Educational Guide for
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Harold Clurman and The Group Theatre:
A Celebration and a Call to Action
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An educational tool for theatre instructors
Created by Laura Gale
Designed for use in conjunction
with the play LET IT BE ART! Harold Clurman's Life of Passion, written and
performed by Ronald Rand, directed
by Gregory Abels
For inquiries regarding LET IT BE ART! Harold Clurman's Life of Passion,
P.O. Box 20633
Columbus Circle Station
New York, NY 10023
Also visit: www.LetItBeArt.com
For more information about
these materials and related
educational initiatives, please contact:
2003 by Laura Gale
A NOTE TO INSTRUCTORS:
Thank you for your interest in LET IT BE ART! Harold Clurman's Life of Passion and in
these materials, which have been designed to help teachers provide a
context through which their
students might be more fully able to understand and make use of Mr. Rand’s
Our research has shown that very few schools and training programs offer
classes that thoroughly examine Harold Clurman’s contributions
to the American theatre and the impact of The Group Theatre. In fact,
it is common these days to encounter young, trained theatre artists who
do not recognize Clurman’s name and have no sense of the extent
to which The Group Theatre’s work and ideas have influenced the
type of theatre training they themselves have received. It is this sense
of connection to the past that we hope to help cultivate in today’s
theatre students. The artistic pursuits of these students are connected
to a rich theatrical tradition that cannot be perpetuated without today’s
students having knowledge of it. But while doing more to expose them
to this complex artistic heritage is a vital first step, it is not enough.
The American theatrical tradition, embodied by The Group Theatre’s
passionate commitment to social and artistic ideals, will not be perpetuated
unless tomorrow’s leaders are deeply invested in its continued
life. For this reason, students must not only be educated about American
theatre history (including the legacy of Harold Clurman and The Group
Theatre), but they must be encouraged to understand how the theatre’s
past relates to its present and that the leaders and ideals of yesterday
can still inspire passion and action today; they must be encouraged to
recognize and celebrate their own participation in this living legacy.
The materials that follow have been designed to accompany the performance
of Ronald Rand’s LET IT BE ART! Harold Clurman's Life of Passion. We are aware that the study of Harold
Clurman and The Group Theatre may not be part of your school’s
curriculum and that this might deter you from offering a presentation
of this play to your students. This packet is designed precisely to address
such a situation. It offers a complete lecture in outline format which
can be presented as a preface to the play. Each section includes thorough
notes so teachers can rely entirely on the packet, without having to
conduct outside research in order to present it. The outline format also
allows teachers to adjust the length and content of a lecture on this
topic; the key points are clearly laid out so a more brief summary might
be presented, in place of a full lecture.
Although our primary hope is that these materials will be used as a
contextual tool to prepare students to attend LET IT BE ART! Harold Clurman's Life of Passion, the packet need
not be used exclusively for this purpose. The lecture is designed to
stand on its own and aims to stimulate both discussion and interest on
this topic. To this end, it includes questions for discussion and provides
a list of resources to allow students to further investigate The Group
Theatre, Harold Clurman and related topics on their own.
Today’s training system for theatre artists leaves many emerging
professionals feeling isolated in a competitive business they were educated
to view as a collaborative art. The harsh realities of the industry lead
many talented young people to pursue their careers fearfully and passively;
they find themselves disempowered, struggling to “get noticed” and
hoping for “a lucky break.” They are floating, as Clurman
would say; they lack connection to the theatrical roots that have the
power to spiritually and artistically anchor them. Furthermore, they
lack a role model, a figure whose powerful example could help to renew
wavering faith and inspire action. For many who knew him, Harold Cluman
was such a figure. His example stands as proof positive for today’s
young artists that, to participate in the theatre as a profession, they
do not have to be victims; they can be leaders. Today’s students
must be encouraged to realize the theatre’s need for their leadership.
With passion, vision, and determination, they can greatly impact the
theatrical landscape; they can, and they must. It is their task to lead
and shape tomorrow’s American theatre.
We invite you to arrange a performance of LET IT BE ART! Harold Clurman's Life of Passion for your students,
offering them a unique opportunity to not only study Harold Clurman,
but to “meet” him and experience the force of his personality
and the magnitude of his passion, brought to life on the stage by Ronald
Rand. If you have already scheduled a performance, we hope that your
students are as inspired by Harold Clurman’s passion, wisdom, and
audacity as we have been. We are eager to hear your feedback on both
the lecture materials and the play, so don’t hesitate to contact
us with your response.
