“There are two ways of spreading light,” wrote Edith Wharton. “To be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Pamela Moller Kareman, executive director of the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre and the faculty there have been that mirror to countless students at this esteemed acting conservatory. For more than two decades Kareman has taught the Meisner Technique in New York as she continues to nurture new generations of actors.
This past September the Neighborhood Playhouse reopened their red doors for in-person classes. For more than 92 years this conservatory has helped turn legions of students into fine actors. Just a few of their alumni includes Tony Randall, Mary Steenburgen, Robert Duvall, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Gregory Peck, Christopher Lloyd, Chris Noth, Dylan McDermott, Allison Janney and Joanne Woodward.
“Recent graduate Ian Duff, whose career is really taking off right now with Judas and The Black Messiah, New Amsterdam, The Republic of Sarah, perhaps said it best,” adds Kareman who is an alum herself of the school. “When he was asked, “What is The Neighborhood Playhouse? He said, ‘You have to experience it. Once you enter this place, you become a part of this place, that’s The Neighborhood Playhouse.’”
Kareman shared more.
The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre has been thriving since it opened its doors in 1928. Why do you think the school has been so successful all these years?
The perfect alchemy of Sanford Meisner and a conservatory filled with talented, eager students who wanted to train as actors created an ideal environment for the birth of Meisner’s extraordinary technique. He came to work each day and had a laboratory, if you will, in which to develop and refine his work. He was devoted to the craft and to training actors to be unselfconscious and free in their art. He found a perfect home for his astonishing talents, free from commercial and economic pressures. The other classes offered: voice and speech, movement, singing, dance etc. were designed to support the actor and help him/her to develop their potential as an alive and expressive instrument. From the outset The Playhouse has been a safe place where students could concentrate on the purity of the work. To this day, it remains a truly authentic environment where creativity thrives.
It is so hard for any arts programs, theaters and education facilities to stay afloat. What specifically has contributed to the school's success?
During this challenging time, more than ever, we saw the importance of the arts; we saw that the arts sustain us. We knew we had to keep going. Our enthusiastic, and devoted faculty and staff adapted almost instantly and with extraordinary creativity to the online world. Everyone, most especially the students, worked with gusto and the result was amazing. We were bold, challenged yes but determined. Our final showcase of 2020, which was entirely virtual and produced by Sandy Faison, was a joy to behold. It broke new ground and represented The Playhouse in a whole new way. The industry response was huge, the calls came in and many took notice. There was a buzz that sparked a new interest in what was going on here and it was reminder of what had been going on here for decades with alumni like Allison Janney, Robert Duvall, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Gregory Peck , etc. During those months our board of directors was right there every step of the way supporting us. We own the building on East 54th Street so we were able to sustain it and make sure the doors could re-open again to in-person training as we just did in September. We even made the decision to tackle some long overdue work that needed to be done and improved our home during the pandemic. We not only survived but thrived.
What can you share about the school’s phase one renovation campaign?
During the pandemic we were able to take advantage of the closure and make a number of long over due and necessary repairs and improvements to the building. These included a beautifully repaired façade, new windows throughout, and a new roof. We put in new air conditioners, made updates to the HVAC system, as well as updated bathrooms, locker rooms and some classrooms. We were able to plan and execute this ambitious project thanks to an extraordinary gift of $500,000 made in the form of a bequest from alumni, William Paulson who passed away in 2019. Paulson’s gift represents the largest donation from an alumnus in Playhouse history. Bill was one of the first alum to stop by and welcome me when I came on board. He was so encouraging of all we were doing and loved to see all the energy in the building. He had a very positive vision for our future. He was so proud of being a graduate and used to tell students “The Playhouse is the Harvard of acting schools!” What better way to honor him than to improve our home and begin to prepare for the next 100 years.
How did your Waiting for Lefty reading this past September celebrate the school?
