Category Archives: News on Acting/Stella

Listen: At the Table with Sheana Ochoa

This is an unedited chat with Kelly Lincoln, not a “formal” interview, that we held in the Bronx while I was on my NYC book tour on June 1, 2014. You can listen here.

Onstage & Backstage

Sheana Ochoa, author of Stella! Mother of Modern Acting, visited Kelly Lincoln of At the Table. Together, they discuss “the great, ahead of her time Stella Adler, and how the Yiddish Theater birthed American Theater.”

00121937>>LISTEN HERE<<

Arthur Miller decided to become a playwright after seeing her perform with the Group Theater. Marlon Brando attributed his acting to her genius as a teacher. Theater critic Robert Brustein calls her the greatest acting teacher in America.

At the turn of the 20th century – by which time acting had hardly evolved since classical Greece – Stella Adler became a child star of the Yiddish stage in New York, where she was being groomed to refine acting craft and eventually help pioneer its modern gold standard: method acting. Stella’s emphasis on experiencing a role through the actions in the given circumstances of the work directs actors toward a deep…

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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.

The Actor’s Responsibility

J. Garfield, Stella and Brando by Al Hirschfeld

John Garfield, Stella and Morris Carnovsky by Al Hirschfeld

Recently chatting with an actor in the UK, he told me some of his actor friends actually “brag” about the fact that they don’t practice their craft. That would be akin to a painter not sketching; a musician not practicing his instrument; a ballerina not dancing in the studio when she isn’t onstage.

In my last post I wrote: “Acting, like no other profession—not doctors, athletes, and certainly not writers—have to use all three components in their work: the physical, mental, and spiritual.” You can read about my reasoning here. My caveat, however, of the thesis that acting is one of the most difficult professions is that not all actors actually put their body, mind, and spirit into their work as, Stella Adler would say, is their responsibility.

Stella used to lament the fact that American actors would study acting and then go off and audition and try to make a career, and stop studying. She thought of acting as a life-long practice wherein the actor continues to train his or her voice, honor his instrument (his body), and study (characters, scenes, playwrights) to learn more about himself and his role in the world.

Stella said, “All of us have a role in improving the world.” But she believed actors, more than others, had a responsibility through their art to enlighten. Her view of actors as aristocrats came from this belief. She lifted the actor to nobility. She instilled in her students a sense of tradition and reverence. I fear much of that has been lost on the contemporary actor. What are your views?

The Actor’s Job: Mind, Body & Spirit

Ed Clark:LIFE-The Men-1950It is easy to criticize professions with which we have no experience. We judge and critique the work of others whether it’s a waiter or an IT person over the phone. We go around with expectations of how workers are supposed to perform their jobs instead of how a person, on any given day, may be performing. Maybe that waiter’s arthritis is flaring up that day, or the IT person has worked a double shift. When it comes to the arts, no other profession is as vulnerable to criticism and judgment as the actor’s. People seem to think acting comes “naturally” without practice or ongoing work. No one holds such judgment over musicians, writers, or artists. Why would they have that assumption with acting?

Susan Sontag, who I consider one of the great minds of the 20th century, once asked something to the effect of why do actors study? Aren’t they just memorizing lines and acting them out? Her questions reflect the common misunderstanding of the actor’s job, or at least what the actor’s job should be. I suppose it’s to the actors credit that they make it look easy, not unlike an ice skater gliding through and alighting from a triple axel jump.

Some years ago I was a high school teacher. I quit after a year. It wasn’t that my heart wasn’t in it. I loved having a captive audience and creating ways to get my students to buy into the literature we were reading. I actually quit because the job was too difficult. If I wanted to do it right, which I thought I owed these budding minds, I had to devote a lot more time (much of it after the work day) to create new ways to engage kids who went home to an empty house and refrigerator.

Otherwise these students, with their headphones under their hoodies and their single-mom homes and their drug-ridden neighborhoods and their hungry tummies weren’t going to give a rat’s ass about Shakespeare or Toni Morrison. In addition to teaching, I had to be a mother, therapist, and performer. Teaching, I thought, was the most physically, mentally, and spiritually demanding job in the world.

Then I covered the Hollywood Fringe Festival last year.

The Group Theatre circa 1931

The Group Theatre circa 1931

Acting, like no other profession—not doctors, athletes, and certainly not writers—have to use all three components in their work: the physical, mental, and spiritual. It’s very much like teaching. At the fringe I saw actors unload and mount their sets, center themselves, inhabit the character that they had studied, created and rehearsed. I watched them put out their best act only to do it again the following night.

I’m not saying all actors invest as much mental or spiritual practice in their work as they should (which will be the topic of my next post). But those who do, those who practice their craft through life-long study and find venues to stay working (whether it’s performing for the sick at hospital, booking a television series,  or taking scene study classes in between gigs) are the hardest working people I know. Perhaps an athlete performs at a higher physical level, but after his or her prime, athletes retire at an early age. Not actors. A scientist may expend more mental faculties, but she or he does not have to do so while also expending physical energy. A yogi reaches a higher spiritual plane, but not while also using his or her creative imagination.

Stella Adler would say, “The play is not in the words, it’s in you.” The modern actor must plow deep into his or her own humanity to understand the character, must exhaustively research that character’s circumstances, including his environment, must act (Greek for “to do”) with his body and voice repeatedly in rehearsal, on stage or on set.

Maybe I’m wrong. Illuminate me: Is there any other profession (besides teaching) that requires so much?

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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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.”

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On Actors’ Equity’s 100th Anniversary, A Look at its Ancestor: The Hebrew Actors’ Union

Ethel Barrymore as the spirit of Actors' Equity

Ethel Barrymore as the spirit of Actors’ Equity

This year Actors’ Equity celebrates its impressive centenary. One hundred years is a long time in this country. Prior to Equity, actors worked at the mercy of theatrical producers. They had no say about wages or work hours. They could be fired without notice and left on the road if a show failed and closed down early.

Although efforts at unionism in this country predate the 1880s, early organizations disbanded due to a lack of solidarity. The birth of unions in America is clearly traced to the post civil-war period with the onset of large corporations. As we celebrate 100 years of Actors’ Equity, it is necessary to acknowledge its forbears such as the AFL, founded in 1886, and its direct ancestor: the Hebrew Actors’ Union.

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Stella Adler’s Divided Legacy

Facade of Stella Adler Academy and Theatres

In 2010 the Stella Adler New York Studio opened a west coast branch in Hollywood named the Art of Acting Studio.  A mile north of this school is The Stella Adler Academy of Acting, which has been operating in Hollywood for twenty-five years.  These two schools, though they both claim to teach Stella Adler’s technique, are in competition with one another. The reasons for this divided legacy are easy to understand, which like most divisions in this world, boil down to politics and personalities.

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