Category Archives: About Writing the Biography

Adler vs. Strasberg: How do Actors Achieve Emotional Truth?

An animated Stella telling a story with an impassive Strasberg looking on.

An animated Stella telling a story with an impassive Strasberg looking on.

Few people realize how young acting is as an art form compared to music, literature, and painting. By the time the father of modern acting craft, Constantin Stanislavski, had begun developing a systematic approach toward performance, the profession had barely evolved since its Greco-Roman histrionics of grand gestures, masks, and loud vocal bouts in order to reach the gods. Being the only American teacher to have studied with Stanislavski, Stella would synthesize the master’s system with her own experience growing up on the Yiddish stage under the tutelage of her parents. But when she agreed to join the Group Theatre—the Depression-era theater company that focused on socially conscious plays—Stella was young and willing enough to follow the Group’s director, Lee Strasberg, even though she didn’t agree with his methods. Below is an excerpt from Stella! Mother of Modern Acting during the Group Theatre’s first summer of rehearsals in 1931, describing the notorious debate between Adler and Strasberg that has become the most disputed polemic in modern acting.

(This excerpt was part of a three-part series published in Actors Daily)

The argument over whether an actor should use real emotion or acquire an external technique to play a character is an age-old debate. Prior to Stanislavski, little had been written about how an actor develops a role. The director Jack Garfein points out in his book Life and Acting: Techniques for the Actor:

Up until the time of Stanislavski’s published work and V. I. Pudovkin’s Film Acting and Technique, there existed only two well-known books on the subject—one by Francois Delsarte filled with illustrative clichés (“Put your hand on your heart to show love”) and a philosophical one by Diderot, The Paradox of Acting. In his book, Diderot is trying to comprehend the nature of the actor’s emotions on stage and the ones he experiences in actuality. He is unable to differentiate.[i]

The Group Theatre doing the "thinking actor" pose.

The Group Theatre doing the “thinking actor” pose.

The first summer at Brookfield, however, Stella was years away from developing her own technique. Like her fellow actors, she tried her best to follow Strasberg’s direction, but she was finding affective memory a troublesome mandate. She had grown up researching her character, his or her historical period and every detail therein down to the selection of costume and makeup, which was all carefully thought out so that when she was onstage she was free to inhabit the character. It was distracting to simultaneously experience the character and also focus on a personal memory that in her mind had no relevance to her character. Later she observed, “You couldn’t be on stage thinking of your own personal life. It was just schizophrenic.”[ii]

Stella had a point, which Strasberg himself brought home in class years later by explaining how the actor must

face the problem of bringing it [affective memory] into the scene he is playing. He must fuse his personal emotion with the character and event he is portraying. For example, when the actor’s partner is speaking, he listens and answers naturally, but at the same time [author’s italics] he tries to concentrate on the objects of his own event and thus to fuse his material with the author’s. . . . In the Group Theatre, where we worked with affective memory in production, we would set a definite amount of time. We would allow the actor a minute before the emotion was needed to carry out the affective memory.[iii]

Throughout the sweltering summer, the idealism that accompanies youth and experimentation ambled through the grounds with the country breeze. When spirits grew restless, when affective memory exercises, listening to the Victrola, swimming, playing tennis, and loafing around in pajamas grew monotonous, some of the actors asked to return to the city for a night on the town. Wary of any desire for “a world outside the group,”[iv] Clurman felt disheartened by these requests. He wanted the actors to cherish their limited time at Brookfield, knowing how quickly their summer would come to an end.[v]

Within this idyllic atmosphere romances abounded, some stable, others, like Harold and Stella’s, stormy. Morris Carnovsky and Phoebe Brand roomed together and would later marry, as did Strasberg and Paula Miller. Others, such as the young recruit Clifford Odets, would mail daily love letters to Eunice Stoddard, whose bungalow was walking distance from his, but she never answered his missives. Luther Adler made the trip to the country to partake in the amorous possibilities.

Tall and fair, with chiseled facial features as opposed to Stella’s soft ones, Luther had recently turned twenty-eight. He was as charming as Stella was charismatic, both having inherited Jacob’s sex appeal. Luther felt as disturbed as Stella by the lack of artistic integrity on Broadway compared to the Yiddish theater. Clurman’s collective seemed an attractive alternative.

