Stella Adler: “It’s Either Life or the Theatre”

The biographer’s description of Stella Adler after viewing one of her final Master Classes in 1989:

Stella applauds two actors playing a scene from The Dresser. She is 88 years old and has been either applauding, playing, or interrupting scenes most her life.  She sits behind a fold-out table the width of her arms, speaking into a microphone.  Stella never needed a microphone and doesn’t need one now, but the class is being videotaped and she adheres to using the microphone.  The table is covered with a purple metallic sheen fabric indicative of the late 80’s, oddly juxtaposed in front of an altar of flower arrangements her students have brought her.  The ad hoc manner in which the setting for Stella’s Master Class has been construed mirrors Stella’s own position towards presentation: it is, by nature, contrived; what matters is the truth of the performance.  Throughout her life Stella presented herself glamorously, but upon close inspection one might invariably find a false eyelash gone awry or a safety pin standing in for a missing button. 

Stella proclaimed herself to be “A Jewish broad from Odessa,” and a gypsy-esque quality pervaded her life from her ostentatiously colorful attire to the thunderous personalities that surrounded her, most of whom were part of her own family.  Yet, Stella had no rivals when it came to appearances.  Her presence was a dynamic field of energy; her mid-Atlantic cum English-affected accent was imperious one moment and shyly flirtatious the next; she held her head high and her every movement was a deliberate, graceful gesture that put her into a league of her own.

After the actors bow, Stella turns to her class, her dyed hair an unfortunate sherbet orange, her turquoise blouse clashing like an out of tune chord next to the purple tablecloth.  Although the table is inadequate and the colors are gauche, Stella speaks the truth and neither her 88 years nor her off-kilter necklace interfere with the fact that she is about to tell the class something that will strike them as only Stella can.

She begins in a soft voice, referring initially to the actor in general, but as she speaks we see her imagining a specific actor, a Shakespearean one, in order to get into character, in order to reach the truth of what she wants to convey:

The Actor who has acted Macbeth, Othello,” Stella begins rummaging her memory for the great Shakespearean heroes, stopping the moment she has the image in her mind’s eye, which she begins to describe: “And he is seventy and all the plays are in him.” Stella cocks her head as if trying to find the right word, but she is actually connecting to this seventy-year-old actor whom she has just conjured.

“All is in him and he has made a choice.  It’s either life or theatre.”

Her voice takes on an urgent tone as she continues, “It’s either life or being killed every night. Murdered. Slain. Devoured. Miserable. Dedicated, DEDICATED! And that’s the life of the actor.”

There’s a brief, almost imperceptible pause.  Suddenly Stella raises her voice like a mother scolding an insolent child, “IT IS NOT GLAMOR.  IT IS NOT MONEY.  IT IS SERVING THE PLAY AND THE PUBLIC AND GIVING EVERYTHING TO ART!”

The room, even through the lens of a video camera has frozen, a deer in the headlights.  Stella must bring closure to her outburst, a bow of sorts.  She finds equilibrium with a redundant yet effective coda: “That is the theatre.”

The class applauds.  Stella’s words, her life, her convictions are a performance.  They have to be in order to reach her students, her audience.

*The biographer wants to thank “MJ” for his additional information.  


8 responses to “Stella Adler: “It’s Either Life or the Theatre”

  1. Bravo! A fine piece of writing that really gets you into the mind and persona of Stella.

  2. But what did she really say and did it help the actors? That kind of performance is nothing – really just old fashioned “THE-A-TAH” schtick.. What she said is a cliche; something out of the 19th century. Energy is not emotion and certainly not greatness or insight. Life or theatre – really – who believes that – silly.

  3. Thanks for your kind comment, Leah. Robert, the post does not purport to illuminate Stella’s technique (the biography as well as her book on acting and Barry Paris’ books on Stella’s classes on the great playwrights explore her actual teaching methods). The post is merely a look into Stella’s own persona, the gravity with which she related to the craft.
    By the way, Robert, Mel Gordon announced that he is in possession of Stella’s notes while studying with Stanislavski in 1934. He and Wendy Smith are working on a book in which they will be published. Stella was never interested in publishing them herself as she avoided self-promotion, but I know you question the veracity and perhaps the existence of such notes, and so now we can lay that argument to rest.

  4. Martin Johnson

    This was not the context of Stella’s comments at all. These comments came at the end of a scene done by Bill Lithgow and Milton Justice. A scene from The Dresser. She was not “helping” the actors but rather commenting on what they had accomplished through the work they had done on the scene. If you will go to the following website, you can see part of the scene and the rest of Stella’s comments. She was complementing the actors, not stopping them.

  5. The ethos of Ms. Adler is bar none beyond grande! You keep her alive in your writing, as if I new her. Thank You!. What a privilege that would of been! Her theatrical persona is a legacy in its own right. She was a true servant to the theater. Conducting master classes at the age of 88 cements that she chose theater over life! Great Post!

