Chicago Tribune / Tempo / P. 1

April 19, 1993

Special guest stars: Actors Studio teachers have brought the Method to the Midwest

By Staci D. Kramer

CLAYTON, MO -- "The more you stink, the more I'm going to like it because you take chances," the teacher is telling her eager-to-please students.

Shelley Winters is cajoling 16 Washington University students in a campus drama studio on a gray April afternoon. It's an unusual meeting of famous actress and Midwest college kids, all the more so since it comes courtesy of salad dressing, spaghetti sauce and popcorn.

Winters is part of a pilot program that has brought the vaunted Actors Studio of New York and Los Angeles to a college campus for the first extended stay in the studio's 45-year history. Fellow Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn, a former artistic director of the studio, and several of the country's top actor-teachers are also taking part in the semester-long course.

But why this university outside St. Louis when places like Yale and Northwestern are far better known as acting incubators?

A.E. Hotchner is the answer. Hotchner, the author, playwright and business partner of Paul Newman, was a Washington University scholarship student and law school graduate. He has worked closely with the Actors Studio, of which Newman and wife Joanne Woodward are longtime members.

During a visit to St. Louis in the fall of 1991, Hotchner and Henry Schvey, chairman of the performing arts department, discussed a way to bring the two together. Hotchner had the enviable ability to put his money where his mouth is.

He and Newman are partners in the company that produces popular "Newman's Own" products like spaghetti sauce, salad dressing and popcorn. Every year the two men give away all of the profits through the Newman's Own Foundation, or an average of $8 million a year.

"In terms of our donations, this is small potatoes," Hotchner said of the $40,000 grant that covered the expenses and honorariums for the pilot program that could spread to other schools. Any funds remaining will be turned over to the Actors Studio, whose members have included Marlon Brando, Robert de Niro, Al Pacino and Julie Harris, and which relies solely on contributions.

Quick action

Hotchner, Schvey and the studio moved swiftly. A year after the conversation, Ernie Martin, artistic director of the Actors Studio West, arrived for a three-week stay. He was followed by character actor Salem Ludwig, a member of the Actors Studio board, and by actor, teacher and author Carlton Colyer.

Winters arrived in late March, skipping the Academy Awards to keep her commitment. Hampered by a bad back, she still put as much energy into class as she might starring in a movie.

"Be kangaroos with babies in your pouches," Winters orders her students. "You're monkeys with tails. Some of you be baby giraffes." Wisecracks mingle with mock groans as the students warm up for the fifth of her six two-hour classes. "Now be human beings."

"Oh, that's the hardest one of all," says one young man. Winters tells the human beings to square dance and gets a blank look from the MTV generation.

Warmups over, the real work begins. Clad in casual black knit pants, T-shirt and a Fitz's Root Beer cap, Winters peppers the class with questions, anecdotes of her career and insights about the profession.

Anything is fodder, even an episode of "All My Children" she had just watched in her hotel room. Actress Joyce Van Patten was portraying the bitchy mother of a popular character and this was the climactic moment when she remembers her own youth.

"You can't do Method work on a soap opera," Winters says of the performance, which employed Method acting. "Be careful. Know what your medium is."

"I've been told the Method works for everything," says a puzzled student.

"I know, but it ain't true," Winters replies. She tried Method acting in an episode of "Hotel" that went awry. "It was too much reality for television. Am I  onfusing you no end?"

The answer is a quick yes.

'Re-creation of behavior'

"The Method," or what Ludwig explains as "the re-creation of behavior, rather than the imitation of behavior," and its proper use are what Winters and colleagues are here to teach.

A longtime student of Lee Strasberg, the first artistic director of the Actors Studio, Winters is using her brief two-week stay to expose the students to the exercises that helped her mature as an actress.

"They still think standing on a stage and emoting at each other is acting," she explains after class. But she wants them to try exercises like "affective memory," "substitution," "private moments" and "emotional recall" to gain insight into themselves and the characters they portray. Each exercise requires the use of the actor's own emotions and memories in a different way.

