Tag Archives: Stella Adler Biography

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.

Find Your Cause: My Journey through Writing Stella Adler’s Biography

Publicity Still circa 1933

Publicity Still circa 1933

I originally published part of this post at Stage 32 

As a girl I would watch the Oscars and diligently record all the categories, nominees and winners in my journal. I didn’t realize there were professional archivists already handling this job just fine without me. Somehow I intuited the import of the work, and it was the only way I knew how to be a part of it. The allure was no doubt a girl’s impressionistic view of all the glitz and glamour, but I don’t think it’s a surprise that my way of identifying was through pen and paper.

Later, as an adolescent, I became confident enough to begin planning my acceptance speeches for the Oscar. I saw myself up on the stage winning an award for acting, yet it was not performance, but writing that would propel me artistically. Besides, other than public school productions, I had no idea how to “break into acting,” but I could create my own characters with pen and paper. So all my life I have identified myself as a writer. Writers are just actors who don’t want to be told how to perform anyway.

Adlerlogo2So instead of drama, I got my bachelors in screenwriting. When it came time to go to graduate school, I was headed toward academia, and although I love teaching (5 years of teaching high school English was the hardest job I’ve ever had), I wasn’t convinced it was my route in life. I began my graduate studies at USC in Spanish literature when I answered an ad to work at a “vocational school.” I needed a day job while I pursued my degree. The school turned out to be the Stella Adler Academy of Acting, throwing me right back into the world of performance and lights and celebrity that had seduced me as a girl. Spanish literature? I don’t know what I was thinking, but I still didn’t have the confidence to drop out of academia. At a crossroads, it came to me. Why not study writing? I imagine I never took my writing seriously enough, but now it was clear and it was as easy as changing my major.

While I was workshopping my poetry and honing screenplays at school, I began learning about acting craft at work. I have an uncle who had produced a couple of well-received films who put me in touch with a producer in Hollywood. I remember meeting this man and knowing that if I wanted to get him interested in my script, I’d need to get him interested in me. I’d need to stand out and be clever, make him laugh, build a relationship so maybe one day, when he was on the crapper, he might have my screenplay nearby and possibly flip it open to read. There were other half-hearted attempts to schmooze, but I immediately knew I didn’t have the know-how to “network.” Now I know why: it was all about me and not about the work.

My last year of graduate school, I produced a one-act play festival at the Stella Adler Academy—with one of my own plays in the production. This was the route for me: producing and writing. I remember receiving a horrible review in Backstage, but it didn’t deter me. By then, I began researching Stella Adler’s life, and when I realized the contributions she had made to refining acting craft, I was actually insulted that she didn’t have a biography. Like me, Stella didn’t have a knack at self-publicizing and now her legacy was withering away in the annals of theatrical history. I didn’t decide to write her biography; I had to write her biography to rectify what I saw as an injustice.

My first “big” interview was with Arthur Miller. The fact that he was one of the last century’s greatest playwrights or married to Marilyn Monroe never entered my mind when I contacted him. I had, as Stella would call it, an action, which was to get him to tell me about Stella for her biography. And so it went with everyone I needed to interview or approach from Peter Bogdanovich and Robert De Niro to Stella’s family. Serving Stella’s legacy and not my own ambitions motivated me for the thirteen years it took to research, write and publish her biography. In the mean time, the connections I made happened organically, not by orchestration.

Once you have a cause, a path is cleared to do whatever it takes to pursue your dreams. This bears emphasizing: your cause empowers you to succeed. My best advice to artists trying to negotiate the competitive creative market is to discover what you care about passionately. Why do you want to act, direct, produce? If you’re an actor, go for the roles that impassion you the way writing Stella’s story did me. Same for directing, producing, or whatever art form you choose. It can’t be for fame or money because that’s amateurish and self-serving.