Predictably, cliques formed among the twenty-eight actors. Bobby Lewis—the youngest thespian of the group—and Sanford Meisner gravitated toward Stella and Harold. In the evenings, while Odets repeatedly played an E-minor chord on the piano and Franchot Tone played chess, Stella would tell stories about the Yiddish theater. Finally giving up on Eunice Stoddard, Odets began setting his sights on a different girl every week, most of whom steered clear of him. One night, he proceeded to throw a billiard ball at Margaret Barker’s door—behind which she was securely ensconced. The racket was numbing. Finally, Stella bellowed, “Clifford, if you don’t turn out to be a genius, I’ll never speak to you again.”[vi]

In an interview in 1966, Stella succinctly stated why she did not use affective memory with her students: “A student is encouraged to respect his creative, imaginative life as a source for his acting craft. To go back to a feeling or emotion of one’s own experience I believe to be unhealthy. It tends to separate you from the play, from the action of the play, from the circumstances of the play, and from the author’s intention. All this has to be embodied in the action.”[vii] Equally important, Stella stressed, was knowing the cultural and political circumstances of the characters and their setting.

While teaching The Glass Menagerie, Stella would tell the actors in the scene to “create the room.” She would say, “Are the drapes torn? Whose picture is on the wall? Washington? Put something there that’s very American. What kind of view does she have? A fire escape. What’s on the other fire escapes? The key is ‘drab’—not just the room, the life. It’s lower-middle-class life. The Gentleman Caller is not of exactly that same class. Know the difference in their larger circumstances.”[viii] Then with Stella’s finesse of mixing pedagogy and humor, she would prod: “C’mon, get going! You can’t be stupid if you’re a modern actor. You have to be sharp. You don’t have to be so intelligent in Shakespeare. He’s a giant, so he carries you—if you speak ever so precisely and have lots of good teeth.”[ix]

For someone as “emotionally fluent” as Stella,[x] using psychological exercises to create emotion was akin to a typist concentrating on each keystroke even after having memorized the keyboard. The natural flow of typing would be hindered, just as thinking about emotion tripped Stella up. She would rather experience the emotion by doing. A correlative conjecture could be applied to Strasberg, who was notoriously aloof and unapproachable. Delving inward to unleash what is sublimated may be useful for such a personality.

Strasberg was a perfectionist. He worked tirelessly to make every movement in a scene matter. No one questioned his authority. Egos could not be tolerated; actors unwilling to listen were unacceptable. “Lee was a God to us,” Phoebe Brand remembered. “We truly admired him. We wanted to do what he wanted even if we didn’t always understand.”[xi] By the middle of the summer the actors began calling him Dr. Strasberg. He kept strict rules where he worked; the barn was deemed a sacred place. Anyone caught smoking or reading a magazine during rehearsal was subject to Strasberg’s explosive temper. During one rehearsal, Strasberg directed Morris Carnovsky in a scene in which he had to climb atop a table and raise a glass. Frustrated with repeatedly climbing up onto the table, Carnovsky finally retaliated by throwing his glass down. The room stilled to silence, and Strasberg exploded. “You! You are committing a central crime against the whole spirit of the group. We are aiming to form a collective theater here. For anyone to transgress is a crime.”[xii]

Between Crawford’s pragmatism and Strasberg’s despotism, Clurman remained the voice of inspiration, with his fervent theatrical ideology. The company had the responsibility of studying and working together on a theater that addressed the sociopolitical milieu of the Depression. Within this microcosm there would be no stars. Everyone would have equal billing and equal work on a project, which meant that if you were the lead in a play one season, you might serve as a stagehand the next. The democratic ideals were nice in theory for Stella, but she preferred playing lead roles. From the beginning, this sense of entitlement, coupled with her aristocratic temperament, aggravated her relationship with the company. As in her childhood, she struggled to integrate.

[i] Jack Garfein, Life and Acting: Techniques for the Actor (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2010), 67.

[ii] Chinoy, “Reunion: A Self-Portrait of the Group,” 508.

[iii] Hethmon, Strasberg at the Actors Studio, 111.

[iv] Smith, Real Life Drama, 45.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Robert Lewis, Slings and Arrows: Theatre in My Live (New York: Stein & Day, 1984), 44.

[vii] Paul Gray, “The Reality of Doing: Interviews with Vera Soloviova, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner,” in Stanislavski and America, ed. Erika Munk (New York: Hill & Wang, 1966), 217.

[viii] Stella Adler, On America’s Master Playwrights, 230.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Chinoy, “Reunion: A Self-Portrait of the Group,” 508.

[xi] Adams, Lee Strasberg, 123.

[xii] Ibid., 124.


When Stella! Arrived at My Door


Stella! at Book Soup (my reflections is in the photo)

Stella! at Book Soup (my reflections is in the photo)

When I heard the distinctive thud of boxes being delivered at my door by our mail carrier, I knew they were author’s copies Stella Adler’s biography. I didn’t rush out to bring them in as I had imagined I would, but left them on the porch. There were more important things to attend to such as editing a Youtube video of me talking about the book, returning emails to bloggers for whom I might guest blog, and pitching an event to yet another venue for my upcoming book tour.

