Phoebe Brand

Group Theatre actress and teacher who was outed as a Communist
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The Independent Online

The respected actress, director and teacher of acting Phoebe Brand triumphantly outlived her colleagues Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets and Lee J. Cobb, each of whom had named her as a Communist in the 1950s.

Phoebe Brand, actress, director and teacher: born Syracuse, New York 1907; married 1941 Morris Carnovsky (died 1992; one son); died New York 3 July 2004.

The respected actress, director and teacher of acting Phoebe Brand triumphantly outlived her colleagues Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets and Lee J. Cobb, each of whom had named her as a Communist in the 1950s.

Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1907, Phoebe Brand grew up in the nearby town of Ilion, where her father worked for the Remington typewriter firm. After studying acting, singing and dancing at the Clare Major Theatre School in New York City, she appeared in a season of Gilbert and Sullivan operas and in the Theatre Guild production of Maxwell Anderson's verse play Elizabeth the Queen (1930).

By now the Great Depression had America by the throat, with jobless men roaming icy streets in their shirtsleeves. "You wanted to take your coat off and give it to them, it was really so painful," Brand told Wendy Smith for her book Real Life Drama (1990). "You couldn't help but say, 'Gee, that's terrible - gotta do something!' "

In 1931 the legendary left-wing Group Theatre was founded, and Brand became one of its first and most committed members, acting in such productions as Sidney Kingsley's Men in White (1933), Paul Green and Kurt Weill's Johnny Johnson (1936) and Clifford Odets' plays Wafting for Lefty, Awake and Sing! (both 1935) and Golden Boy (1937).

In all these plays, Brand appeared with the distinguished actor Morris Carnovsky. When the Group disbanded in 1941, Brand and Carnovsky married and moved to California, where Carnovsky turned to film acting. That year saw the founding of the Actors' Lab, where actors employed in films could hone their theatre skills.

During the Second World War, the Lab's actors performed old and new plays at army camps and service hospitals in America and overseas. After the war, the Lab offered theatre-hungry Los Angeles some superb productions; Jessica Tandy's performance in Portrait of a Madonna, a one-act play by Tennessee Williams and directed by her husband, Hume Cronyn, won her the role of Blanche Dubois in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

The Actors' Lab also ran the Workshop, an acting school which offered classes to studio contract players. Marilyn Monroe, Shelley Winters, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Lloyd Bridges, Patricia Neal and Larry Parks all gained invaluable stage experience there. It was at the Workshop too that Phoebe Brand became known as a superlative teacher of acting technique.

In the repressive Cold War spirit of the late 1940s, The Hollywood Reporter called Carnovsky, Brand and the other members of the Lab's executive board "as red as a burlesque queen's garters". In 1950 both the theatre and its workshop closed down, thanks to Senator Jack Tenney of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, who memorably charged the Lab with "specialising in subversive plays by Shaw, O'Casey and Chekhov". The following year both Carnovskys were outed as Communists.

Instantly blacklisted, they sold their Hollywood home and returned to New York, appearing together in a long-running stage production of The World of Sholem Aleichem (1953). Afterwards, Brand decided to concentrate on acting and directing.

In 1956 Carnovsky turned to Shakespeare, giving acclaimed performances in The Tempest, Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice for John Houseman's American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut. In the early 1960s, his wife helped to found Theatre in the Street, an acting troupe that brought free outdoor performances of classic plays to deprived areas of New York City.

She returned to acting in 1994, making her screen début in Louis Malle's film Vanya on 42nd Street at the age of 86. A week before her death, Phoebe Brand held her last acting class.

Dick Vosburgh



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