Is it finally twilight for the theater's sacred monsters?

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Is it finally twilight for the theater's sacred monsters?
Many of the “great men” who helped America create its classics, its institutions and its own acting style were tyrants. Deena So'Oteh/The New York Times.

by Jesse Green

NEW YORK, NY.- Despotic. Agonizing. Crippling. Sadistic.

Those are just some of the adjectives victims use to describe their tormentors in Isaac Butler’s jaw-dropping book “The Method.”

But the method they’re talking about isn’t a blueprint for a fascist takeover or CIA interrogation. It’s a blueprint for the American theater.

“The Method,” which bears the subtitle “How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act,” is the story of how the precepts of Konstantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor, director and theorist born in 1863, were interpreted in the United States by some very vicious teachers — mostly men — whose behavior now looks outrageous to us. By comparison, Stanislavski himself was a pussycat, even though he berated his longtime leading actress, Olga Knipper, the wife of Chekhov, so cruelly she came to call him a “monster.”

But Stanislavski’s New York and Hollywood acolytes would soon outshine him in monstrosity. Attacking students — mostly women — seems to have been the special skill of Lee Strasberg, who as a founder of the Group Theater in the 1930s, and the artistic director of the Actors Studio from 1951 until his death in 1982, did as much as anyone to promote the master’s system and create our idea of what American acting is.

Nor was the bad behavior limited to teachers; what the educators did verbally, the directors who took the Method from the periphery to the center of American culture in the 1950s often enacted physically. Gropes, slaps and seduction were tools in their arsenal. Elia Kazan, a founder of the Studio and one of the greatest stage and film directors of the time, felt that bedding young hopefuls, including Marilyn Monroe, was “a totally natural extension of the director-actress relationship,” Butler said recently. Getting the performances Kazan wanted involved a “very active casting couch.”

Today we would call it, at a minimum, grooming, and cancel him. Strasberg would be cited (as he was, even then) for emotional cruelty, others perhaps for battery. Though he was the kindest of that coterie, teacher and director Harold Clurman thought nothing of getting an actor’s attention by throwing a chair at him. Now, he’d most likely be brought up on charges before Equity, the actors’ union, and fired or forced to undergo anger management training.

And that would surely be just. With #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and other epochal changes roiling American life, the theater has finally begun to talk openly about its foundational and continuing inequities. Sometimes the talk is just lip service, to be sure, as toothless statements on company websites attest. But more than ever, practitioners and critics are asking difficult questions about how we make actors, how we make plays, how we make seasons, how we make money — in short, how we make theater.

It’s about time. For too long the industry has accepted all kinds of impropriety and unfairness as the supposedly inevitable cost of greatness. It has tolerated working conditions and wages that in some cases approach the Dickensian. For the sake of profit or what we glorify as the demands of art, it has laughed as bullies like producer Scott Rudin terrorized their underlings, and has winked at the sexual misdeeds of men like Harvey Weinstein. In the process, the theater — like most other art forms but perhaps more intensely — has found a neat way to keep its doors largely shut to those who by reason of race, class or connection are not already part of the club.

Only recently has anyone been called to account, as a trickle of public allegations and cloudy repercussions have sidelined playwright and artistic director Israel Horovitz, director Gordon Edelstein, casting director Justin Huff, actor Kevin Spacey and costume designer William Ivey Long. Actually, Long, who has denied accusations of sexual abuse by at least two former assistants, isn’t so sidelined; though he “parted ways” with the production of “Diana, the Musical” in 2020, his work on that show has nevertheless been nominated for a Tony Award.

But maybe, in the wake of the existential crisis of COVID-19, when the ingrained practices of decades ground to a sudden halt, we are finally approaching an inflection point. What’s on the other side of that inflection is worth thinking about, including the potential benefits — and costs — of the fairer theatrical future many people are working hard to create. It’s a future in which pay transparency and equity, humane treatment of workers, respectful training of all kinds of students, diversity in employment as well as in product are crucial parts of the picture.

And in which sacred monsters aren’t.

Still, if we are approaching a Great Man Götterdämmerung — if those monsters, some of them superb at what they do, are finally beginning to face the music — we’d better look closely at the tune. What are we losing when we banish them? What are we losing if we don’t?

AS IT HAPPENS, the history of musicals is a good place to seek answers. In the way that musical theater incorporates and exaggerates all the qualities (and problems) of nonmusical theater, so too have the men we reflexively call the Broadway musical greats — the creators and directors and choreographers behind classics like “Oklahoma!,” “Gypsy,” “Chicago” and others — incorporated and exaggerated the traits of Strasberg and his ilk.

It’s important to be clear that those traits were more than flirtatious winks and forceful direction. Strasberg’s interpretation of Stanislavski often included shrieking at actresses: tearing them down to build them up. He told the young Patricia Bosworth, who later described several such encounters in her memoir “The Men in My Life,” to “take off your clothes, darling” — forcing her to perform in bra and panties in front of a packed class to understand her character’s shame. Arthur Penn, another Studio luminary, later claimed to be helping her access the emotions for a scene by dragging her, protesting, into a pitch-black prop closet and locking her inside until she screamed.