This maelstrom of marketing, of going to bed at night with a new to-do list percolating in my mind has consumed me for over six months: revamp my website, map out my blog posts, find book reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads, make a book trailer, and on and on. The arrival of my book at the door was a quiet thump in the din of the roaring high-speed train from which I could not disembark.

That night my husband came home and carried in the books, his phone camera at the ready to catch me seeing my book for the first time. I pulled a copy out. It was a solid hardback unlike the paperback galley copies. My husband, my copyeditor and I had meticulously gone over each page from my acknowledgments to the last endnote, many times. I wanted an error-free book. I didn’t even take a break on holidays leading up to turning in the final manuscript, working with a stomach full of turkey and gravy after Thanksgiving dinner, and with crumpled wrapping paper still strewn across the living room on Christmas day, reading and rereading for typos, misused words, incorrect spacing.

Judy Garland with barber shop background, 1945I opened the book and slowly began reading the first paragraph of the inside cover flap, which I quickly realized was not what I had entrusted to the copy editor. It reads: “Stella mentored successive generations of superstars, including Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor–” and I snapped the book closed and almost hurled it across the room. How did this error occur? Stella Adler did not mentor these two actresses and I never wrote that she had.

After proclaiming for over a decade that I was writing the book in service to Stella, a labor of love to reclaim her legacy, it suddenly became a lot about me. How would this inaccuracy reflect on my credibility? Writers don’t have room for ego. Still, I haven’t picked up the book again except to cite the erroneous quote above. I’m not a masochist. At some point, I will take that book flap off and look at the biography, hold it, smell it, see the photograph inserts I painstakingly chose, but I don’t know when.

The books are still lying in their boxes, covered with postcards and flyers and envelopes and labels–the mayhem of my marketing efforts. The excitement of their arrival has worn off, and I figure I’ll take a look when life settles down and I can appreciate it. Besides, I couldn’t bear more errors. But don’t worry—this story ends well. You know in the movies when a beleaguered writer or perhaps the unrequited lover of a washed up author suddenly stops by a bookshop window to find the book displayed, all shiny and new? I know it’s cliché, but it happened to me. I dropped by a local bookstore where I was scheduled to appear to leave flyers. As I left the store, something made me go back and look at the storefront window. There I was, a poster with my name in big letters, advertising the event. And there was my book, actually a few of them lined up neatly.

I felt so giddy I went back to my car to do what my husband had tried to do when my books arrived in the mail: grab my phone to capture the moment. It seems appropriate that my first time “seeing” my book should be behind a window, removed, unreachable, because I never really completed it. Paul Valéry wrote, “A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.”

I feel that way about Stella Adler’s biography. After thirteen years, I made a conscious decision to wrap it up by signing a publishing contract and becoming beholden to a deadline. I could have spent another decade writing her story, and though I don’t feel I abandoned the book, at a certain point I just had to let it go, realizing that I have other books to write. Next time, however, I’ll have the wisdom to give myself a break, to allow myself the luxury of congratulating myself instead of judging the work. I’ll hear my new books arrive in the mail and carry them in myself to honor the accomplishment.

This was originally published in the “My First Time” series at The Quivering Pen. I also mentioned the book cover flap error attributing Stella with having mentored Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor in the post “The First Biography of Stella! is Here.” This is the whole, true story of seeing my book in print for the first time. I have since held, opened, smelled and perused my book. 


The First Biography on Stella Adler Is Here!

Stella did not mentor Judy Garland, but she did launch her "adult" career in "Me and My Gal"

Stella did not mentor Judy Garland, but as the producer on “Me and My Gal,” Stella launched Garland’s “adult” career.

Stella Adler’s first biography has been released and you can find it in bookstores and online. You can also win a free copy, which I explain at the end of this post (tweet this). However, there are two items I need to publically address and correct before the rebuttals come in.

Last week, I spoke about Stella! during what became a four-minute radio spot on KCRW, which you can listen to at “All Thing’s Considered.” The segment was edited down and what remains, I fear, may sound a bit like hagiography. Out of context, it could seem that I’m giving Stella sole credit for revolutionizing modern acting.

As I’ve written in the past, I wrote the biography to reclaim Stella’s contribution to contemporary acting, but she didn’t do it alone. Her colleagues, most notably Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner, led the pedagogical crusade that is often referred to as method acting. The most important point I made during my radio spot was that Stella was the only American teacher to have actually studied with the father of modern acting, Constantin Stanislvski (tweet this). It was he who first developed a comprehensive system that serves as the foundation of modern acting. Stella and her colleagues disseminated his system in the United States, each emphasizing particular aspects of it. It was Stanislavski’s system that transformed acting from an unappreciated, undeveloped trade to an actual craft one studies and hones like other art forms such as painting and architecture.

