Clifford Odets) would be avowedly Communist in the 1930s as well, until the gradual emergence of the truth of Stalin's regime would necessitate the formation of an anti-Stalinist left.
Yet to a certain degree the artistic ideology of the Group Theatre -- as indicated by its name -- was collectivist. Their emphasis on the "group" was intended to be a distancing from the star system as practiced in Hollywood and was also to a certain extent aligned with larger leftist political ideas (Frome 22). Of course the influence of leftist politics on the New York theatre of this time period is well attested to elsewhere, and reached a culimation in the Federal Theatre Project, a government-funded scheme for employment of theater artists affected by the Depression, which would produce the "Living Newspaper" for "proletarian" audiences and would eventually culiminate in Hallie Flanagan's production of The Cradle Will Rock, a Marxist allegory which prompted such political controversy that the Roosevelt administration shut down the Federal Theatre Project entirely. The Group Theatre belonged to the same period, but it represented a sort of Americanization of the not-particularly-political ethos of the Moscow Art Theatre under Stanislavski and even under later Soviet influence: the sort of work they would be producing was inspired by Maksim Gorky (among others), and thus had more of an influence on large-scale depictions of social misery in a realistic fashion than on any sort of specific state ideology.
But to a certain extent the early development of the "method" under the Group Theatre also reflected the shift in an artistic center to American acting -- from New York City to Hollywood-in the twentieth century, in its resistance to the star culture of Hollywood, whose opulence, and whose focus on central -- often not particularly well-acted -- performances by stars were a direct transfer from the late nineteenth century theater. The growing revolt against the overpowering trompe l'oeil realism of Victorian dramaturgy that had been registered variously in the drama of Symbolists like Maeterlinck whose Blue Bird Stanisavski would direct in an attempt to prove his methods were not merely suited to drawing-room or kitchen-sink realism. As Gordon notes, Stanislavski "himself was often at pains to demonstrate that his system was not limited to naturalistic plays, Stanislavski's theory and practice clearly articulated a response to the development of naturalism as a major movement in Western drama" (Gordon, 37).
But there was also the epic theatre of Brecht (which was also explicitly leftist, but which held limited attraction for and influence on American theatre-practitioners in the 1930s). The specific adoption of Stanislavki seems not merely political, but a response to Hollywood. Indeed Beguiristain describes the emergence of the method as "the search for a film style," noting that earlier styles of performance -- with their lingering holdover of the elaborate pageantry and declamation of the nineteenth century melodrama -- simply did not work in the new medium of film. (Surviving film footage of Sarah Bernhardt reveals a playing style that resembles a kind of Freudian-hysterical kabuki.) The Group Theatre's adoption of Stanislavski's methodology would in fact begin with the approach to rehearsal and production which Stanislavski had developed in the 1890s, where "the earlier theatrical model in which the star actor is surrounded by a supporting company was replaced by an ensemble under the control of the autocrat director" and "the problems of the individual actor's performance were subsumed by the problems of interpreting that written text and expressing it in scenic terms" (Gordon 41-2). Although it would be a mistake to think that The Actors' Studio would adopt Stanislavski's methods uncritically: indeed, when still a member of the Group Theatre, Strasberg "had visited Moscow in 1934 and been unimpressed with the productions of the Moscow Arts Theatre" and "insisted there was no reason for the Group to follow Stanislavski's later methods uncritically" (Gordon 74).
The Actors' Studio itself -- after its 1947 founding out of the ashes (as it were) of the Group Theatre, which had collapsed in 1941 -- would continue the emphasis on group, with its faintly ideological sense of "the masses" and large-scale realist presentation. Of course part of the mystique of The Actors' Studio relied upon the fact that it seldom mounted productions, and most critics note that, unlike Kazan, Lee Strasberg would never really establish a reputation as a director. But with no large-scale productions, it was nonetheless part of their ideological mission to have a large-scale ensemble of actors involved who were committed to learning with each other -- indeed, the presentation of scenes, afterward critiqued by the instructor and by the group, is the chief method of instruction (and performance) at The Actors' Studio, which quite obviously places no emphasis whatsoever on "production values" or even the realistic use of costumes and props. Yet Hethmon records that the initial October 1947 founding of the Actors Studio by Kazan, Crawford, and Lewis entailed "fifty young professional actors, carefully selected for talent, were invited to become members" (Hethmon 7). With no large-scale productions in sight, there could be no other rationale for such a large membership other than its effort to mimic a sort of labor union or independent educational institution, in which the large population and de-emphasis on individual stardom is meant to be a kind of ideology (which therefore allows the actor to retain a kind of authenticity even if he or she does later go to Hollywood, like most of The Actors' Studio alumni -- ranging from Brando and Shelley Winters at the beginning, to Al Pacino and Ellen Burstyn more recently -- inevitably do). Strasberg himself would note that this group emphasis continued in the Actors' Studio itself, noting in his interview session with Hethmon that
The individual cannot do anything [in the American theatre]….That was the thing that got me involved in The Actors Studio. And now that you can see the kind of fruition to which the individual talent here can come, it becomes time to think a little bit more about our responsibility for that individual talent. We have had talents before in the American theatre….Orson Welles is as talented as any individual you can think of. I could name you a long line of people whose talents I consider to be first-rate. Still they have not contributed to theatre in any measurable way except when they were trying to establish themselves. At that time you fight through, you go for what you want, but once you get where you want to be, somehow everything becomes a matter of working to have enough money so you can sometime or other do what you really want to do. The sometime never comes. (Hethmon, 29-30)