Stella Adler and The Evolution of Modern Day Acting

brando-streetcarAs 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.

Stella Adler circa 1934

Stella Adler circa 1934

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.

Constantin Stanislavski, father of acting craft

Constantin Stanislavski, father of acting craft

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.


9 responses to “Stella Adler and The Evolution of Modern Day Acting

  1. i like this book

  2. I’ve never heard of Stella, but it sounds like she led a fascinating life. I look forward to hearing more!


  3. Intriguing. I’m unfamiliar with Stella but she sounds to me like a visionary. Marlon Brando her student! Sign me up…

  4. I think Stanislavsky deserves a bit more credit for originating the modern scientific understadning of acting than does Stella Adler. She used his ideas and discoveries not primarily her own. His work, first through the Moscow Art Theatre, then its First Studio and Vakhtangov, then Boleslavsky’s and Ouspenskaya’s American Laboratory Theatre, then Lee Strasberg’s training and directing of the Group Theatre acting company (1931-1936) of which Stella Adler was a member, then the creation of the Actors Studio by Kazan and led by Strasberg, then Kazan’s Hollywood films starring Marlon Brando and finally Stella Adler’s acting classes at her studio starting in 1949. She is part of a tradition not its instigator.

  5. Robert, so glad to hear your input. I want to clarify that unlike Strasberg who told his Group Theatre actors, “We don’t use Stanislavski’s system, but Strasberg’s method,” Stella always gave credit to Stanislavski.

    The thing is we know Stanislavski pioneered a system of acting, but as a Russian, his theories could not have been promulgated without the adoption of his ideas by the Group Theatre and its subsequent teachers in America which set the gold standard for film and therefore acting worldwide.

    What people don’t realize is the extent to which Stella synthesized and disseminated a technique of acting based on all the traditions she came from: not just Stanislavski by going to Moscow to study the Moscow Art Theatre and later by studying with the master himself, not merely at the Lab where she met Strasberg and Clurman, not only in the Group Theatre where she disagreed with Strasberg’s emphasis on emotional memory at the expense of excluding other tools such as Stanislavski’s “what if,” but also from the Yiddish Theatre where she learned that researching a character, and then applying that knowledge to your creative imagination was a way of growing the actors craft beyond what he might come up with by merely using his personal reservoir of emotional memory, which is limited because it is not informed by the playwright and the socio-cultural perspective specific to the play.
    Stanislavski has been given and rightly deserves credit for his contributions to acting craft, but Stella has not been given any credit for hers, thus the biography. No doubt Stella is part of tradition, but she did instigate and devote her life to honing a technique actors today utilize to develop their character.

