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Special Collections and Archives

Robert Lewis papers

Robert Lewis papers

Finding aid prepared by: Edith Serkownek, July, 2007

Collection Title: Robert Lewis papers

Inclusive Dates of the Collection: 1825-1997

Bulk Dates of the Collection: [late 1920s]-1997

Extent of the Collection: 125 boxes, 66.5 cubic feet

Physical location: 11th floor


Abstract

The Robert Lewis papers contain the extensive personal and professional papers of actor, director, teacher and author, Robert "Bobby" Lewis. The bulk of the collection covers Lewis' working life from the 1920s-1990s. The papers include Lewis' subject files, address and datebooks, correspondence, notebooks, scrapbooks and periodical clippings, manuscripts, theater production files, scripts, photographs, audio-visual materials and objects.


Biographical Summary

Robert "Bobby" Lewis (1909-1997) was as an actor, director, teacher and author. Although trained as a musician, as a young man in the 1920s Lewis decided to become an actor. Early in his career Lewis was invited to become one of the original members of the Group Theatre (1931-1941), an influential New York theater company. Throughout the 1930s, Lewis acted in many Group Theatre productions and also began directing and teaching. After spending the early 1940s in Hollywood acting in small movie roles, Lewis returned to New York and pursued a career as a Broadway director, achieving success with productions including Brigadoon, Teahouse of the August Moon and Jamaica. At the same time, he became an increasingly well-known acting teacher, co-founding the Actors Studio (1947), teaching the Robert Lewis Theatre Workshop (1952-1997), overseeing the Lincoln Repertory Training Program (1961-1963) and serving as a professor and guest lecturer at a number of colleges and universities, most notably Yale University, where he served as the chair of the Acting and Directing departments (1974-1976). In 1957 Lewis presented a series of open lectures to the theater community on the controversial American school of "method acting." The lectures, titled "Method--or Madness?" were very successful and later published as a book under the same title. He later publish another book on acting, Advice to the Players and an autobiography, Slings and Arrows. Lewis became involved with Kent State University and donated his extensive collection of papers to the school in the early 1990s.

Extended Biography

Robert "Bobby" Lewis was born Robert Lewkowitz in Brooklyn, New York on March 16, 1909. In 1916, his father changed the family name to Lewis. As a child, Robert Lewis developed a love of opera and other forms of musical theater which would remain with him for the rest of his life. He studied cello at the Brooklyn Music School Settlement and at the Institute of Musical Art In Manhattan. However, rather than pursue a career as a musician Lewis decided to leave school to become an actor, joining Sue Hastings' Marionette Company in the late 1920s. Lewis next joined the Civic Repertory Theatre for a season, playing a number of small stage roles.

In 1930, while in a production with the Actors' Workshop, Lewis was introduced to Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg who invited him to attend a series of meetings with the intention of organizing "a new theater project." These meetings led by Clurman, Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford, would result in the creation of a new theater company, the Group Theatre or simply, 'the Group'. The purpose of the Group was to incorporate into American theater the new ideas and practices of Constantin Stanislavski and other contemporary theorists. Theater was to be used not merely as entertainment, but to reflect the social reality of the day. Robert Lewis was invited to become one of the original members of the Group Theatre.

Lewis remained with the Group Theatre during it's entire existence (1931-1941), playing roles in a number of productions including Awake and Sing, Golden Boy, Men in White, Night Over Taos, Paradise Lost and Waiting for Lefty. For Group benefit performances Lewis used his talent for mimicry in skits impersonating well-known figures of the day including dancers Shan-Kar, Mary Wigman and Martha Graham and political figures such as Herbert Hoover and a Communist organizer in "Red Hamlet." Initially Lewis received only small parts, but he used his immersion in the Group to study different aspects of theater, including directing. In 1934, Lewis directed a laboratory production of In New Kentucky. In 1937, Lewis traveled to Los Angeles to direct Gods of Lightning for the Federal Theater Project. In 1939, Clurman offered Lewis the direction of a Bill Saroyan play, My Heart's in the Highlands. It was a critical success and Lewis would later refer to this production as "my true firstborn." Lewis also began to teach acting during this period as an instructor for the Group Theatre Studio (a workshop for young actors under the umbrella of the Group Theatre), privately, and as an occasional instructor at Sarah Lawrence College.

