As artistic movements go, only time will tell what the last century contributed to the cultural tapestry of Western civilization. Albert Einstein altered the perception of time and space, while Freud revealed the unconscious mind. As art reflected these shifts in how we perceive ourselves and the world around us, the last hundred years underwent major movements in music, architecture, literature, and visual arts. The potpourri of these movements can be recited like the alphabet: Art Deco, Cubism, magical realism, minimalism, neoclassicism, post-modernism. And yet, there is one art form, arguably the oldest art form, that up until the last century was deplete of transformation. It took a person with a proper balance of ardor and deference to help pioneer a revolution in modern day acting craft.
Her name was Stella Adler and she was born into the theatre. Her father Jacob came to America with the Yiddish theatre from Russia. Together with his third and last wife, Sara, he created a theatrical empire in New York’s Lower East Side that rivaled Broadway in opulence and popularity. Their children were put on the stage as soon as they could walk. In the Yiddish theatre actors rarely married outside the profession. Love affairs, friendships and rivalries ignited and came to a close with each theatrical season. It was a bohemian, yet privileged lifestyle, no where better typified than through Jacob and Sara. They exuded elegance in their dress, speech, and carriage. They were stars of the stage, heroes among the people of the Jewish ghetto where they performed.
Though her life was in the Yiddish theatre, Stella also attended public school, which illuminated the stark differences between normal parents and her parents. One day while walking home with her classmates, Stella spotted her mother promenading the same street. Sara Adler wore a wide-brimmed hat and furs around her shoulders, looking so elegant Stella was embarrassed to introduce her schoolmates “because they had just mothers, and here was this queen walking down the street.” Feeling a need to belong, Stella contrived an “ordinary” life, telling the other children that she lived in a walk-up flat where her mother made cookies. She promised to invite them over. While most little girls played with dolls, Stella spent long hours in cold and darkened theatres rehearsing her lines.
On any particular night, Stella might have two engagements in one evening. She would play a peasant girl in the first act at the Thalia Theatre on the Bowery before changing costume to be whisked off to portray an ailing son in another playhouse across town. By age eight, she was a seasoned professional. She knew her lines, she knew her part, she showed up to rehearsals, and took the platform on cue. The theatre was a bustling and chaotic playground in a tumultuous city, but even a little girl could find a quiet room backstage to stop and cry her eyes out, even if she didn’t know exactly why.
In the Introduction to her father’s memoirs, Stella wrote, “My first feeling of self, my first true consciousness was not in a home . . . but in a dressing room.” Training, rehearsing, and acting became the conduits through which Stella experienced approval and love.
On the Lower East Side, the Yiddish theatre was the largest immigrant-run industry. Photographers set up shops for everything from playbills to star portraits. Each season demanded period costumes for historical spectacles and biblical operettas. Music stores opened shop in theatre lobbies. Private teachers launched studios to teach dancing and instruments. Even a Yiddish acting school opened, although as one Yiddish newspaper reported, “precisely what they taught remains a mystery.”
Stella would help change all that. Acting had hardly evolved in two thousand years of Western civilization. Broadway and Yiddish 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.” Sprawling outdoor amphitheatres had been improved upon by modern, insulated buildings, but acting had not been similarly “civilized.” Stella was being groomed to refine the profession of acting, turn it into a craft, the art form that would go beyond the stage into film and television, edifying, angering, moving audiences for generations to come.
It would take years of searching and staving off disillusionment for Stella to discover her own truth through acting. In the summer of 1934 she hit a turning point. It was the summer she met Constantin Stanislavski, the Russian director and master of acting. Through studying with Stanislavski, Stella realized the key to acting craft: It was not found in the actor’s inner emotional life as her colleague Lee Strasberg had previously interpreted Stanislavski.
How could one play a soldier at war, a starving immigrant, or a mother whose child has died, if he or she has never personally experienced war, starvation, or significant loss? The actor, like every artist, had to use her imagination to create her character. The character itself had to be interpreted within the circumstances of the play. An entirely new art form based on character research and a solid understanding of the playwright’s intention opened up before Stella. She made a promise to dedicate the rest of her life to honing and disseminating a new technique to acting, one that could be taught and studied like any other art form.
The time was ripe for Stella’s technique. Starting with Ibsen, playwriting had gone through its own movement, knows as Realism. The melodramatic acting of yesteryear failed to convey the psychological nuances of modern society. As Realism dawned throughout the arts, acting had to reflect a more natural style. Jacob Adler ushered in the realistic plays of Ibsen and Chekhov while parlor room melodramas were still being performed on the Great White Way. Yet, there was no tried and true acting technique to study and master. As Stella gleaned from her own experience on the stage, her studies with Stanislavski, and the tradition from which she came, she began teaching students how to act. For Stella acting was the feat of the historian, the literary scholar, the vocalist, the animator — one of the rare art forms that requires mental, physical and spiritual practice.
Stella carried her profession the way a queen carries her country – ostentatiously, reverentially, and ruthlessly.
Marlon Brando, her most well-known student, wrote: “Little did she know that through her teachings she would impact theatrical culture world wide. Almost all filmmakers anywhere in the world have felt the effects of American films, which have been in turn influenced by Stella Adler’s teachings.” Stella did know what she was doing; she always understood the universal size of art through storytelling and its interpretation. If acting craft had not been revolutionized, modern day acting would be unable to portray Realism and its successors. Ibsen, Shaw, Ionesco, Miller, Williams and others would be left rudderless in an unrefined profession unable to interpret their depth.
Stella’s talent of imparting the soul-bearing truth of the art of acting was her gift to the world, and remains the cornerstone of acting craft world-wide.