Actors: Our Modern Day Philosophers?

Rodin's "The Thinker" via

Rodin’s “The Thinker” via

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.”

StellaorangeWithout 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.


5 responses to “Actors: Our Modern Day Philosophers?

  1. Beth Phillips

    Sorry I’ve been out of touch lately, Sheana. Was @ the Lilly for several weeks. Enjoying immensely your posts. You rock. Biographers conference on now here in NYC. Tiring but invigorating. Talk soon. BethBeth

  2. This column really gives me more insight into Stella Adler as a human being and makes me like her, because I totally agree with her about using your mind and spirit, and not being (or becoming) an automaton. Her thoughts on this are even more relevant today, because we live in a SCREEN CULTURE where we are all, almost constantly, on our screens…..TV, computers, so-called smart phones. Such behavior naturally induces automatic thinking. I’m standing in line at the bank and there are three screens with images and ads rolling across them in front of me…so I stare, and never talk to anybody around me. Stella wanted people, actors, to engage with their feelings, their thoughts, their bodies. And she placed great value in the narrative art forms. I wish she were still alive today; I wish I had had the privilege of knowing her personally. Thank you, Sheana.

  3. One of your best blogs, I think however, if Stella had done more film work, she would be better known to the public. She had her limitations, part personality, part family history.

  4. I always want to start each reply to your blogs with Stella!!!! After reading your blogs I’ve become inspired by Stella through your writing.

    The following paragraph gave me wisdom and confusion. 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. LOVE IT!!! I need to practice that. I know she was saying use observations as information to use one day.

    You did not chew gum in class. Not because Stella was an despot, but because “anything you do automatically deadens your mind.” This one confuses me. If she’s speaking about the craft of acting, for a particular performance I get it. I guess it”s the ANYTHING that I need defined.

    I imagine being an actor would expose one to information and knowledge otherwise not explored. That would be the only way to make the character authentic, due diligence.

    Finally, many of the greats have some psycho drama or physical ailment? Opportunities in disguise. Hers was stage fright, Barbara Streisand same thing, O’Henry found his genius in jail as did Dickens. Helen Keller, lives on. Beethoven was deaf, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder both blind. When your gifted, you can’t help but share the gift, it might not be the conventional way as you mentioned but the value is immense.

    Always Kudos to you Sheana.

  5. Thank you Jordan, Leah, and Mary for your thoughtful comments. Beth, we really need to get back in touch!

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