“Life beats down and crushes our souls,” said actor and legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner. “And theater reminds us that we have one.”
For 92 years the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre has been offering that constant reminder to its students who pass through their iconic red doors. Using the technique that Meisner developed and refined, the school has been training students, nurturing acting talent in a full-time conservatory setting.
Neighborhood Playhouse alumni are an impressive group. Just a few of them includes includes Mary Steenburgen, Robert Duvall, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Alison Janney, Joanne Woodward, Tony Randall, Ian Duff, Diane Keaton, Steve McQueen, Connie Britton, Jeff Goldblum, Sherie Rene Scott, Marian Seldes, Christopher Lloyd, Chris Noth, Dylan McDermott and on and on and on. As alum Gregory Peck once said, “actors who came out of the Neighborhood Playhouse “changed a great deal about American acting.”
In 1928 the first class, comprised of just nine students, was taught by some of the theater’s most illuminating artists: Agnes DeMille, Louis Horst, Laura Elliott, and Martha Graham.
In 1935 Meisner began teaching and served as Director Emeritus of the acting department until he passed away in1997. “He came to work each day and had a laboratory, if you will, in which to develop and refine his work,” shares Pamela Moller Kareman the current executive director of The Neighborhood Playhouse. “He was devoted to the craft and to training actors to be unselfconscious and free in their art. He found a perfect home for his astonishing talents, free from commercial and economic pressures.”
A force in her own right, since 2012 Kareman has carried the mantle of Meisner’s vision as the conservatory’s executive director. A Neighborhood Playhouse alum, Kareman studied with Meisner and is an accomplished director. When Kareman became the school’s executive director it was the first time in over 40 years that a woman was at the helm.
After taking the job she discovered a letter to her from Meisner in a box of old papers. In it he ended with, “Now comes the future. May it bring you a full and happy career. Yours, Sanford Meisner.” Kareman thought, “wow, the future has come and gone many times since then and look at this, I’m sitting in his office. Who would ever have thought?,” she shares. “I thank my lucky stars each day that I get to work at this quirky, authentic and ever evolving institution. They say you can’t go home again, but I am clear evidence that you indeed can.”
Jeryl Brunner: How does the school support women?
Pamela Moller Kareman: The Neighborhood Playhouse School of The Theatre was founded by Alice and Irene Lewisohn, in association with Rita Wallach Morgenthau. The school grew out of their beloved Neighborhood Playhouse Theatre which the Lewisohn’s built on Grand Street in 1915. These were all fierce, strong women. Rita Wallach Morgenthau remained as director from 1928 until her death in 1963 and was an enormous influence.
I am the first female director since then. Our faculty is now almost 50% women and I hired the first female Meisner acting teacher to work at the school and have since hired two more. The board is now 45% female as well. The teachers have also been challenged to find more female driven texts for use in the classroom as well as in the final productions. I am proud of the changes we are making although I know there is more we can do.
Brunner: What would you like people to know about The Neighborhood Playhouse?
Kareman: When a young actor walks into our building on East 54th Street they will immediately feel a sense of community. They will become a part of the ongoing history of The Playhouse and become connected to all the outstanding actors who trained here. The list is long and impressive. Our acting teachers were trained at The Playhouse by Meisner himself. The technique is practice-able and doable and in a way forces you to come to terms with the actor in you, the authentic you. The technique can be applied to everything you ever do. To every script you ever pick up: whether it be in musicals, TV, film or the digital world.
Brunner: Especially now, when it is so hard for arts programs to stay afloat, what specifically has contributed to the school’s success?
Kareman: During this challenging time, more than ever, we saw the importance of the arts. That the arts sustain us. We were bold. Challenged. Yes. But determined. Our final showcase of 2020, which was entirely virtual and produced by Sandy Faison, was a joy to behold. It broke new ground and represented The Playhouse in a whole new way.
There was a buzz that sparked a new interest in what was going on here and it was reminder of what had been going on here for decades. We own the building on East 54th Street so we were able to sustain it and make sure the doors could re-open again to in-person training as we just did in September. We even made the decision to tackle some long overdue work that needed to be done and improved our home during the pandemic.
Brunner: Why is it important for the school to be a conservatory with a two year training program, versus allowing people to take individual classes?
Kareman: Meisner always said it takes 20 years to become an actor. We work really hard here to do it in two. The challenging work that must go on in all the disciplines: acting, voice, speech and movement. It is a lifelong calling being an actor. You must learn to nurture your actor’s impulses and instincts and let them guide you. All of this takes time. Serious, devoted time. Our students are in the building from nine to six, five days a week, and on weekends if a play is happening. Plus the school gives you a chance to be part of something important, a serious ensemble if you will. Academy award winner and alumna Mary Steenburgen put it best: “The teachers take you on a journey that you could never make without them.”