Tag Archives: method acting

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?

Method, Script & Action: Holland Taylor on Stella Adler

Holland-TaylorWhile writing Stella Adler’s biography, I interviewed Holland Taylor, but I didn’t videotape our conversation. Thankfully, we have this five minute video, in which Taylor crystallizes Stella’s teachings as accurately as any student of Stella’s I’ve heard. Disciples truly do carry on the work. 


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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Stella Adler’s Divided Legacy

Facade of Stella Adler Academy and Theatres

In 2010 the Stella Adler New York Studio opened a west coast branch in Hollywood named the Art of Acting Studio.  A mile north of this school is The Stella Adler Academy of Acting, which has been operating in Hollywood for twenty-five years.  These two schools, though they both claim to teach Stella Adler’s technique, are in competition with one another. The reasons for this divided legacy are easy to understand, which like most divisions in this world, boil down to politics and personalities.

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On Being the Detective in Stella’s Life

Coffee and doughnuts — such a cheap and easy comfort.  When I was a teacher for Los Angeles Unified School District and we had faculty meetings, the coffee and doughnuts were the perfect temporary stimulation to get through the drudgery of discussing agendas irrelevant to classroom instruction.  What does this have to do with Stella Adler’s biography?  Well, it’s an anecdote about my sleuthing days, which I think I enjoyed more than actually writing the book.

I knew when I began to search for Stella Adler’s high school records that coffee and doughnuts would come in handy.  It all started with her FBI file.  I had to wait two years after applying for it through the Freedom of Information Act before it arrived (it took longer to receive her files from the War Department).  The file was 200 plus pages of information that opened up so many cans of worms this sleuth was beside herself following all the new avenues of research from lost passports to HUAC surveillance to the name of the public schools Stella attended. 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.

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.