The other item, and more important, is an error I found on the book cover. When my author’s copies arrived in the mail, I opened the box, took out the hardback, and started from the beginning: the cover flap. Slowly I began reading the first paragraph, which I noted was not what I had entrusted to the copy editor: “Stella mentored successive generations of superstars, including Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor,” and I snapped the book shut. Stella did not mentor Garland or Taylor.

Stella was incorrectly credited on my cover flap as having mentored Elizabeth Taylor. For the record, she did not and corrections are being made.

Stella was incorrectly credited on my cover flap as having mentored Elizabeth Taylor. For the record, she did not and corrections are being made.

Working with producer Arthur Freed on the star-studded film Me and My Gal, Stella recommended Garland for her role, which was the first time Garland was cast as a woman as opposed to the girly persona Hollywood had cultivated. As far as I know, that is the extent to which Stella influenced Judy Garland’s career. I still don’t know how the error of Elizabeth Taylor occurred, but I contacted my editor and they issued an erratum to be placed inside each book as a correction. The other actors mentioned in that first paragraph are correct.

After seeing those errors on the cover, I couldn’t open the book further for fear of other errors. I need to get over this. I need to take the flap off, feel the book, smell it, and see my words (not a revised copy editor’s) over its new, pristine pages and admire the photographs I carefully chose for its inserts. Maybe I’ll do this tonight. Maybe I’ll do it next month. For now, it’s enough that the biography is available for others to open and discover Stella.

And on that note there are several ways you can get a free copy of the book:

Goodreads: Sign into Goodreads and Click Enter To Win.

ClassicMovieHub is hosting a giveaway of 6 copies.

Indiegogo: As part of my book launch, I’m mounting a performance of “Harold and Stella: Love Letters,” edited correspondence between Stella and her second husband Harold Clurman during 1942. If you contribute to my campaign there are great perks such as a signed copy of the book to DVDs of Stella’s masterclasses. Watch the 2 minute video on “Love Letters” below.

Find Your Cause: My Journey through Writing Stella Adler’s Biography

Publicity Still circa 1933

Publicity Still circa 1933

I originally published part of this post at Stage 32 

As a girl I would watch the Oscars and diligently record all the categories, nominees and winners in my journal. I didn’t realize there were professional archivists already handling this job just fine without me. Somehow I intuited the import of the work, and it was the only way I knew how to be a part of it. The allure was no doubt a girl’s impressionistic view of all the glitz and glamour, but I don’t think it’s a surprise that my way of identifying was through pen and paper.

Later, as an adolescent, I became confident enough to begin planning my acceptance speeches for the Oscar. I saw myself up on the stage winning an award for acting, yet it was not performance, but writing that would propel me artistically. Besides, other than public school productions, I had no idea how to “break into acting,” but I could create my own characters with pen and paper. So all my life I have identified myself as a writer. Writers are just actors who don’t want to be told how to perform anyway.

Adlerlogo2So instead of drama, I got my bachelors in screenwriting. When it came time to go to graduate school, I was headed toward academia, and although I love teaching (5 years of teaching high school English was the hardest job I’ve ever had), I wasn’t convinced it was my route in life. I began my graduate studies at USC in Spanish literature when I answered an ad to work at a “vocational school.” I needed a day job while I pursued my degree. The school turned out to be the Stella Adler Academy of Acting, throwing me right back into the world of performance and lights and celebrity that had seduced me as a girl. Spanish literature? I don’t know what I was thinking, but I still didn’t have the confidence to drop out of academia. At a crossroads, it came to me. Why not study writing? I imagine I never took my writing seriously enough, but now it was clear and it was as easy as changing my major.

While I was workshopping my poetry and honing screenplays at school, I began learning about acting craft at work. I have an uncle who had produced a couple of well-received films who put me in touch with a producer in Hollywood. I remember meeting this man and knowing that if I wanted to get him interested in my script, I’d need to get him interested in me. I’d need to stand out and be clever, make him laugh, build a relationship so maybe one day, when he was on the crapper, he might have my screenplay nearby and possibly flip it open to read. There were other half-hearted attempts to schmooze, but I immediately knew I didn’t have the know-how to “network.” Now I know why: it was all about me and not about the work.

My last year of graduate school, I produced a one-act play festival at the Stella Adler Academy—with one of my own plays in the production. This was the route for me: producing and writing. I remember receiving a horrible review in Backstage, but it didn’t deter me. By then, I began researching Stella Adler’s life, and when I realized the contributions she had made to refining acting craft, I was actually insulted that she didn’t have a biography. Like me, Stella didn’t have a knack at self-publicizing and now her legacy was withering away in the annals of theatrical history. I didn’t decide to write her biography; I had to write her biography to rectify what I saw as an injustice.

