In January 1940, Edwin Piscator, a German theater director, launched the Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research. In its first semester the program had approximately twenty students for acting and twenty-five for directing. The program sought to prepare students to work in many fields within theater rather than just focus on one. The goal was to build an ensemble. Piscator felt that actors should attend playwriting classes, designers should learn directing and acting. The semester would culminate in a performance in Tishman Auditorium in the West 12th Street building.
The Dramatic Workshop thrived. So much, in fact, that in 1944 Alvin Johnson, then the President of the New School, warned Piscator that the theater had begun to violate the New School’s fire regulations due to the sheer volume of people involved in its productions (cast, crew, audience members, etc.). In 1945, other members of the New School community voiced their concerns about the Dramatic Workshop. Perhaps most important, many felt that the Workshop offered a type of professional training that was contradictory to the mission and role of the New School as an educational institution. The New School served as a place for adult education, and thus, mostly part-time students. The Dramatic Workshop attracted young, full time students. Because of the age difference, the Dramatic Workshop students did not mesh well with the rest of the student body at the New School.
The Dramatic Workshop moved to the President Theater on West 48th Street that fall. The Workshop thrived artistically but was unable to succeed financially due to the money Piscator needed for his designs. The New School initially separated itself from the Dramatic Workshop as of June 1948, but it extended its association with the Dramatic Workshop to June, 1949 in consideration of prior informal agreements it had made with Erwin Piscator. Piscator set up the Dramatic Workshop as a separate institution in February, 1949, and managed, with the help of his wife, Maria Ley-Piscator, to keep it going for almost three more years; it was ultimately undone by lack of funding, the chilling effect of the anti-Communist McCarthy Era, the failure of New York Board of Regents to certify it, and Erwin Piscator’s return to Germany in October, 1951, after his application for American citizenship was rejected by the U.S. Immigration Department. In the early 1990s, Piscator’s wife, Maria Ley Piscator, returned to the New School where she taught a class titled “The Dramatic Workshop II” which continued Piscator’s legacy at the New School. Today’s Drama School also embodies many of the same principles of the Dramatic Workshop in the need for the artist to be an engaged citizen and in the belief that the training in the theater requires learning all parts of the craft.
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