The primordial musical link to that heritage, and also its most vexing example, may be Jerome Robbins, who along with Montgomery Clift, Sidney Lumet, Karl Malden, Patricia Neal, Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach and Marlon Brando was a member of the inaugural Actors Studio cohort of 1947. It was then, according to some versions of the tale, that Clift told Robbins, his boyfriend at the time, that he was stymied by Romeo, the character he was working on for a scene study class. Robbins told him to imagine he was in a gang.

It took more than a decade for Robbins, working with Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, to turn that germ of an idea into “West Side Story,” a show regarded upon its 1957 opening as a game-changer, and later a classic and lately a problem. By then Robbins’ behavior was already notorious. An apt if unprovable story describes the cast members of an earlier show — sometimes said to be “High Button Shoes” in 1947 — watching silently as Robbins, their brilliant choreographer, backed up further and further downstage while delivering his typically acid notes, until he finally fell into the pit.

If no one felt like warning him, that was only fair payback to a man who, coming from the world of ballet, expected silent obedience from his dancers — and later, as his portfolio grew to include direction and “conception,” from everyone else as well. To improve the dancing of Mickey Calin, who played Riff in the original production of “West Side Story,” Robbins “pounded him into dust” before “molding him back into clay,” as Tony Mordente, who played A-Rab, told Amanda Vaill for her Robbins biography, “Somewhere.” Robbins got the performance he wanted, but did his methods have to be so cruel?

For him, apparently so. Robbins’ process, perhaps based on his emotionally violent family history, “was to make the cast seethe with hatred for one another — or for him,” Vaill writes. “It was almost as if he couldn’t create without confrontation and pain.” In the index, “Robbins, cruelty of” gets its own entry.

But here’s the bizarre thing, though we see it repeated everywhere in theater, now as then: Many of his dancers, most of his collaborators and nearly all of his audiences (who in those days knew little of the backstage truth) admired Robbins anyway. They were able to put his behavior to the side, even including his having named names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1950. So great was his artistry, or at least the opportunity of being attached to a winner, that Zero Mostel, the star of “Fiddler on the Roof,” agreed to work with him on that 1964 musical despite having been blacklisted himself. And Jack Gilford, who co-starred with Mostel in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which Robbins doctored, was one of the names he named.

Perhaps they believed, at least in this case, that greatness was inseparably joined to awfulness; you couldn’t have one without the other. Then too, the awfulness wasn’t doled out evenly. If Robbins’ tantrums suggested that he took too literally Stanislavski’s nickname — “the big infant” — his favorite dancers, like Chita Rivera, who thrillingly played Anita in the original production of “West Side Story,” nevertheless called him “Big Daddy.”

Today, Rivera unequivocally defends Robbins — and also Bob Fosse, whose nastiness may have been worse than Strasberg’s and whose casting couch may have been busier than Kazan’s. “There has to be a leader,” she told me in a recent phone conversation. “If dancers aren’t pushed to their limits, they would not be as good as they can. They’re the vessel, not the creator.”

And if sometimes, being a vessel, they get dumped on, well, that’s part of the process, too. “Outside the room you give consolation to whomever was attacked,” she said. “But inside, the room is sacred.”

Rivera sees it as the performer’s job to come into that room supple and strong enough, with sufficient “lightness” and faith and good humor, to take whatever gets dished out. “We were used to pain, we were used to extremes” — which was a good thing because for those, like Calin, on whom the choreography did not fit easily, adjusting to it was torture. Not Rivera; when I asked if she ever felt she was in emotional or physical danger working for men who treated others so poorly, she had a one-word answer: “No.”

But then Rivera, a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, may have once-in-a-lifetime standing — and standards. Today’s performers are “too sensitive,” she said. “They’re spoiled. If a director or choreographer raises his voice, they’re insulted!”

It’s true: Today we are wary about raised voices, let alone hands. We want the making of theater to be nice, which for Rivera’s generation would have seemed almost irrelevant. The question is whether that niceness, or at least a reasonable level of respectful collegiality, safety, fair play and the rest, requires a sacrifice in quality — and, if so, whether we’re willing to make it.

There have, of course, been inspiring teachers and successful creators who were not monsters, but the monsters had a way of legitimizing bad behavior generally. Hal Prince was often considered the nicest of the great men — but ask Patti LuPone about him.

Alas, our history — and even our recent past, in which Rudin, who habitually bullied his underlings, has been the preeminent presenter of “quality” commercial work — does not elevate the saints. Rather, it suggests an overwhelming correlation between the most acclaimed achievements of the American theater and the lordliness, fury, and cultlike subjugation that allowed Robbins and Fosse and Kazan and Strasberg — and for that matter, the venomous Laurents, the horndog Richard Rodgers and the megalomaniacal Joseph Papp — to thrive. Should the link be severed so their success cannot be used to encourage and justify more monsters in the future? And what would that severing look like — rampant cancellations of work old and new?

