[Editor’s note: This article was adapted from an earlier presentation at the Albert and Elaine Borchard Foundation Center for International Education Colloquium, “Evolutions and Revolutions in Actor Training: Michel Saint-Denis in Contemporary Context,” at the Chateau de la Bretesche, Brittany, France, 2018.]
o-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, Konstantin Stanislavski is often credited with inventing modern acting training as we know it; his work, whether taught directly or through the lens of Strasberg, Meisner, Adler, et al., is often at the center of conservatory acting curricula. Yet the shape of the curriculum itself owes as much to another, often unacknowledged man: the French actor, director, and educator Michel Saint-Denis (1897-1971). Through his founding of the London Theatre Studio (1936-1939), the Old Vic School (1947-1952), three extant drama schools — Strasbourg’s École supérieure d’art dramatique (1953), the National Theatre School of Canada (1960) and the Juilliard Drama Division (1968) — and as co-director and teacher during Peter Hall’s tenure at the Royal Shakespeare Company (1961-1965), Michel Saint-Denis and his pioneering ideas have helped shape the landscape of Western acting and conservatory training for the last eighty-three years.
Michel Saint-Denis and his pioneering ideas have helped shape the landscape of Western acting and conservatory training for the last eighty-three years.
To understand Saint-Denis, one must begin with his uncle: the actor, director, theatre producer, educator, and critic Jacques Copeau. The son of a factory owner, Copeau received an upper-class education at two of the most prestigious schools in Paris, the Lycée Condorcet and the École Normale Supérieure. By 1905, Copeau had become a theatre critic and teacher with a mission: to reform a theatre that he had come to believe artistically corrupt, with the commercial theatre in thrall to its star system, the Comédie Française stagnant, and the naturalistic theatre hamstrung by its “slice of life” approach.
Together with his mistress, the teacher and actress Suzanne Bing, Copeau opened a “theatre of the future,” the Vieux-Colombier, in 1913, with actors he had trained himself the previous summer. Two years later, the couple offered classes to students aged six to sixteen in sound, movement, rhythm, and gymnastics, hoping to develop a school to train young, talented, “unspoiled” actors. Though still a lycée student and thus unable to participate, Saint-Denis often skipped school to watch rehearsals and aid where he could, returning in the evening to attend performances.
Derailed in light of the world war, Copeau and Bing soon decamped for New York, but upon their return to France the couple remained true to their mission and in December 1921 the Vieux-Colombier School and Theatre was born. Three sections were created: one for the general public; another for professionals; and a third for apprentices, the twelve adolescent students who had been chosen specifically to fulfill Bing and Copeau’s idea of the “complete actor,”1 i.e., actors “capable of fulfilling all the demands of their craft, like those of the 16th century commedia dell’arte who were singers, dancers, musicians, jugglers and even improvisers.”2 Fresh from four years in the army,3 Saint-Denis was now a full-fledged theatre member, though not in the capacity he had envisioned: Copeau, having decided that his nephew needed to learn from the bottom up, told him to study stenography and appointed him general secretary. Over time, Saint-Denis’ responsibilities grew: he became stage manager, rehearsal assistant and, by 1922, an actor. Busy at the theatre and, at twenty-four, too old to become a student at the school, Saint-Denis audited the apprentice classes whenever time allowed. Courses were both academic and practical: On the academic side, students studied literature, theatre history, and general culture; practical training focused on improvisation, singing, the neutral mask, and a broad span of physical work.
Despite critical successes, Copeau’s “theatre of the future” proved too experimental and economically unstable; the theatre was liquidated in 1924, and Copeau moved the company and school to the Burgundy countryside. There, he was forced to travel and lecture frequently to garner financial support, which loosened his dictatorial grip on the actors. Though difficult, the years in Burgundy were a boon for Saint-Denis. While he continued doing managerial work, he was able to develop his acting skills influenced by his three years of auditing classes at the Vieux-Colombier; Burgundy was also where he began to direct seriously. By 1930, Saint-Denis had founded his own company, the Compagnie des Quinze, with which he hoped to mirror his uncle’s vision: to combine a laboratory theatre of professional actors with a training program for talented students.4
By the late 1930s, respected professionals (and future teachers) began to attend the school, a tribute to Saint-Denis’ expanding influence.
