when i started In-Stage about three years ago, the intention was to create a permanent company of actors which would train together, play together and develop together. A company that would deliberately “experiment” for the best reason of all: to see what happens. A company that might uncover some new plays, and some new kinds of plays.
Like most Americans born in the early Thirties, I had been brought up to revere the shattering achievement of the American Group Theatre. It is important to understand what the Group means to present-day American producers. In understanding that, one begins to understand why some of us knock ourselves out the way we do.
The awe-inspiring fact about the Group Theatre was that it began with practically nothing (a 1,000-dollar grant from the Theatre Guild) and soon developed a glittering ensemble studded with players like Franchot Tone, John Garfield, Lee J. Cobb, Stella Adler and Elia Kazan; and animated by the efforts of Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, the former being perhaps the greatest teacher of our time, and the latter one of the best (accidental) directors to come out of America. Given such an aggregation, it was inevitable that the company would revolutionise the theatre of the Thirties and condition the American theatre forever after. (The leading lights of the Actor’s Studio today are mostly Group alumni.) Just as it was to be expected that a company of such proportions would spawn writing talents the calibre of Clifford Odets, William Saroyan, Sidney Howard and Maxwell Anderson.
This was part of the Group legend, the part that blinded as it inspired the young Americans of the forties and fifties. The other part of the story was that the Group had been riddled by internal conflicts and relentless outside pressures, betrayed by many of its members, and forsaken by its best. And that, far from being a consistent permanent company, it was an erratic, economically-hounded aggregation of changing individuals and conflicting ideas.
In my hind-sighted diagnosis, I believe two things killed the Group Theatre. One was selfinterest on the part of the more celebrated members, and the other, lack of foresight on the part of the economic rulers of the American theatre (which at that time, included the Democratic administration). Given comprehensive government-subsidy and encouragement, the Lincoln Centre (now going up in New York) could have been in operation three decades ago, and the Group Theatre could today be the modern equivalent of the Comedie Francaise of the latter 17th century. But that is another story altogether.
In-Stage started as the Method Workshop at the top of a pub off Fitzroy Square. After six months of intensive training during which fifteen British actors learned, through improvisation and exercise, how to unmask themselves, the group presented its first play: Gogol’s Marriage. The next production was a modern-dress adaptation of Machiavelli’s Mandragola for which Cecil Gee kindly supplied suits free of charge. There followed a period of revamping; continued training and experimentation. Incongruously (I see it now), the group trained along realistic lines and yet when it came to production, mounted stylised works like those of Gogol and Machiavelli. We were even then trying to break that umbilical cord that the Method has with stark, naturalistic drama. But it was too soon to break away and so
In 1959, we were taken under the wing of the British Drama League, given a little studiotheatre (at a nominal rate) and temporarily freed of financial pressures by a grant from the St. Pancras Borough Council. We presented a stylised revue called Under the Influence which drew favourable notices from the weeklies, and was then invited to Dublin where it flopped. We followed that with the British premiere of Arthur Miller’s first play The Man Who Had All The Luck. We have just recently introduced the works of Murray Schisgal to London in a triplebill called Schrecks. This production was, in one sense, extremely successful and in another, maddeningly futile. ABC Television scooped up the longest of the Schisgal one-acters and the writer’s next play was optioned by a commercial management for West End production next September. In-Stage received prestige, thanks, and critical acknowledgment but no wherewithal with which to delve into the future, and I learned the inestimable value of the written contract.