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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Stella’s Legacy at the Stella Adler Academy in Hollywood

Stella Adler Executive Director and faculty interviewed on Actors E Chat (from left: Tim McNeil, John Jack Rodgers, Milton Justice and Kurt Kelly)

Stella Adler Executive Director and faculty interviewed on Actors E Chat (from left: Tim McNeil, John Jack Rodgers, Milton Justice and host Kurt Kelly)

In the epilogue of my just released book Stella! Mother of Modern Acting, I write about Stella Adler’s legacy, in terms of those who studied with her as actors, as well as those who studied her technique in order to teach it to future generations. It’s true that Stella did not have a teacher-training program, a pedagogical system from which one could graduate. And she told her friend of thirty years, Irene Gilbert, to whom she bequeathed her LA-based school, The Stella Adler Academy and Theatres, that when she died, her technique would die with her. Nonetheless, Stella Adler worked intensively with a small number of actors who have continued her tradition. While there will never be another Stella Adler, the spirit of her teachings and her philosophy about acting and the theatre lives on.

Milton Justice

Milton Justice

Her most ardent and prolific disciple, Milton Justice, has taken Stella’s teachings worldwide to Sydney, Auckland, and Seoul. Justice teaches master classes at The Stella Adler Academy in Hollywood, returns to Yale yearly to instruct in its drama department, and speaks and conducts workshops at USC and LAMDA.

Before I first interviewed Justice in 2011 I did my homework, and learned that he was a producer, director and an Academy Award winning documentarian. I remember asking Justice how I should refer to him in the book—as a documentarian, a producer, an actor? And he answered that he never wanted to be an actor. What he wanted to do was study with Stella. This was before he began teaching master classes at Stella’s west coast school. When I looked him up on the Internet, little was said about him being a leading practitioner of Stella Adler’s technique. I didn’t assume that the sparse information I had about him teaching meant that he was carrying on Stella’s approach. In my mind he could have been teaching directing courses. During our interview, he told some of the best stories about Stella that I had heard, but he didn’t discuss his knowledge of her technique. Meanwhile other teachers made it a point to mention their apprenticeship with Stella.

I imagine this is the reason why on the last page of my book I write “Milton Justice, who was asked to teach Stella’s technique at Yale although he was not formally trained by her….” I did not include that qualifier with the other teachers I mentioned in the epilogue, which could lead people to think Justice unqualified to carry on Stella’s tradition. Nothing could be further from the truth. Stella personally asked Justice to be the Artistic Director of the theatre company borne out of the Los Angeles Academy. The ironic truth is that Justice’s “qualifications” aren’t plastered around the Internet or mentioned in interviews because he much prefers talking about Stella and the art of acting, not himself. Stella was the same way, and that is the reason she is so unrecognized today. She didn’t seek publicity because, like Milton Justice, she had loftier things on her mind — such as refining acting craft.

After all of these years devoted to reclaiming Stella’s contribution to modern day acting, the last thing I would want is for one of her sanctioned devotees to be diminished in any way. Thank you, Milton Justice, for carrying on Stella’s work.

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?


Stella Stories: Why We Remember Stella Adler

Stella_ScarfThe Stella Stories series continues by  former Adler student, the Emmy-Award writer and director, Elizabeth Page who studied at Adler’s New York school in the 1970s when Stella’s genius at script analysis soared.

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-Adler-Quotes-4Stella’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.

If you have a Stella Story, please submit to sheana@sheanaochoa.com

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: epagenyc@gmail.com.

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?

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: https://www.stage32.com/blog/Find-Your-Cause-Stella-Adler-and-Me

Good Luck!


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:

Finding Stella Adler: A Journey from a Student of Acting to a Student of Life

By Jen Snelling, special to SALIA

Photo by Rue Drew

Photo by Rue Drew

Amidst Stella’s archives I found two over-size albums that were essentially scrapbooks of letters, cards and notes that Stella’s students had given to her over the years. I never had a chance to refer to these powerful life-changing testimonies in Stella’s biography, but their contents inspired me throughout the journey to publication. Recently, I reconnected with a student who studied at Stella’s west coast school, someone who never met Stella, and yet, Stella influenced her as intensely as the students who had penned notes to the woman herself. That Stella continues to touch the lives of people posthumously testifies to the power of her spirit. I am overjoyed to be able to share one of those stories in this guest blog by Jen Snelling.

Of all people who I could try to understand, and learn from, Stella Adler would be at the top of the list. Her students, the teachers that studied with her, her assistants and editors have given me an invaluable introduction to myself through her teachings. When I revere a person on the level of “this person changed my life” but that person remains in the realm of “but I know nothing about them” it really bothers me.

I have lamented many times that I was a generation or two too late to have learned the answers to questions I have about a great artist, and I have also been disheartened many times to know that even though there are those I might be able to cross paths with in this life, chances are I will not be able to work with them or gain the insight I want from them. Stella Adler is no exception, although, in some ways, she is the only exception. Continue reading

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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