The success I have achieved in my chosen field has come from a dedication to the work. It takes tenacity, discipline, and the willingness to pick yourself up and dust yourself off when you fall. When I think about it, I’m still that girl recording history, but now I am a part of that history, as is everyone. Find the cause behind your work and serve that cause. You’ve got one shot, this one life to do it, so what have you got to lose?

 

A Manuscript, a Menorah, and Stella Adler

Stella Adler circa 1937

Stella Adler circa 1937

Since I wrote my last blog post my life has turned up side down. I’m sitting at my computer 13 pounds heavier, on mood stabilizers and working with a copyeditor’s mark up of a biography I spent the last thirteen years fretting over. And fretting is the right word. Yes, the book has been my best friend, but also the bane of my existence.

Although over a decade has passed working on this one book, I did not spend all that time writing it. I did spend a lot of time trying to grow up. The book was my salvation, tucked away while I landed that interview with De Niro or Bogdanovich, while I awaited the diagnosis of Fibromyalgia (4 years), while I awaited (in between Fibro flares) the energy to come back  so I could get out of bed, while I awaited Stella’s Papers to be archived at the University of Texas, while I awaited the passing of the heartbreak of the “one that got away,” while I awaited the birth of my first son, while I awaited a literary agent to come along and shepherd the book into existence.

In the back of my mind, there was always this: if I die before I publish the biography, who is going to know how to put it together (my computer files are not very organized) and publish it? Which vied with a worry of equal preoccupation: when will I feel this manuscript is great? Neither of these concerns, however, competed with the comfort the book gave me knowing one day it would be published. That was the light at the end of the tunnel.

Drama Mask by Zakhren

Drama Mask by Zakhren

And now, supposedly, it’s here and my life has turned up side down. I have dealt with what the American Medical Association calls Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) since puberty, which has sometimes made me feel as if I were going bat shit (it’s like PMS on steroids). It has progressively worsened as I age. Almost one month ago I began having symptoms of irritability, which although not foreign to me and I chalked up to PMDD, quickly escalated to rage. I had no patience with grocery lines, driving, folding clothes, and worse of all, my five year old. The rage cycled with racing thoughts and then sudden sobbing. After 10 days, I was put on “mood stabilizers,” a drug I later learned is an anticonvulsant, and is used off label to treat manic-depression. Within 5 days on the medication, the rage quieted, the crying ended and I was “myself” again.

A month prior to this episode, for lack of a better word, my mother had come to live with us so I could help her figure out why her health was languishing. While under deadline to get the first version of my manuscript to the publisher by October 1, I was also scheduling and taking my mother to doctor’s appointments, administering her medication, assessing her response to new medications prescribed, and trying to keep my 5 year old from agitating her already riddled nerves. After three weeks without an answer as to why my mother’s physical and mental health were collapsing , and a week late for my deadline, she left my house to go home because she had become paranoid that my siblings and I were trying to “run her life.”

All this to say, I don’t doubt that my episode was at least in part caused by the mounting stress I was under while also working against a book deadline and “building my author’s platform.” I was bound and determined to revamp my website, build an email list, make a book trailer, and research every podcast, blog, television and radio show that would be interested in Stella Adler’s life. In fact, that list of things to do is ongoing and growing. The book trailer, it turns out, features clips with copyright in question so my publisher can’t put it on their website, which means I’ll have the same trouble elsewhere.

flying letterPresently, and this is what I’m getting at, a week ago I received the copyeditor’s mark up of the manuscript I finally turned in a week after its deadline. I have two weeks to review, answer, and edit the copyeditor’s work. For those of you who don’t know, a copyeditor is not looking at story structure, pacing, tension, and all those indispensable components that make a book “great.” That would be the job of a developmental editor. The copyeditor edits for grammar, punctuation and consistent style.

