It Takes A Neighborhood

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Communicating on Fifth Avenue. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021. A very warm (but not humid) early Autumn day, yesterday in New York, with lots of sunshine, and remaining in the high 70s into the late evening. Traffic in the Upper East Side was very heavy and slow moving. I mention this because although we’re used to a lot of traffic in New York, at this time of year, it seems  (massively) heavier than usual, and in many cases barely moving. This is good news … unless of course you’re in a car or bus on your way to somewhere you might very well have been late for your appointments. Although, if you were on bicycle (now many of which are motorized) or scooter (also many of which are now motorized), you had the advantage time-wise.

Last Monday, traffic or no traffic, President Bill Clinton was in town and attending a reading of “Waiting For Lefty” by Clifford Odets at the Neighborhood Playhouse for an event to celebrate Sanford Meisner who first directed the play at the Longacre Theater in 1935. The event was staged to celebrate Meisner’s career and the return of in-person classes; and also to unveil the first phase of capital improvements made at the acting school last over the last year to its facility at 340 East 54th Street. President Clinton’s nephew, Tyler Clinton, is a recent graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse.

Neighborhood Playhouse Executive Director Pamela Koller Kareman, Alumnus Tyler Clinton, and President Bill Clinton.
Neighborhood Playhouse Executive Director Pamela Koller Kareman and Alumnus Ian Duff.
Cast and Playhouse members with President Bill Clinton.
Mary and Matt McCoy.

The Playhouse had opened its red doors for a “Red Door Reading” to welcome a group of alumni, students, faculty, and board members for a reading of Odets’ provocative one-act play directed and performed by Playhouse Alumni. Directed by Shannon McMahon Lichte, the cast included Ali Ahmed, Audrey Arnold, Tyler Clinton, Ian Duff, Steven He, Allison Mackie, Matt McCoy, Nicola Rossi, Aria Shahghasemi, Todd Susman and Christina Toth.

The play, which was Odets’ first work to be produced was first performed in January, 1935 here in New York before an audience of 1400 at the Civic Repertory Theatre on 14th Street. The following March 26th, it opened at the Longacre Theater on Broadway under the auspices of the Group Theatre, of which Meisner was a charter member, as was Odets. It was a New York theatre company, later legendary, founded by Meisner, Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawfordl, Stella Adler, Bobby Lewis and Lee Strasburg.

The company had been founded as a training ground for actors, as well a support for new plays, especially plays that expressed the social and political climate of the day — which later became controversial during the House of un-American Activities Committee of Congress in the early 1950s. At the time, the play brought a fierce new political consciousness to the American Stage.

It was in the middle of the Great Depression, and Odets’ play consisted of a series of related vignettes framed by a meeting of cab drivers planning a labor strike. It was regarded as very left-wing, as were some the Group Theatre’s members. It launched Clifford Odets’ career and he went on to write several famous plays including Awake and Sing, Golden Boy and later moved to Hollywood where he wrote and directed films.

Centered around a meeting of cab drivers planning a labor strike, the play, the Neighborhood Playhouse’s Executive Director Pamela Moller Kareman said, “We are overjoyed to welcome students, faculty, and alumni back to The Playhouse this fall.” Director Shannon McMahon Lichte pointed out that “Many of the theses of this play are as relevant today as they were 85 years ago. It addresses the concepts of fair pay, the struggles of extreme poverty, and those who rise up to fight the injustice of their times.”

Board Members and Company of The Neighborhood Playhouse.
L. to r.: Sandy Faison and Tom Stewart; Neighborhood Playhouse Executive Director Pamela Koller Kareman and Alumnus Ian Duff.
Matthew Carnahan.

The Neighborhood Playhouse was founded in 1915 by two sisters, Irene and Alice Lewisohn. It was one of the very first off-Broadway theatres, committed to community; and devoted to renewing the roots of drama, mounting works both classic and modern. Alice was also an actress, and they began their first acting classes at the Henry Street Settlement House where they produced both dance and dramas.

In 1928, the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre opened its doors under the direction of Rita Wallach Morgenthau who was a board member of the Lewisohn sisters’ theatre. The first class had nine students and its staff consisted of Agnes DeMille (a niece of legendary film director Cecil B. DeMille), Louis Horst, Laura Elliott and Martha Graham. Graham had started working with the Lewisohn sisters in 1921. Her tradition continues to be carried on with modern dance classes for both first and second-year students.

The original Neighborhood Playhouse on Grand Street, 1917. The collection of the Library of Congress

In 1947, the Neighborhood Playhouse moved to its present location on East 54th Street. During the pandemic, The Playhouse was able to undertake a crucial capital project thanks to an extraordinary gift of $500,000 made in the form of a bequest from alumni William Paulson who passed away in 2019. His gift is the largest donation from an alumnus in Playhouse history.

The successful completion of this project, however, was made possible thanks to the guidance and generous philanthropic donations from members of The Playhouse Board of Directors: Doris Blum Gorelick, Michael McCulley, Shannon McMahon Lichte, Heather Randall and the Tony Randall Theatrical Fund, Steven Rogers, and Thomas Stewart; a special gift from the family of Playhouse alumna Joanne Woodward; and with dedicated funds from The Playhouse’s capital reserves.

Building on the momentum of the last year, plans are underway to launch a wider-reaching campaign to raise the funds needed for the next phase of building improvements including the renovation of The Rita Morgenthau Theatre at The Neighborhood Playhouse.

President Bill Clinton with Board Member Heather Randall.
Maureen and Tom Stewart with President Clinton.

The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre’s acclaimed alumni is star-studded including Eli Wallach, Robert Duvall, Steve McQueen, Gregory Peck, Joanne Woodward, Carol Channing, Sidney Pollack, Keir Dullea, Diane Keaton, Tony Randall, James Caan, Marian Seldes, David Mamet, Lee Grant, Farley Granger, Tom Poston, Anne Jackson, Suzanne Pleshette, Tammy Grimes, Elizabeth Ashley, Dabney Coleman, Grace Kelly, Ken Kercheval, Kim Basinger, Pamela Bellwood, Burt Reynolds, Brenda Vaccaro, Griffin Dunne, Edmund O’Brien, Andre Gregory, Tina Louise, Sally Jesse Raphael, Jeff Goldblum, Mary Steenburgen, Ian Duff, Steven Rogers, Jennifer Grey, Allison Janey, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton, Christopher Meloni, Chris Noth, Christopher Lloyd and many more — including a not so star-studded but grateful alumni after one year, David Patrick Columbia who was a student of Sandy Meisner, William Esper and Eddie Moor.

It was a brief career for this briefly actor, but Sandy Meisner also recommended two of the greatest teachers I ever experienced in my life who were not part of the faculty but who made a deep and lasting impression: John Mace, teacher of Voice, and David Craig who taught dozens of Broadway stars how to perform a lyric. Unforgettable, that’s what they were.

Robert Duvall, far left, front row, in class at the Neighborhood Playhouse with Sanford Meisner, seated at the table, in 1957. Photo: Neighborhood Playhouse School for the Theater
Meisner and class in session in the ’80s.

On October 18, 2018, The New York City Council honored The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre and Sanford Meisner with a Proclamation in recognition of The Neighborhood Playhouse’s 90 years of outstanding work and the profound contributions of Sanford Meisner.

The Neighborhood Playhouse remains the most respected acting school in the country and first among all professional training programs.

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