Tag Archives: lee strasberg

Stella Stories: Acting and Sex

Stella in "Love on Toast" (1938)

Stella in “Love on Toast” (1938)

Once when Stella was speaking about Lee Strasberg’s fame as a teacher, Stella called attention to the fact that Strasberg was great at publicity. She ventured that had she taught acting with a sexual approach, she would have been just as famous, meaning that sex sells just like Strasberg’s “method” sells. I bring this up because I recently met one Albert Erdynast who was a friend of Stella’s when she was in her early eighties. They had what one might call a loveship, not consummated, but romantic in nature. Erdynast shared the following anecdote with me, which he happened to write in a piece titled “Conversational Interests: Sex Is a Conversation.”

In 1981, Stella Adler, the acting coach, had a dinner in honor of Christopher Isherwood, who had won a Pulitzer Prize. Among the guests at the dinner were Isherwood’s partner, portrait artist Don Bachardy and Chancellor of the California State University Dr. Ann Reynolds. During the dinner talk, Stella Adler who had asked me to accompany her to dinner parties and other events while she was in Los Angeles, turned to me and asked several questions in succession. The entire dinner table had lost temporary interest in whatever it was they were chatting about and gave their attention to our exchanges.

Stella Adler began with, “After these dinner events, Al, do you go home to your wife?”

I answered, “No, Stella, I am not married.” It had not occurred to Stella herself, early in her marriage to Harold Clurman, that she was not supposed to accept dinner invitations alone. Her then mother-in-law pulled her aside one evening to educate her about proper marital etiquette saying, “Stella, when you are married you are not supposed to date.” Astonished, Stella said, “Really?”

Stella then followed with, “When you go home, after these evenings, do you go home to your girlfriend?”

I answered, “No, Stella, I don’t have a girlfriend at this time.”

Stella then asked, “Well then, Al, what do you do for sex?”

I have asked others, since then, how they would answer such a question.

At that occasion, my answer was this: “In those matters, I am of the same persuasion as the two philosophers Immanuel Kant and Mae West. “Work is the ultimate satisfaction and sex is the ultimate distraction.”

Stella received my answer by declaring that her choice was the same. “On my bed in New York,” she said, “I have fifty books instead of a man.”

Since this exchange, Erdynast has asked others how they answered the same question the last time they were asked that question at a formal dinner. How would you respond?

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.

Listen: At the Table with Sheana Ochoa

This is an unedited chat with Kelly Lincoln, not a “formal” interview, that we held in the Bronx while I was on my NYC book tour on June 1, 2014. You can listen here.

Onstage & Backstage

Sheana Ochoa, author of Stella! Mother of Modern Acting, visited Kelly Lincoln of At the Table. Together, they discuss “the great, ahead of her time Stella Adler, and how the Yiddish Theater birthed American Theater.”

00121937>>LISTEN 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…

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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.

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:

Stella for Star: The Story of Stella’s Star on Hollywood Boulevard

Cropped screenshot of Marlon Brando from the t...

Blanche gasps “Stella, Stella for Star” upon seeing her sister in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

“Everyone thinks I don’t know that Stella means star,” Stella Adler once told her class.  Who was she kidding?  After starring on Broadway, being a pioneer of the legendary Group Theatre, making films in Hollywood and becoming one of the preeminent American acting teachers who taught past and present generations from Marlon Brando to Benicio del Toro, no one would doubt Stella’s awareness of her appellation.  That same name Brando made famous with his STELLA! yowl in “A Streetcar Named Desire” has been buried in a business where celebrity shines, and just as quickly fades to black –  as starless as the Los Angeles night sky.  Continue reading

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.