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Recalling A Theatrical Revolution

On `American Masters,' actors, directors talk about Group Theatre's impact on their craft. TELEVISION: PREVIEW

By Louise SweeneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 1989



WASHINGTON

Broadway's Dreamers: The Legacy of the Group Theatre PBS, Monday, 9-10:30 p.m., (programs two and three on July 3 and 10), check local listings. Season premi`ere of `American Masters' series. THE faces flash by on the screen faster than you can blink: Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Warren Beatty, Gregory Peck, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Ellen Burstyn, Roy Scheider, Shelley Winters. They are some of the greatest names in American theater and film, and they all have acting roots deep down in the rich earth of a 10-year phenomenon begun in the '30s and known as the Group Theatre.

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They all appear Monday in ``Broadway's Dreamers: The Legacy of The Group Theatre,'' the first part of a triple bow to that legacy. Part 2 of this riveting package - airing July 3 on PBS - will offer a look at director Harold Clurman. And on July 10,Part 3 will present a portrait of legendary acting teacher Stella Adler. This minseries kicks off of the fourth season of the award-winning ``American Masters,'' whose executive producer is Susan Lacy.

Viewers who tune in Monday will also see Katharine Hepburn recalling the Group. Hepburn, then a would-be actress who had never played a part, was asked by Clurman to join the Group. She smiled and said, ``I don't want to be a member of a group; I want to be a great big star!'' And of course she became one. But she had put her finger on the essential quality - the all-for-one and one-for-all goal that held the Group together in common cause. And it was this sometimes relentless emphasis that made the Group a radical force for change in the American theater. As Michael Gordon says, ``There were no stars. The ensemble was the star.''

The Group Theatre's New York co-founders - Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford - established the company in 1931. They led the group of 28 actors, three directors, wives, children, too many dogs, and countless Victrolas out to Brookfield Center, Conn., for a summer of communal living and total immersion in theater.

Actress/director Joanne Woodward, a student of original Group member Sanford Meisner, is the host for ``Broadway Dreamers.'' In it we learn much about the cohesiveness of the Group, whose members, on a salary of $40 a week, shared their living quarters and lives.

The theater of the time was ``conservative and old-fashioned and had no challenge,'' Woodward reminds us, ``and along came the Group, hell-bent on changing the face of the American theater. It was the bravest and single most significant experiment in the history of American theater,'' and its members were ``the spiritual parents and mentors of all of us....''

Its core was that of an ensemble inspired by the Moscow Art Theater, and The Method, modeled by Lee Strasberg on the acting principles of the Russian innovator Constantin Stanislavsky, focused on emotional memory.

The Group's aim was to do realistic, contemporary American plays for American audiences and it achieved the goal - 20 new American scripts produced in the Group's 10-year existence. Among them were plays by Maxwell Anderson and William Saroyan, Sidney Kingsley's Pulitzer Prize-winner ``Men in White,'' and several plays by Clifford Odets, including ``Awake and Sing!'' ``Waiting for Lefty,'' ``Paradise Lost'' and ``Golden Boy.''

This first segment of the program is full of wonderful vintage footage, like a scene from ``Awake and Sing!'' with actors Phoebe Brand and Luther Adler, and a clip of Stella Adler from the 1938 movie ``Love on Toast.'' The program also includes interviews with original members, director-teacher Bobby Lewis, and director Elia Kazan.

Financial troubles, disputes over the true Method, and a dearth of scripts contributed to the breakup of the ensemble in 1941. Political questions that were raised by some of its members' interest in Communism continued through the postwar atmosphere of McCarthyism, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee hearings and subsequent ``blacklisting'' in the entertainment world.

The most fascinating and entertaining parts of this series are the second and third programs, about the heart of acting.

In the second, Elia Kazan eloquently describes Harold Clurman: ``You've all seen Clurman in winter, black hat, black coat, cane of ebony, striding past the Russian Tea Room as if he were on his way to sit for a portrait by 'Edouard Manet. Most famous men as they get older turn into icons. Clurman has retained some of his native foolishness, which is to say his humanity. Harold's greatest achievment is not the list of books he's written, not his weekly pieces in The Nation, not the fine performances he has helped actors give, not the insights he's given to so many playwrights, not even his contribution to the Group Theatre. No, Harold's greatest achievment is himself.'' On a clip we see Clurman hearing that tribute before his death in 1980.

Part 3 focuses on Stella Adler the teacher as star. Sitting regally in a high red chair, she whips her students into shape with both verbal clouts and tenderness. ``Actors say if you can get through Stella Adler's training, nothing will ever frighten you again,'' says a voice at the beginning of the segment. What follows is a vivid tour through actual Adler classes in which we learn, among other things, how to play Queen Elizabeth I of England or Mary, Queen of Scots. ``My work is mostly to give the actor confidence in himself, a confidence nothing can shatter,'' says Adler.