“Perhaps the best way to define the impulse that found expression way back in the early efforts [of the Neighborhood Playhouse]… was theatre as idea rather than theatre as institution. An idea must be free, free to take on such form as cycles demand, free to speak through an individual, free to follow the dynamic dictates of its necessary limitations of a definite form – a more or less static outline within which individuals move, create, assemble, formulate.”
~Irene Lewisohn, 1930
The Neighborhood Playhouse, a major force in American theatre and theatre education since its inception, was founded in 1915 at the forefront of the American theatre renaissance. Created by philanthropists Alice and Irene Lewisohn, the original Playhouse was located in the famous Henry Street Settlement House. One of the first Off-Broadway theatres, the Playhouse was committed to community and devoted to renewing the roots of drama, mounting works both classic and modern.
From the theatre grew a desire to focus on training and, in 1928, The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre opened its doors. The Lewisohns entrusted the direction of the school to Rita Wallach Morgenthau, a long time board member and advisor to their theatre. The first class, comprised of only nine students, had the privilege of being taught by theatre luminaries Agnes DeMille, Louis Horst, Laura Elliott, and Martha Graham.
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatsoever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
~Martha Graham in a letter to Agnes DeMille
Martha Graham was one of the foremost pioneers of modern dance and is widely considered one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. She began working at the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1921 and joined the faculty upon the school’s inception. Today, her tradition is carried on with modern dance classes for both first- and second-year students.
“We at The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre believe that training in the voice and body movement are important tools for the actor as the means of conveying the most important element of our courses in dramatics – the ability to see into, understand and breathe life into a stage character. The thing about acting that moves audiences is the emphatic sense of the reality of the human being who is being portrayed.”
In 1935, Sanford Meisner, one of the founding members of The Group Theatre (along with Stella Adler, Bobby Lewis, Harold Clurman, and Lee Strasberg), joined the faculty of The Neighborhood Playhouse. Over the years, he developed and refined what is now known as the Meisner Technique, a step-by-step procedure of self-investigation for the actor now globally recognized and among the foremost of modern acting techniques.
Meisner believed that the study of the actor’s craft was rooted in acquiring a solid organic acting technique. It was a cornerstone of his teaching that this learning process occur not in a theoretical, abstract manner, but in the practical give and take of the classroom, where as he once said, “the students struggled to learn what I struggled to teach.” Through that struggle the gifted student, over time gradually begins to emerge solidly in his or her work.
In 1965 Broadway giant Robert Whitehead, who, over a 50-year career produced landmark productions of everything from Arthur Miller to Euripides to Terrence McNally, and who received a 2002 Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, became the President of the Board of Directors.
Sanford Meisner retired in 1990 and served as Director Emeritus of the Acting Department until his death in 1997. Today his legacy lives on in the continuation of his training, being taught to incoming students each year in The Neighborhood Playhouse’s Two Year Program.
At The Neighborhood Playhouse soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines seeking professional actor training have excelled and played a vital role in establishing and maintaining our legacy of excellence. We have had the honor of many US veterans attending over the years under the GI Bill and presently under the Post 9/11 GI Bill. Many US Veteran graduates have become outstanding members of the entertainment community and some have become Hollywood stars and cinematic icons such as Robert Duvall, Steve McQueen, Albert Paulsen, Gerard O’Laughlin, and Tucker Smallwood to name a few.
Important Facts & Dates in Playhouse History
1915 – Alice & Irene Lewisohn form The Neighborhood Playhouse on the Lower East Side at the famous Henry Street Settlement House
1921 - Martha Graham began to dance and choreograph performances at the The Neighborhood Playhouse downtown.
1928 - The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre is founded by the Lewisohn sisters in association with Rita Wallach Morgenthau
1928 - Martha Graham joins the faculty along with Louis Horst & Anna Sokolow
1928 - 1963 Rita Wallach Morgenthau, Executive Director of the school
1935 - Sanford Meisner joins the faculty
1947 - The Neighborhood Playhouse purchases and moves to its present location on E. 54th Street
1963 - 1981 Paul Morrison, Executive Director of the school
1965 - 2002 Robert Whitehead, President of the Board of Directors
1981 - 2012 Harold G. Baldridge, Executive Director of the school
1995 - Sanford Meisner retired from the faculty and was appointed Director Emeritus
2008 - 80th Anniversary Gala at Tavern on the Green
2012 - Present Pamela Moller Kareman, Executive Director of the school