I studied with Stella Adler for several years at her studio in New York in the late 1970s. What was she like? Much has been written about her personality and she was certainly larger than life. She was a champagne blonde with bright red lipstick, a regal bearing and laser eyes. She was invariably dressed in a silk blouse and black slacks and would sit on the edge of the stage on a sort of throne and dominate the room. The students were justifiably terrified – she would stop a scene ten seconds in, bellowing, “All right! The curtain came down! Who understands?!” And then she’d turn to us and insist that the moment we stepped on stage, we owed the audience a full characterization, a sense of where we’d come from and a very clear idea of what we were about to do. Anything less and she’d stop us in our tracks.
Why was she so tough? I think it had to do with how she was raised. It’s well known that Stella was born into a theatrical family. What isn’t talked about so much was the attitude in that family. Stella admitted that any child who couldn’t act wasn’t allowed to sit at the table and had to take her meals in the kitchen. That’s pretty harsh by anyone’s standards and suggests why she insisted that actors toughen up. If any of us ever admitted to nerves, she’d lose her temper. “So you’re scared! Do it anyway!” She’d tell us that if we couldn’t get it together in front of her, we’d stand no chance in the business.
She insisted that we draw on our imaginations – that our personal history was relevant only so far as it inspired our imaginations (tweet this). She was forever reminding us that the stage demanded size. That if we were to play Nora or Lady Macbeth, we’d be sunk if we depended on our own experience. That yes, we might relate on a human level to moments of loss or achievement but that to achieve an appropriate characterization, we’d need imagination and inspiration.
Stella’s Script Analysis class was always packed. I will never forget her analysis of the first page of “A Doll’s House.” She spent over an hour on the first few lines of stage directions, painting a picture of the life suggested by a home with a study for the man of the house and a living room with carpets, a china cabinet and a fire in the grate. What does it mean to have a porter and a maid? She went on at length about class distinctions, uniforms, bearing. What does it mean for a play to be set in winter – what sorts of opportunities does it afford an actor – how can she illuminate her character in her reaction to snow? To a Chrismas tree? It was brilliant. She was brilliant – that’s why we remember her. Not because she yelled and wore red lipstick. Because she understood plays at a level few people ever achieve and was able to communicate her discoveries in a way that was both practical and inspiring for actors.
Yes, she was passionate and volatile and ruthless. But it came from her commitment to a theatre that took as its mission the exploration of human nature and potential. She yelled not because we lacked talent but because we were lazy or sloppy or disrespectful. I remember a young man with no apparent gifts who did a characterization exercise where we were to observe a profession and then demonstrate it in class. He brought in all the makings of a pizzeria and proceeded to quietly and intently make a pizza. She fell all over him with praise. His preparation, his thoroughness, his concentration, the truthfulness of his action. She always gave a hundred percent and expected the same of us. And it was this commitment that lifted us up and made us love her.
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Elizabeth Page is a six-time Emmy Award winning writer who also writes and directs for the stage. Page’s plays include “Spare Parts” (produced by Olympia Dukakis at Whole Theatre and Off B’way at Circle in the Square Downtown where it was nominated for a John Gassner Award), “The Nazi Plays” (Denver Theatre Centre’s US West Theatrefest) and “Aryan Birth” (“Best Short American Plays”). She is currently working on “runningwater”, a narrative feature about a man who’s lost his family and is offered a second chance; “12”, a twelve-part narrative mini inspired by the 12 steps; and “the gun thing” a short narrative film about gun violence in Connecticut. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.