As I’m reading my book, in its most complete form to date, I feel a lull somewhere. I can’t figure out exactly what is causing it or even exactly where it is, but there’s something I’m not satisfied with and so my thought process is: after 13 years dedicating my life to this one book I am not only going to launch it without a proper “platform,” but it isn’t going to be “great.” I feel I need a developmental edit, but the publisher has set a release date, and come Friday I need to get the manuscript back to the copyeditor to reflect the final “edits.”

But the clincher, the clincher is this: it’s that time of the month again. It has come a week early. My husband is exhausted with me. He also wants to take a family photo tomorrow for holiday greeting cards.  A photo? Are you kidding? My face has broken out, my world-view dark, my hair is dirty, and I’m bloated. These mood stabilizers aren’t touching the PMDD. Wednesday I go to visit my obstetrician to see about a hysterectomy. That’s how bad it is.

This is where I stand. I stand here on mood stabilizers, 13 pounds overweight and feeling like a second rate writer with serious drama in her life. Where do I go from here?

My second-hand menorah (the photo is my mother as a baby)

My second-hand menorah (the photo is my mother as a baby)

Okay, I can’t end this post on that note, although it was tempting. I actually do have an idea of what to do next. Right now, I’m going to walk my dog and get some perspective. Then, I’m going to do something I’ve never done in my life. My husband is Jewish and I have felt Jewish since I was a girl (that’s another story). It’s Hanukkah. Earlier today on a writing break I decided we needed a menorah. But it’s Saturday so all the shops that sell menorahs were closed. I finally found a used one at a thrift store.

When I get back from walking the dog, I’m going to light those four candles. I think that would have made Stella happy.

One Evening at the Theater with Stella Adler

Stella Adler (early 1940s) photo by Marcus Blechman

Stella Adler (early 1940s)
photo by Marcus Blechman

What is a biography without photos? I love to read about a person or place and then flip forward in the book to the photo inserts and actually see what I’ve been reading about. I’m keeping this in mind as I begin culling the pictures of Stella I have amassed along my travels.

Although I would love to have photos throughout each chapter, it isn’t “economically” plausible for the publisher. I can choose 24 maximum. In a way, it makes my job easier. I have to glean the best from what I have in an order that looks good design-wise on the page.

One major hiccup: I didn’t always note where I found a particular photo. Oy vey! You see, now I have to track down each photo and get permission to print them in the book. Blasted copyright!

Stella Adler circa 1990 photo by Irene Gilbert

Stella Adler circa 1990 photo by Irene Gilbert

When looking through my own collection, I found a photo of Stella at ninety years old standing in front of a mirror. On the mirror is attached a poster of the Serenity Prayer. The prayer is not affiliated with any particular religion; it’s a sage and humble mantra that I actually use myself in a pinch. 12-Step programs have adopted the prayer, which leads me to a “Stella Story,” not in the book, in which she has a delightful cameo.

Betty Garrett in "Spoon River Anthology" (1963) photo by Life

Betty Garrett in “Spoon River Anthology” (1963) photo by Life

In her memoir Betty Garret and Other Stories: A Life on the Stage and Screen, Garret writes about one raucous performance at which Stella was present during the run of Spoon River Anthology in 1963:

At a Matinee performance one day, the oddest thing happened. We were nearing the end of the first act when, from a box at stage right, I distinctly heard someone say, “Bullshit!”

 During intermission, I asked Chuck Aidman if he’d heard someone say“bullshit.”

 “Yeah, what was that?”

We came back out for the second act and the voice continued. It kept moving around the theater and every so often we would hear someone say, “Crap!” or “Bullshit.” Finally, when Joyce Van Patten was doing one of her most sensitive and beautiful characterizations, the voice said, “Act it, Miss Van Patten! Act it.”

 If was so upsetting that finally Chuck moved up to the front of the stage and said, “Excuse me, I must stop the show. There is someone in the audience who is very disturbing to us on the stage and I’m sure to you out there. Will he please leave.”

And the voice called out, “The essence of drama is conflict, Charlie!”