"It's difficult," she admits. "You see the kids' resistance to it."

First at bat, one obviously talented student tries repeatedly to perform a monologue using affective memory, the process of using a distant traumatic experience that hasn't been emotionally acknowledged. At its best, affective memory can be used to keep a performance fresh or to help an actor move past a problem.

Winters tries to help the young woman set the mood. "Is there some song that has meaning for you?"

"No, I listen to public radio," the woman responds.

After a few more questions, the student pulls a song from her memory and begins to hum.

Several attempts later, Winters explains to the woman, "I'm trying to get you to act with your fear and share your feelings. I want you to expose yourself."

Finally, the student breaks through, then stops cold. "I lost it," she whispers. But Winters tells her, "You did it. Could you feel it? You did something you couldn't plan."

Winters pushes a bit more, than backs down. After all, these are undergraduates, not professionals.

Slowly, she breaks down defenses. When two students try a scene from Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke," there are more stops and starts. But even a rank observer can tell that the interruptions are having the desired effect.

"Take off your shoes, your high heels," Winters orders the woman playing Williams' character Alma.

"David, stop upstaging yourself so much. You're a very giving actor," she tells the young man playing John.

"You're making it happen instead of allowing it to happen," she tells both.

At the insistence of the Actors Studio, this is a pass-fail class that would be difficult to fail. The professionals have also insisted on diversity.

"They didn't want the 16 best actors or the 16 top students," Schvey explained. "They wanted a range of experience." Students wrote essays explaining why they should be in the class, then the Washington University faculty decided who could handle the work. The emotional nature of some exercises was taken into consideration.

When Winters first learned these techniques in the 1950s, she was surrounded by fellow professionals. The Actors Studio, an outgrowth of the Group Theatre, was founded in 1947 by Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis. They wanted to create a workshop where professional actors could continue to improve.

Like the Group Theatre, the focus was on a personal style of acting developed by the great Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky around the turn of the century. Strasberg, another Group Theatre founder, joined the Actors Studio the following year. The Actors Studio West was founded in 1966 by members who had migrated to Hollywood.

Members must audition first, but once accepted are members for life. They work in front of their peers, often taking risks with very private memories. Part of the process is a post-performance critique session that can be blunt.

Winters and the others teaching here realize that college students may not be ready for some of these techniques and procedures. But they're more than pleased with the results of this experiment.

"The Actors Studio is just about 45 years old now and I think it's very elitist and insular to just do it in one place on 41st Street in New York," Winters said. "I think this method of acting has to be taught in colleges."

Not for everyone

Ernie Martin, who has coached Mary McDonnell, Lorraine Bracco and Harvey Keitel, was so pleased with his part in the program that he returned Easter weekend with his wife, actress Ann Wedgeworth of "Evening Shade," and daughter in tow. He sat in on Winters' last class, and took the students to lunch the next day.

"I see very few people with this desire to learn," Martin said. "That's why I flipped over these kids. Everybody else is 'put my fingers on the guitar and I'll play like the Beatles. I don't want to learn.' "

He attributes some of the atmosphere to Henry Schvey. "I've seen his vision and his passion. If this continues, Washington University will go beyond Yale," Martin said. "He's taken the professional workshop and brought it to college."

Schvey was surprised by the studio devotees' flexibility. "To be very honest, I was afraid the studio would impose its will, see the Method as the only method."

Far from it. The teachers realize the Method is not for everyone.

David Baecker, a 20-year-old sophomore drama major from Monroe City, Mo., took the class to learn how to use deeper emotions. He remembers being told by the guest teacher they've simply called "Shelley" that there is no method. "The only method is what's right for you," he quotes Winters as saying.

Susan Stolar, 23, a junior from St. Louis majoring in English and drama, is pleased with the experiment, especially with Winters.

"She got down to some of the fundamentals of the Actors Studio," Stolar says. "She stripped away a lot of layers and you feel it. Even after she's gone, you feel the impact of what she's done."