Instead of slowing down as she approaches her 90th birthday in November, Estelle Parsons has been branching out, and encouraging the Actors Studio to do likewise. Parsons is still acting, of course; her most recent theatre role was less than a year ago, in the Off-Broadway premiere of Israel Horovitz’s Out of the Mouths of Babes. But she’s been devoting more of her time to the Studio, where she is associate artistic director and moderator of the Tuesday sessions.
The Studio celebrates its 70th anniversary this year with a transition: Ellen Burstyn is stepping down as artistic director, to be replaced by actor/director Beau Gravitte. The core of its mission remains the famous twice-weekly sessions, intense explorations of scenes and monologues by actors “finding their truth,” as Parsons puts it. Sessions are private: Only Studio members may attend, and any comments on the work in progress that seem oriented towards a finished performance are firmly discouraged as “directorial.”
Nonetheless, since October 2015 the Studio has offered five public productions that grew from session work and were ultimately directed—though she prefers the term “directorial consultant”—by Parsons. She coined the phrase “Theatre and Social Justice” to give the series a theme and invited various experts to give post-play talks. For LeLand Gantt’s one-man autobiographical play, Rhapsody in Black, a Princeton psychology professor spoke about implicit racial bias, and for the production of Mud, Maria Irene Fornés’ dark 1983 drama of rural poverty, Parsons invited an authority on global hunger to lead discussions.
That’s what you need to do, Parsons believes, to make something stand out in the saturated New York theatre environment. This fall she kicks off “Theater and Climate Change” with productions of Uncle Vanya and Fornés’ Danube. And if you think that a political focus doesn’t jibe with the Studio’s commitment to in-depth development of the actor’s instrument, Parsons will emphatically correct you in that inimitably clarion voice. Fifty-five years after she became a Studio member, she’s still a true believer that Lee Strasberg’s Method is the best way to approach any kind of theatre.
I sat down with her after a recent Tuesday session to talk about the forthcoming productions and her thoughts on the Studio’s place in the contemporary theatre.
The Studio has traditionally shied away from public productions. What made you decide to launch a whole program of full-scale performances and open them to general audiences?
In my generation, and even for one or two after that, you could have a sustained living in the New York theatre; in the ’60s, I went from Broadway play to Broadway play, and if you weren’t interested in films or TV that was still a good career. We came to the Studio to do things we didn’t get to do in the commercial theatre: I developed Medea here, I developed Cleopatra and Christine in Mourning Becomes Electra—all these interesting parts that there was no place to do outside. Now you really can’t make a living in the theatre; everyone does television and movies. To me acting is about actually being in plays for audiences. So I thought we should do more projects that gave our members that chance.
Why did you link them together as a series?
Well, we had Mud and we had LeLand’s play and we had The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis, which people were working on in sessions, and then Dan Talbott [artistic director of Rising Phoenix Repertory] and I commissioned four playwrights to do one-acts about community and trust. I thought, if we just do them one by one, they’re in competition with everything else in town: one more night of theatre. How can we make this something special? Why not call it “Theatre and Social Justice” and get experts in?
How did it work out?
It was interesting, because over the year we actually developed an audience that was rational and intelligent—people who wanted to have serious discussions after the show. When we started with Rhapsody in Black, we just had a talk, and that’s all I wanted. But little by little it attracted people who had interesting things to say. The Community and Trust evening included a very good play about [Supreme Court Chief Justice] Taney and the Dred Scott decision, written by an extraordinary, multitalented Studio member, Kate Taney Billingsley, who is a direct descendant of Judge Taney. A direct descendant of Dred Scott was there, and they led a talk afterwards. That was an astonishing night, and they have gone on to work actively together; the play has been done under their auspices in other places.
It seemed kind of crazy in the beginning, but we had a lot of people enlightening each other, and by the end all the performances were packed. It seemed to be a good idea to give people something more. An ordinary traditional play isn’t enough; the world has changed so.
Has the Studio changed since you did your first session in 1962? It’s best known for the Method, which fostered the kind of emotionally charged acting we associate with realistic plays and films, but a lot of theatre now is often stylized and surreal.
