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When Audience and Actors Were One: “Waiting for Lefty”

Waiting For Lefty

While writing Stella Adler’s biography I discovered a strange phenomenon: many American actors are unaware of the history of acting. Some even boast they don’t practice their craft, attend acting classes or work terribly hard on a role, which would be tantamount to me, an author, saying I don’t revise my writing, study other writers or research and build my stories, settings and characters. If you’re reading this now, you probably aren’t one of those actors. You’re probably aware that practice hones your talent. You’re probably aware of the history and evolution of American acting—at least to the extent that that story has been told. Stella! Mother of Modern Acting, the first biography of Stella Adler, spirits you along that evolution through the eyes and life story of one of acting’s most loyal guardians. Last week I posted one of three handpicked excerpts from Stella’s biography, including what follows: the legendary, first performance of Clifford Odets’ revolutionary play “Waiting for Lefty.”

(These excerpts were originally published in Daily Actor)

Studio Portrait of Stella circa 1935 when "Waiting for Lefty" was first produced

Studio Portrait of Stella circa 1935 when “Waiting for Lefty” was first produced

When Stella was a child, two world-renowned actors came to play at Jacob’s Grand Theatre. One of the visitors gave Stella a hat with two rabbits on it that she was quite fond of and wore to watch the production. Normally Stella was either backstage or onstage. This night she sat in the audience. From her box seat Stella could feel the excitement of the playgoers shuffling in, the intangible anticipation of a night at the theater and the wonderful, although sometimes tragic, world the entire house would enter. Yiddish audiences didn’t adhere to the concept of the fourth wall: they cried and laughed with each other and the players onstage. Being at the theater was like being in one’s living room, absorbing one another and the characters in the play as a unit, a family. Stella marveled at how life and theater mingled into one undeniable happening night after night.

Being in the audience, however, was an exciting change for the girl. Before the play began, she couldn’t take her eyes off the red plush stage curtain, which was embroidered in gold and green satin thread with a tableau of colorful scenes.[i] Stella studied the two-dimensional work of art spread out in front of her, promising to unveil a world that would spirit her away.

Some two decades, later on January 6, 1935, Stella found herself again sitting in an audience. Instead of her father’s theater, she was at Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre watching Odets’s Waiting for Lefty. An announcement was tucked in on a throwaway leaflet of the program without the playwright’s name on it. It simply said that the cast of Golden Eagle Guy, the latest Group Theatre production, would present the play.

Stella’s mother and elder brother Jay accompanied her. After sitting through a short play by Paul Green and a dance performance, the audience relaxed to wait through the final act of a typical benefit show. Stella knew better. She had heard Odets’s play the previous October with the rest of the Group. The show about to begin was no ordinary play.

Waiting for Lefty opens with six or seven cab drivers sitting in a semicircle, working-class men dressed the part. Morris Carnovsky, playing Harry Fatt, says: “You’re so wrong I ain’t laughing. Any guy with eyes to read knows it. Look at the textile strike—out like lions in like lambs.”

The audience immediately identified the sound and demeanor of the common New Yorker off the street, and as the other actors chimed in about the question of a strike, the viewers leaned forward as if to jump from their seats and join the debate. Clurman watched from the side: “The first scene of Lefty had not played two minutes when a shock of delighted recognition struck the audience like a tidal wave. Deep laughter, hot assent, a kind of joyous fervor seemed to sweep the audience toward the stage. The actors no longer performed; they were being carried along as if by an exultancy of communication such as I had never witnessed in the theater before. Audience and actors had become one.”[ii]

That winter was a particularly harsh one, the Atlantic Ocean packed with ice from Nantucket Island to the mainland, but the sincerity of Odets’s characters warmed the spirits of an audience weather-worn and beleaguered by three long years of an economic depression. The previous year’s passage of the National Recovery Act and its section giving employees the right to organize “and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing . . . free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers” prompted the formation of labor unions across the nation, demanding better work conditions and wages.[iii] Odets’s prescient play voiced the anger and promise of the new year, a year in which 1,834 work stoppages and strikes stirred up industry across the country.[iv]

At the close of Lefty, the audience is directly addressed: “Well, what’s the answer?” Odets and a couple other stagehands had rehearsed to reply, “Strike!” To the actors’ astonishment, another cry of “Strike!” echoed across the auditorium, and then another, until an entire choir of “Strike! Strike!” erupted as hundreds of people rose from their seats, stomping their feet so relentlessly that Ruth Nelson later recalled her fear that “they’re going to bring the balcony down!”[v] Applause and approval shook the house for forty-five minutes and a total of twenty-six curtain calls, at which point the audience stormed the stage. Cheryl Crawford later recalled how the audience “wouldn’t leave. I was afraid they were going to tear the seats out and throw them on the stage.”[vi]

