Stephenson Tales

Our Director and the Stanislavsky Influence on our Art

In the 1920s the Moscow Art Theatre came to New York to present a series of their productions. It turned out to be an artistic revelation - and ultimately an artistic revolution. Audiences saw a kind of unaffected genuine performance and lack of "staginess" that was compelling, moving, and had such verisimilitude as to be almost confused with REAL life. This was no accident. Under the guidance of Constantin Stanislavsky, this group of actors worked for months and months to perfect and make seem spontaneous their performances. They did plays by Chekhov, Ibsen, Gorki - "realistic" plays for the most part, but earlier in Russia, they had also done Shakespeare, too - notably a production of Othello directed by Stanislavski. After the performances had their run in New York, Maria Ouspenskaya and Richard Boleslavsky started a school to teach the Russian acting techniques, which were based upon the concept that the actor is the servant of the playwright and that he uses techniques of consciously controlled but genuine emotion; projection of the "undermeanings" of the text; the awareness of the author's design; endless creative imagination to discover and exploit the most effective techniques to convey this understanding to the minds and emotional involvements of the audience.

Although the school also produced about ten fully staged plays, the emphasis was always on the rehearsal process and Boleslavsky and Ouspenskaya would assign scenes which would be performed solely for the class. The school was called, appropriately, the American Laboratory Theatre. In one of these classes was a young man who was an English major at Columbia. This young man had found his life-goal: to learn and pass on these high artistic principles of the performing art. Valentine Windt, a short, curly-headed, soft-spoken, shy, intense, young Jewish man from somewhere in New York (I do not know where).

After the school had closed and the teachers had gone on to Hollywood to successfully pursue their own careers, Valentine Windt was hired by the University of Michigan to teach acting and directing in the newly formed Department of Speech.

He was given an ancient empty theatre building on State Street in which to hold his classes. The stage was still there. The "lobby" was a classroom, and guess who was one of his students? How we worked, probed, analyzed, mulled, experimented, rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed! Then we did a series of "scenes" for each other and had probing critiques of them. Then Mr. Windt would sometimes take a small section of the scene and work with the actors to demonstrate with, and for, them how much more they could do to make their performances even more believable. He used to say that the highest praise an actor could receive was for the spectator to say, "I believed you."

Incidentally, the offshoot of the American Laboratory Theatre was, of course, the Group theatre (1931-1939), which was under the guidance of Harold Churman. The Group carried on the intense tradition of careful rehearsals. Some of the actors from that organization went on to make "star" names for themselves: Franchot Tone, Luther and Stella Adler, J. Edward Bromberg, Paul Mann, Lee Jacob, (AKA Lee J. Cobb) Uta Hanen, Herbert Bergoff, Michael Chekov, Mordecai Gorelik, and John Garfield to name a few. And Valentine Windt, fortunately for us, was at Michigan!

Each winter Mr. Windt would go to New York to recruit the participants in Spring Drama Season. Actors loved to audition for him, as he would gently and encouragingly advise each actor what his strong points were and what heeded more development. Everyone respected him because he had been so carefully trained by Boleslavsky - who, by the way, had been Stanislavsky's favorite pupil at the Moscow Art Theatre.

Then he would take a "core" of professionals back to Ann Arbor, rehearse the repertory for several weeks, bring in the "star" of each show and, for six or eight weeks, produce a different show each week. I only know of one incident when Mr. Windt met any resistance from a performer. The play was...(my memory is not helping me here) Hatful of Rain or The Rainmaker - and the "star" was Jamie Smith who thought he was Marlon Brando and that this little man at Michigan was an inferior breed. The actor was running through a scene and Mr. Windt stopped him to make a suggestion, but was cut off abruptly: "Hey, Val, I'm actin' here. Don't interrupt me when I'm actin'."

There was a horrified silence. Mr. Windt blushed to the hairline, and said quietly, "I'm sorry, please go on."

He never addressed another word to that actor. Smith turned in a performance that was self-centered and self-indulgent. He mumbled and slouched and scratched his crotch and upstaged anyone else in a scene with him. He was embarrassingly bad. I have often thought: he had an opportunity to learn something from a MASTER and threw it away. What a waste.

Just as an aside: in their zeal for the "inner truth," the successors to the Group Theatre under Lee Strasberg and his promulgation of "The Method" forgot one major thing: the performer is supposed to play for the audience, not for himself and if the spectators can not hear him or understand his mumbled speech, they might as well stay home and let him go ahead and act for himself with no audience to distract him.

Stanislavsky would have been disgusted with the perversion of his training that had evolved from his "method."

I have been ever grateful that Dude and I had the opportunity to study with and be directed by Valentine Windt; and I find great satisfaction that now some of our students are carrying on the philosophical and artistic heritage of our direct descent from Constantin Stanislavsky.

P.S. from Jim Bob: I just realized something. I have met three men in my life who carried about them an aura of greatness which set them apart form ordinary mortals: Joseph Maddy, Valentine Windt, and Thornton Wilder.

Composed 12 November 2008; Transcribed by Lucky

© Jim Bob Stephenson 2008

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