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.