  6. I do not question the existence of Stella’s notes. I’m sure they existed in some form at some time. I question why she never made them available in over 50 years. I do not think it was because Stella did not promote her school and teaching or even herself. I’ve read and seen lots of Stella PR over the years. There’s even a PBS documentary made about her – no PBS documentary exists on Lee Strasberg. Strasberg was more famous as his teaching was more influential and he had actually founded the Group and made it real (Not Clurman who just “talked” for 5 years), and, of course, he made the Actors Studio the artistic center of the American theatre in the 1950’s. Late in life, his own academy award nominated film and TV acting career made him even more influential and well-known. When you read Brando talking about his way of working in his book he even sounds like a Strasberg student. All he talks about is affective memory and “digging” into his personal emotional life – hardly very “Adlerian”. We are not dealing with self-promotion vs. invisibilty here. In fact, Lee was known for his withdrawn ways and avoidance of publicity. It even made people react negatively to him and the Studio. He made news; he did not “sell” himself as news. Brando is unfair in suggesting otherwise in his brief introduction in Stella’s book. What Mel has – and what he has given me – are a few random jottings Stella made in 1934 about acting and related subjects from a conversation she had with Stanislavsky. They comprise in total a page maybe and that’s being generous. She refers to KS as the “doctor” and the comments are so brief and general that they are of no use to anyone. They’re not even really about craft but just loose rather odd ideas. These are not the verbatim transcripts based on the ‘system’ Stella refers to from her relatively brief time with KS. No one has seen those to the best of my knowledge. Mel says Stella said that Bobby Lewis took them and never returned them. I never saw them in Bobby’s archive when I helped him move it/organize it in Santa Monica in 1983. They are not listed in the Kent State archive of all his papers. He never mentioned them to me. He had the chart Stella made of the ‘system’s’ elements but many Group people copied that chart down. Lee has a copy of it (slightly different wording than Bobby’s) in his archive. Now Bobby did talk about copying the Boleslavsky class transcripts from 1925-26 that Stella had and he showed me his copies of them. Stella retained the original copies as she also gave them to Jerry Roberts for his “Boley” biography in 1975 and Jerry gave them to me in 1979. Routledge published them 2 years ago in their expanded re-issuing of Boley’s “Acting The First Six Lessons”. I gave them to Routledge along with Ouspenskaya class transcripts and Boley’s “Creative Theatre” lectures from 1923. Now everyone can read this all important, deeply clarifying material – some of the best on the ‘system’ as it was actually understood and practiced by the Russians who taught it here. So I would guess Stella is confusing late in her life Bobby’s borrowing of her Boleslavsky lectures with the Stanislavsky transcripts. The physical evidence points to such an explanation if not her late in life memory.

  7. Mel and Wendy could not be doing a book or even an article on just the scraps of notes Mel has. We all talked at a recent Group Theatre seminar. I gave a talk on affective memory and the Group at that time and you can read it on my facebook page. The real material which we know physically exists on Stella’s time with Stanislavsky is the Tony Kraber/Wilhemina Barton 300 page notebook of unpublished transcripts from the Group’s summer in 1936. These include the transcripts of Stella’s classes in the summer of 1936 with the Group Theatre. I have had this material since 1989 and Mel and Wendy may be finally using this material to do a book or an article. Stella covers her work with KS and even goes over the famous chart point by point. Great stuff, Stella at her best. I have quoted from it in my affective memory and the Group talk mentioned above. Surprisingly, in 1936, Stella talks repeatedly about the need for intensive sense memory training and how everything in acting is affective memory. She talks about how one must deeply train one’s affective memory so that it work’s automaticly on stage. This is 1936 and it sounds like a Strasberg class – especially when you read the transcripts of Lee’s classes from that same summer! Oddly enough, he talks about physical action, character, small physical details, interpretation, etc even more than Stella does! Reality is never what’s in the books or the often mythological misunderstandings or too-easy and too-pat understandings of students! This topic is never fully explored or grasped as no one understands the underlying arguments and realities deep enough to do so. One must know that a month after Stanislavsky supposedly told Stella he no longer did emotional memory exercises, that – as recorded and published in verbatim detail by his Russian “Stella Adler” – his famous pupil Boris Zon – Stanislavsky is taking Boris Zon through just such an execise – an event when Zon almost drowned! Just a month later in Moscow, August, 1934! He changed his mind again in less than 30 days? This has been republished in the brand new exhaustive study of Boris Zon the Russians published this year. It is my belief that Stella was even more influenced by her trip to Moscow to observe the schools there in 1963 and the next year when she arranged and heavily promoted the classes/seminars in America with 4 members of the Moscow Art Theatre than by her time with Stanislavsky in 1934. I think Brando’s Strasberg-esque comments about his training from Stella in the New School era and Stella’s own affective memory-laden comments from her 1936 Group Theatre classes atest to this. The Russians in the early 60’s, especially those from the then decayed and moribound Moscow Art Theatre of that era, taught a rigid version of the ‘system’ known as the “method of physical actions”. It seems to me this take on the ‘system’ had more influence on Stella than the earlier 1934 experience ultimately did. In 1936 she still sounds like Boleslavsky, Ouspenskaya and Strasberg but by the 1970’s she sounds like the Russian ideal of a “method of physical actions”. I like the Stella of 1936 and Brando at the New School much more than the “method of physical action”, hair pulling, how great the The-ah-tah is!

  8. You wrote this so beautifully!
    You have perfectly recreated the clip here! You are a wonderful writer.

    I have seen the clip many times, (I have it downloaded onto my smartphone), and it is very moving.
    I don’t feel that it is over the top at all. I find it quite inspirational.

    She gave so much to the students, and this clip doesn’t come anywhere close to the vials of gold she has left in her books and classes.
    To me, far more beneficial and makes more sense to me than what Strasberg taught.

    She is absolutely outstanding. In every way.

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