by Sarah Halford, Lang ’14

“I can only work against bourgeois society. I can never work with it or through it.”

–Erwin Piscator

Born into Germany’s Weimar Republic in 1893, Erwin Piscator quickly became involved in the arts. First studying art history before he moved on to theater history and directing, Piscator’s approach was socially conscious and politically relevant. Shortly after attempting an acting career, he was drafted into the German army – where he became undeniably aware of the need to find modes of political expression.

Coming back from the war to Berlin, Piscator teamed up with the proletarian Volksbühne and eventually the Piscator-bühne on Nollendorfplatz in order to create work that supported his political beliefs. Although highly controversial, his productions were critically acclaimed; no one could deny that this was a man who would leave his mark on German theatrical history.

After founding and directing the Piscator Dramatic Academy, he went on to teach for a short three years (1936-38) at the German university in Paris. But by 1939, America was calling. Alvin Johnson, the director of the New School for Social Research in New York, began talks with Piscator about incorporating drama courses into the curriculum. A short time after, the Dramatic Workshop was born.

In his twelve years in America, Piscator grew the Dramatic Workshop to be one of the most popular and well-known schools of drama in the country. He is remembered as an excitable man with a fiery attitude, whose love of directing could not be stopped. Though he was one of the founders of the program, he insisted on directing many of the school’s productions. Additionally, he holds two Broadway credits: Nathan the Wise and The Last Stop. But he held Broadway in disdain for what he felt was its bow to commercialism. With the Dramatic Workshop, in fact, Piscator helped establish theater off Broadway.

Piscator insisted that his students gain a well-rounded knowledge of the theater and all of its moving parts, which is why they took courses from playwriting to dramaturgy and gymnastics, all alongside their acting technique training. Because of his well-established reputation in Europe, Piscator helped the New School to bring in world-renown actress and director, Stella Adler, who studied with Constantin Stanislavsky and became an instructor at the Dramatic Workshop. This reputation may also be why the program attracted the talents of Marlon Brando, Harry Belefonte, Elaine Stritch, Bea Arthur, and many more.

Though Piscator left the Dramatic Workshop to return to West Germany in 1951, he is remembered as one of the most influential forces in the intersection of European and American theater. The current Drama program harkens back to the Dramatic Workshop with its interest in artists as engaged citizens.


Featured image:

Erwin Piscator. . Communications and External Affairs (CEA). New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive. Web. 22 Dec 2014.