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Stella! Mother of Modern Acting
The dawn of the twentieth century. Lower East Side Manhattan. A child just learning to walk is put to work as an actress on the Yiddish stage. The girl, who would become the indomitable Stella Adler, felt equal parts reverence for and a fear of performing. Yet because the Yiddish theater was more like home than the brownstone in which the Adlers resided uptown, she would become dependent on acting (the approval of applauding audiences) for her emotional sustenance. As Stella reached adolescence the the Yiddish theatre fell into decline, and Stella found herself thrust into a new world bereft of tradition and the homespun stages of her youth. She’d have to become a “legitimate” Broadway star if she wanted to live up to the Adler name, an inheritance bequeathed to her like royalty receiving the crown.
As a young woman, life forced Stella to choose between the melodrama-driven, box-office-oriented Broadway, or its quickly evolving competitor: moving pictures. But then a new option came along: the Group Theatre, which would revolutionize American theater.
Throughout her life Stella mingled, befriended, and worked with the political and cultural elite of her time, from Franklin Roosevelt to Peggy Guggenheim, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Leonard Bernstein, and of course legions of students from the young Marlon Brando to contemporary movie star Mark Ruffalo.
Her life-story—spanning from horse and carriage to automobile, gas lighting to electricity—is as much a chronicle of the twentieth century as it is of Stella’s struggle to fill the deep-seated loss of the Yiddish stage. She strove to become a movie star–the equivalent in her time to what she thought her parents were in theirs–but she would be called on for greater causes, such as becoming a member of the militant Jewish organization that helped found Israel. She added gunrunning to her resumé of actress, director and teacher. That she was blacklisted during the McCarthy witchhunt did little to help her quest for stardom. In the end, Stella’s most important contribution to the world would be her unflagging devotion to developing and disseminating modern acting craft, a story that has never been told, a story we witness every day in screens and stages across the globe, a story long overdue.