Our generous board members made the decision to help fund this phase one [renovation campaign] and things began to take off. The people on our board are remarkable! We are a family, they are hands on, they care deeply about the institution and its future. I felt strongly that we needed a celebration now. A celebration of the re-opening and a celebration of the work that had been done but most importantly a celebration of the bold people who said “Yes!” during a time when so many were saying no. What better way to celebrate than with a reading of Clifford Odets’ remarkable historical Waiting For Lefty with a diverse cast of alum from the recent and not so recent past. We are coming together to do what we do so well, act and act extremely beautifully in meaningful material. The original Group Theater production in 1935 of Lefty was directed by Sanford Meisner and Odets. Art , acting , theater.. is a process and like Spring is eternally new and always belongs to the moment. With Lefty we are reaching back and connecting with our history and in a sense combining the moments…then and now. We are calling the event a “Red Door Reading,” and it may be the beginning of something wonderful, readings and presentations that bring us all together to share our stories, our art, our lives.
What would you like people to know about The Neighborhood Playhouse?
When a young actor walks into our building on East 54th Street they will immediately feel a sense of community. They will become a part of the ongoing history of The Playhouse and become connected to all the outstanding actors who trained here. The list is long and impressive. I mentioned a few earlier but the list goes on and on: Diane Keaton, Steve McQueen, Sidney Pollack, Mary Steenburgen, Connie Britton, Tony Randall, MacKenzie Davis, Joanne Woodward, Christopher Lloyd, Jeff Goldblum, Sherie Rene Scott, Jennifer Grey, Chris Noth, David Mamet, Griffin Dunne, and Marian Seldes.
Add to that that we teach the best acting technique, The Meisner Technique. There is none better. Our acting teachers were trained at The Playhouse by Meisner himself. The technique is practice-able and doable and in a way forces you to come to terms with the actor in you, the authentic you. The technique can be applied to everything you ever do. To every script you ever pick up: whether it be in musicals, TV, film or the digital world. You will know no other way than to work truthfully from your authentic self. It is thrilling! Recently I saw a story about Dylan McDermott and Christopher Meloni (both from The Playhouse). They have gotten a lot of acclaim for their terrific work acting together on their new show, ‘Law & Order: Organized Crime” and they mention how great it is that they speak the same language as actors. What one learns at The Playhouse can never be forgotten. Once you discover your unique truth and talent you will fly!
What are some key moments in the school's history?
Eleanor Roosevelt made two visits to the school, one in 1939 and another in 1950. Her first visit on January 20th, 1939 was memorialized in her popular ‘My Day’ column in The World Telegram on January 23rd 1939:
“We had been asked to attend a benefit performance of a play for The Neighborhood Playhouse. I had seen the play here, but felt that if flying weather made it possible I would like to go. We saw many old friends at The Neighborhood Playhouse School after the performance. I was delighted to have a few minutes talk with Katherine Cornell, who is just beginning to rehearse in a new play.”
Another former first lady visit was in February 2020, right before we had to close due to the pandemic. Secretary Clinton and President Clinton attended a performance at the school. Their nephew Tyler Clinton was a student at the time.
A very important year is 1947 when the Lewisohn sisters bought the two 1893 buildings that are now 340 East 54th Street, creating a permanent home for the school. A dance studio was created there for Martha Graham to continue her teaching and now bears her name.
You have a background in theater as an actress, director and producer. What inspired you to work at the school and ultimately become executive director there?
I was a member of the board when the time came for my predecessor, Harold Baldridge, to retire. We had a number of meetings to discuss who should succeed him, how to go about finding the right person. The board knew my history with The Playhouse, my teaching skills, my deep devotion and a woman hadn’t led The Playhouse in over 40 years so that was a priority for the board too. The wonderful actor Tony Randall, who was not only one of our most famous graduates but a long time supportive board member died in in 2004. His wife Heather Randall, became a board member soon after. She is a serious force, an authentic theater maven. She took me out for lunch. She was so encouraging and really felt I should consider the position and would do a great job.
I was artistic director of a lovely equity theater in Westchester at the time, I loved my job and had no intention of leaving. The universe intervened and the next thing I knew I was working all day at the school and driving up to Westchester at night to direct plays. I did that for about two and a half years and then the school won out. After taking the job I found a box of old papers in my apartment and in it was a letter from Meisner. I had no memory of receiving it or saving it for that matter. It is clearly a note to thank me for a note. In it he ended with, “Now comes the future. May it bring you a full and happy career. Yours, Sanford Meisner”. I looked at it and thought wow, the future has come and gone many times since then and look at this, I’m sitting in his office, who would ever have thought?