Financial problems and philosophical struggles within the Group began to be apparent by the late 1930s and the Group Theatre permanently dissolved in 1941. Lewis' next directing projects, The Time of Your Life, Heavenly Express and Five Alarm Waltz would take place outside of the Group. However, wanting to recreate the principals of the Group within a new theatre, Lewis, with fellow Group Theatre alum, Elia "Gadg" Kazan, spent much of 1941 planning a new project, the Dollar Top Theatre. Lewis and Kazan were not able to secure the necessary financial backing and the project was eventually dropped. Lewis directed one other production in New York in the Spring of 1942, Mexican Mural, and then moved to Hollywood.

Lewis remained in California from 1942 to 1946. Under an acting-directing contract with MGM, Lewis' only film directing credit for the period was a skit in The Ziegfeld Follies. However, he played a number of small roles, often villains, in films including Tonight We Raid Calais, Paris After Dark, Dragon Seed, The Hidden Eye, The Last Installment, The Ziegfeld Follies, Son of Lassie and Monsieur Verdoux. Lewis contributed to the war effort (he had been given deferred draft status) by directing productions of The Eve of St. Mark and Jason with the workers of the nearby Lockheed Aircraft plant. He also occasionally directed productions at the experimental Actor's Lab, including Noah and Lower Depths. Later in his life, Lewis would occasionally take small roles in movies, and he would go on to direct one full length movie, Anything Goes [1956], starring Bing Crosby.

Returning to New York, Lewis directed his first commercial success in 1947, the Broadway production of Brigadoon. That same year, Lewis, Elia Kazan and Cheryl Crawford began to discuss creating a workshop which would provide a place for young, professional actors to continue to develop their skills and techniques. Lewis noted, "It was, in fact, an attempt to keep our franchises as artists while pursuing our careers as working theater practitioners." Their planning resulted in the creation of the Actors Studio, with Lewis and Kazan as the teachers. Lewis' first class included a number of soon-to-be-famous actors including Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Maureen Stapleton. However, as a result of a personal dispute with Kazan, Lewis resigned from the Actors Studio at the end of the first season. He did, however, continue to follow the activities of the Actors Studio and taught a workshop there in 1987.

The 1950s and early 1960s were very busy years for Lewis' directing career. He directed a number of productions, most on Broadway, including Regina [1949 and 1952], The Happy Time [1950], Enemy of the People [1950], The Grass Harp [1952], Teahouse of the August Moon [1953], Witness for the Prosecution [1954], Reuben Reuben [1955], Mister Johnson [1956], The Hidden River [1957], Jamaica [1958], Handful of Fire [1958], Candide [1959], Cheri [1959], Juniper and the Pagans [1959], Kwamina [1961], Foxy [1962 and 1964], Traveller Without Luggage [1964] and On A Clear Day You Can See Forever [1965].

In 1957 Lewis decided to publicly address what he saw as the distortions of the teachings of Constantin Stanislavski into the American school of "method acting." To do so Lewis presented a series of eight free lectures in New York City open to theater professionals. The "'Method--or Madness?' lectures were an overwhelming success presented to packed houses. The lectures were taped, transcribed and published as a book by Samuel French the following year. In 1990, Lewis would revisit this theme with a second series of lectures entitled, "Method or Madness Part II." Lewis would go on to write two additional books Advice to the Players [1980], which presented a program of study, preparatory exercises and techniques for actors, and Slings and Arrows [1984], his autobiography. He was working on a fourth book before he died (working title, Snippets), which recounted anecdotes with famous people he had known.

In addition to his productive directing career, teaching continued to be a central component of Lewis' working life. In 1952, he started his own private workshop, the Robert Lewis Theatre Workshop, which he offered (between one and three times a year) for the next 45 years of his life. In 1961 Lewis was hired by Robert Whitehead and Elia Kazan to direct the newly created Lincoln Repertory Training Program. The eight month program was intended to serve as an apprenticeship from which a group of actors would be selected to form Lincoln Center's new in-house repertory theater. Although the majority of actors who were later hired to join the new Lincoln Center Theatre Company were not from the training program, several well-known actors did participate in this intensive program, most notably Faye Dunaway. In 1971, Lewis would once again direct a young actors' training program at the Filene Center, Wolf Trap Farm Park.

