Stella Adler’s Divided Legacy

Facade of Stella Adler Academy and Theatres

In 2010 the Stella Adler New York Studio opened a west coast branch in Hollywood named the Art of Acting Studio.  A mile north of this school is The Stella Adler Academy of Acting, which has been operating in Hollywood for twenty-five years.  These two schools, though they both claim to teach Stella Adler’s technique, are in competition with one another. The reasons for this divided legacy are easy to understand, which like most divisions in this world, boil down to politics and personalities.

The original New York school was founded in February of 1953 when it opened its doors at 50 Central Park West (Stella had begun teaching at Malin Studios in the Autumn of 1950 where she took out ads, contrary to what is published elsewhere that Stella’s New York school opened in 1949).  Upon her death, Stella left the original school to her daughter. It is currently run under the artistic director, Tom Oppenheim, Stella’s grandson.  Stella bequeathed the west coast counterpart to her friend of thirty years who co-founded the school, Irene Gilbert. Irene Gilbert and Stella had actually been informally operating a summer school in Los Angeles since 1964.  The Stella Adler Conservatory West, as it was originally named, opened in 1986.  Gilbert remembered:

“When we were first opening the school we played this game. I’d say to Stella, ‘I think you should have a school in Los Angeles.’  And she’d say, ‘No, I think you should have a school in Los Angeles.’  And I said, ‘Stella, I’m doing this for you.’  And she said, ‘No, darling, I’m doing this for you.’  I wanted her to have something out here, not just in New York and she insisted that it was for me, that she wanted me to have something for the future . . . I really think she wanted me to carry it on and she wanted to give something to me that I could go on with.”

The Adler family did not agree with Stella’s decision to leave the school to someone outside of the family.  For one thing, if they ever wanted to expand they would be prohibited from using the Adler name on the west coast since a school already exists with that name. Ergo, the new school is called The Art of Acting Studio. Ron Burrus, who apprenticed with Stella for ten years, is its premiere instructor.  Burrus also still teaches at the New York Studio where he is given the credit of being the “greatest living exponent of her work.”

Actors Circle Theatre

Curiously, a half mile east of the new school is the Actors Circle Theatre (ACT) where Arthur Mendoza  has been teaching Stella’s technique since 1991. Mendoza also studied under Stella.  The ACT states its mission is “to preserve the exact teachings of the late Stella Adler.” That makes three acting schools all within a mile and half radius declaring to advance Stella Adler’s “true” technique.

After having spent the last decade studying Stella as the subject of her biography, I surmise Stella left the two unaffiliated schools and a handful of apprentices that have built their own studios for the same reason people have more than one offspring: to ensure her legacy advances.  And so it does . . .


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