Tag Archives: acting craft

Stella Adler Video Links

stella-adler-jpegAn author is supposed to market her book a year after its release. I haven’t been as diligent as most, but after spending over a decade of my life with Stella, I have moved on. I’m an artist, after all and although Stella would say one should play Hamlet or Medea over a lifetime to really nail the role, I have other roles to play as a writer, mother, and wife.  Still, it dawned on me as I was perusing this blog that I hadn’t linked all the amazing videos on my Stella Adler YouTube channel. These include riveting teaching lectures (like the one below), others talking about Stella, and the PBS documentary on her life — all of which you can find here.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll never be through with Stella. She’s a part of me now. But I’m concentrating on a memoir to help heal a chronic illness I grapple with on a daily basis. I take my lead from Stella who lived her life through art, both the suffering and the joy.

If you have read Stella!, it would be a wonderful “thank you” to me to write a brief review on the book’s Amazon page. Only 24 people have reviewed it to date, and I need all the 5 STAR reviews I can get.(If you don’t want to give it 5 Stars, I’d rather you not post a review as it will lower the book’s ranking.) So, if you have a few minutes and a few words about the book, please leave them at the book’s Amazon page here. 

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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.

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 and The Evolution of Modern Day Acting

brando-streetcarAs artistic movements go, only time will tell what the last century contributed to the cultural tapestry of Western civilization. Albert Einstein altered the perception of time and space, while Freud revealed the unconscious mind. As art reflected these shifts in how we perceive ourselves and the world around us, the last hundred years underwent major movements in music, architecture, literature, and visual arts. The potpourri of these movements can be recited like the alphabet: Art Deco, Cubism, magical realism, minimalism, neoclassicism, post-modernism.  And yet, there is one art form, arguably the oldest art form, that up until the last century was deplete of transformation. It took a person with a proper balance of ardor and deference to help pioneer a revolution in modern day acting craft.

Stella Adler circa 1934

Stella Adler circa 1934

Her name was Stella Adler and she was born into the theatre. Her father Jacob came to America with the Yiddish theatre from Russia.  Together with his third and last wife, Sara, he created a theatrical empire in New York’s Lower East Side that rivaled Broadway in opulence and popularity. Their children were put on the stage as soon as they could walk. In the Yiddish theatre actors rarely married outside the profession.  Love affairs, friendships and rivalries ignited and came to a close with each theatrical season. It was a bohemian, yet privileged lifestyle, no where better typified than through Jacob and Sara. They exuded elegance in their dress, speech, and carriage. They were stars of the stage, heroes among the people of the Jewish ghetto where they performed.

Though her life was in the Yiddish theatre, Stella also attended public school, which illuminated the stark differences between normal parents and her parents.  One day while walking home with her classmates, Stella spotted her mother promenading the same street. Sara Adler wore a wide-brimmed hat and furs around her shoulders, looking so elegant Stella was embarrassed to introduce her schoolmates “because they had just mothers, and here was this queen walking down the street.” Feeling a need to belong, Stella contrived an “ordinary” life, telling the other children that she lived in a walk-up flat where her mother made cookies.  She promised to invite them over. While most little girls played with dolls, Stella spent long hours in cold and darkened theatres rehearsing her lines.

On any particular night, Stella might have two engagements in one evening.  She would play a peasant girl in the first act at the Thalia Theatre on the Bowery before changing costume to be whisked off to portray an ailing son in another playhouse across town. By age eight, she was a seasoned professional. She knew her lines, she knew her part, she showed up to rehearsals, and took the platform on cue.  The theatre was a bustling and chaotic playground in a tumultuous city, but even a little girl could find a quiet room backstage to stop and cry her eyes out, even if she didn’t know exactly why.

In the Introduction to her father’s memoirs, Stella wrote, “My first feeling of self, my first true consciousness was not in a home . . . but in a dressing room.”  Training, rehearsing, and acting became the conduits through which Stella experienced approval and love.

On the Lower East Side, the Yiddish theatre was the largest immigrant-run industry. Photographers set up shops for everything from playbills to star portraits. Each season demanded period costumes for historical spectacles and biblical operettas. Music stores opened shop in theatre lobbies. Private teachers launched studios to teach dancing and instruments. Even a Yiddish acting school opened, although as one Yiddish newspaper reported, “precisely what they taught remains a mystery.”

Stella would help change all that. Acting had hardly evolved in two thousand years of Western civilization. Broadway and Yiddish actors were still using sweeping gestures to indicate their emotions the way the Greeks signaled or wore masks in classical Athens in order to reach “the gods.” Sprawling outdoor amphitheatres had been improved upon by modern, insulated buildings, but acting had not been similarly “civilized.” Stella was being groomed to refine the profession of acting, turn it into a craft, the art form that would go beyond the stage into film and television, edifying, angering, moving audiences for generations to come.

Constantin Stanislavski, father of acting craft

Constantin Stanislavski, father of acting craft

It would take years of searching and staving off disillusionment for Stella to discover her own truth through acting. In the summer of 1934 she hit a turning point. It was the summer she met Constantin Stanislavski, the Russian director and master of acting. Through studying with Stanislavski, Stella realized the key to acting craft: It was not found in the actor’s inner emotional life as her colleague Lee Strasberg had previously interpreted Stanislavski.

How could one play a soldier at war, a starving immigrant, or a mother whose child has died, if he or she has never personally experienced war, starvation, or significant loss?  The actor, like every artist, had to use her imagination to create her character. The character itself had to be interpreted within the circumstances of the play. An entirely new art form based on character research and a solid understanding of the playwright’s intention opened up before Stella.  She made a promise to dedicate the rest of her life to honing and disseminating a new technique to acting, one that could be taught and studied like any other art form.

The time was ripe for Stella’s technique. Starting with Ibsen, playwriting had gone through its own movement, knows as Realism.  The melodramatic acting of yesteryear failed to convey the psychological nuances of modern society. As Realism dawned throughout the arts, acting had to reflect a more natural style.  Jacob Adler ushered in the realistic plays of Ibsen and Chekhov while parlor room melodramas were still being performed on the Great White Way.  Yet, there was no tried and true acting technique to study and master. As Stella gleaned from her own experience on the stage, her studies with Stanislavski, and the tradition from which she came, she began teaching students how to act. For Stella acting was the feat of the historian, the literary scholar, the vocalist, the animator — one of the rare art forms that requires mental, physical and spiritual practice.

Stella carried her profession the way a queen carries her country – ostentatiously, reverentially, and ruthlessly.

Marlon Brando, her most well-known student, wrote: “Little did she know that through her teachings she would impact theatrical culture world wide. Almost all filmmakers anywhere in the world have felt the effects of American films, which have been in turn influenced by Stella Adler’s teachings.”  Stella did know what she was doing; she always understood the universal size of art through storytelling and its interpretation. If acting craft had not been revolutionized, modern day acting would be unable to portray Realism and its successors. Ibsen, Shaw, Ionesco, Miller, Williams and others would be left rudderless in an unrefined profession unable to interpret their depth.

Stella’s talent of imparting the soul-bearing truth of the art of acting was her gift to the world, and remains the cornerstone of acting craft world-wide.