In the early 1940s, Lewis had begun serving as an occasional lecturer and teacher at Yale University, but he became more involved with the university in the 1960s and 1970s. As Lewis noted, for 35 years, "I kept returning to the Yale School of Drama for short or long periods depending on my availability." In 1967, he was hired as a professor by the Acting and Directing departments, and between 1974-1976 he served as the department chair. While at Yale, Lewis worked with both actors and playwrights who would go on to success, including Christopher Durang, Henry Winkler and Meryl Streep. Lewis' involvement as a presenter, lecturer and teacher of classes, workshops and symposium took him to many other colleges and universities throughout his career, including Hunter College, Instituto Brazil-Estados Unidos, Rice University and the State University of New York, Albany.

In 1976 Lewis began to plan the Robert Lewis Acting Company, which produced three productions in 1977, Caligula, Suicide Prohibited in the Springtime, and The Club Champion's Widow before folding for financial reasons. In the 1980s Lewis would again explore the possibility of creating a company, to be called the Robert Lewis Theatre Company, but it did not grow beyond the planning and fundraising stage.

During the 1970s and 1980s Lewis directed many regional theater productions including Musical Theater Cavalcade [1971], The Sea Gull [1971 and 1989], Susannah [1971], Long Day's Journey into Night [1979], Twelve Angry Men [1985] and The Flowering Peach [1987]. However, he only directed one other Broadway production, Harold and Maude [1980].

In the early 1990s Robert Lewis became involved with Kent State University Libraries, receiving and presenting the annual Robert Lewis Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Theater Research and donating to the Kent State University Special Collections and Archives his extensive collections of papers.

Robert Lewis died in New York City on November 23, 1997 at age 88.

Sources

  • Downs, Kendall F. (1991, November 16). "Lewis collection goes to KSU." Record Courier.
  • Lewis, Robert (1984). Slings and Arrows. New York, New York: Stein and Day Publishers.
  • Palmarini, James (March, 1990). "Robert Lewis." Dramatics, p. 20-23, 36-37.
  • Rothstein, Mervyn (1997, November 25). "Actors Studio founder dies." The New York Times, p. D23.

Scope and Content

Between 1990 and 1997, Robert Lewis donated his extensive collection of personal and professional papers to the Kent State University Special Collections and Archives. The bulk of these papers cover Lewis' working life and date from the late-1920s to the 1990s. Some of the materials which may be found in this collection include Lewis' working files, his personal and professional correspondence, datebooks, book manuscripts and lecture notes, scrapbooks, periodical clippings, photographs, scripts and production files.

The Subject Files series includes Lewis' family estate documents, personal and social files, residences files, professional contracts and his involvement with many professional, theatrical and academic organizations. Lewis' work with professional theater organizations including the Group Theatre, the Actors' Studio, the Lincoln Repertory Training Program, the Filene Center at Wolf Trap Farm Park, the Mirror Repertory Company and his own ventures including the Robert Lewis Theatre Workshops and Robert Lewis Acting Company are documented in his working files. Also documented is Lewis' involvement as a teacher and visiting lecturer with many academic institutions, most notably Yale University. These files also include Lewis' notes for his appearances as a presenter and guest lecturer at academic institutions, conferences and symposia and memorial services. Lewis Subject Files contain articles, correspondence, photographs, promotional material, periodical clippings and lecture notes. The series is organized both by subject and roughly chronologically. Date range: [1920s-1990s].

From the mid-1950s until his death, Lewis kept datebooks which served as a running calendar of his daily activities. These books as well as several address books are housed together as the Address and Datebooks series. The series is organized by record type and then chronologically. Date range: 1954-1997.

The Correspondence series includes Lewis' extensive business and personal correspondence files. Lewis maintained professional and personal correspondences with many well-known people including actors, playwrights, singers, dancers and composers. He organized his correspondence with well-known people, family and friends alphabetically by the correspondent's last name. Lewis also maintained chronological correspondence files, principally for his business correspondence. However, researchers should be aware additional correspondence can also be found in other parts of the collection, most particularly the Subject files and Productions and Scripts files. Date Range: 1927-[1990s].

