The Actors Studio: Marilyn’s New York Sanctuary at 75

Writing for W42ST, Sarah Beling looks back on 75 years of the Actors Studio.

“‘When I think of home it is New York and the Actors Studio. That is where I can exist in the human race’ — stirring words from none other than Marilyn Monroe, just one of a glittering list of actors who over the years have worked their craft in a modest former Presbyterian church in Hell’s Kitchen … Monroe’s affiliation with the Studio occurred through co-founder Cheryl Crawford. In early 1955, Crawford arranged for Monroe to meet Lee Strasberg, and she began attending classes as well as taking private tuition with him.

The only scene she ever put up at the Studio was from the play Anna Christie by Eugene O’Neill — but colleagues in the audience were said to be enraptured.​​​​​​​​ In 1962, after studying under Lee Strasberg for seven years, Monroe wrote ‘The most important thing in my life is my work … The Actors Studio is my home.’

The Actors Studio was founded in 1947 by members of the historic Group Theatre, a collective of acolytes of Russian acting great Konstantin Stanislavski with little ambition beyond creating a laboratory for actors to practice their craft away from the watchful eyes of press, producers and the public. The brick Greek revival building on W44th Street has been home since 1955.

Founders Cheryl Crawford, Robert Lewis, Elia Kazan (and later, master acting teacher Lee Strasberg, known as the father of Method Acting) strove to build a system where artists could choose their own material to explore in weekly sessions, moderated by them and by other members of the community, as a salon for feedback and creative experimentation.

Elia Kazan (left), and Lee Strasberg (right)

The Studio model — a place to act in peace — proved popular, and created a need for an audition-based entry. ‘It’s very difficult to get into the studio,’ says the Studio’s current artistic director (and working actor) Beau Gravitte. ‘But once you are in, you’re in for life and it’s free — we’re unique in that way.’

Many of the 20th century’s greatest stars flocked to Studio sessions, knowing they could work without prying eyes. ‘The studio has always been a very private place, because we want the actors that are up on stage not to be worried that the word’s going to get out about their work,’ said Gravitte. ‘We want you to be able to try anything and we’ve got your back, and it stays in the room — so that the work is extraordinary, or can be, because the risk is high. We are in service to each other.’

For some of the Studio’s most well-known members, privacy was ‘all part of the allure’, said Gravitte. ‘Famous people sometimes have an image to maintain, but they want to work privately — who doesn’t want that kind of privacy?’ The collaborative environactment at the Studio breaks down the barriers of ‘famous, not famous, semi-famous — we don’t see that when we get in the studio — it’s just actors. It’s just another actor sitting in front or behind me, and all of the other stuff gets checked at the door,’ he added.

Photographer Roy Schatt

While the Studio has carefully preserved its private environment, there are hundreds of archive photos of its members over the 75 year history — mostly documented by famed photographer Roy Schatt, known for his work depicting James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman and many others who graced the halls of the Studio. He became good friends with James Dean and taught the actor the art of photography.

Schatt was given permission by Lee Strasberg to photograph actors in rehearsal or observing sessions and managed to capture the frisson in the air in some of the Studio’s defining decades of developing Method Actors. In 2015, Westwood Gallery in New York premiered an exhibition of his work, including a selection of photographs taken at the Actors Studio that had never been exhibited before. The images provide an invaluable record of the Studio’s art in practice.

The 75 years of the Actors Studio have not been without controversy. One of the founders, Elia Kazan, was a focus of boycotts and scandal during the McCarthy era. Kazan testified to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952, naming eight of his fellow actors from The Group Theatre as communists. The testimony sent shockwaves through the theatrical community and even led to the boycott of some of Kazan’s films and honorary Academy Award in 1999. Gravitte said the period was ‘undeniably powerful, and has affected people’s lives in a very direct way — but the institution as a whole is larger than any one person. The brotherhood and sisterhood of the Studio can weather anything. We’re a collection of artists, but we’re also just a collection of people, and sometimes people go wrong — sometimes it’s unforgivable and sometimes it’s forgivable, but as a collection of artists, we have to keep our eye on the ball.'”

Marilyn with Susan Strasberg