Clurman packet author and production dramaturg
HAROLD CLURMAN and THE GROUP THEATRE:
A Celebration and a Call to Action
I. INTRODUCTION: The Living Legacy - Harold
Clurman and The Group Theatre
A. Who is Clurman?
Harold Clurman (1901-1980) was born in New York City and grew up on Manhattan’s
Lower East Side. When taken to the theatre by his father at the age of
six, he was overwhelmed by the performance of Jacob P. Adler, a great
actor of the Yiddish Theatre (and incidentally, the father of actress
Stella Adler, whom Clurman would later marry). As a young man, Clurman
was considered a sophisticated intellectual by his peers, having studied
at Columbia University for a time, then at The Sorbonne in Paris. In
Paris, Clurman immersed himself in the world of the arts. After returning
to New York in the mid-1920’s, he worked as an actor, stage manager,
and play-reader in several of the flourishing theatres that had sprung
up, aiming to emulate the small, independent theatres of Europe. Working
at The Theatre Guild, Clurman met many of the collaborators who would
join him in creating The Group Theatre.
B. What is the Group Theatre?
The Group Theatre, which actively functioned as a company from 1931-1940,
defined the direction of the modern American theatre. Inspired by Clurman’s
fervent dedication and passion, The Group Theatre struggled throughout
the 1930’s to bring socially relevant, well-acted plays to Broadway
and beyond, under the leadership of co-founders Lee Strasberg, Cheryl
Crawford, and Clurman. In spite of financial hardship and a host of
other challenges to its existence, The Group persevered, employing
a permanent company of actors for nearly 10 years. Out of its ranks
grew many of the greatest American actors, playwrights, teachers, and
directors of the 20th century. The Group produced and performed plays
that spoke of contemporary social concerns in a distinctly American
voice, and it developed a technique of acting to serve these new plays.
Based on Stanislavsky’s early teachings at the Moscow Art Theatre,
this American approach was developed and taught to the Group actors
by Lee Strasberg. Many famous members of The Group Theatre, including
Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner, Bobby Lewis and Clurman himself, later
went on to teach variations of the Stanislavsky system to thousands
of American actors. Their teachings, all of which emphasize a realistic,
emotionally truthful performance style, continue to dominate the field
of modern acting and have guided the efforts of American playwrights
throughout the twentieth century.
II. EXAMINING THE WHY AND THE WHEN
A. Why did The Group Theatre come into existence when it did and why
did Clurman feel the need to create it?
1. Background: Comparing the theatre of the 1920’s and the theatre
a. How does the American theatre institution currently operate?
i. Professional theatres today can be classified as either Regional,
Off-Off-Broadway, Off-Broadway, or Broadway houses. In almost all cases,
these theatres hire actors on a show-by-show basis. At the Broadway level,
productions are usually presented by a group of producers, who choose
to financially back a given show, rather than by theatre companies (although
a few prominent Off-Broadway companies have recently begun to open shows
on Broadway as well). Most theatres then, with the exception of theatre
houses on Broadway and those that exist only to provide theatre space
to renters, are the home to a company at one of these levels, who employ
a permanent executive and administrative staff and operate under a mission
statement designed to reflect the company’s basic aims.
Plays come to Broadway through numerous routes. Many are given their
World Premieres in regional theatres, and if successful, are subsequently
produced Off-Broadway. Some new plays are commissioned by or created
through developmental workshops at Off-Broadway or regional companies.
Successful Off-Broadway plays often peak the interest of commercial
producers, who might transfer a production to Broadway, following its
These days, plays also premiere on Broadway (especially high-budget
musicals using star-studded casts), without having ever been produced
or regionally. Often, plays intended for Broadway will open in a city
outside New York. In this scenario, adjustments can be made to the script
or production elements and kinks can be worked out before the jump to
Many professional actors today are members of Actors Equity Association
(AEA), the union for actors and stage managers. To be able to hire union
actors, theatres must comply with Equity regulations by providing suitable
working conditions and an Equity-approved pay rate. Unions exist to protect
directors, designers, and technicians as well.
Many actors are not union members and therefore work primarily at theatres
who hire non-Equity performers; many of these theatres pay little or
nothing for the actor’s work.
Some actors acquire agents or managers, who advise and assist them
in getting work. Using their access to industry sources, agents can submit
actors to casting directors for consideration on upcoming projects. Other
actors work without an agent, using public sources, including trade newspapers
like Backstage and Show Business, to learn about auditions and opportunities
for work. Most actors today jump from job to job, taking work of varying
quality in order to make ends meet and to build their resumes.