With that the great acting teacher, Stella Adler, who just happened to be sitting in the second row, stood up, and said very dramatically, “Throw that man out!”

That inspired Bob Elston to jump off the stage, run up the aisle, and go smashing against a locked door he thought would take him to the heckler.

We never knew what it was all about until years later when Joyce told me she had received a letter that read: “Dear Miss Van Patten, I am a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and one of our twelve steps is to make amends for any hurt that we may have caused anyone. So I want to apologize very deeply for interrupting your beautiful performance in “Spoon River.” Please extend my apologies to the other members of your cast.

For anyone curious, the Serenity Prayer reads:

God (or fill in the blank), grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

 

Outing Myself: Personal Reflections on Writing Stella’s Biography

ChangeI posted this recently at my arts blog and realized how relevant it is to Stella Adler who grappled with depression. Here’s my story:

Anyone paying attention (meaning my husband) would notice I have revamped my personal website. This meant I needed content. So I started writing copy for my home page, and before I knew it, I had outed myself as a person with a disability. I had written about my Fibromyalgia before in an obscure feminist magazine, LOUDmouth, but coming out on my website is another story.

Maybe I’ll delete it.

It all came about when I felt the need to explain why I wrote Stella Adler’s biography. Flashback to thirteen years ago when I started researching Stella’s life. My motivation? I couldn’t believe such an important luminary didn’t have a biography. And as I became more knowledgeable about the evolution of acting craft, I realized Lee Strasberg has been given all the credit. I would tell people I was writing about Stella Adler and they didn’t recognize her name, but everyone knew Lee Strasberg. To make a long story short, I wanted to reclaim her legacy. I wanted to set the record straight in the annals of history. I wanted the underdog to have her day in the sun.

Fibro-memeComing out with FM is the same story. There are so many people with debilitating invisible illnesses. I want their stories heard. Starting with mine.

I contracted FM, or at least realized something was wrong in 2001. It took four years to get a diagnosis, which is pretty good. The average is seven. I’ve gone through the stages of transitioning from excellent health to being a person with a disability: denial, hope, grief and acceptance. I still go back and forth between the two latter stages.

Can you imagine everything shutting down in the middle of the day? That’s what happens to me. Right in the middle of my f*cking workday.

I spent my last year of college in Spain—the year I had to apply to graduate school. This is before email was a viable way of sending information. I had to send in each application separately, tailor each one, cutting and pasting and photocopying. I needed Internet cafés, photocopy machines, a post office, and god forbid I needed pesetas, because all these places of business, including the bank, closed in the middle of the day for a siesta. I raged! This was my future they were messing with. How could anyone operate if everything closed down in the middle of the day!

This is what happens to my body. It starts coming over me around ten-thirty, eleven in the morning. My brain slows down. I make mistakes. I can’t write or produce. Then my body follows. I become sluggish and so so tired. I feel I might die if I can’t lay my head down. I keep going until I feel nauseated and then I give in. Now it’s about noon. At this point I feel as if I pulled an all-nighter and I have to sleep off a mind-numbing hangover. So I do. At least there’s a solution. But boy do I resent wasting half my daylight hours in bed. That’s the part I have to get over.

Once or twice a year I actually have a normal day and can stay up through the whole day. Once or twice a year I might fall into a flare and become bedridden. When this happens I never know if it’s going to last one day or one year.

These invisible illnesses are wicked because you look fine. You don’t look sick. No one can see your limitations like they do in the last stages of cancer, which I’m told from people with both FM and cancer aren’t so different from one another. One can easily feel like a malingerer. I’ve gotten over that part at least. It’s just the hours in bed I loathe. Should I just move to Spain?

So let me ask those of you with MS, Lupus, deafness, chronic pain, diabetes, epilepsy and the myriad other invisible illnesses out there : How do you cope with the specific limitations your illness causes?

Or should I just delete this post and the part about outing myself on my homepage?