The playwright watched, astonished by the audience’s reaction: “There was such an at-oneness with audience and actors that the actors didn’t know whether they were acting, and the audience got up and shouted ‘Bravo! Bravo!’ and . . . I found myself up on my feet shouting, ‘Bravo, Luther!’ In fact, I was part of the audience. I forgot I wrote the play. . . . The proscenium arch disappeared . . . when that happens . . . not by technical innovation, but when that happens emotionally and humanly, then you will have great theater.”[vii]

Stella had experienced the disappearance of the proscenium all her life. She understood how adversity unites people who otherwise—during socioeconomic and cultural stability—tend to isolate from their fellow man. A theater that acknowledges the intimate undercurrent of the spectators’ lives will stir that audience in ways even the greatest tragedies cannot. Once again the union of life and theater, a coupling that was the essence of her own existence, revealed itself to her.

With an audience reluctant to leave, the stage manager finally closed the curtain, clearing the audience out onto the street, where they remained discussing the play. Sara Adler was surprised that the playwright was the same man who, when visiting their home, scavenged the plentiful bread on the table. Odets had been used to eating “shredded wheat,” recalling that, “when I saw all that Jewish bread on the table, I’d just die.”[viii] Sara congratulated Odets while Jay ingratiatingly asked the young playwright for his first autograph.

Adrenaline and triumph took the cast and crew out into the night, embracing and laughing, raucously reliving what only a few hours earlier had enlarged their perception of the potential of theater. It was a vessel to empower the people, just as Clurman had preached in his Friday-evening talks. Wandering deliriously through the streets, some of the cast ended up in cafés and bars, unwilling to surrender the night. Odets finally settled into a cafeteria with his codirector, Sanford Meisner, who watched “Clifford at one of those long tables, very, very pale, tense, and absolutely quiet. He seemed like a person in shock.”[ix] Twilight nudged everyone home. By the following year Waiting for Lefty would be more frequently produced and more frequently banned all over the world—from Union Square to Moscow, from Tokyo to Johannesburg—than any other play in theatrical history.”[x]


[i] Stella Adler, in discussion with friends, August 29, 1987, audiocassette, Irene Gilbert Collection.

[ii] Clurman, The Fervent Years, 147–48.

[iii] Watkins, The Great Depression, 168.

[iv] Ibid., 170.

[v] Smith, Real Life Drama, 198.

[vi] Ibid., 199.

[vii] Brenman-Gibson, Clifford Odets, 316.

[viii] Ibid., 317.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid., 316.


When Stella Adler Gave Marlon Brando an Ultimatum

brando_cigAlthough in the public’s mind Marlon Brando was the quintessential “method actor,” he did not study with Lee Strasberg. In 1943 at the age of 19, Brando went to New York and enrolled at the New School’s Dramatic Workshop where he met the woman who would teach him acting craft, launch his career in the theater, and also give him a “syllabus for living.” Stella took Brando under her wing and brought him into her circle of Jewish artists and intellectuals, exposing him to culture, painting and music. She also had a lovely sixteen-year-old daughter who Brando started dating. As you’ll read in the following excerpt from Stella! Mother of Modern Acting, Stella had several reasons for keeping the youths apart. Ellen Adler and Brando would remain life-long friends. I was surprised while conducting interviews with Ellen that she and Marlon spoke on the phone every week up until his death in 2004. 

(The following excerpt was originally published as a three-part series in  The Daily Actor)

Like Stella Adler, Brando loved to imitate people, no one more so than his teacher. The composer David Diamond was among the stream of guests that frequented Stella’s apartment. Diamond remembered how Brando’s “parrot routine,” as they referred to it, went: “She’s talking, and when Stella talks nobody else talks. So Marlon is imitating every gesture.” After ten or fifteen minutes of ignoring Marlon’s antics, Stella, dressed in her peignoir with nothing on underneath, crossed her legs, “which are rather full down around the calves but gorgeous, gorgeous thighs. The peignoir just simply opened and this leg was there. So what does Marlon do? He takes off his pants, and there he is in his boxer shorts crossing his leg over, showing his thigh.”[i]

Here's the young Brando in "I Remember Mama"

Here’s the young Brando in “I Remember Mama”

Upon Stella’s recommendation, Brando agreed to audition for a part in what became his first Broadway show, I Remember Mama. The play’s producers, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, were still riding the coattails of their highly successful Oklahoma!, and an unknown like Brando was lucky to be in such company. Rehearsals for Mama began just as Ellen finished her liberal arts study at Bard College. She invariably found herself spending much of her time at the Music Box Theatre. Fran Heflin, also in the cast of Mama, remembered sometimes hiding Ellen in her dressing room whenever Stella came storming into the theater looking for the shvartze (literally, someone dark-skinned, and the term Stella used derisively for Ellen) to send home.[ii] “She wanted to break up the relationship,” Heflin recalled. “It was the only time in my life I saw her strike a maternal pose, and remember I’d known Stella for years since Van, my brother, had been in the Group.”[iii]