  6. , Strasberg’s reported comment about teaching the “Strasberg ‘method'” as opposed to the “Stanislavsky ‘system'” is, first of all, quite true. The only person who could rightfully say he or she taught the Stanislavsky ‘system’ was Stanislavsky himself. Everyone else used the principles and procedures Stanislavsky discovered and evolved. Thus everyone else taught his or her ‘method’ based on the ‘system’. This is precisely what Stanislavsky wanted as he is on record repeating more than once – “Don’t copy me, find your own method”. So Strasberg was using the ‘system’ creatively not repetitively – as Stanislavsky wished.
    Secondly, Strasberg made this comment on the day Stella attacked him and his way of using the ‘system’ – which was not at all counter to Stanislavsky’s own use of the ‘system’ if one knows the facts rather than partially digested myths. Lee’s words are obviously an immediate response based on being insulted and hurt by Stella’s humiliation. I would have said the same thing had I been in Lee’s position – as no doubt Stella herself would have had the situation been reversed.
    I agree that the American Stanislavsky tradition was capable of spreading the ‘system’ when the politics of the old USSR made that almost impossible outside the Iron Curtain for Russians. Although, one must not forget the number of Eastern Block countries which sent students to the theatrical conservatories of Moscow from 1950-1991. The ‘system’, albeit it in a limited and rigid form – the so-called “method of physical actions” – (a name Stanislavsky never used) was a large part of East European theatre training in each nation’s theatrical conservatories – it was forced on them by the USSR.
    Yes, American film created film acting around the world but outside of her effect on Marlon Brando Stella Adler is not solely or even primarily responsible for that. Even with Brando, Stella said she taught him nothing. He had it all. She said after a week in class she could see he was a great actor and she simply opened creative doors for him. Brando, like all genius actors before him, walked in the door with his brilliance. The same is true of Lee Strasberg and his influence on the equally great actor Kim Stanley. Lee said Kim walked in the door with her brilliance.
    The real credit for bringing the American Stanislavsky tradition into film rests with individual actors, the social/political moment in the country and the world, the camera, live television in the 1950’s, Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio and the work of Elia Kazan. Meisner and Adler are a part of this story but they are not the real movers and shakers. In fact, when one reads Brando’s autobiography and notices his description of how he worked as an actor what one finds is a description of affective memory and not imagination and action – although obviously he and everyone else used both. Brando is talking Strasberg not Adler even though Adler was his teacher.
    Yes, unfortunately, the Yiddish Theatre and its often hammy tradition of sentimental overacting influenced Stella and that influence seemed to grow the further away she got from the Group Theatre period, so that by the time she died she seemed to be back in its arms and not the Group’s or Stanislavsky’s. That is sad. Today, “Adlerites” seem to credit Jacob Adler and the deeply old fashioned Yiddish Theatre for what Boleslavsky, the Group Theatre, Strasberg and Stanislavsky gave Stella. To hear them tell it, you’d think the Yiddish Theatre was more responsible for American acting than the Group! The funny thing, as Bobby Lewis loved to tell, is that Stella Adler did the best acting of her career in the Group and under Strasberg’s direction! One of the bones of contention between Strasberg and Adler was that Lee was not a big fan of the acting in the Yiddish Theatre. He wanted something much more modern, less 19th century. It is a shame that Stella seemed to be influenced more by her father’s acting than her mother’s. Luther Adler once told a story about his parents. He said that when their father read them a bedtime story they all cheered the actor’s performance but when their mother, Sarah, read them a bedtime story they felt for the people in that story and cried. It seems Sarah was the better actor of the 2.
    Strasberg most certainly used the “what if” and “as if” processes of the ‘system’. The “what if” process is simply the basis of the imagination and one cannot understand a play or relate one’s self to the life inside a play without it. This is the general way Stanislavsky used to tap the affective memory as the living root of one’s imagination. Strasberg had no problem with it unless it was taught as the ONLY means to reach the affective memory. He felt it was far too often used purely intellectually by actors. The “as if” or the process of personalization, substitution or justification in acting is a primary factor in Stanislavsky’s and Strasberg’s work.
    One’s affective memory (sense and emotional memory) not need be “informed” by the playwright in some direct sense. That thought is actually rather silly. It needs to be a corresponding experience inside a person that allows him or her to experientially grasp/feel as truth the playwright’s intent so it can be acted out by emotionally “living through” it. The Group actors were not taxi drivers and the audience was not taxi drivers but all had an affective memory experience of the Great Depression that allowed them to feel “Waiting For Lefty”. The social/cultural/political etc aspect of the play will only live in the actor if the actor’s imaginative understanding of the play dips into corresponding life experiences that give those realities a living/experiential – actually (re)experiential – basis of truth in the actor. Thankfully, we are our experience and our living, creative imagination is, thankfully, limited by that experience. We can mix up the experiences in a million ways but we can only create what we know – and to know in the “system” – as KS said repeatedly – means to be able to feel and to do. This is why KS in 1937 said that affective memory was the BASIS of the art of acting. It’s the living root of the imagination. This is why Stella Adler in 1975 told an interviewer that she used affective memory but not directly. Stella understood that the affective memory is the living root of the imagination even if she rather mystically thought memory was collectively based and not just individually based.
    Stella has been given a great deal of credit for her teaching and deserves a biography for that and many other reasons but one cannot rewrite history to say that she was “usurped” by Strasberg nor can one downplay Stanislavsky. No Stanislavsky, no Strasberg – then no Stella Adler the teacher. Stella taught Stanislavsky in her way – too limited for my understanding of the ‘system’ – but the process of working on character was already in the “system”. You overstate her case.

  7. Robert, after reading your comment I feel abashed at having asked if you want to write a guest post because you basically already have. Still I would welcome one.

    My bio on Stella does not argue that Strasberg “usurped” her (although she might disagree with me) or to downplay Stanislavski, but to tell the story of a woman who influenced generations of actors in a spiritual sense, showing them that the better they knew themselves, the better they would be as actors/artists. To urge them to understand the fundamental human condition that theatre and film are meant to convey and interpret that to the world. As per her technique versus Strasberg’s method, I tend to agree with Kazan who wrote in his autobiography that there’s no right method, one should use whatever works.

    I don’t think it is silly that actors should be informed by the playwright/screenwriter’s intention to build their character. Too many performances are out of pitch because the actor has not done his/her homework and has no idea what the play or their character is saying.

    You’re right on about the YT and Stella moving more and more toward that aspect of her personality, the flamboyant, but Stella’s personal “affect” has little to do with the nuts and bolts of her technique, which as you say is an interpretation of KS as is Strasberg’s.

