When the legendary acting teacher, Lee Strasberg, died, another famous acting teacher, Stella Adler, came into her class and said, “I’d like a minute of silence. A man of the theater died today.” Following the silence Adler added: “And it will take a hundred years to undo the damage that that man has done to the theater.” What brought about such bitterness? Strasberg and Adler had been part of The Group Theatre. You can read all about The Group Theatre in Harold Clurman’s memoir, The Fervent Years: The Group Theatre And The Thirties.
Begun in 1931, The Group sought to transform American theater from light entertainment to work that was a serious dramatization of the times they lived in. For ten years they did just that, emphasizing strong ensemble work. Their work together was based on the techniques of the Russian man of the theater, Constantin Stanislovsky. The names of Group members and their contributions to American theater are legendary, among them: Clifford Odets, Irwin Shaw, Luther Adler, Frances Farmer, Elia Kazan, Harry Morgan, Stella Adler, Robert Lewis, John Garfield, Franchot Tone, Will Geer, Howard Da Silva. Michael Gordon, Paul Green, Paul Strand, Morris Carnovsky, Sanford Meisner, Marc Blitzstein, Anna Sokolow, Lee J. Cobb, and many others.
By the late 1930’s the cohesiveness of the collective began to come apart. Finances, the beckoning of Hollywood, and bitter disagreement over interpretations of Stanislovsky’s work led to fractures that still exist today. Various members began to emphasize the aspects of Stanislovsky that were of particular interest to them. Today actors still study the interpretations of Meisner, Strasberg, Stella Adler, and other teachers, all stemming from the Group’s work. For example, students at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts are assigned to different studios. They include: The Stella Adler Studio of Acting, The Meisner Studio, and The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. As time has passed, the work of these teachers has been handed on to various acolytes. Too often the acolytes and the students who train under them are dogmatic and cult like, unable to agree about what they share in common.
Why, you may ask, do I write about theater on a website devoted to addiction? First, I have spent my life teaching and directing actors. Thankfully much of my training was with teachers who took a broader, more eclectic approach, including Larry Moss, whose book on acting, The Intent to Live, could easily be a title for a book on recovery. Indeed, much of his advice to actors could certainly prove useful to those in recovery.
Since the death of my son, William, nearly a year ago, as I’ve puzzled with the question of how I, personally, might be most effective in advancing the common cause of battling addiction, I’ve had the benefit of two very wise leaders in the field, both exceedingly generous with their time, Tom Hedrick and Robert Lindsey. They each suggested I could make beneficial use of my background as an acting teacher and director – that working directly with recovering addicts using skills and talent I already possess, to use my art to help enable recovery, might be the most positive thing I could do.
I’ve taken this advice to heart. I’m heading down the path of finding ways to use storytelling, theater games, and acting to help those in recovery find or regain a truer sense of themselves.
My concern is that the world of addiction education, prevention, and treatment seems to me to be every bit as fractured, divided, dogmatic, and cultish as the world of training and nurturing theater artists. In my short exposure to the world of addiction I’ve seen too many eyebrows raised about the way “someone else does it.” There seems to be too much interest in defending turf and not enough questioning of practices that may need refinement or are just plain out of date. The people least served by this state of affairs are the teenagers, people using dangerously, and the full blown addicts, all of whom need our full attention now. The world of addiction has too much to do to enlighten and battle the outside world without fighting itself.
In his book, Larry Moss writes: “Not long after Strasberg’s death, Stella Adler called Anna Strasberg, his widow, and said, ‘We should have talked. . . we should have talked.’ Later she wrote Anna a note, ‘In history there are battles that now end in love.’”
We do not have the luxury of saying “We should have talked.” We cannot wait to see if the battle ends in love. Our battle must be to find the common ground, to agree there is more than one path up the mountain, and to be willing to blaze new trails with urgency and purpose. We cannot become shatterproof while the shards of old bitterness lie at our feet.