Studying With The Devil/Saint of Acting Teachers

“You will not have trouble getting into Heaven,” he said, impressed with himself. “You have already been to hell; you studied with me.” Lee Strasberg said to a theatre classroom filled with a mixture of famous actors and actors who just wanted to get acting work. “Toscanini called his musicians donkeys, so I’m not so harsh.” 

Margaret Meade said, “Nothing in this culture is as it seems.” This applies to one of the most honored and revered acting teachers, other than Stan the Man, Stanislavski, whoever broke an actor’s heart. 

If you want a guarantee to get a job somewhere, become a nurse.

I was admitted to Lee Strasberg’s Master’s acting class based on my training with Salem Ludwig, a member of the Actor’s Studio, who was a cast member in the famous production of Anton Chekhov’s” The Three Sisters,” directed by Strasberg. Strasberg had been a founding member of the Group Theatre, a radical company of idealistic actors, writers, and directors who aimed to change theatre based on the teachings of Russian Director Constantin Stanislavski. This work was considered so revolutionary due to the use of reality to create a character. Before the Method, actors looked in mirrors to work on facial expressions they would use for various emotions. What came to be known in this country as “The Method” presented a codification of tools and exercises that taught the actor to use his/her emotional life to fit into their character’s vibrant life. The actor was bringing the character to real life.

Much has been said about the tools used by Strasberg, who became, by default, the spokesperson for this new technique. 

Handbook – Lee Strasberg – image: cc 2.0

With the growth of film and television,  with booms and microphones overhead, no longer having to focus on the voice, an actor could concentrate on emotionally presenting what their character might be experiencing. In films, with actors’ faces enlarged hundreds of times, an audience could pick out fake emotion. 

Aside from the jokes made about the early techniques Strasberg et al. used to arrive at this character reality (some true, most made out of ignorance), the new techniques were working. Actors no longer stood facing the audience waving their arms and projecting their well-trained voices but began exploring their characters’ feelings and looking into themselves for a matching emotion. Actors began speaking to the other characters rather than the audience.

After studying “The Method” for four years, including fencing, voice, and mime, I felt ready to meet my maker, Lee Strasberg.

Lee Strasberg – image: cc 2.0

No actor, no matter his/her training, was ready for the man we referred to as Lee. Short in stature, looking like a kindly Grandfather, he sat facing the center stage in the audience section, taking notes, preparing what seemed to me to be the imminent slaughter of the artist on stage.

Actors would prepare scenes from plays and fiction, i.e., Doris Lessing’s “Between Men,” at home, using the tools they had learned before being accepted to Lee’s Master Class. After their scene was complete, the two actors would sit center stage on chairs, taking turns explaining to Lee what they, as actors, had been working on. What tools did they use to achieve their character’s goals and emotions while sticking to the playwright’s intention for their characters?

Terrified is an understatement for my prevailing emotion, after first entering the sacred theatre.  Familiar faces of well-known actors filled the theatre, leaning forward in their chairs not to miss a word, Lee said.

 ‘Becoming a nurse might not be such a bad idea.’

A tall, stately blonde approached me, asking if I would like to be her scene partner.  “What do you have in mind?” “Let’s work on “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” a short story.

After two weeks of rehearsal and preparing our scene, the big day came.

Everything I had studied over the prior four years began dissolving into the vapors of what was to become my metaphorical slaughter. Establishing a sense of place is an essential tool for an actor, adding to his/her reality and assisting in concentration on the work. When we completed our scene, Liz and I sat in our center-stage chairs while Lee slowly began to ask me questions about my character. So far, pretty good. Like a seasoned attorney, he was leading me down the path of my conviction. I explained to Lee that I had worked on establishing a place by creating a fourth wall (an imaginary barrier between the actor and the audience built with the sensory recollection of an actual wall ). Still seeming to me like someone’s Grandfather from the lower east side of Manhattan, I elaborated on how I had created the fourth wall. After that, much is still a blur to this day. As his voice escalated, he began to focus on the fourth wall and me for the remainder of what felt like years. At the time, I did not know that my technique for building the fourth wall was taught by Uta Hagen, another world-renowned actress/acting teacher. Lee was the God of “The Method” (in his mind), and he immediately recognized Uta’s tool. This approach to the fourth wall drove Lee to distraction. As for me, I was preparing my applications to Nursing School in my mind as he pontificated and berated me. If you want to see real Method Actor tears, those were mine.

After my scene failure, very few other students even came near me.

One courageous well-respected actress asked me to work on Doris Lessing’s short story, “Between Men.” During our two-week rehearsals for the scene, she patronized, instructed, and treated me as her inferior. I realized she thought she would shine with me as her scene partner.