Though some may establish positive working relationships with a given
company and thus be repeatedly cast in that company’s productions,
actors very rarely work on multiple projects with the same group of people
over an extended period of time. Most must adapt again and again to absorb
the style, mission, and often contradictory philosophies of the many
directors, companies, and plays they encounter.
b. How did the theatre operate in the 1920’s, when Clurman was
beginning to feel the need for change?
i. Throughout the 1920’s, theatre was a booming business; companies
like The Theatre Guild presented polished and professional productions
of European and new American drama. The “little theatre” movement
officially established small, non-professional companies in several major
American cities who aimed to emulate the independent theatres of Europe.
Talented and groundbreaking American playwrights, including Eugene O’Neill,
Maxwell Anderson, and Elmer Rice emerged, writing in a style that, while
influenced by the works of famous European dramatists, was shaped, above
all, by the American experience.
ii. What was the spirit of the theatre in the 20’s?
The 1920’s in America were characterized by a strong sense of individualism
and optimism. The influx of immigrants in the 1890’s had led to
a sizable population of hopeful, young people. Through their participation
in the arts, their optimism and passion found its way to the stage and
was eventually captured in some of the most prominent plays of the era.
iii. What was celebrated?
The individualism of the 20’s was reflected in the structure of
the growing theatre institution, which produced star-driven Broadway
plays and grew increasingly commercialized as it found an American audience.
Organizations like The Theatre Guild labored to present highly professional
and tastefully artistic productions that emphasized style and beauty.
They produced plays including those by George Bernard Shaw, Pirandello,
Molnar, and Eugene O’Neill. Thanks to Broadway and these flourishing
independent theatres, the New York theatre experience in the 20’s
offered the public everything from cultural enrichment to glamour, excitement,
iv. What did Clurman feel was lacking and why did he find it problematic?
Clurman was frustrated by the socially detached, highly commercialized
nature of the theatre industry. He was dissatisfied with the superficiality
of the plays and the egocentric attitudes of the Broadway stars. And
while Broadway was driven by materialistic concerns, The Theatre Guild,
Clurman felt, simply produced art for art’s sake, taking no interest
in the contemporary concerns of the American people. It “seemed
to show us more competent stagecraft than humanity or authenticity
of feeling” (Fervent Years, 43). No existing theatre was concerned
with creating an artistically unified production and Clurman especially
lamented the resulting disunity in the American theatre. Without a
clear artistic purpose or a shared approach to acting, the productions
reflected a variety of styles and impulses that did not result in a
unified whole. Clurman believed that the theatre, as a collective art,
should have something to say to its audience and needed to develop
a common vocabulary that would allow artists to more effectively communicate
their ideas; furthermore, he felt that a common technique of acting
was needed to express these ideas more clearly to an audience.
2. A Leader Emerges
a. Clurman meets Strasberg and Crawford
In the 20’s, Clurman’s ideals were still unshaped, though
his longing for theatre of greater significance was strong. The catalyst
that propelled forward both the development of his ideas and the creation
of a new theatre to embody and explore these ideas was his introduction
to Lee Strasberg, and shortly after, Cheryl Crawford.
Strasberg’s family moved to New York from Eastern Europe in 1901.
As a young man, he became an avid reader, taking a particular interest
in the theories surrounding the actor’s work. Like Clurman, Strasberg
was moved by the MAT’s work when they came to Broadway in 1923. Constantin
Stanislavsky, the co-director of the MAT company, had been developing
a systematic technique of acting and using this system to train and direct
the MAT actors in premieres of Anton Chekhov’s plays (The Sea Gull,
The Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard). The resulting detailed,
richly emotional ensemble acting captured Strasberg’s attention.
He seized the opportunity to enroll in classes taught by two MAT members
who remained in New York to set up the American Laboratory Theatre, a
studio designed to teach Stanislavsky’s approach to acting to American
Strasberg and Clurman first met at the Lab Theatre, where Stella Adler
was also attending classes. Soon after, while working at The Theatre
Guild, Strasberg and Clurman became better acquainted and found themselves
drawn together by their shared dissatisfaction and passion. Throughout
the late 20’s they continued to discuss their developing ideas
and gradually began to envision a theatre that would embody their ideals
and address their desire for change.
