The Actor’s Studio was founded in 1947 by Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, and Robert Lewis, to provide a unique environment for theatre professionals (actors, directors and playwrights) to develop their craft within a select group of their peers. It particularly emphasized the Method school of acting as taught by Konstantin Stanislavski and his student Eugene Vakhtangov, but also included other styles of work.
In 1994, when the Actors Studio was in danger of dissolving, James Lipton facilitated a partnership between the New School for Social Research and the Actors Studio to create a Masters degree program in Fine Arts. The Actors Studio then became the Actors Studio Drama School, with Lipton serving as its Dean Emeritus. In 2006, the ASDS moved to Pace University in New York.
Part of the ASDS program involves craft seminars, in which highly accomplished professional actors and directors are interviewed by Lipton for three to five hours before an audience of students. These interviews are intended as training, not entertainment, but they are filmed and edited to create the series, Inside the Actors Studio, produced and broadcast by the Bravo cable network. The series, now in its fifteenth season with over 200 episodes in the can, is viewed in over 125 countries.
ASDS alumnus Robin Williams was interviewed by Lipton on January 29, 2001, and the resulting episode of Inside the Actors Studio became one of the most popular that Bravo ever aired. In his inimitable style, Williams takes control of the evening away from his host the moment he steps onto the stage, and spends more than five hours (from which the two-hour episode was edited) committing serial improvisation for the very entertained students. He also, when Lipton can get a word in edgewise, answers questions, discussing his childhood, different film roles, and how he moved from stand-up comedy to acting. I had watched this episode when it aired on Bravo, and I was pleased to see it released on DVD. I hoped that the DVD version would include material not seen in the original broadcast.
The DVD version, Inside the Actors Studio: Robin Williams, is extremely enjoyable. Everything that made the original broadcast episode so popular is intact, along with additional footage from Williams’ live interview. It’s futile to say any more about it, because Robin Williams can’t be described — you just have to watch him, and repeated viewings are recommended. Sometimes he’s gleefully predictable: when Lipton ingenuously asks Williams if he has an introverted side, we know exactly how Williams will respond, and we’re just waiting for it. But more typically, Williams takes Lipton and us on the kind of roller-coaster ride we’ve come to expect from this brilliant comedian and actor. I’m very sorry that we can’t have an epic video of raw footage incorporating the entire five-hour session.
Only two things about this DVD disappointed me. They’re not major flaws, and they detract very little from the value of the material as both education and entertainment, but they irritate, like scratchy underwear.
James Lipton takes up a bit too much of the allotted time, speaking for four and half minutes at the beginning of the interview. There is a dictum among writers: “Show, don’t tell.” Lipton talks at great length, needlessly describing things we’re about to see in the interview, when all we, as viewers, want is to see Williams himself. Lipton does this not only in the episode introduction, but in his two and half minute introduction to the audience before Robin Williams comes on stage, and before each of the “outtake” segments. Lipton’s tone and demeanor toward his subjects are so reverential, he could be delivering their eulogies, a mood that the soft, somber series theme music underscores. But his respect would be better expressed by stepping aside and giving his subjects the center stage.
Along with this, I was slightly offended that the producers of this DVD saw fit to “bleep” Robin Williams’ speech when he says something that normally couldn’t be broadcast on network TV. I don’t recall if the episodes are bleeped on Bravo, but no one expects this kind of coy caution on a commercial DVD. If Williams’ words didn’t harm the theatre students, they won’t offend or hurt anyone interested enough in either acting or Robin Williams to sit through this interview. I oppose censorship. It’s bad enough that the editors bleeped salty language like “fuck” and “shit,” but “penis?” It’s also rather absurd to bleep out individual words when much of the physical content of Williams’ improvisation involves sexual humor that skirts the edges of obscene. In his introduction, Lipton promises us Robin Williams “unleashed, uncensored [and] uncut.” I’m sorry to say that Lipton isn’t being truthful.
Despite these nuisances, Inside the Actors Studio: Robin Williams is well-produced and worth the price. Theatre students, teachers, and fans of Robin Williams will all enjoy and learn from this interview.
Inside the Actors Studio: Robin Williams is part of the Inside the Actors Studio DVD series and is produced by Shoutfactory.com. The approximate running time is 100 minutes. Extras include trailers for other Shoutfactory productions and about 30 minutes of additional footage from Robin Williams’ interview that wasn’t incorporated into the final cut. Not rated.