Welcome to my blog for my forthcoming biography: Stella! Mother of Modern Acting (And yes, “Stella!” is a nod to Marlon Brando who was her student).
Stella Adler was known for her entrances off stage as much as she was for those on stage. One of her students, Shelley Winters, remembered a specific evening when Stella captivated a New York City nightclub upon entering: “In the middle 1950s Stella Adler was a knockout. A few years before this, I was sitting in the Copa at a table with Marilyn Monroe, and we were done up to the teeth. Lana Turner, at a nearby table was at her most beautiful. Stella Adler made an entrance in a black satin gown with black egrets in her blonde hair. For the next hour no one in the Copa looked at us movie stars. Stella had such a dynamite stage presence.”
Such stories abounded: Peter Bogdanovich recalled the time when a little girl was so taken by Stella’s entrance at a cocktail party that she turned to her mother and asked, “Mommy, is that God?”
When Stella entered a room she commanded it, as if she were the star in the play everyone had come to see. She had lots of practice. Stella had been making entrances since she was a two-year-old girl performing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in her father’s acting troupe. That night at the Copacabana Stella would have been in her early 50s, though she always looked a decade younger than her age. She had already opened her own acting studio. She had also recently circumvented imprisonment, but not the Blacklist, after testifying before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. She had run guns for Jewish refugees, or terrorists — depending on whose side you were on — in an effort to establish the state of Israel after World War II.
But her greatest cause was still a work in progress: refining an acting technique that would be accessible to anyone serious about his craft.
At the dawn of the 20th century, when Stella was a child star on the Yiddish stage, acting had hardly evolved in two thousand years of Western civilization. Actors were still using sweeping gestures to indicate their emotions the way the Greeks signaled or wore masks in classical Athens in order to reach “the gods.” Theatrical stages around the world showcased farcical operettas, vaudeville, drawing room melodramas, nothing that reflected real life.
Realism had taken hold in literature and the other arts, but not theatre until Henrik Ibsen, the father of modern drama, began writing socially realistic plays in the 1880s, but acting troupes were not trained to interpret scripts, if they even had a script, in a life-like manner. The acting standard was the opposite of today’s: performances were good because you could tell the actors were acting. Histrionics, fainting, pratfalls, speaking directly to the audience were par for the course, and what patrons expected.
Although there were a few theatrical entities working in a realistic manner such as the American actress Minnie Fiske, the actors of the Moscow Art Theatre under Constantin Stanislavaski, and Stella’s own mother, Sara Adler, Realism in the theatre had not taken hold as a movement. And acting, certainly, was not considered an art form. There were no acting schools or courses of study, say like there were if someone wanted to study music or art.
During the 30s, Stella finally left the Yiddish theatre to become a member of the first American attempt at a national theatre with the acting troupe the Group Theatre. She and its directorate who included her second husband, Harold Clurman, Lee Strassberg and Cheryl Crawford wanted to create a socially conscious ensemble that reflected the times.
The old way of acting could not support such aspirations. Taking Stanislavski as their example, the Group Theatre approached acting as a craft, something to be honed, practiced and made into a conduit of telling the truth. However, like most pioneers of a new movement, there were different viewpoints on exactly how to teach “truthful” or realistic acting. Stella Adler and Lee Strassberg were diametrically opposed in their interpretation of Stanislavski, a dispute that would create the greatest theatrical polemic of the 20th century. More importantly, their schism set the stage for the craft we see in plays and on screens around the world today.
Stella spent her entire life trying to rectify acting craft to an artistic mode she felt was compromised by Strasberg’s “method acting.” When Stella learned of Strasberg death in 1982, she asked her class to rise for a moment of silence. “A man of the theatre died last night,” she stated. Once the class was seated again, she added: “It will take a hundred years before the harm that man has done to the art of acting can be corrected.”
Strasberg’s “method,” which is greatly misunderstood, is still widely taught by his second and sometimes third generation students. It is difficult to predict how the previous century’s strides in acting craft will evolve, but one thing is for sure: the technique that Stella spent a lifetime teaching and promulgating with its emphasis on research and the actor’s imagination — being motivated to act as the character in the performance rather than by the actor’s personal experience –offered a technique that works from the outside in, rather than from the inside out, which today is a worldwide standard of acting craft.