Cheryl Crawford met Clurman while working as an assistant stage manager
at The Theatre Guild. An Ohio native who had recently graduated from
Smith College and had moved to New York, Crawford became sympathetic
to Clurman’s ideas, and although she gained status and security
at The Guild throughout the late 20’s, she ultimately joined
Strasberg and Clurman in their efforts to create a new theatre in 1930.
b. Clurman Talks
i. Crawford urged Clurman to begin speaking to others about his ideas
for a theatre, in order to excite and enlist those who might agree with
their aims. In November of 1930, Clurman began a series of now famous
talks, held initially in his hotel room, each Friday night after the
actors had finished the evening’s performances. As word of these
talks circulated in the theatre community, crowds grew, forcing Crawford
to secure a larger venue at Steinway Hall in Manhattan. These extemporaneous
speeches began near to midnight and would last for hours, and although
there is no concrete record of what Clurman said, his exhilarating passion
and exciting ideas inspired many who attended. Clurman spoke not only
about the theatre, but also about the dilemmas and issues facing all
the arts and humankind in general. He related all of this to the conditions
of the present historical moment, which he felt demanded collective action
and a theatre that “would be vitally connected to real life” and
would “respond to profoundest spiritual needs of its audience” (Real
Life Drama, 8).
B. What driving forces and conditions shaped the theatre of the 1930’s
and Clurman’s views?
**Question: What driving forces shape theatre today?
a. The Backdrop of the Great Depression
The Wall Street crash of 1929 launched the Great Depression, which
ultimately left millions hungry, unemployed, poor, and powerless. The
social and economic turbulence affected all aspects of society and
provoked the formation of a new American cultural identity, built on
will and perseverance. The arts, which had been so pivotal in the 1920’s “culture
of abundance,” were forced into a new position in society as
a luxury only few could afford. Bread lines sprang up in cities across
the country and became a fixed part of the scenery in New York’s
Times Square. Just as many found it difficult to afford attending the
theatre, artists found it nearly impossible to support themselves and
their families while working in the theatre, which had little money
for actor salaries.
The government eventually got involved in this desperate situation
when President Roosevelt, as part of the Works Progress Administration
(WPA), established the Federal Theatre Project (headed by Hallie Flanagan)
in 1935 in an effort to provide jobs for unemployed artists. These
efforts led to the development of a dynamic network of amateur theatres
in cities across the country. It is also important to note that, aside
from The Group Theatre, several other influential theatres emerged
during the 1930’s, including the Mercury Theatre, led by John
Houseman and Orson Welles.
b. The Role of Communism
As the 30’s progressed and poverty and unemployment lingered, many
citizens began to feel as though the nation’s system had failed,
or more specifically, that capitalism had collapsed and that an alternative
solution must be sought to alleviate the suffering that plagued so many
struggling, impoverished Americans.
For this reason, many began to examine ideologies like Communism that
offered such alternatives. During the 30’s and after, many described
The Group Theatre as having a Communist political agenda, although Clurman
always emphasized that The Group’s aims remained apolitical and
firmly artistic. However, it was, of course, impossible for a theatre
concerned with contemporary social trends in the 1930’s to avoid
the discussion of political themes in its work. As a historical period,
the 30’s was a highly politically charged time, and that The Group
Theatre confronted political issues and concerns in its plays is wholly
unsurprising, in light of the company’s aims.
2. The emerging American identity
a. What encouraged the development of the American voice?
i. A growing desire to see distinctively American theatre, with inclusion
of American issues
ii. The emergence of groundbreaking American playwrights (e.g. Eugene
O’Neill, Maxwell Anderson, Elmer Rice)
iii. A new interest in defining an American style—a departure
from defining art only by European standards and from copying European
a. As the mouthpiece of the new theatre he planned to launch with Strasberg
and Crawford, Clurman initially called for:
i. A theatre reflecting American society, “founded on life values” (Fervent
Years, 34). Theatre, according to Clurman, had a moral responsibility
to examine the social concerns of the American people and to truthfully
present their experiences on stage in an authentic, contemporary voice.
This realistic portrayal of the human experience would also require a
new technique of acting. Clurman said, “Our interest in the life
of our times must lead us to the discovery of those methods that would
most truly convey this life through the theatre” (Fervent Years,
**Question: Does the theatre today convey the life of our times?
ii. A theatre combining dramatic texts of superior quality with superior
ensemble acting based on a solid, uniform technique.
iii. A group of theatre artists who shared a common sense of purpose
and worked together permanently, so each effort could build on the previous
**Question: What bearing do these factors (Politics/ economics, American
identity, Leadership) have on today’s theatre
| To Part III |
| Part I & II | Part
III | Part IV | Part
V | Additional Materials | Student & Teacher
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