Tag Archives: American Theater

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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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 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.