Coming from an acting family background, where her parents established a Yiddish theatre in the early 1900’s, Stella Adler had been in front of audiences since she was two thus theatre was her blood.
She wanted to be a movie star but she only acted in three films, none of them particularly successful or representative of her extraordinary presence and talent that she exhibited on the stage or in life.
Yet over the course of Stella’s life she managed to alter the process in which American and the world thought about actors and acting, in the theatre and in pictures.
She became a teacher of acting from the late 1940’s into the early 1990’s and had taught an amazing list of fine and influential actors including Marlon Brando to Warren Beatty and Robert De Niro.
In Brando’s autobiography ‘songs my mother taught me’ he wrote:
Stella…. Left an astounding legacy. Virtually all acting in motion pictures today stems from her, and she had an extraordinary effect on the culture of her time.
The techniques she brought back to the US (from Stanislavski) and taught others, changed acting enormously. Actors plied their trade according to the manner and style she taught them; and since American movies dominate the world market, Stella’s teachings have influenced actors throughout the world.
Stella always said no one could teach acting, but she could. She could tell you not only when you were wrong, but why. If you hit a sour note in a scene, she knew it immediately and then dug into her large reserve of intuitive intelligence to explain why your character would behave in a certain way based on the author’s vision. Her instincts were unerring and extraordinary.
Although the Stanislavski ‘method’ came to be associated with the Actors Studio, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan and Brando, Stella Adler was the only American who actually ever worked and studied with the great Russian director himself. She spent considerable time in Paris with him and came back with voluminous notes.
Though she never directed a movie, and directed only once or twice for the stage, Stella taught acting in such an inclusive way that she also was teaching directing. She had an artistic eye of a hawk and a vivid imagination.
She rehearsed for months – as Stanislavski did – and was an inspiring individual that brought such size, depth and resonance to everything.
She was once heard saying ‘Never play your own age, darling. Either play younger than you are or older than you are. Playing your own age is boring!’
Stella used to teach everything from the scene breakdown where she would brilliantly analyse the text and style of the playwright, from Shakespeare, Wilde, Shaw and Ibsen; the characterisation class in which she would work on the inner and outer features of a personality as revealed in the text; the crucial basics of sense-memory, handling invisible props, really looking at things and people, really listening.
Her very presence and intensity of focus where like pure oxygen. You never knew what she was going to say. She would watch a scene with such palpable attention that she often got deeply into the emotions of the given material.
You could see her sometimes in the corner of the stage silently acting out all the parts while stifling a sob. She would shake her head or not, or lean forward, or freeze except to purse her lips repeatedly, completely lost in the moment.
Her way of teaching was in direct contrast to Lee Strasberg’s which searched out ‘stage reality’ from an actor’s memory – especially memories that just by the touching of which could create the necessary emotions. For those actors who turned to this technique, which Stanislavski had in no way favoured, Strasberg became a beacon. Although Brando said he found him unbearable with the focus on the actor’s own underlying personality.
Stella insisted, rather, that an actor use imagination, concentrating on the specific character’s situation and circumstances. Much of the role was dictated by the text itself and the particular style of the playwright, rather than by the actors personal emotional history.
She would say that acting is 50 percent interior and 50 percent exterior. She taught that clothes, accent, personal props, walk, stance, all of this, was certainly as important as the inner workings of emotion.
She believed in the ability of art to transform people and society by revealing essential human and poetic truths. She would say, as though it were self evident, ‘you have to play yourself, darling. Who else can you play? But you have to find the character in yourself – we are all many people.’
Sometimes if Stella liked your performance she would be brief and succinct in her praise. At other times she would cry out in anguish and despair with the aim of drilling her point into the actor.
A young actor once reacted to Stella’s criticism saying ‘But I felt it.’ Stella responded quickly and sharply with ‘It doesn’t matter what you feel, darling, it’s what the audience feels.’
Another time, another young actor said he didn’t feel comfortable with some movement Stella had asked for. ‘The stage is no place to be comfortable. You’re on a platform, daring, remember that.’
A fascinating thing is that Stella never compromised for material success. She quit acting because she couldn’t bear the competitive pressures of stardom and commercialisation.
In 1992, Adler died from heart failure at the age of 91 in Los Angeles.
In 2006, she was honoured with a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in front of the Stella Adler Theatre on the Hollywood Boulevard
To Stella Adler, Growth as an actor and growth as a human being are synonymous.
The impulse to act was a sacred and important one but she was not dogmatic about any singular approach or method. Rather, her “system” centered on providing budding actors with the tools, training, and discipline to grow and to employ the limitless human imagination in their task of studying and bringing a script to life.
The beliefs Stella held about actors and acting formed the framework for how the tools, training, and discipline were delivered, and these were — and are still — taught at her Studio in NY.