Without knowing Stella Adler, having only heard of her fame as an American acting teacher who taught Marlon Brando, an image of a woman arises that has nothing to do with the person who was Stella Adler. Those still alive who knew her can tell you a little about the person, but much more about how she influenced their lives. This is the pattern I’ve noticed: the constant iteration of how much Stella changed someone’s life, opened it up to avenues they had never seen prior to knowing her.
Stella once admitted that she would have known nothing if she hadn’t had to study character. It was through wanting to understand Nora (in A Doll’s House) that she learned about the ice in Norway, through Blanche (in A Streetcar Named Desire) that she came to understand the American South. In her pursuit of acting, she became a scholar of history, art, architecture, music, politics, geography, poetry.
By examining characters – an actor’s paints and brushes – Stella’s students had to examine human nature. The common person does not go around dissecting the very visceral and ethereal nature of man. This is the job of the philosopher. Stella made philosophers out of actors, which is how she changed so many lives. She instilled in those she touched a consciousness of their role in society, their obligations to themselves as artists, as well as an obligation to serve the world by sharing that which they discovered in themselves. She woke people up. This was her genius: the ability to shake people from the rote, minutia of life that deadens their response to the world around them.
You did not yawn in Stella’s class. Not because she was a diva and you had to coddle her ego, but because as an actor you were not allowed to let life tire you. You did not chew gum in class. Not because Stella was a despot, but because “anything you do automatically deadens your mind.”
Without knowing Stella, it becomes easy to stereotype her as a “Grande Dame,” a coquette, a tyrant, “always on stage,” as if she were a badly drawn character in a play. Above all else, Stella wanted to share her craft with others in order to preserve the dignity and universal size of the actor. She did not want acting to devolve into an amateur profession whose success depends upon the box office.
In sharing her craft she had the genius of gifting her students with confidence. Ever an idealist, Stella saw potential in everyone. Perhaps she was so convinced by the accuracy of her technique that she thought no one who really studied could fail. And indeed, there’s no way to measure whether anyone who understood and implemented her technique did not achieve the truth of his character. Perhaps, the actor never “made it,” by Hollywood standards, but that was never Stella’s ambition. Her goal was to teach the craft, to give it away – only, what good is the greatest actor without an audience?
The same question could be applied to Stella’s acting career. Friends and family have speculated that she quit acting due to an inability to accept critical reviews; she was blacklisted; there were no parts; there were few directors smart enough to work with her; she suffered from fantastic stage fright.
Perhaps all these reasons for not continuing to act on the stage or in film are warranted to some degree, but the final truth rests in the ugly American value of money over art. Neither on Broadway nor in Hollywood could Stella reconcile the conundrum of commercialism versus art. She had to build her own platform to continue acting, performing for her students, fellow actors, igniting their talent, in order to stay close to the theatre. In this way you can say that Stella never left acting; she only left its conventional outlets.