My Life with Lee Strasberg, Part One

 

Strasberg Illustration My Life with Lee Strasberg, Part One

Lee Strasberg, Reality and Myth

I often can’t sleep. So, if you’re in my office with me at 2am, you’ll find me stretched out on the daybed I use for my Clarity sessions watching some ancient movie. Tonight, I’m seeing for about the tenth time the wonderful HBO documentary about Marilyn Monroe, Love Marilyn.

A story about Marilyn would not be complete without Lee Strasberg, who was her coach, mentor, and surrogate father until her death. There were clips of Strasberg teaching in the movie. And I found myself on my daybed at 2am in tears.

I obviously didn’t have as illustrious a career as Marilyn. But Lee was also my teacher as well as my mentor and boss. And I have many memories. As a matter of fact, my life was intimately entwined with his on and off for ten years.

His Institute had just opened here. Ironically, they called the Institute “the house that Marilyn built” as she had left all her possessions to him, which were later sold at auction for multi-millions. After five years as a housewife and elementary school teacher, I was itching to get back to acting. So I enrolled.

I remember like it was yesterday my first encounter with Lee. Actually, remember is probably the wrong word. As actors, we remember with our emotions. So I now have this tingling feeling in my gut and I’m presently vibrating with anticipation.

Lee used to do these Monday evening lectures. Later on, when he decided he didn’t want to do them anymore, he said to us, “I think I’ll invite a few people from the (Actor’s) Studio”. The “few people” included Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw, Gene Kelly (who said that, in his seventies, he could jump onto the onstage piano but used to be able to jump over it), Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (he taught me an important lesson about using pain to portray character that night, and they argued gently throughout the whole session), and Ellen Burstyn right after she won her Oscar (she was terrified that Lee was still in the building, and relaxed when she found out he wasn’t and asked, “so where am I to meet all these people”) to name just a few.

But, butterflies and all, I saw Lee speak that night. He immediately asked, “anyone want to do the ‘Song-and-Dance?’” I almost raised my hand. After all, at 20, I had starred off-Broadway in a revival of one of my favorite musicals, Carousel. I was not prepared, however, for what happened next. Someone stood onstage taking in everyone in the audience, and then began to sing a song in elongated syllables. In other words, if you were singing “Happy Birthday”, which was often used, you would sing, “Haaaa . . . ppyyyy . . . Biiiiirth . . . Daaaay . . .“ while keeping your body as still as you could and continuing to make eye contact the audience.

The dance part was even more perplexing. The same person began a rhythmic motion and exploded the same syllables they had just sung elongated in short bursts. I found out a long while later that the exercise was constructed so that actors could explore their moment-to-moment audience confront and then their connection with voice and body. True to the experiential nature of Method work, I learned this when I was in the professional class observing an actor whose name escapes me at the moment perform it perfectly.

I was in class a scant three months before I went on work-study and never paid for another class again. Later, I became the Assistant Coordinator of the Institute. Among the many things I did with my colleague and lifelong friend, Corinne Broskette, was certifying the school for foreign students. A certification that still exists to this day and is now the mainstay of the Institute.

But that’s another story for another time. As is the rest of this memoir, which will be continued next week. .

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What’s your experience or knowledge about Lee Strasberg and Method acting? Any thoughts about what I just wrote? Anything you’d like to know so I can share my experience with you about my life with Lee?