The Notebooks, Scrapbooks and Periodical Clippings series includes Lewis' personal and class notebooks and inventories, scrapbooks of his theatrical activities and periodical clippings that Lewis collected which related to his activities and interests. The series is organized by record type and then chronologically. Date range: 1922-[1990s].

The Manuscript series include working manuscripts and business files for the books, Method or Madness, Advice to the Players, Slings and Arrows and an unpublished book, (working title, Snippets), Lewis was working on when he died. The series also includes drafts and printed copies of articles, oral histories, scripts and book forwards written by or contributed to by Lewis. This series also includes the working files, notes and transcripts for two series of lectures Lewis presented, Method or Madness and Method or Madness, Part II, the first of which resulted in the publication of the book of the same title. The series is organized roughly chronologically by the date of publication and/or presentation. Date range: 1934-[1997].

The Production and Scripts series includes the files for all of the theatrical productions, including movies and radio, on which Robert Lewis worked. It also includes copies of scripts Lewis received, but may not have produced. The series includes scripts (many annotated), business correspondence, financial and box office information, audition files, casting information, photographs, publicity, music and set design. This series also includes oversized production materials and framed images, which are housed separately. The series is organized alphabetically by the name of the production and then by subject. Date range: [circa 1929]-[1990s].

The Photographs series includes Lewis' personal snapshot photographs (originally both loose and in photograph albums), portraits of Lewis, portraits of friends (often signed) and oversized photographs. The loose photographs have been organized by subject and then chronologically. Lewis' photograph albums have been organized chronologically and often include snapshots of productions on which he was working. Researchers should note photographs are also housed in other parts of the collection, most particularly the Production and Scripts files alphabetically under the name of the individual production. Date range: [late 19th century]-[1990s].

The Audio-Visual series includes reel-to-reel audio tapes, audio cassettes and VHS tapes. This material includes scenes from productions, addresses, interviews, and presentations. Material is organized by record type and then either chronologically or alphabetically by name of the production. Due to the fragility of the historic audio-visual materials, Research Copies of the all audio-visual material has been made available. Date range: 1957-[1990].

Robert Lewis had an interest in opera and early musical theater and he amassed a collection of records and opera-related scrapbooks and clippings. He did not donate his record collection to Kent State University, however his collection of scrapbooks, loose clippings and framed images are part of the Opera and musical theater series. Material is organized by record type and then chronologically. Date range: 1825-[1920s] .

There are a few objects in the Lewis collection including two awards and items from Lewis' desk. The objects are organized chronologically. Date range: 1987-1991


Statement of Arrangement

The papers have been arranged into the following series: Subject Files, Address and Datebooks, Correspondence, Notebooks, Scrapbooks and Periodical Clippings, Manuscripts, Productions and Scripts, Photographs, Audio-Visual Material, Opera and Musical Theater Related Materials and Artifacts.

List of Series

Series 1: Subject files

Series 2: Address and datebooks

Series 3: Correspondence

Series 4: Notebooks, scrapbooks and periodical clippings

Series 5: Manuscripts

Series 6: Productions and scripts

Series 7: Oversized, general

Series 8: Photographs

Series 9: Audio-Visual

Series 10: Opera and musical theater

Series 11: Artifacts


Separated Material

Robert Lewis maintained an extensive playbill collection of theatrical productions he had attended. Playbills which did not directly relate to productions Robert Lewis was involved in have been placed in the Special Collections and Archives general Playbill Collection. Books and periodicals donated by Robert Lewis have been catalogued in KentLINK.


Restrictions on Access

There are no restrictions governing access to this collection.

Restrictions on Physical Access

Due their fragility, original materials in some files (where noted) and all of the original audio-video materials are not available for use. In all cases reproduction copies have been provided to researcher use.

Restrictions on Use

Donation of this material to the Department does not imply that copyright restrictions have been lifted. Copyright resides the Robert Lewis estate or with the creator. Please contact the Department of Special Collections and Archives for more information.


 
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