My first “big” interview was with Arthur Miller. The fact that he was one of the last century’s greatest playwrights or married to Marilyn Monroe never entered my mind when I contacted him. I had, as Stella would call it, an action, which was to get him to tell me about Stella for her biography. And so it went with everyone I needed to interview or approach from Peter Bogdanovich and Robert De Niro to Stella’s family. Serving Stella’s legacy and not my own ambitions motivated me for the thirteen years it took to research, write and publish her biography. In the mean time, the connections I made happened organically, not by orchestration.

Once you have a cause, a path is cleared to do whatever it takes to pursue your dreams. This bears emphasizing: your cause empowers you to succeed. My best advice to artists trying to negotiate the competitive creative market is to discover what you care about passionately. Why do you want to act, direct, produce? If you’re an actor, go for the roles that impassion you the way writing Stella’s story did me. Same for directing, producing, or whatever art form you choose. It can’t be for fame or money because that’s amateurish and self-serving.

The success I have achieved in my chosen field has come from a dedication to the work. It takes tenacity, discipline, and the willingness to pick yourself up and dust yourself off when you fall. When I think about it, I’m still that girl recording history, but now I am a part of that history, as is everyone. Find the cause behind your work and serve that cause. You’ve got one shot, this one life to do it, so what have you got to lose?


The Agony and Ecstasy of Marketing Stella Adler’s Biography

Stella as Zinaida in "He Who Gets Slapped" (1946)

Stella as Zinaida in “He Who Gets Slapped” (1946)

Nothing can prepare you for promoting your book. And it doesn’t matter if you’re indie (self) published or traditionally published; nowadays you have to do it yourself. DIY is the new normal (tweet this). Some of you may have noticed Stella’s biography was slated to release April 22. Unforeseen delays pushed the release date back to May 13, which seemed like the end of the world at the time. For 48 hours I thought the book would actually not go to print. After thirteen years working on the book, you can imagine the drama that created in my home. Dinner was a funereal scene.

Now that April 13 is imminent, the delay was a blessing in disguise. I can’t imagine how I’d be ready to launch Stella’s biography by Monday and continue breathing. Tonight, after helping my son with his homework and putting him to bed, I made a to-do list that I could not complete. This was unprecedented. To-do lists are inherently finite, even if you can’t get to everything that day. At least you have the list of what you need to do, but in the case of book marketing, it’s inexhaustible. When I reached number 18, I was too overwhelmed to continue. Here’s what I wrote in no particular order:

  1. Edit and return the Mid-Manhattan book talk flyer
  2. Get emails for people you still need to invite to book release party
  3. Pitch New York Yiddish community for an event
  4. Complete Noah’s summer camp application (random, but necessary if I’m to work while he’s on spring break)
  5. Write the press release for Harold and Stella: Love Letters
  6. Find a stage manager for Love Letters
  7. Create a Facebook event page for Love Letters, the Mid-Manhattan Library, Book Soup book talk, Samuel French book talk, and Drama Book Shop event.
  8. Send book cover to the Latino Book Festival
  9. Create a flyer for the Stella Adler Theatre event
  10. Call Chizzy about Steven Bauer
  11. Email Roseanne Barr
  12. Set up a Goodreads Contest
  13. Set up an Indiegogo campaign for Love Letters
  14. Cancel Mom’s geriatrics appointment
  15. Deal with Jury duty summons
  16. Write out your book talk
  17. Have publicist approve book reviewers on NetGalley
  18. Update your Events page on website

And that’s where I stopped because I realized my web designer has been AWOL for the past two weeks and it was too daunting to think about my website.

Writing this blog post was not on my list, although I knew I was overdue updating you all. Book promotion is not for the faint of heart (tweet this). You propose event ideas and wait. You pitch reviewers, bloggers, podcasts, radio and TV producers and wait. You follow up. Any one of these queries gets a response and then you haul ass to produce the materials, copy and people to make it happen. You stress, cry, get disappointed, elated, and tear your hair out. And yet, there’s something very empowering about today’s DIY artist. I mean, what else would I be doing with myself right now? Showering? Or, god forbid, writing my next book?

My fellow writers, actors, musicians, artists, what are your DIY experiences?

Elia Kazan, Stella Adler & Falling for Harold Clurman

ClurmanTheatreToday I made a new friend on Goodreads who noticed I had written a biography on Stella Adler and said she was “interested in learning about her.” I asked if she had ever heard of Stella. Negative. Then I asked if she had heard of Lee Strasberg. Her answer should have been predictable to me at this point in my journey, but I continue to think for some reason that if people outside the theater and entertainment industry don’t know who Stella is they would logically not know who Lee Strasberg is. That is not the case. Her answer: “Yes, absolutely.”

