The Actors’ Play

by Pat Launer April 3, 2017


awake-and-sing-pre-production-shot-table_v1The current production at New Village Arts is all about legacy. And family.

“Last season,” says NVA artistic director Kristianne Kurner, “we were exploring the American experience, to help us see where we are now in light of where we’ve been. And I came across ‘Awake and Sing,’ by Clifford Odets, which was perfect.

“It’s centered on family – a family of immigrants. And it was one of the first shows produced by the Group Theatre, which is a direct lineage of my acting training and style.”

The Group Theatre first produced “Awake and Sing” 82 years ago (the anniversary was in February). That influential troupe spawned the Actors Studio (which you probably know from the long-running “Inside the Actors Studio” show on tv). Kurner was in the first graduating class of the Actors Studio Drama School’s three-year MFA program at the New School University in New York. She graduated 20 years ago.

The Group Theatre was a New York-based theater collective formed in 1931 by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg, who were pioneers of a forceful, naturalistic, highly disciplined acting technique derived from the teachings of the great Russian actor/director Konstantin Stanislavski. It was “an American acting technique” that would come to be known as The Method, or Method Acting.

Many of the founding members of Group Theatre would go on to acclaim as the Who’s Who of American theater acting and teaching: Clifford Odets, Will Geer, Morris Carnovsky, Sanford Meisner, Marc Blitzstein, Luther Adler, John Garfield, Lee J. Cobb and Howard Da Silva, and others. Most of them were Jewish.

Despite its successes and extensive future impact on American theater, by 1940 impending war, the lure of Hollywood, a lack of institutional funding and friction between members of the Group eventually led to its demise.

After the war, in 1947, Robert Lewis, Elia Kazan and Cheryl Crawford re-grouped as the Actors Studio, and refined the techniques inspired by Stanislavski and developed in the Group Theatre. Under the leadership of Lee Strasberg, the Group’s Method acting emerged as a lasting force in modern drama.

“My main mentor,” says Kurner, referring to her Actors Studio education, “was David Gideon, Lee Strasberg’s protégé. Fran [her ex-husband, Francis Gercke, co-founder of New Village Arts] and I auditioned and were accepted into the first class. There were only 20 of us at first, but 35 graduated in 1997.

“We took classes from Ellen Burstyn. In fact, she married us. Arthur Penn [director/producer] was there, and James Lipton [writer, actor, dean emeritus of the Actors Studio Drama School and, at age 90, still executive producer, writer and host of the Bravo cable tv series, ‘Inside the Actors Studio,’ which debuted in 1994].

“Jim [Lipton] did the ‘Inside the Actors Studio’ shows in the same basement room where we had classes. I was there when he interviewed Sally Field, Dennis Hopper, Robert Redford, Jessica Lange, Gene Wilder and Neil Simon. I even got to share a cookie with Paul Newman.

“In this environment,” Kurner continues, “I was steeped in the history of the Actors Studio, and I devoted myself to the way David taught the Strasberg Method. For this play, which stems directly from The Group Theater, I’ve run rehearsals using Actors Studio exercises.

“That means always basing the work off yourself. Start with yourself, what your natural impulses would be in the dramatic situation, and act on that. Then ask, ‘How is this character different from me?’ And that will help you attain a truthful reflection of life onstage.

“Actors have to do the homework and create the world of the play for themselves. Some directors can take away from the actor’s individuality; this approach encourages the actor’s point of view, then allows shaping by the director who has the grand overview of the whole piece. Actors take more responsibility and have more freedom; they’re a very active part of the process from day one. This approach, which is fantastically grounded and real, also helps actors learn their lines quickly and organically.

“The Method has gotten a really bad name, and at times, it’s been used as an excuse to misbehave. But at the heart of it, it’s a really outstanding technique. Starting my own theater was inspired by the Group Theatre. It’s a way of working I wanted to share. Why I do what I do is directly related to the Group Theatre and the Actors Studio, which together, represent the moment that American acting changed, and became really living onstage. And this play is considered to be one of the greats of American theater.”

Odets and “Awake and Sing”

Clifford Odets was born in 1906 to Russian and Romanian Jewish immigrants; his father’s birth name was Gorodetsky. Young Clifford dropped out of high school to become an actor, and went on to be a founding member of The Group Theatre, where he became the primary playwright.

