HARVEY PERR, AND THE CONSEQUENCES OF SPEAKING OUT
Playwright-critic Harvey Perr has been dismissed from the Playwrights/Directors unit of the Actors Studio (West Coast branch), because of an email he wrote to the unit's moderator, playwright Lyle Kessler, questioning the wisdom of "mollycoddling" playwrights and what Perr described as the Unit's "moribund rules and regulations."
The Actors' Studio (a membership organization for professional actors, theater directors and playwrights) was founded in New York in 1947 by Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, Robert Lewis and Anna Sokolow. Lee Strasberg took charge in 1951.
Perr was invited to join the newly opened West Coast branch of the Actors Studio by moderator-playwright William Inge, shortly after it opened in 1965. The local branch is now run by artistic co-directors Mark Rydell and Martin Landau.
Perr had taken leave of the group for several months for reflection and
returned with a list of grievances that he expressed to Kessler in a
In that missive, Perr raised six contentions that he noted were shared
by other playwrights in the unit. His complaints included the
counter-productiveness of saying how every work being read is
"brilliant" when sometimes it's clearly not; play-readings that are over-staged and
over-produced, thereby muddying the playwrights' intent; and rules and
regulations that limit each reading to under an hour:
"A playwright spends weeks, months, maybe years writing a play," Perr
explained in his email to Kessler. "Shouldn't he/she hear what has been written, regardless of
length? Of course, one could ask actors into one's living room and have
it read to people whose opinion one respects, but then why have a PD
Unit at all? If I were listening to real plays by real playwrights, I'd
be willing to sit there for as long as it takes/ Hearing Act One and
then waiting six months to a year before hearing Act Two is downright
Perr closed his email with the following invitation: "If you would like
to talk to me about this, I welcome the exchange. Thank you for
The authorities were offended. Perr received the following reply from Kessler:
"I shared your e mail with Mark Rydell the co moderator of the PD Unit
and also Martin Landau. Since you are so unhappy, frustrated and
enraged at how we run the Unit and also since we do not intend to
change our approach, it was the consensus that you look for another
group that is more in keeping with your needs and desires. As of now
you are formally removed from the membership of the West Coast Actors
Studio Playwright/Directors Unit."
Perr is 72. He said that there had been no prior intrigue, no hint that
one letter to one person could lead to such a draconian outcome.
In his email reply to an inquiry from the L.A. Weekly, Kessler characterized Perr as a raging troublemaker who advocates brutality in the discussion of
playwrights' work. But the crux of the misunderstanding and misconstruing of tone may be Kessler's reference to Perr as a newcomer to the Unit ("Who needs and wants a new member filled with rage at everything we do and also walking around fomenting trouble in the Unit?") when Perr has actually been associated with the organization for 45 years. A newcomer calling for institutional changes can be justifiably perceived as arrogant. A veteran calling for changes cannot. Writes Kessler:
"Managing fifty playwright, fifty directors and a hundred Actors Studio actors is a not so
simple a task. The comments are constructive and supportive but
absolutely and unequivocally tough minded. But what we don't do is
destroy the writers ego as Harvey is advocating. His philosophy is the
opposite of ours. We do not review the plays. The activity of the
Playwrights/Directors Unit is all about process, The evolution and
growth of the writer. The Unit will not accept destructive comments.
Mark and I stop them. Strong, insightful comments, yes. Always. Not
superficial ones. Harvey when he was accepted a number of months ago
was given a paper called "The Rules of the Road," stating the rules
governing involvement in the Unit. It outlined our procedure. If
Harvey disagreed with these rules he could have questioned us and
dropped out if he was so opposed to them. We don't countenance
brutality. It serves no legitimate purpose. Harvey advocates
brutality. We are philosophically opposed."
Kessler is referring to the following sentences in Perr's letter,
"Sometimes a little brutality is the best medicine. To constantly tell
a writer that his/her writing is 'brilliant' or 'wonderful' when he/she
hasn't learned playwriting lesson #1 (that writing for the theater is
different from writing prose) is ridiculous."
Perr explained by telephone that he wasn't "advocating brutality" in
general, that he was using hyperbole to argue for a standard of
Kessler went on to complain that Perr had insulted the current leaders
of the organization, as well as the P/D Unit membership:
"Harvey goes on to say that no one in the audience has anything to say
and that they have never been in a theater for 40, 50 years, He is
intolerant of everyone in the Unit. And also, more to the point, he is walking around complaining and seeking out others who might have some complaints."
In all fairness, that isn't quite what Perr wrote. What he actually said
is, "Why do I get the feeling that most of the people who speak have
not set foot inside a theater for forty or fifty years?"
Tactful? Hardly. But that such expression should lead to a summary
dismissal does not speak well for the principle of freedom-of-speech
within a unit aimed to cultivate the kinds of artists whose job it is
to tell painful truths. Historically, the
role of the Actors' Studio and its Method acting approach, heavily
influenced by the Group Theatre in the 1930s, has been just that.
As Perr wrote to the Weekly in an email, "I may have, in my declaration of how long I've been connected to ASW, shown a bit of willful pride and should say five hail marys, but, hell, I'm not a nun, after all."
Perr replied to Kessler with he following explanation:
"First, I was encouraged to write to you after a series of
conversations with several other members of the unit. One even
suggested that if I spoke up, it would be like a breath of fresh air. I
guess it never occurred to that individual that the unit's leadership
was indifferent to the First Amendment. I must say that I was frankly
astonished that you didn't find a single kernel of truth in any of my
well-intentioned suggestions . . . Given the length of time I have been connected to ASW, I felt I should have at least been given the opportunity to
discuss this in a face-to-face confrontation."
Perr received no response to that email, but Kessler did receive written support for Perr from director/ASW-member Lee Grant, and a petition is
being circulated for Perr's reinstatement. Perr says he's now reluctant
to return unless he receives an apology for the rudeness with which he
was treated and some sense that the Actors Studio is at least open to
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
some suggestions that might "bring it into the 21st century." Meanwhile, Perr
has been working with a playwrights group established by John
Steppling, which will be presenting its members' plays at the Odyssey
Theatre in June.