Many viewed Stella’s reprisals as a form of jealousy. Physically, Ellen and Stella were opposites. Ellen’s dark features contrasted with Stella’s fair skin and light eyes. Brando’s biographer described Ellen as “striking . . . a dark gypsy type with coal black hair, quick eyes, and a sense and presence that many found disturbingly precocious.”[iv] Robert Ellenstein, one of Ellen’s suitors at the time, remarked how Stella would dress Ellen down in little girls’ dresses—implying that Stella wanted the dark, classically beautiful Ellen to remain subordinate to her.

According to one account, during the production of Mama a cast member walked into Brando’s dressing room and saw Stella and Brando on the floor, the latter naked. Rumors about Brando and Stella abounded, which were fueled by the fact that Stella did not go to any lengths to hide her sexual exploits even though she was now married to Harold [Cluman]. Another boyfriend of Ellen’s from Bard remembered that he and Ellen often went out with Stella and one of her male friends—usually “an older guy with a lot of money who would take us out for delicious dinners.”[v]

I Remember Mama opened on October 19, 1944, and put Brando on the map as a new force in the theater. Stella became concerned about how much Ellen and Brando were seeing of one another. One day she called Brando to the Plaza. Her agitation increasing as the conversation came to a head, she finally bellowed: “You are not to see Ellen anymore until you marry her!”[vi] Several waiters dropped their trays. The piercing demand startled them not merely because of its volume, but because it carried the tone of a royal decree. Barely in his twenties with an unremitting sexual appetite, Brando would have found the idea of marriage unnerving—as Stella knew. As for the rumors about Stella herself, Brando excised them when he wrote in his autobiography: “We had a lot of flirtatious exchanges, and I suppose that somewhere not far beyond the horizon there was the possibility of a real encounter, but it never materialized.”[vii]

The next two excerpts from Stella! Mother of Modern Acting will appear here in the following week.

[i] Peter Manso, Brando, 112.

[ii] Ibid., 153.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., 151.

[v] Ibid., 152.

[vi] Elaine Stritch, in discussion with the author, November 8, 2004.

[vii] Marlon Brando, Songs My Mother Taught Me, with Robert Lindsey (New York: Random House, 1994), 99.

Harold and Stella: Opening night!

Onstage & Backstage

fringeThe two-person play “Harold and Stella: Love Letters” opens at the Hollywood Fringe Festival tonight (Friday). Here are some details from the Festival website…

In 1942 Stella Adler (queen of modern acting) and Harold Clurman (dean of American theater) were living on opposite coasts of the country as the U.S. entered the Second World War. They began a steady stream of correspondence to buttress their long distance romance, letters that reveal times as tempestuous as their relationship. Through their words, we enter the lives of two artists unflinchingly committed to their work while struggling through creative, financial and romantic uncertainty.

Sheana Ochoa, author of Stella Adler’s new biography, Stella! Mother of Modern Acting will be at each performance to sign copies. Enter discount code “BOOK” to receive a signed copy of the book along with your ticket at the discounted price of $35. Visit the festival website HERE for more…

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Giveaway – Stella Adler Biography

Susan Douglas, Stella Adler, Dennis King, Wolfe Barzell in He Who Gets Slapped (1946 Broadway revival)

Susan Douglas, Stella Adler, Dennis King, Wolfe Barzell in He Who Gets Slapped (1946 Broadway revival)

I’m running a contest on Stage 32 to win a free, signed copy of Stella! Mother of Modern Acting. I wanted all my subscribers to know about it so you can have a chance to win. A couple months back I ran a similar contest on Goodreads for the advanced reader’s copy and over 500 people entered to win. This one’s different.

You enter by commenting on the blog post I wrote (see link below). Only a dozen people have commented (it looks like more because they count when I reply to each comment), so your chances of winning are, well, pretty damn good. Here’s the link to the post:

Good Luck!


Stella Adler’s Birthday

Happy Birthday, Stella!

Onstage & Backstage

Today is Stella Adler’s birthday! A new  biography by author Sheana Ochoa, Stella! Mother of Modern Acting, is coming out in April. You can check out Sheana Ochoa’s website 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 sociological understanding of the imagined characters: their social class…

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Biographer Behind the Scenes on Stella Adler

Free Advanced Ebook of Stella! Mother of Modern Acting

New_Stella_Cover250pixels_0Enter to win at

Your egalley (galley is just a fancy word for the book before it’s been designed and bound — the copy reviewers receive) will download to your preferred reading device.


One entry per person

Entering contest grants permission to add you to Sheana’s Newsletter (although you can unsubscribe at any time).