I wanted to ask if she knew who Harold Clurman was, but I already knew that Clurman’s name has fallen into as much obscurity as Stella’s. And yet, Clurman, as much as Stella and Strasberg, influenced modern day theater and cinema, which is best illustrated through his “apprentice” Elia Kazan.

In 1932 twenty-two year old Kazan met Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg seeking an apprenticeship in their collective, the Group Theatre, a Depression-era socially-conscious ensemble founded the previous year that would revolutionize American theater. In the interview Kazan rather boldly told Strasberg, the Group’s director, that he wanted his job. Strasberg didn’t like the joke. Still, Kazan would be accepted into the Group and turn out to be one of the most influential directors on both stage and screen of the twentieth century. However, it was Clurman whom Kazan gravitated toward. He would diligently take notes during rehearsals Clurman directed and follow Harold everywhere, studying him. Stella Adler, irked since she was used to that particular kind of adoration, flippantly asked Kazan if he were “queer.”

Kazan, Brando, Julie Harris and James Dean, 1955

Kazan, Brando, Julie Harris and James Dean, 1955

Years later, after Kazan founded the Actors Studio, after he had won an Academy Award for On the Waterfront (which established Marlon Brando as one of the greatest actors of his generation); after he had made an icon of the gifted James Dean in his film East of Eden; he wrote that Clurman’s

directorial style was essentially different from Lee’s. He encouraged actors and admired them, instead of confronting them with their inadequacies. . . . He had the culture to know that if you attempt difficult tasks you’re bound to fail as often as not. . . . Harold made me feel that artists are above all other humans, not only in our society but in all of history. I’m not impressed with any other elite, not of money, power, or fame. I got that from Harold.

One cannot write Stella Adler’s biography without also writing Harold’s. They were born the same year, they revered the Yiddish theater, they wanted to build a national theater, they married, and when that union dissolved, they remained life-long friends. And yet, I had no idea what Harold meant to me until I actually had a chance to read the biography after it was completed. This was my reaction:

A Manuscript, a Menorah, and Stella Adler

Stella Adler circa 1937

Stella Adler circa 1937

Since I wrote my last blog post my life has turned up side down. I’m sitting at my computer 13 pounds heavier, on mood stabilizers and working with a copyeditor’s mark up of a biography I spent the last thirteen years fretting over. And fretting is the right word. Yes, the book has been my best friend, but also the bane of my existence.

Although over a decade has passed working on this one book, I did not spend all that time writing it. I did spend a lot of time trying to grow up. The book was my salvation, tucked away while I landed that interview with De Niro or Bogdanovich, while I awaited the diagnosis of Fibromyalgia (4 years), while I awaited (in between Fibro flares) the energy to come back  so I could get out of bed, while I awaited Stella’s Papers to be archived at the University of Texas, while I awaited the passing of the heartbreak of the “one that got away,” while I awaited the birth of my first son, while I awaited a literary agent to come along and shepherd the book into existence.

In the back of my mind, there was always this: if I die before I publish the biography, who is going to know how to put it together (my computer files are not very organized) and publish it? Which vied with a worry of equal preoccupation: when will I feel this manuscript is great? Neither of these concerns, however, competed with the comfort the book gave me knowing one day it would be published. That was the light at the end of the tunnel.

Drama Mask by Zakhren

Drama Mask by Zakhren

And now, supposedly, it’s here and my life has turned up side down. I have dealt with what the American Medical Association calls Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) since puberty, which has sometimes made me feel as if I were going bat shit (it’s like PMS on steroids). It has progressively worsened as I age. Almost one month ago I began having symptoms of irritability, which although not foreign to me and I chalked up to PMDD, quickly escalated to rage. I had no patience with grocery lines, driving, folding clothes, and worse of all, my five year old. The rage cycled with racing thoughts and then sudden sobbing. After 10 days, I was put on “mood stabilizers,” a drug I later learned is an anticonvulsant, and is used off label to treat manic-depression. Within 5 days on the medication, the rage quieted, the crying ended and I was “myself” again.

A month prior to this episode, for lack of a better word, my mother had come to live with us so I could help her figure out why her health was languishing. While under deadline to get the first version of my manuscript to the publisher by October 1, I was also scheduling and taking my mother to doctor’s appointments, administering her medication, assessing her response to new medications prescribed, and trying to keep my 5 year old from agitating her already riddled nerves. After three weeks without an answer as to why my mother’s physical and mental health were collapsing , and a week late for my deadline, she left my house to go home because she had become paranoid that my siblings and I were trying to “run her life.”