In considering change, we should keep in mind what would have been lost if such men were subject to contemporary expectations: not just the plays and musicals we consider classics (partly because they’re the ones that got produced) but also the blameless performers who became great under their tutelage, the valuable institutions they founded, the “method” — indeed the culture — they invented. Without Robbins we arguably don’t have Rivera; without Fosse, Gwen Verdon; without Rodgers, Sondheim; without Papp, “A Chorus Line”; without Stanislavski, Chekhov; without Kazan, Tennessee Williams; without Laurents, “Gypsy” — on and on.

In other words, without monstrousness, we do not have what we have been conditioned to think of as the theater itself.

FOR MANY PEOPLE, that’s no longer a good enough argument for tolerating it. Karen Olivo, who won a Tony Award for playing Anita in the 2009 revival of “West Side Story,” told me recently that “if harm comes to someone, even if not to me, it’s not worth it, ever.”

Olivo, who uses they/them pronouns, has encountered plenty of “egregious” behavior in their 25 years in the business, they added. At a final callback for a show early in their career, the producer “walked up to me and put his hand into the back pocket of my jeans” slipping in a piece of paper with his phone number written on it. Later, “he kept sending me flowers and asking me out,” and even though “I was the most vulnerable person in the room,” no one said anything about it. Even on “West Side Story,” Laurents, whom Olivo “loved until the day he died,” turned on his star, as he’d turned on so many, when they started missing performances. “For someone who isn’t primarily a dancer, that Robbins choreography is brutal,” they said. “It was killing my body.”

Still, it was not because of those personal experiences of physical damage and emotional harm that Olivo left the commercial theater. It was the silence that followed the revelations of Rudin’s unfettered bullying that led, last year, to the announcement that they would not return to their acclaimed performance in “Moulin Rouge!” when the show resumed after a pandemic pause.

Instead, Olivo has been teaching, most recently at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, their alma mater. “I don’t want my students to think it’s OK with me that they can be made to suffer, even if it makes a show better,” they said. And though Olivo recognizes the trade-off — and understands why for someone like Rivera the calculus was different — they remain sure that in tolerating monsters “we lost a lot more than we gained.”

It’s hard to measure what economists call opportunity cost in a field like theater. But for every great artist like Robbins or great show like “West Side Story,” there are probably at least as many we never got to see, or that never got written, because Robbins and “West Side Story” took up so much of the limited cultural space available. In so doing they defined and hardened our idea of what is worthy of that space, furthering the cycle of exclusion.

Only now is the theater rediscovering some of the artists thus excluded. To judge from the likes of a Black playwright like Alice Childress, the loss was incalculably large. One of her plays, “Trouble in Mind,” itself about denying the experience of Black theater artists, was blocked by white producers who conditioned their support for a planned Broadway production in 1955 on her making the story less critical of its white characters. She refused, and there is some irony in the fact that the play’s eventual Broadway debut, last fall, has been nominated for a Tony Award as a “revival.” It and another Childress work (“Wedding Band,” a 1973 play that ran off-Broadway this season) are excellent, challenging, unique and urgent — and ought to have been seen much sooner.

There are most likely hundreds of other fine plays thus lost. Even James Baldwin was stymied as a dramatist by such cultural gatekeeping. His 1964 drama “Blues for Mister Charlie,” loosely based on the murder of Emmett Till, underwent a tumultuous rehearsal period, with its original producers demanding the same kind of softening that Childress faced down. After a Broadway run of four months, “Blues” all but disappeared; despite its merits and the acclaim of its author in other mediums, it has never had a major New York City revival.

And who were those original producers? Yes, the Actors Studio, which in addition to its other peccadilloes had a race problem it refused to acknowledge.

To say those were different times is no excuse. For one thing, they weren’t: Our theatrical world may have softened around the edges, but at its core it is fundamentally as harsh as it was in its supposed glory days. Directors are still forcing themselves on cast members, acting teachers are screaming at students, choreographers are putting dancers’ bodies at risk. For another, was there ever a time when predation, humiliation and violence were acceptable? Yes, bad behavior led to good work in many cases. Does that mean we must keep rewarding it?

But mostly the “different times” excuse is insufficient because it fails to acknowledge how much of what we find inevitable in the theater was actually not; the inevitability was the handiwork of surprisingly few people and can, with diligence, be disassembled. Indeed, it must be if we are to make any progress — not just in terms of quality-of-life issues but in terms of the quality-of-art issues a critic supposedly cares about most.

The separation is not so clear to me anymore. I don’t believe in canceling art because of disreputable artists; I look forward to the upcoming “Dancin’” and no doubt an umpteenth “West Side Story.” Stanislavski and Strasberg still have something to teach. And as far as the living monsters go, I genuinely hope for their rehabilitation. I might enjoy another Scott Rudin production if no one is harmed in the making of it.

But let’s make them the end of the line; it will not be a net loss to the culture if the spaces such men occupied, and turned into gilded niches from which to demand obedience and veneration, are vacated now. I cannot say with assurance that new occupants will create works as flattering to my taste as the old ones did, but perhaps they will change and amplify my tastes. That’s a good thing, and so is this: In trying to get our attention, they probably won’t throw a chair.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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