Winner will be announced February 14, 2014 via Sheana’s Newsletter. Enter at

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.

Deadlines: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

ClintI know you are all dying to know if I made my October 1st deadline to my publisher. I did not.

In school I was one of those kids who excelled: straight As from junior high through college. My last semester of college, however, I had a poli-sci class where we had to periodically turn in extensively researched papers. I can’t remember the circumstances, most likely boyfriend drama, but I made the conscious decision to forfeit turning in the last of those term papers, which I knew would adversely affect my straight-A-decade-long record. I received the first and last C of my life. Was it worth it? Yes. The alternative was to neglect life.

You can tell by now that I take deadlines seriously. I never once thought I would not make the October 1st promise to my publisher. In my post Delivering Stella Adler’s Biography: The Labor Pains Are Killing Me, I explained how the first two months that I was supposed to be revising were spent getting all my endnotes in order. That left me with one month to get Stella’s manuscript into shape.

And then the unforeseeable happenend. I needed to take in my mother due to an undiagnosed health issue and nurse her back to health. I had to monitor her  meds, plan meals, draw baths, schedule doctor’s appointments and referrals, assess the results of various medications, apply ice packs, upload audio books, answer the same questions several times due to her cognitive dysfunction. None of this was conducive to the hours of solitude I needed to track the fundamentals of storytelling. Had I fleshed out the ancillary characters? Had I created tension at the end of each chapter? Was the plot’s pacing consistently moving forward? How was I too assess these things in fits and starts? I was stressed out of my gourd to say the least.

Looking back, I wish I had handled it all differently. For starters I would have given myself an extra month’s padding in the contract for my deadline. I would have set aside ten minutes a day to meditate.

Mostly, I would have kept my mouth shut when out of frustration I took on the victim role and put the burden of everything I could not get to (reconstructing my hacked website, picking up the kid from school, planning his 5th birthday party, dishes, phone calls) on my husband. I wanted outside appearances to remain stable, and I wanted him to pick up the slack. The expectation was unrealistic and all it did was create strain on my marriage. I resented my husband for scheduling work-related commitments that cut into my writing time. I accused him of not helping me enough. I was frightened that I was losing my mother as well as a book I had spent 13 years researching and writing.

One day, I fell sick with a chronic illness I live with. Not knowing how long I’d be in bed, the fear of the unknown and the frustration of my unpredictable illness felt overwhelming. I made the conscious choice to not make my deadline. The book was no longer the baby I was birthing. It was a sentence I had to carry out. An albatross.

At ten o’clock last night I completed the final edits on the manuscript. My publisher received it today, one week late. I was okay with that, but it would have been just as acceptable to turn it in two weeks late and have more sanity. Take time to answer the phone, talk to my husband, play with my son, take a walk, meditate, pray, stretch.

When I awoke this morning I really did feel as if I had finished a 3 month prison sentence and I was finally free to read the paper, visit a friend, get a goddamn pedicure! So, no. Delivering the book to my publisher was not like delivering my son. When he was born, I couldn’t get enough of him. I became more devoted. When the book was finished, I sent it off like a visitor who has overstayed his welcome. Good riddance!

Still, if I hadn’t had a deadline, the book would not be finished. It would not be ready for the next phase on its journey to publication. Deadlines are good; people can make them ugly. Lesson learned for the next one.

Help! What Should I Title Stella’s Biography?

I was thinking. People who don’t know who Stella Adler is might wonder who this book is about if it’s titled: “Stella! A Life in Art”

And did anyone get the allusion to Stanislavski’s “My Life in Art”?

Ahhh, there’s the rub. I need a catchy title that clearly identifies WHO the book is about, but “Stella Adler: A Biography” is so boring!

I want to use Stella! to evoke Brando’s bellow in “A Streetcar Named Desire” since he is Stella Adler’s most famous student. 

With your help, I’m taking a poll:

If you have any ideas, please share in the comments below.

Stella Adler: “It’s Either Life or the Theatre”

The biographer’s description of Stella Adler after viewing one of her final Master Classes in 1989:

Stella applauds two actors playing a scene from The Dresser. She is 88 years old and has been either applauding, playing, or interrupting scenes most her life.  She sits behind a fold-out table the width of her arms, speaking into a microphone.  Stella never needed a microphone and doesn’t need one now, but the class is being videotaped and she adheres to using the microphone.  The table is covered with a purple metallic sheen fabric indicative of the late 80’s, oddly juxtaposed in front of an altar of flower arrangements her students have brought her.  The ad hoc manner in which the setting for Stella’s Master Class has been construed mirrors Stella’s own position towards presentation: it is, by nature, contrived; what matters is the truth of the performance.  Throughout her life Stella presented herself glamorously, but upon close inspection one might invariably find a false eyelash gone awry or a safety pin standing in for a missing button.  Continue reading