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Tom Oppenheim Discusses the Stella Adler Studio's Off-Broadway Debut

Tom-OppenheimAfter 62 years, the Stella Adler Studio of Acting is making its Off-Broadway debut. The studio's artistic director Tom Oppenheim, Adler's grandson, took over the school 15 years ago with a mission to bring vibrant, professional-level theater to the studio. With the creation of the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater in 2001, the studio began producing professional shows internally.

One of 2010's works, Israel Horovitz's "Lebensraum," received funding from an independent donor, and now the studio is bringing the Holocaust-themed show Off-Broadway. Oppenheim spoke with "Back Stage" about what producing theater Off-Broadway means for the studio and Adler's legacy.

Back Stage: Why did you decide to present a show Off-Broadway now?

Tom Oppenheim: The Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater has been productive for five years, doing 3 shows a year here. Really it has to do with opportunity. We've been champing at the bit to build this theater company and present ourselves to the bigger community for some time. And we did this show last year, and we happened to get funding to move it.

Back Stage: How did you choose this show?

Oppenheim: We did it in the Harold Clurman Festival of the Arts in 2010. [Stella Adler's second husband] Harold Clurman was a co-founder of The Group Theatre. A lot of the work has to do with a sense of being socially engaged, being connected to the world in terms of issues of the day. For example, the way the Group Theatre did theater.

A cast member, Aidan Koehler, who is a [Harold Clurman Lab] company member, gave me the play. It has enormous social relevance. It's also an extraordinary theatrical production. Three actors play 50 different characters. It's essentially about war and peace, peace and reconciliation, and the effort to achieve reconcilliation. The deep question at the heart of it is: What might actors do in the face of atrocity and injustice?

Back Stage: How has the production changed from its festival presentation?

Oppenheim: Not much. We're really able to replicate the set in the Abingdon. There's some more technical abilities that we have in the Abingdon that we didn't have in our little black box theater. You want to stay alive in the new space. In spirit, it's grows out of its original incarnation.

Back Stage: Was anything keeping you from bringing your Lab productions Off-Broadway before?

Oppenheim: Just funding. We would have moved anything that we had Off-Broadway, and we feel consistently that the work we do is worthy of an Off-Broadway house.

Back Stage: Do you hope to continue bringing your shows Off-Broadway?

Oppenheim: Absolutely. Now that we've done this, we want to continue to try to fund our shows and do them Off-Broadway. We want to present ourselves as a bona fide, vital, relevant, active theater company and take our place alongside other such companies.

We have another theater company called the Harold Clurman Center for New Works in Movement and Dance Theater (MAD). We have a piece that we're hoping to raise funds for and put it Off-Broadway immediately. We're intent on moving our professional work out of the school and into an Off-Broadway setting.

Back Stage: Who is typically involved in the studio's professional shows?

Oppenheim: It's alumni, staff, faculty, and outsiders. The piece that we're doing right now has Adam Gerber and Aidan Koehler, who are two former students, and Mickey Ryan, who has never studied with us but who we auditioned and is just absolutely terrific.

When I took over the studio 15 years ago, I wanted to make sure the studio didn't degenerate into a wax museum devoted to Stella's memory. I wanted it to be a living, breathing extension of her spirit. The question that I posed to myself was: What does it mean to be the Stella Adler Studio of Acting today? The first thing I did was relinquish dogma. I didn't make having studied with Stella a requirement for teaching here. And then I identified what we would use as our guidepost for the future. What guides us in terms of how we move forward? The spirit of her work. For me it's summed up in the insight that growth as an actor and growth as a human being are synonymous. That vitalized us enormously.

Back Stage: What sorts of plays do you want to produce?

Oppenheim: We want to do plays that are reflected in our curriculum. We want to do classical plays, and we want to do realistic plays. We've done Shakespeare. We've done Thornton Wilder. We also have something called the Harold Clurman Playwrights Division. That playwriting division has a resident playwright, and part of the residency includes that we do a Harold Clurman Lab production of a script of a resident playwright's choice.

With MAD, that's avant-garde, movement-oriented theater. We have a great emphasis on movement and conceived work in our curriculum.

Back Stage: How do you think it enriches the training curriculum to produce professional theater?

Oppenheim: It produces a sense of the next step after training. The mission of the studio is to create an environment that nurtures theater artists, and I think it contributes to that environment to be around productions and to be around the passion to produce theater.

Back Stage: Do you think producing theater Off-Broadway is something Stella would have wanted to do?

Oppenheim: Absolutely. She several efforts in her lifetime, and I think there was always in the back of her mind a sense that producing professional theater would be an important extension of her work. She did a famous, well-produced "Johnny Johnson" with her students .She did a really important "Alice in Wonderland" adaptation. I think this is something she would be absolutely delighted by.

Really the Adler family, we're known for acting. But really we could also be known for building. We've been building theater and building theaters from all the way back in the 1880s in Odessa, in England, and the lower east side of Manhattan. I'm proud and pleased to be able to continue that particular part of the legacy.

"Lebensraum" is slated to run at the Abingdon Theatre Complex's June Havoc Theater, 312 W. 36th St., from Oct. 29-Nov. 20. (212) 868-4444. www.smarttix.com.


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