All this to say, I don’t doubt that my episode was at least in part caused by the mounting stress I was under while also working against a book deadline and “building my author’s platform.” I was bound and determined to revamp my website, build an email list, make a book trailer, and research every podcast, blog, television and radio show that would be interested in Stella Adler’s life. In fact, that list of things to do is ongoing and growing. The book trailer, it turns out, features clips with copyright in question so my publisher can’t put it on their website, which means I’ll have the same trouble elsewhere.

flying letterPresently, and this is what I’m getting at, a week ago I received the copyeditor’s mark up of the manuscript I finally turned in a week after its deadline. I have two weeks to review, answer, and edit the copyeditor’s work. For those of you who don’t know, a copyeditor is not looking at story structure, pacing, tension, and all those indispensable components that make a book “great.” That would be the job of a developmental editor. The copyeditor edits for grammar, punctuation and consistent style.

As I’m reading my book, in its most complete form to date, I feel a lull somewhere. I can’t figure out exactly what is causing it or even exactly where it is, but there’s something I’m not satisfied with and so my thought process is: after 13 years dedicating my life to this one book I am not only going to launch it without a proper “platform,” but it isn’t going to be “great.” I feel I need a developmental edit, but the publisher has set a release date, and come Friday I need to get the manuscript back to the copyeditor to reflect the final “edits.”

But the clincher, the clincher is this: it’s that time of the month again. It has come a week early. My husband is exhausted with me. He also wants to take a family photo tomorrow for holiday greeting cards.  A photo? Are you kidding? My face has broken out, my world-view dark, my hair is dirty, and I’m bloated. These mood stabilizers aren’t touching the PMDD. Wednesday I go to visit my obstetrician to see about a hysterectomy. That’s how bad it is.

This is where I stand. I stand here on mood stabilizers, 13 pounds overweight and feeling like a second rate writer with serious drama in her life. Where do I go from here?

My second-hand menorah (the photo is my mother as a baby)

My second-hand menorah (the photo is my mother as a baby)

Okay, I can’t end this post on that note, although it was tempting. I actually do have an idea of what to do next. Right now, I’m going to walk my dog and get some perspective. Then, I’m going to do something I’ve never done in my life. My husband is Jewish and I have felt Jewish since I was a girl (that’s another story). It’s Hanukkah. Earlier today on a writing break I decided we needed a menorah. But it’s Saturday so all the shops that sell menorahs were closed. I finally found a used one at a thrift store.

When I get back from walking the dog, I’m going to light those four candles. I think that would have made Stella happy.

One Evening at the Theater with Stella Adler

Stella Adler (early 1940s) photo by Marcus Blechman

Stella Adler (early 1940s)
photo by Marcus Blechman

What is a biography without photos? I love to read about a person or place and then flip forward in the book to the photo inserts and actually see what I’ve been reading about. I’m keeping this in mind as I begin culling the pictures of Stella I have amassed along my travels.

Although I would love to have photos throughout each chapter, it isn’t “economically” plausible for the publisher. I can choose 24 maximum. In a way, it makes my job easier. I have to glean the best from what I have in an order that looks good design-wise on the page.

One major hiccup: I didn’t always note where I found a particular photo. Oy vey! You see, now I have to track down each photo and get permission to print them in the book. Blasted copyright!

Stella Adler circa 1990 photo by Irene Gilbert

Stella Adler circa 1990 photo by Irene Gilbert

When looking through my own collection, I found a photo of Stella at ninety years old standing in front of a mirror. On the mirror is attached a poster of the Serenity Prayer. The prayer is not affiliated with any particular religion; it’s a sage and humble mantra that I actually use myself in a pinch. 12-Step programs have adopted the prayer, which leads me to a “Stella Story,” not in the book, in which she has a delightful cameo.

Betty Garrett in "Spoon River Anthology" (1963) photo by Life

Betty Garrett in “Spoon River Anthology” (1963) photo by Life

In her memoir Betty Garret and Other Stories: A Life on the Stage and Screen, Garret writes about one raucous performance at which Stella was present during the run of Spoon River Anthology in 1963:

At a Matinee performance one day, the oddest thing happened. We were nearing the end of the first act when, from a box at stage right, I distinctly heard someone say, “Bullshit!”

 During intermission, I asked Chuck Aidman if he’d heard someone say“bullshit.”

 “Yeah, what was that?”

We came back out for the second act and the voice continued. It kept moving around the theater and every so often we would hear someone say, “Crap!” or “Bullshit.” Finally, when Joyce Van Patten was doing one of her most sensitive and beautiful characterizations, the voice said, “Act it, Miss Van Patten! Act it.”

 If was so upsetting that finally Chuck moved up to the front of the stage and said, “Excuse me, I must stop the show. There is someone in the audience who is very disturbing to us on the stage and I’m sure to you out there. Will he please leave.”

And the voice called out, “The essence of drama is conflict, Charlie!”

