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, chair of the drama department at Tisch. “They can stay within one methodology, or switch it up,” he continued. “You may be able to develop those tools in 15 years, but here you can compress that experience.” The compression comes at a steep price, however: one year of undergrad acting at N.Y.U. costs about $55,000.
For comparison, a full-time course load at most independent studios with no university affiliation costs a fraction of that. The T. Schreiber Studio, for example, charges $16,495 a year for its one-year conservatory program, while the fee for the one-year “Hagen Core Training” program at HB Studio, named for the performer and acting teacher Uta Hagen, is $13,500. The Neighborhood Playhouse charges about $16,500 annually for its two-year school.
Although the Playhouse might not be the star generator it was in its 20th-century heyday, its alumni system is vast, loyal and ever-present. Allison Janney has won multiple Emmy Awards and can be seen most recently in the movie “I, Tonya,” which was written by another Playhouse graduate, Steven Rogers. And millennials have a glimmer of hope in the success of the 2011 graduates Mackenzie Davis, who appeared in “Blade Runner 2049,” and Jasmine Cephas Jones, who played Peggy Schuyler in the Broadway cast of “Hamilton.”
A successful alumni network will no doubt help the Playhouse face the daunting task of maintaining the 1920s-era property it owns.
“It’s like driving a 1947 Chevy,” said Ms. Moller Kareman of the Playhouse, which has been on East 54th Street since Irene and Alice Lewisohn, its founders, bought the two adjacent buildings in Midtown in 1947. The Playhouse has five floors, including a light-filled dance studio designed by Martha Graham, as well as a 99-seat theater.
“We are all afraid of the roof caving in,” said Ms. Moller Kareman, who had to pay $20,000 to fix the building’s out-of-commission elevator when she was first hired. “The elevator guys said we don’t even have parts for this anymore,” she recalled.