He once said, “My chief influence as a playwright was the Group Theatre acting company and being a member of that company … And you can see the Group Theatre acting technique crept right into the plays.”

Odets was widely viewed as the successor to the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill. Odets’ socially relevant dramas were extremely influential, especially during the Great Depression. In his focus on regular folks, on character over plot, the use of humor even in dramatic situations, and the search for meaning in life, he was clearly influenced by the Russian master Anton Chekhov.

Continuing the legacy, the work of Odets inspired the next several generations of American playwrights, including Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon, David Mamet and Jon Robin Baitz (all Jewish). But in the early 1940s, Odets moved to Hollywood and focused his energy on film projects. In New York, he began to be eclipsed by playwrights such as Miller, Tennessee Williams and William Inge. 

His first produced play was “Waiting for Lefty” (1935), a series of interconnected scenes depicting taxi drivers, and based on an actual union strike. The drama touched on the toll taken by the Depression and anti-Semitism. It has been disparaged as left-wing propaganda by some, but the play remains an icon of the agit-prop (agitation/propaganda) genre and is widely anthologized.

Like all Odets’ plays, “Lefty” deals with the human spirit, and characters’ perseverance in the face of a daunting opponent (often, the capitalist system).

“Awake and Sing,” also produced in 1935, is generally regarded as Odets’ masterwork. According to Ellen Schiff, author of “From Stereotype to Metaphor: The Jew in Contemporary Drama” (1982), ‘Awake and Sing’ was “the earliest quintessential Jewish play outside the Yiddish theater.”

“Awake and Sing” was unique in its focus on a Jewish family, its use of colloquial dialogue and street dialect, and Odets’ choice to open the play in the middle of a conversation and situation, with no introductory/expository background.

Set in the Bronx, New York, 1933, “Awake and Sing” concerns the extended, impoverished Berger family, all living under one roof. Many of the conflicts are inter-generational; some stem from the matriarch’s scheme to manipulate her children’s relationships in order to fulfill her own dreams for the family. Her offspring have different goals, and want to work toward realizing their own dreams.

Bessie, the mother, is aggressive and controlling, but underneath all her chutzpah and bravado, she desperately fears that they will lose their home and possessions, just like a neighbor down the street. Other family crises include an unmarried daughter, an unwanted pregnancy, an immigrant boarder, an arranged marriage and a Marxist grandpa. The household may be viewed as a microcosm of society, the idealists clashing with the realists, materialists with the pragmatists. The play also shows how values can become blurred and perceptions can change with experience.

Odets comes to Carlsbad

“For me,” says Kurner, “the story of the family is so alive. I’m always attracted to plays about people searching for home or a sense of home. I love the richness of this family, the conflict between the generations, and the effort of all of them to try to make something of their life.

“All the characters are struggling to find their own version of the American Dream, and still be true to the family. It’s a family of immigrants, working toward what they believe is right.

“How relevant is that today, when we’re seeing the same themes again, revealing the cyclical nature of history. Although I chose the play more than a year ago, the political side of the piece has only grown since the election. It’s a play steeped in history, but it completely speaks to the moment.”

For this production, the first in San Diego in recent memory, Carlsbad-based New Village Arts is partnering with the Leichtag Foundation and the annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival. Leichtag’s Immigrant Artist program is providing a lobby display, and the Festival is offering Surround Events, including talks by Yale Strom and political playwright/UC San Diego professor Allan Havis.

In considering her production of “Awake and Sing,” Kurner says “this is yummy material for actors. They get to really delve into these characters. It’s completely an ensemble piece, which has always been my passion. There’s no one star. There are nine actors, and each stands out in some way, but it takes the whole for the play to work. These performers are at the top of their game, truly collaborating to create a magic experience.

“There are some very funny moments. Odets’ use of humor is very effective. He believed that art could help transform the culture. Each character, in searching for a better life, has a different view of what that might look like, and of what we can do to make the world a better place.

“There’s a shocking ending, a reflection of taking life into your own hands and deciding between love and what’s ethically and morally right.

“I see the play as a reminder to live your life to the fullest. Be grateful for the people around you. Find out what you believe and go for it. In other words, Awake and sing!” 

“Awake and Sing” runs at New Village Arts in Carlsbad through April 16. Tickets and information can be found at (760) 433-3245 or

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