Oh, it’s never changed a bit. It’s not all about realism, and Lee [Strasberg] never thought it was. Right from the beginning with Stanislavsky, it was only meant to deepen the actor’s work; it was advanced training so actors could use 100 percent of themselves in their work by developing through the exercises: sensory work, and finding the stuff inside yourself—nonverbal lots of times—that has an impact when you’re acting onstage. Everybody now seems to be able to say words as if they mean them, but—well, Chris Stack is a good example. He’s a wonderful actor, he works all the time Off-Broadway, and he came in to do this incredibly difficult monologue from Last Days, where this man tells Judas about betraying his wife. Chris did it in session; he made you think he knew what he was talking about, and we said, “Okay, that’s good. Now see if you can tell us that whole story in your own words.” He did, and then it wasn’t just that he looked like he understood what he was talking about, he was really living what he was talking about.
There’s a difference that is not at all hard to see when you see it. You don’t know it’s missing, but then this other thing happens, and it’s like: pow! That was always the case with Studio actors; there was what everybody else did, and it was fine, but all of a sudden there was Marlon Brando or Kim Stanley, and, pow!
I felt that same pow! when I first saw Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and the rest of their Studio-trained generation. Does the Studio have the same cachet for young actors today?
It’s always been a minority, and it’s always been threatening to other people, because of what it is. Robert Brustein hated Lee so much he wrote a play about him! [Nobody Dies on Friday, 1998] I think we remain a minority. The young people I know here come because they know the history; they’ve seen these people in films and they want to do that kind of work. It’s like when Ellen [Burstyn] saw Lois Smith. That’s Ellen’s acting story: “She’s doing things I don’t know how to do. Let me find out where I can do them.” It’s only a certain kind of actor who wants to dig that deep. The world is full of actors who don’t, and some of them came here and then left, like Julie Harris. She wanted to do what she did, and that’s fine, but she was always Julie Harris—she was great, I worked with her a lot, but that was the way she was.
Then there are people like me who can’t get enough of it! I can’t dig deep enough, and I have had things happen to me in session that I didn’t know were inside me; I was as surprised as anybody else. The human body and the acting instrument, the emotional instrument, are astonishing things. When you get up there and you’re making the effort to do the kind of work we want to do here, it’s just unbelievable the things that come out of you.
You told me earlier that in your production of Uncle Vanya you want to use the experimental rehearsal techniques you learned from Arthur Penn, another longtime Studio member. Can you say more about that?
Arthur was directing The Skin of Our Teeth at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in 1966, and I was playing Mrs. Antrobus. On the first day, we read the first scene, and then Arthur said, “Now, put the script down and get up and do it in your own words,” which is an actor’s nightmare! Arthur felt that if you don’t get your creative contribution out at the very beginning, you never will; you’ll be playing the character, but it will always be external, it won’t merge with you the way it does in great acting. Arthur felt that the you part had to be done early on, because you were just starting to get a glimpse of who the character was, so you could only bring you. That was the way we rehearsed: the whole thing in our own words, just bringing ourselves to the play. It changed my life, working that way, and I want to pass that along to other people. We’re pursuing it with great results in the sessions with Vanya; everyone always says how lively it is.
So when and how do you make the transition to the playwright’s script?
The work using your own words leads directly to realizing that the words of the play say it better. There comes a time when you’ve done the play in your own words for a while and you say, “Okay, let’s start learning the lines.” But your own words stay in your head and make the lines more meaningful. The life of the given circumstances and the actor’s use of the playwright’s words are in sync. You have to know when to switch, because if you stay with your own words for too long you get too attached to them. With Vanya, we read the play before we started session work, and after a while the actors said, “I got to this point and I just started remembering the lines.” It’s very natural.
How do you move from session work on scenes to rehearsing the whole play for a production?
We try to start with a small piece of any play, get to a point where we say, “We like that,” and move on to the next piece. Then all we need to do is put them together in three or four rehearsals of the whole play. The actors have been critiqued by their peers in sessions, and by now they’re so full of the work and their own creativity that they’re very free and ready to go. They have a sense of ownership of their work much earlier than if you started by saying, “Let’s get up and block.” So you don’t need more than a few rehearsals. It can be rough to work that way; you have to be highly motivated, because you’re collaborating with other people with different ideas. But it’s wonderful, because it’s about the only chance you get in life to really collaborate with other people with a goal in sight.
There are no rules at the Studio, and that’s what makes it so very special. People come here from Europe, they walk in upstairs to the session space, and they burst into tears, because they’ve heard about it and thought about it so much. There’s really no other place like it anywhere else in the world.