Stuff to Read: Foster Hirsh’s ‘A Method to Their Madness: The History of the Actors Studio’

I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of various foreign VDO items for The Vault (airmail can be slow). In the meantime I have been reading a fascinating book from 2002 by Foster Hirsh called A Method To Their Madness: The History of the Actor’s Studio.

Hirsh, a film historian, and author of a truly awesome history of film noir was very fortunate in that when he first went to sit in on the studio, they generally didn’t allow nonactors to be privy to what went on in their workshop sessions. Hirsh sat in in the 1980s, well before VDO began his studies with Studio member Sharon Chatten, and before James Lipton and Bravo began producing the lucrative cable TV series ‘Inside The Actor’s Studio’.

Hirsh gives a detailed account of the history of method acting especially covering the techniques of Konstantin Stanislavski, Richard Boleslavski (one of his finest pupils, an excellent actor and film director and the first American to introduct the formalized study of acting techniques developed by Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre to the USA) and ultimately the formation of the Actors Studio by Group Theatre members (and devotees of Stanislavski’s teachings) Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg. Strasberg went on to mold the studio to follow his understanding of Stanislavski’s method.

Hirsh also details the philosophical split between acting coaches such as Stella Adler (who was the only American to go to Russia to be personally tutored by Stanislavski) and Lee Strasberg, the political and financial struggles of the studio, and how many of its members, famous and not so famous, worked in and philosophized about their place to learn and grow as actors.

Hirsh was able to interview tons of studio members, especially Studio fixture Shelley Winters. Winters often took control of scene workshops after Strasberg died in 1982 and Hirsh details her style of moderation in his book. Hirsh also details how the admission process to the studio works, noting that often Shelley Winters was on the panel evaluating the auditions of prospective members.

Ironically, little did I know that I would finish this fascinating book just 48 hours before the world learned that Shelley Winters had died of a heart attack. I know she will be sorely missed by her fellow Studio members, all of whom once inducted remain members for life.

This is a pretty good read if you want to understand something of method acting and how the Actor’s Studio functions.


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