I was already a paid actress with more professional experience than my scene partner, but such is the nature of competition for an art form (acting) in which there is no talent shortage; Salem, my original teacher, had taught me never to tell another actor what to do, but I tolerated the scolding from my scene partner nonetheless. 

On the day of the scene, I walked into the theatre free from anxiety or fear. When you have hit bottom as an actress, what do you have to lose? I was liberated without the fear that would have blocked my ability to access my genuine emotions. As the scene began, my partner said her lines as she had prepared them, expecting a dependable response from me. Our characters were supposed to be getting increasingly drunk, and drunk I got. (I had done sensory work; I was not drunk on alcohol). When I was about to say a line we had rehearsed, comforted by my fourth wall, I began to find my character’s situation very funny. Not only wasn’t she/me sad, but she was also drunk, and the world was funny. I stuck to my character’s lines and intention, but I worked “In the moment,” as Lee often taught. I fell on the floor, drunk, laughing as I said my lines, sipping apple juice. Stunned by the reality of my acting and the moment-to-moment acting work I was doing, my scene partner kept trying to get me to be sad as she had prepared her part to respond to.

‘You want reality, Lee Strasberg? I’ll show you moment to moment; I’ll show you what four years of studying with other great teachers, yes, there were such things, had taught me.’

During the discussion period. Stunned by the quality of my work, Lee referred to it as “Brilliant.” 

“Such progress,” He was taking the credit for my work as though three months in his class had taught me all this. Lee’s ego was bigger than mine.

I never said how well the fourth wall had helped me concentrate again.

Lee took the credit for all I had done. 

Strasberg – image: cc 2.0

So why did I continue to study with Lee after that?

A very sexy James Dean clone asked me to do a scene from “The Rainmaker”  with him. Katherine Hepburn played my part in the film. I was becoming an A-lister in acting class. Early in rehearsals, I could tell this actor had no previous training. Lee had brought him to New York from California because he reminded him and everyone else of Jimmy Dean, who had been a student of Lee’s.  Sticking with my training, I never corrected this actor when he mispronounced Melisande. I used his lack of knowledge for my character’s purposes. Part of my training was to use whatever I could for my character.


Also, truth to tell, in between rehearsing, we were having sex all over his apartment.

After we did our scene for Lee, he said, “I must have seen this scene a thousand times but never have I seen the choices you made for your character. You make brilliant choices, then you run out on yourself, and you don’t trust yourself.” 

Then Lee began to do to my scene partner what he had done to me after my first scene for him.

‘Well, this guy isn’t going to have sex with me anymore, Shit.’ 

During the two years I studied with Lee, my exterior and interior protective shields got shaken loose. I did “A private moment” alone on stage. It is defined as something you would never do in front of anyone else. My concentration on the scene work improved, and my stage fright faded.

Eventually, standing in the actor’s unemployment line, the real world of bills and rent payments was a reality as well. I finally realized that it didn’t matter how good my work was in class; I would never be a part of the one percent of actors who worked constantly and knew the right people. I looked like a hillbilly waitress, not a leading lady.  So I packed up my New York Apartment with everything I had learned from studying acting and moved to Reno, Nevada. I have never acted again since then. 

My life was changed for the better thanks to Lee, to whom I am grateful for the warning to trust me and not run out on myself. Lee saw in me something I didn’t know was there.

All the plays I read, the characters I played, all the unusual artists/actors who became my friends, and all the new ideas led me to today. I will love the art of Acting always. Walking into an empty theatre brings tears to my eyes (not because I can do a sense memory of Lee screaming at me) but because great things might happen in that theatre, and great art might occur changing people’s lives. Acting art that Lee insisted his students learn by practicing a Method of tools and techniques. Lee Strasberg was not pretending. Lee was the real deal. 

I recently discussed Lee with a friend who is currently directing a Broadway play. I explained that I never came to like Lee, nor was I ever one of those sit-at-his-feet actors. My friend, a brilliant actor, and director, said, “Well, you’ve got to give the Devil his due.”

So I’m going to New York City this month, and I’m going to drink a toast to Lee Strasberg, the man who thought of Acting as an art form long before many others. Lee was the man who created acting tools for actors to relate to each other,  to feel a sense of place, and who, on a personal level, changed me for the better. 

OK, Lee, how’d I do this time?

Carol Schaye, a long-time resident of Reno, Nevada, loves the unique characters and freedom she finds in the West. Carol has had several short stories published by McFadden’s Women’s Group. Carol has written for two west coast newspapers and has worked extensively in television. A fan of Flannery O’Connor, Carol studied acting with Lee Strasberg and Austin Pendleton and writing with Salem Ludwig. She attended Marymount College majoring in theatre.

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