By 1931 Compagnie des Quinze was ready to tour; while Paris was unimpressed, their productions were enthusiastically received in London, and the Quinze played there every year of its brief existence. After five years, quarreling, rebellion, and the desire to build separate careers had caused many of the company to leave, and Saint-Denis himself eventually returned to England in search of theatre makers and supporters who would fund a school for him. The answer was “yes” — if that school was created in London.
n the early thirties, London’s West End mainly offered light comedies, farces, thrillers, and revues. Permanent companies had largely slipped away, replaced by producers whose principal interest in theatre was making money. But Saint-Denis found English financial supporters who wished to revivify their native theatre and with their assistance he established the London Theatre Studio (LTS) in 1936. The Studio’s two-year program adopted many of Copeau’s ideas, but had more realistic goals: Like his uncle’s dream, LTS had a school and a playhouse, but Saint-Denis planned to train actors to improve the existing English theatre, rather than remaking it entirely. LTS’ acting curriculum included movement, improvisation, and neutral and comic mask, courses that for the most part did not previously exist in English theatre school curricula. The faculty were both international and unconventional: Suria Magito, an international Latvian dancer (who would become Saint-Denis’ second wife) was brought in from Paris to teach movement; George Devine (who became Saint-Denis’ right-hand man and would later found the groundbreaking English Stage Company at the Royal Court5) taught comic mask, a skill he learned from Saint-Denis himself; the Motley Theatre Design Group, a firm of three prominent women, were innovative additions to the faculty given that design was traditionally the province of art schools: Margaret Harris taught scene design, Sophia Harris, costume, and Elizabeth Montgomery, scene painting. Iris Warren, who would go on to mentor Kristen Linklater at LAMDA, taught voice work.
Stanislavski’s methods were also taught. Having been impressed by the Moscow Art Theatre when it visited Paris in 1922, Saint-Denis integrated aspects of Stanislavski’s training to prepare students for realistic drama, particularly that of Chekhov. Saint-Denis also initiated stage management training and planned to add a directing program. First-year acting students studied speech, movement, improvisation, and mask work; in their second, they began to develop roles in addition to continuing with their earlier curriculum. Some works would be rehearsed over long periods and presented as part of the end-of-year-shows,6 which soon attracted the attention of well-known critics. By the late 1930s, respected professionals (and future teachers) began to attend the school, a tribute to Saint-Denis’ expanding influence: Alec Guinness took an acting course; Laurence Olivier, an acrobatics class. Both John Gielgud and Olivier attended student rehearsals from time to time and were inspired to engage Saint-Denis to direct: He staged Three Sisters for Gielgud and Macbeth for Olivier, plays totally outside Saint-Denis’ French experience. The work in England was an extraordinary learning experience for Saint-Denis, and it opened the door to the next phase of his career.
During its five-year existence the Old Vic School was considered the leading drama academy in the West.
After Three Sisters, the British impresario Bronson Albery offered to produce a season at the Phoenix Theatre with Saint-Denis acting as co-managing director; this proposal allowed Saint-Denis to put into motion his plan to entwine LTS with the professional theatre. He produced two plays (with his best students in smaller roles): a translation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s realist The White Guard and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In the fall of 1939, Hugh “Binkie” Beaumont, one of the most powerful producers in the West End, offered to back the director in a staging of The Cherry Orchard. Delighted, Saint-Denis cast London’s most acclaimed actors: Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans, Gwen Ffrangçon-Davies, Ralph Richardson, Cyril Cusack, and Alec Guinness. But after two weeks of rehearsal, another world war interrupted the work: Germany had invaded France, and Saint-Denis was called up by the army once again.
vacuated at Dunkirk7 and back in France after the war, Saint-Denis was offered a variety of positions in both politics and theatre, but he was too disheartened to accept any; his twenty-year-old son Jérôme had been killed while serving in the army three months before the war ended. Unsure of what path to take, Saint-Denis returned to England and, at Laurence Olivier’s request, directed Olivier in the title role of Oedipus Rex. An enormous hit, the production transferred to New York in 1946 to rave reviews, the sole directorial work of Saint-Denis to be seen in the United States. Fresh from this success, in 1947, Olivier and Ralph Richardson (recently appointed artistic directors of the Old Vic Theatre) invited Saint-Denis to develop a school; he accepted, and during its five-year existence the Old Vic School was considered the leading drama academy in the West. Students attended from around the world and many returned to their own countries where some started conservatories. Regrettably, however, cantankerous administrative politics closed the school in 1952,8 sending Saint-Denis back to France; there, he assumed the directorship of the recently created Centre dramatique de l’Est (later the École supérieure d’art dramatique) in Alsace.
At the Centre de l’Est, Saint-Denis extended the training to three years and assembled the teaching staff, for the most part importing teachers from the Old Vic. (He also collaborated on the design of the new theatre in Strasbourg with the French architect Pierre Sonrel, whom Saint-Denis had hired previously to restore the Blitz-damaged Old Vic.) The curriculum was much the same, except for the choice of plays: Restoration comedy was replaced with Molière, modern dramas included Giraudoux and Anouilh, and Shakespeare, who has no French equivalent, was taught in translation. A mere two months after becoming director, Saint-Denis debuted with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a huge success, but the workload cost him and he suffered a severe stroke. As Saint-Denis was recovering, Robert Chapman, an American academic who was searching for an expert to run the future Juilliard Drama Division, invited Saint-Denis to New York. Saint-Denis accepted though he declined the position of artistic director, choosing to work as a consultant.
t took the Juilliard Drama Center ten years to open, and during this time Saint-Denis kept himself busy, traveling between New York, Canada, and Europe. Called on to create and run a drama school for Canadians, Saint-Denis advised the project committee and wrote the curriculum that became the bilingual National Theatre School of Canada. In England, Peter Hall, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, appointed Saint-Denis and Peter Brook his associate directors. Saint-Denis’ special task was to organize a studio for the younger actors to be trained in verse-speaking, movement, improvisation, and mask, as well as to direct; he staged The Cherry Orchard in 1961 with an all-star cast and his first Brecht drama, Squire Puntilla and His Servant Matti, in 1965. Problematic rehearsals with the latter contributed to Saint-Denis’s declining health, however; he left the company and never directed again.9
Upon the 1968 opening of the Juilliard Center, Saint-Denis, who once again had written the curriculum (referred to as the “bible”), designed the theatre and chosen the division’s faculty, taught for only a semester before becoming incapacitated by yet another stroke. He returned to England, where he died in 1971; in response, John Houseman, then-director of the Juilliard Drama Division, saluted his late colleague as “the Western world’s leading authority on training for the theater.”10
With his curricula at schools in the United States, France, England, and Canada, Saint-Denis created actors, teachers, producers, directors, and even additional schools (Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, for example, was founded by Saint-Denis’ former students with the express idea of carrying on his work). Nearly five decades after his death, Michel Saint-Denis’ work lives on; while often overlooked, his contributions to conservatory training — and to Western theatre itself — are beyond all measure.
Jacques Copeau, Registres VI, L’École du Vieux-Colombier, ed. Claude Sicard, (Paris : Gallimard), 2000, 131.
A war hero, Saint-Denis rose through the ranks from private to lieutenant and received the Croix de Guerre for his courage. During this period Saint-Denis often wrote to his uncle about his desire to work with him once the war was over; his letters are respectful, humble, and enthusiastic.
It was during this time that Saint-Denis began creating comic characters, the most developed of which was the masked and wordless “Oscar Knie.” Often drunk and violent, the character of Oscar Knie only began taking shape when Saint-Denis decided to carry a cane and appropriated a nineteenth century coat and mildewed trousers that took on the shape of every movement he made; the clothing and props allowed “Oscar Knie” to come to life. The character was popular with audiences and appeared in several of the Quinze’s plays. When Saint-Denis began teaching, his experience with “Oscar Knie” became the model of comic character development and improvisation, which was a fundamental aspect of his curriculum.
Among playwrights nurtured by the English Stage Company were John Osborne, Ann Jellicoe, Arnold Wesker, Edward Bond and Keith Johnstone; among directors, William Gaskill, Lindsay Anderson, Anthony Page and Peter Gill.
Their first performance featured four sections, each representing a different facet of the acting program. There was a classic presentation, an original exploratory piece, a modern play, and a farce that exploited physical comedy; ultimately, this became the model for all the end-of-year shows.
Saint-Denis spent the remainder of the war in London, where he used his theatre training and talent to create “Les français parlent aux français” (“The French Talk to the French”), a daily half-hour radio program presented by the BBC. Using pseudonyms to protect their families, Saint-Denis and his handpicked actors broadcast to occupied France, countering German propaganda and sending disguised messages to aid the French resistance. When the war ended and Saint-Denis was revealed as “Jacques Duchesne”, the French treated him as a national hero; his contribution to the war effort is still taught in French schools as part of the country’s history.
The root of the problem was the Board’s desire to create a national theatre that would grow out of the Old Vic. Given that Saint-Denis was French, influential board members wanted him out of the picture; Olivier and Richardson had been forced out years earlier.
Saint-Denis also served informally as Peter Hall’s mentor during this time, and Hall gratefully credited Saint-Denis in his writings for aiding him.
“Michel Saint‐Denis Dies at 73; Director Led Acting Schools.” https://www.nytimes.com/1971/08/02/archives/michel-saintdenis-dies-at-73-director-led-acting-schools.html.