With that the great acting teacher, Stella Adler, who just happened to be sitting in the second row, stood up, and said very dramatically, “Throw that man out!”

That inspired Bob Elston to jump off the stage, run up the aisle, and go smashing against a locked door he thought would take him to the heckler.

We never knew what it was all about until years later when Joyce told me she had received a letter that read: “Dear Miss Van Patten, I am a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and one of our twelve steps is to make amends for any hurt that we may have caused anyone. So I want to apologize very deeply for interrupting your beautiful performance in “Spoon River.” Please extend my apologies to the other members of your cast.

For anyone curious, the Serenity Prayer reads:

God (or fill in the blank), grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.


Outing Myself: Personal Reflections on Writing Stella’s Biography

ChangeI posted this recently at my arts blog and realized how relevant it is to Stella Adler who grappled with depression. Here’s my story:

Anyone paying attention (meaning my husband) would notice I have revamped my personal website. This meant I needed content. So I started writing copy for my home page, and before I knew it, I had outed myself as a person with a disability. I had written about my Fibromyalgia before in an obscure feminist magazine, LOUDmouth, but coming out on my website is another story.

Maybe I’ll delete it.

It all came about when I felt the need to explain why I wrote Stella Adler’s biography. Flashback to thirteen years ago when I started researching Stella’s life. My motivation? I couldn’t believe such an important luminary didn’t have a biography. And as I became more knowledgeable about the evolution of acting craft, I realized Lee Strasberg has been given all the credit. I would tell people I was writing about Stella Adler and they didn’t recognize her name, but everyone knew Lee Strasberg. To make a long story short, I wanted to reclaim her legacy. I wanted to set the record straight in the annals of history. I wanted the underdog to have her day in the sun.

Fibro-memeComing out with FM is the same story. There are so many people with debilitating invisible illnesses. I want their stories heard. Starting with mine.

I contracted FM, or at least realized something was wrong in 2001. It took four years to get a diagnosis, which is pretty good. The average is seven. I’ve gone through the stages of transitioning from excellent health to being a person with a disability: denial, hope, grief and acceptance. I still go back and forth between the two latter stages.

Can you imagine everything shutting down in the middle of the day? That’s what happens to me. Right in the middle of my f*cking workday.

I spent my last year of college in Spain—the year I had to apply to graduate school. This is before email was a viable way of sending information. I had to send in each application separately, tailor each one, cutting and pasting and photocopying. I needed Internet cafés, photocopy machines, a post office, and god forbid I needed pesetas, because all these places of business, including the bank, closed in the middle of the day for a siesta. I raged! This was my future they were messing with. How could anyone operate if everything closed down in the middle of the day!

This is what happens to my body. It starts coming over me around ten-thirty, eleven in the morning. My brain slows down. I make mistakes. I can’t write or produce. Then my body follows. I become sluggish and so so tired. I feel I might die if I can’t lay my head down. I keep going until I feel nauseated and then I give in. Now it’s about noon. At this point I feel as if I pulled an all-nighter and I have to sleep off a mind-numbing hangover. So I do. At least there’s a solution. But boy do I resent wasting half my daylight hours in bed. That’s the part I have to get over.

Once or twice a year I actually have a normal day and can stay up through the whole day. Once or twice a year I might fall into a flare and become bedridden. When this happens I never know if it’s going to last one day or one year.

These invisible illnesses are wicked because you look fine. You don’t look sick. No one can see your limitations like they do in the last stages of cancer, which I’m told from people with both FM and cancer aren’t so different from one another. One can easily feel like a malingerer. I’ve gotten over that part at least. It’s just the hours in bed I loathe. Should I just move to Spain?

So let me ask those of you with MS, Lupus, deafness, chronic pain, diabetes, epilepsy and the myriad other invisible illnesses out there : How do you cope with the specific limitations your illness causes?

Or should I just delete this post and the part about outing myself on my homepage?

Fear and Ego on the Road to Publishing Stella Adler’s Biography

Stella Adler in "Love on Toast" (1937) Kinda how I feel right now.

Stella Adler in “Love on Toast” (1937) Kinda how I feel right now.

“The worst time in any writer’s life is the two months before publication,” Anne Lamott posted on Facebook yesterday. You like to think you know how you’ll react during a new life-experience (losing your virginity, having your first child, publishing your first book), but I decided to heed Lamott’s words with not a little trepidation, even though I am theoretically eight months away from publication.

Only a few hours later I stumbled upon a link to my as yet unpublished book on a site called East Coast Music. WTF? As my stomach dropped and my palms grew clammy, my first thought was “If this is how I’m going to react to some company listing my book for sale, how am I going to manage when the book is actually printed?” The fear thumped me; maybe I felt a bit of dread, of which I’ve never been aware (except the few times I’ve been on the stage, ironically).

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