Acting Studios Are Struggling. Does It Matter?

For much of the 20th century in New York, independent acting studios, many of them inspired by the Russian theater master Constantin Stanislavsky and the formation of the Group Theater, trained actors who revolutionized the craft and became marquee names, like Marlon Brando and Ellen Burstyn. But gradually, several of these studios joined forces with universities (Stella Adler was the first to go collegiate, in 1972), where their budgets and institutional power dwarfed the reach of the independent institutions. Meanwhile colleges outside of New York also started to offer theater degrees.

“The colleges became our bigger competition,” said Pamela Moller Kareman, executive director of the Neighborhood Playhouse. Applications for the Playhouse’s conservatory program, based on the techniques of its renowned teacher Sanford Meisner (a Stanislavsky protégé who died in 1997), started to decrease about 10 years ago, she said. The school has responded by investing in recruitment and relying on its star-studded alumni system for support (last April, Joanne Woodward established a scholarship there).

“The acting studios that do not have a university alignment are squeezed,” said Emma Dunch, a fund-raising expert for arts and cultural organizations. Successful acting programs affiliated with higher education include Playwrights Horizons, at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and the Actors Studio, at Pace University. (The Actors Studio, the legendary free-membership organization whose founding artistic director, Lee Strasberg, perfected the Method Acting technique, is only for professional actors, but also offers a three-year M.F.A. program through Pace.)

“It allowed us to expand,” said Tom Oppenheim, artistic director of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, about its 45-year partnership with N.Y.U. The school, which counts Elaine Stritch, Warren Beatty and, more recently, Bryce Dallas Howard, among its former students, has four theaters, a professional-quality set design space, and eight rehearsal rooms. Mr. Oppenheim said that he wants to transform the school into more of a cultural institution, rebranding it as the Stella Adler Center for the Arts, and relocating to an even bigger space.

Since N.Y.U. is affiliated with several independent studios, its undergraduate students can travel “through the studio network” to learn different acting techniques after two years, said Rubén Polendo,…

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