Juilliard Drama: A Treasure Chest of Instinct and Tools

Tuesday, Sep 26, 2017
Roger Oliver
Juilliard Journal
Michel Saint-Denis and John Houseman
Michel Saint-Denis (left) and John Houseman at a Drama Division retreat in 1968 at Wykeham Ryse School in Washington, Conn. A few weeks later, Group 1 arrived at Juilliard.

The invitation came with a condition. William Schuman and the planners of the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts wanted Juilliard to become its conservatory component, but needed theater to be represented along with music and dance. Just as Juilliard’s Dance Division had pioneered teaching dancers to be adept in both classical ballet and modern dance, the Drama Division would train actors to be equally at home in the classical repertory and modern vernacular drama. Two giants of the theater world, John Houseman and Michel Saint-Denis, were entrusted with bringing this new program to life.

Fifty years later, much has changed in the Juilliard Drama Division. For example, more than 600 students applied for the 35 places in Group 1, while over 2,000 auditioned for the 18 slots in Group 50. And yet the principles articulated by Saint-Denis at the beginning still hold true today, “We are trying to form an actor equipped with all possible means of dramatic production, capable of meeting the demands of today’s and tomorrow’s ever-changing theater—an actor who is capable of participating in these changes and inventive enough to contribute to them.”

The four-year curriculum instituted by Houseman (1902-88) and Saint-Denis (1897-1971) was based on training methods that Saint-Denis and his wife, Suria (1902-87), had devised for conservatories in France, England, and Canada. In addition to acting classes, the students were to receive instruction in voice and speech work, singing, stage movement and combat, mask work, the Alexander Technique, and other forms of theatrical expression. Houseman and Saint-Denis recruited an internationally renowned faculty, three of whom, Michael Kahn, Elizabeth Smith, and Moni Yakim, continue to work with today’s drama students. The current faculty also boasts graduates of the division who help transmit its legacy to current classes. Outstanding guest directors were brought in to further the actors’ development outside the classroom.

The success of the program was immediately apparent when Houseman and Margot Harley, the division’s first administrative director, formed The Acting Company with members of Group 1, the first graduating class, at its core. Since its inception in 1972, the company has performed almost 150 productions for over three million audience members in 48 states and 10 countries. Although it’s no longer primarily composed of Juilliard actors, the company continues to be home to many Drama Division alumni.

When Houseman stepped down as director in 1976, he was succeeded by Alan Schneider, known for his productions of works by playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee. Schneider was succeeded in 1979 by Michael Langham, who was renowned as the artistic director of the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, and who brought a greater emphasis on acting Shakespeare to the curriculum.

When Langham retired in 1992, Michael Kahn, who taught the third-year acting class and was artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C. (he’ll retire from that position at the end of the 2019 season), became the fourth director of the division, a position now named after the legendary musical-theater composer Richard Rodgers (’24, music theory). One of Kahn’s first innovations was to transform the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program. Begun under Langham as a residency for young playwrights—including Ellen McLaughlin and Tony Kushner, whose Angels in America: Millennium Approaches was given its New York premiere in a fourth-year production directed by current acting director Richard Feldman—the program now brought young writers to Juilliard for one or two years with the possibility of earning an Artist Diploma. The first year was directed by John Guare and Terrence McNally, who were succeeded in 1994 by Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang. When Durang retired in 2016, Norman was joined as co-director by David Lindsay-Abaire, an alumnus of the program.

In 2006, Kahn became emeritus director of the division while continuing to teach acting in a series of eagerly anticipated master classes. The next director, James Houghton, had created and built the Signature Theater into one of the most important and distinctive producing entities in the country. Houghton continued as artistic director of the Signature and forged an ongoing relationship between the two institutions. He also placed increased emphasis on the relationship between the Drama Division and the rest of Juilliard.

Among the innovations Houghton brought to Juilliard was an expansion of the audition process to include an intensive weekend round of callbacks in which prospective candidates could be further evaluated while experiencing the kind of classes they would have if admitted. At the same time those students chosen to form the next Drama Division group no longer faced the pressure of not being asked to return after the second year. In order to foster a greater sense of community, Houghton created a weekly meeting for students from all four years. Many of these sessions were readings of work by the Juilliard playwrights by current acting students and alumni, achieving Houghton’s goal of integrating the playwrights more fully into the overall mission of the divisions. At other meetings, guest speakers shared their experiences and perspectives.

In terms of performance, Houghton added a second Shakespeare production at the end of the third year to ensure more significant casting opportunities and to allow students to perform the two plays in repertory. The final slot of the fourth-year schedule now became a repertory of three plays—contemporary and classic—performed over two weeks. Houghton also expanded Kahn’s initiative to make the Drama student body more diverse, paralleling efforts made by the school as a whole. While the Drama Division was always unique in mixing undergraduate BFA students with college graduates pursuing an Artist Diploma, in 2012 an MFA program was established that combined the established actor-training program with a series of graduate-level seminars. Since Houghton’s untimely death in 2016, the division has been led by acting director Richard Feldman and managing director Kathy Hood, who had succeeded longtime administrative director Harold Stone when he retired in 2001.

One of the hallmarks of the Juilliard presidency of Joseph W. Polisi, as articulated in his book The Artist as Citizen, is the importance of civil awareness and community involvement on the part of performing artists. Students and alumni of the Drama Division have enthusiastically embraced this philosophy, and in addition to their humanitarian activities, Juilliard actors continue to distinguish themselves at the highest levels. Although prizes and awards are not the only way of acknowledging artistic excellence, the Pulitzer Prizes given to Juilliard playwriting alumni and the Tony, Academy Award, and Emmy nominations and awards as well as Obie citations that acting alumni continue to receive suggest the central role the Juilliard Drama Division continues to perform in theater, film, and television. The philosophy of the division today was summed up by Houghton when he wrote, “I want to see actors and playwrights coming out of this school with an absolute passion and joy connected to the craft of theater-making. I want to see them having honed their instincts, developing what is uniquely their point of view, and I want them to walk out of here having a process that they can lean on—that they leave this school with a treasure chest of instinct and tools to back up that instinct. But more than anything—or in addition to that, and central—is a passion and a joy.”

Roger Oliver has been a member of the liberal arts and drama faculties since 1985 and 1992 respectively. He is also an author, editor, and the founding humanities director for the Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival.