Morris Carnovsky and his wife Phoebe, both established figures in East Coast theatre, were pivotal in the creation of the Actor’s Lab. They originally hailed from the New York Group Theater, a visionary organisation formed in 1931 by Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, and Cheryl Crawford.
The New York Group Theater stood as an answer to the light and old-fashioned entertainment that defined theatre in the 1920s. During its decade-long operation, it changed the landscape of American theatre, focusing on themes of socio-economic struggles and endorsing left-wing ideologies. When the Group Theater disbanded in 1941, its spirit continued through the next decade via its actors and educators, like Morris Carnovsky and Phoebe, who founded The Actor’s Lab in Los Angeles. In 1947, a young Marilyn Monroe—then an upcoming starlet under contract with Fox—was sent to The Actor’s Lab. This turned out to be a serendipitous match; not only did Monroe read and study plays like “Clash by Night” by Clifford Odets (a role she would later play in a film), but she also found the ethos of the Lab to resonate deeply with her upbringing. The Actor’s Lab presented plays about working-class men and women, which reflected Marilyn’s roots. Phoebe Brand even noted Marilyn as a “meticulous student,” painting her as someone who took her craft seriously.
The Actor’s Lab was not just an acting school for Marilyn; it served as a transformative experience. There, she was introduced to some of the most distinguished personalities from the New York theatre scene. More importantly, she came into contact with social and political themes that would both intrigue and trouble her throughout her life.
However, Marilyn’s innate shyness held her back from becoming more actively involved in the Lab’s many activities. Nonetheless, her experience there left an indelible mark, making it one of the formative chapters in her extraordinary life.
The Actor’s Lab had a relatively short lifespan, closing its doors in 1952, but it left a lasting impression on American theatre and those who were fortunate enough to be part of it. Much like Marilyn Monroe herself, it stood as an icon of its time, embodying the transformative power of art and ideas.