    I love that you know that Sara was the realist and Jacob the melodramatic in the family!

  8. “My bio on Stella does not argue that Strasberg “usurped” her.”
    Here’s what you wrote on your webpage:
    “What exactly was the debate between Stella and acting guru Lee Strasberg whose legacy has usurped Stella’s pivotal role in revolutionizing modern day acting?”
    There’s the “usurped” – your term not mine. Why not refer to Adler as a “guru” – if Lee was then she was. They played the same role in their students’ lives. The use of the word “guru” with Strasberg is usually a good sign of a conscious or unconscious bias against him. The term is insulting when used for an acting teacher, much less one who possessed the deeply practical, hard working “life in art” Strasberg did.
    “As per her technique versus Strasberg’s method, I tend to agree with Kazan who wrote in his autobiography that there’s no right method, one should use whatever works.”
    This is one of the assumptions that have severely hurt the ‘system’ over the years. The ‘system’ is not a ‘method’. It is a system of thought, discoveries, procedures and principles that Stanislavsky managed to put together out of his relentless quest for the truth of “What is acting itself”. The ‘system’ has remained true for nearly a century. No one has been able to successfully challenge the biological truth of its findings. It stands much like Darwin’s essential work on evolution stands. Quacks challenge its discoveries but the vast majority recognizes its clear and authentic depiction of an objective reality.
    Stanislavsky had his various ‘methods’ over the years for using the elements of the ‘system’ just as every teacher since has done. It’s these ‘methods’ Stanislavsky experimented with – rather than with the ‘system’ itself per se after the 1920’s. There is one ‘system’ but there are many ‘methods’ and potential ‘methods’ for its practical use. So everyone needs to grasp the totality of the ‘system’ if they want to understand their own small piece of it as an individual ‘method’. The ‘system’ is a universal not a style or ‘method’. This is how Kazan needed to phrase his superficial and thus dangerous comment.
    “I don’t think it is silly that actors should be informed by the playwright/screenwriter’s intention to build their character. Too many performances are out of pitch because the actor has not done his/her homework and has no idea what the play or their character is saying.”
    Neither do I which is why I did not say that it was silly for actors to grasp a playwright’s intent. You inferred or misread that from what I did write.
    You wrote: “[…] was a way of growing the actors craft beyond what he might come up with by merely using his personal reservoir of emotional memory, which is limited because it is not informed by the playwright and the socio-cultural perspective specific to the play.”
    I was saying that it is not a problem that the affective memory of the actor is not literally informed by or does not literally include the exact same socio-cultural “intent” of the play. That is the difficult connection the actor is called upon to make out of him or herself to bring the play alive. It is his or her craft and art. If the actor’s affective memory cannot relate viscerally to the “intent” of the play – animate it if you will (the “if”) – then the actor has not found the “germ” of the play and the part and will only give a superficial external indication of its life. Relating an unrelated affective memory to the affective experience within the author’s “intent” is exactly what actors do – so your Adler influenced comment was silly. Of course one’s own affective memory is not the author’s but you find the imaginative projection that makes your affective experience work as the author’s. The kind of intellectualization of acting you fell into here cripples acting. The actor must feel the writer’s intent experientially or he or she cannot play it and one can only feel what one has the seeds for in one’s imaginative use of affective memory. That’s how the neurobiology involved here works.
    “You’re right on about the YT and Stella moving more and more toward that aspect of her personality, the flamboyant, but Stella’s personal “affect” has little to do with the nuts and bolts of her technique, which as you say is an interpretation of KS as is Strasberg’s.”
    I would argue just the opposite. Stella’s YT influenced behavior as she aged negatively influenced her teaching. Stella and Lee did not offer an “interpretation” of KS. They offered methods based on the ‘system’. Lee’s was a more complete and astute version overall – when compared to all aspects of KS’s ‘system’ – aspects many people overlook or do not even know exist. But what they each taught was from the ‘system’ – they did not interpret the ‘system’ per se. The questions to ask are: Who understood the ‘system’? Who used the majority of the ‘system’s elements? Can one even eliminate elements? The ‘system’ and its elements are too clear and too precise for interpretations but one may completely miss or leave out certain elements or devise ‘methods’ different from KS’s methods for the ‘system’. A lot of so-called interpretations today are nothing more than superficial misreadings and misunderstandings of the ‘system’ and its stages, content and elements or they are the producst of popular myths.
    “I love that you know that Sara was the realist and Jacob the melodramatic in the family!”
    Yes, I knew a good friend of Luther’s.

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