A big influence on the modern Hollywood acting style comes from Stella Adler. She had done away with the earlier big gestures used in silent film acting, such as an actor placing both hands on their heart to indicate sorrow. She bridged the gap between early twentieth-century Russian theatre and what was becoming popular in film at the time. Adler drew from the imagination rather than personal experience. She had a name in American theatre, appeared in a handful of films and has taught some of the greatest actors of all time. She was known for her harsh, but fair analysis of student’s skills. Some included Marlon Brando and James Dean. Even after her passing, the likes of Mark Ruffalo and Angelina Jolie have studied at her acting schools.
Stella Adler was born on the 10th of February, 1901. Her father, Jacob P. Adler, was a famous actor on the Yiddish Theatre circuit. She was only four-years-old when he had her star in one of his productions, Broken Hearts. Adler had no formal acting training, but instead learnt from her father and by watching others. By her late-teens, she had been in over one hundred plays either in the Yiddish Theatre or as part of a vaudeville act. Adler’s performances took her all over the United States, Europe and South America.
In 1931, she was invited to join the Group Theatre in New York City. Adler accepted the offer but never felt fully welcome. Many agree this is where she achieved her best work as Sarah Grassman in Success Story, Adah Menken in Gold Eagle Guy, Bessie Berger in Awake and Sing and Clara in Paradise Lost. The Group Theatre was formed by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg; themselves experimental actors focusing on cutting edge techniques and deeply influenced by Russian theorist Konstantin Stanislavski. Adler and Strasberg frequently clashed over the interpretation of Stanislavski’s work.
Having a break, Adler headed to Europe in 1934. On a chance encounter in Paris, she met Stanislavski and was not only able to speak with him, but was instructed and taught by him for the next five weeks. Stanislavski was born in Moscow in 1863, was an actor himself and brought new psychological and emotional aspects to the craft. His theories were big in the United States in the 1930s. Adler was the first and only American to study directly under him. Returning home with new insight, Adler and Strasberg still couldn’t find a common ground so she decided to leave the Group Theatre.
In 1937, Adler gave Hollywood a shot. She appeared in three films: Love on Toast (1937), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) and My Girl Tisa (1948). Adler spent six years as an associate producer at MGM. She taught acting at the New School for Social Research around this time. Adler also directed commercial theatre in the 1940s and 1950s.
The Stella Adler School of Acting first opened its doors in New York in 1949. She could finally teach acting her own way. Where Lee Strasberg highlighted an actor’s need to draw upon personal experience to envision a character, Adler focused and honed the imagination. She was against the idea of using past traumas as a way to achieve an emotion, especially a negative one. In her own words: “drawing on emotions I experienced – for example, when my mother died – to create a role is sick and schizophrenic, I don’t want to do that.” Adler instead focused on spiritual realism, emotional memory, dramatic and self-analysis, and disciplined practise. Adler received critical acclaim for her work with Marlon Brando and his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). He was nominated for Best Actor at the 1952 Academy Awards.
Today, Adler’s school is known as the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. It is a not-for-profit organisation; an LA branch opened in 1984. Both run weekly acting classes. Some actors to come through Adler’s schools include Robert De Niro, Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe, Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Dustin Hoffman, Salma Hayek, Steve Buscemi and Scarlett Johansson.
Adler officially retired from acting in 1961. In the later part of the decade, Adler juggled her time between her acting school and teaching at Yale University’s School of Drama. She was head of drama at New York University in the 1980s. Adler released a book in 1988, The Technique of Acting. The book is still widely taught and referenced. She continued to teach until her death from a heart attack on December 21, 1992.
This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on November 21st, 2017. (http://thesydneyfeminists.blogspot.com.au)
8 Acting Techniques (and the Stars Who Swear by Them) (https://www.backstage.com/advice-for-actors/resources/8-acting-techniques-and-stars-who-swear-them/)
Encyclopaedia Britannica – Stella Adler (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Stella-Adler)
PBS – American Masters (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/stella-adler-about-stella-adler/526/)
Stella Adler Biography (https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/stella-adler-5150.php)
Stella Adler – IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0012245/bio)
Stella Adler Los Angeles (http://www.stellaadler.la/)
Stella Adler Studio of Acting (http://www.stellaadler.com/)