Tag Archives: Constantin Stanislavski

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.

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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?

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 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.


Stella Adler: A Brief Introduction to Modern Day Acting Craft

photo by Marcus Blechman

photo by Marcus Blechman

Welcome to my blog for my forthcoming biography: Stella! Mother of Modern Acting (And yes, “Stella!” is a nod to Marlon Brando who was her student).

Stella Adler was known for her entrances off stage as much as she was for those on stage.  One of her students, Shelley Winters, remembered a specific evening when Stella captivated a New York City nightclub upon entering: “In the middle 1950s Stella Adler was a knockout. A few years before this, I was sitting in the Copa at a table with Marilyn Monroe, and we were done up to the teeth.  Lana Turner, at a nearby table was at her most beautiful.  Stella Adler made an entrance in a black satin gown with black egrets in her blonde hair.  For the next hour no one in the Copa looked at us movie stars.  Stella had such a dynamite stage presence.”

Such stories abounded: Peter Bogdanovich recalled the time when a little girl was so taken by Stella’s entrance at a cocktail party that she turned to her mother and asked, “Mommy, is that God?”

Stella in "He Who Gets Slapped" (1946)

Stella in “He Who Gets Slapped” (1946)

When Stella entered a room she commanded it, as if she were the star in the play everyone had come to see.  She had lots of practice.  Stella had been making entrances since she was a two-year-old girl performing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in her father’s acting troupe.  That night at the Copacabana Stella would have been in her early 50s, though she always looked a decade younger than her age.  She had already opened her own acting studio.  She had also recently circumvented imprisonment, but not the Blacklist, after testifying before the House of Un-American Activities Committee.  She had run guns for Jewish refugees, or terrorists — depending on whose side you were on — in an effort to establish the state of Israel after World War II.

But her greatest cause was still a work in progress: refining an acting technique that would be accessible to anyone serious about his craft.

At the dawn of the 20th century, when Stella was a child star on the Yiddish stage, acting had hardly evolved in two thousand years of Western civilization.  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.”  Theatrical stages around the world showcased farcical operettas, vaudeville, drawing room melodramas, nothing that reflected real life.

Realism had taken hold in literature and the other arts, but not theatre until Henrik Ibsen, the father of modern drama, began writing socially realistic plays in the 1880s, but acting troupes were not trained to interpret scripts, if they even had a script, in a life-like manner.  The acting standard was the opposite of today’s: performances were good because you could tell the actors were acting.  Histrionics, fainting, pratfalls, speaking directly to the audience were par for the course, and what patrons expected.

Sara Adler

Sara Adler

Although there were a few theatrical entities working in a realistic manner such as the American actress Minnie Fiske, the actors of the Moscow Art Theatre under Constantin Stanislavaski, and Stella’s own mother, Sara Adler, Realism in the theatre had not taken hold as a movement.  And acting, certainly, was not considered an art form.  There were no acting schools or courses of study, say like there were if someone wanted to study music or art.

During the 30s, Stella finally left the Yiddish theatre to become a member of the first American attempt at a national theatre with the acting troupe the Group Theatre.  She and its directorate who included her second husband, Harold Clurman, Lee Strassberg and Cheryl Crawford wanted to create a socially conscious ensemble that reflected the times.

Group Theater founders: Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford

Group Theater founders: Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford

The old way of acting could not support such aspirations.  Taking Stanislavski as their example, the Group Theatre approached acting as a craft, something to be honed, practiced and made into a conduit of telling the truth.  However, like most pioneers of a new movement, there were different viewpoints on exactly how to teach  “truthful” or realistic acting. Stella Adler and Lee Strassberg were diametrically opposed in their interpretation of Stanislavski, a dispute that would create the greatest theatrical polemic of the 20th century.  More importantly, their schism set the stage for the craft we see in plays and on screens around the world today.

Stella spent her entire life trying to rectify acting craft to an artistic mode she felt was compromised by Strasberg’s “method acting.”  When Stella learned of Strasberg death in 1982, she asked her class to rise for a moment of silence. “A man of the theatre died last night,” she stated.  Once the class was seated again, she added: “It will take a hundred years before the harm that man has done to the art of acting can be corrected.”

Strasberg’s “method,” which is greatly misunderstood, is still widely taught by his second and sometimes third generation students. It is difficult to predict how the previous century’s strides in acting craft will evolve, but one thing is for sure: the technique that Stella spent a lifetime teaching and promulgating with its emphasis on research and the actor’s imagination — being motivated to act as the character in the performance rather than by the actor’s personal experience –offered a technique that works from the outside in, rather than from the inside out, which today is a worldwide standard of acting craft.