Stella! Mother of Modern Acting.

Stella bookThis month sees the release of the first ever biography of the famed acting teacher Stella Adler, Stella! Mother of Modern Acting.  Written by Sheana Ochoa (find her website here), it offers a rich history of Stella’s life and career, from her early days in the Yiddish theater to her later days as a titan among acting teachers.  Stella worked with some of the most famous actors in Hollywood and even had a short film career herself, including Shadow of the Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy.   I spoke with Sheana recently about Stella and how she came to take on the task of becoming her biographer.

Greg Ferrara:  I studied theater for years, got my degree in it, in fact, and spent almost a lot of time on the stage.  My directors and acting teachers often differed on the best approach. Some favored acting teacher Sanford (Sandy) Meisner, some Lee Strasberg, others Stella Adler.  What brought you to Stella Adler?

Sheana Ochoa: I never studied theater and my degree is in writing so all my time has been in dusty archives, card catalogues and on Nexus Lexus rather than the stage! Through my research, which included interviewing both unknown and celebrity actors, it became clear that the schism between Adler and Strasberg had to do with what nowadays we see as the difference between acting from the outside in or the inside out. Essentially, actor training for Meisner, Adler, and Strasberg has the same goal: to achieve truthful acting.

GF: How did Stella prefer to work?

SO: Stella worked, in modern parlance, from the outside in. That is, she required her students to research everything about their character from his or her socioeconomic upbringing to their family relationships. It went without saying that the student must also understood the author’s themes and ideas. As for technique, the actor, after building the character and his circumstances, could experience his or her emotions through the character’s actions.

GF: So the character is the most important thing, not the actor’s personal memory. How did Strasberg differ from Adler?

SO: Strasberg worked from the inside out. He had a much more psychological approach through exercises such as his famous “private moment,” in which actors would be asked to perform in front of the class something they would only do in the privacy of their own rooms. Stella didn’t jibe with mixing the student’s personal life with the work in a classroom setting. One could do all the soul-searching and self-examination he or she wanted to as homework, and Stella exhorted that students understand themselves in order to understand their characters, but in the classroom or onstage, the work was all about the author’s world and characters, not the actor’s.

GF: Do you think Stella’s influence on acting methods changed acting in the movies or was the impact minimal?  That is, was the impact more prevalent on the stage?

SO: The reason I wrote this book was that everyone, even people outside the entertainment field, knew the name Lee Strasberg. But when I asked the same person about Stella, I would get a blank face and a “Who?” And yet, when I interviewed actors and directors, or when I heard actors being interviewed on the radio or read about them in magazines, the large majority of today’s actors talk about understanding character. It’s all about working from the outside in. This is especially true for non Americans. They don’t study “affective memory” in Europe or Australia. I remember being at a function where I met Colin Farrell. When I brought up “affective memory” to Farrell, or the idea of going to one’s personal past to emote while acting, he grimaced. He said it would be boring to use his personal life when the characters he plays are so interesting. And this is what I hear all the time: Actors talking about their work understanding in terms of the characters they play. Did the character serve in the army? Is his or her gait or mannerisms affected by that? Things that aren’t necessarily in the script, but that will bring the character to life for the actor and therefore for the audience. That is Stella Adler. I believe her impact isn’t limited to the stage or screen, it is where the most important aspect of modern day acting comes from.

GF: Most of the perception that the method is simply an actor “feeling” the character comes from Lee Strasberg who emphasized that part over what Stella and Stanislavski felt were the more important areas of research.  It seems to me Stella should be more known, not less, and perhaps your book will correct that.

SO:  Each based their approaches to acting on the Russian master, but emphasized different parts of his system. But they were all only interested in one thing, one outcome, which was authenticity. Whether an actor relies upon Strasberg’s psychological approach and concentrates on the actor’s personal emotions or Adler’s sociological approach, which is grounded in rigorous understanding of the circumstances of the story through research, as long as the acting is truthful, it doesn’t really matter how an actor approaches his character.

Stella, however, had a difficult time with Strasberg’s interpretation of Stanislavski partly because she was so emotionally fluent she didn’t need to “practice” getting in touch with her character’s emotions. She didn’t think one needed to substitute  personal emotion for that of the character’s. She, and Sanford Meisner by the way, thought it was unhealthy to go back into your personal history and recall that emotion through emotional memory because those feelings could be harmful to the actor. Besides, those experiences have nothing to do with the play or film.  I’d venture that most actors haven’t murdered anyone so if you’re playing an assassin, you might need to create that character more than rely on your own personal past.

GF: I can’t argue with that.

SO:  But one could also argue that you cannot separate an actor’s emotions from who he is as a human being, that his or her emotional canvas can only come from personal experience. In the end, an actor can and does utilize whatever works.

stella01GF: Stella worked closely with Marlon Brando, even getting him excited about new work after he grew tired of his early success in the play I Remember Mama.  She was clearly a mentor to him.  Tell me a bit about how she felt about Brando embracing film so completely and leaving the theater.

SO: After Brando began working in Hollywood, he and Stella lost touch for a while. He might visit one of her classes or a play she was directing, but they weren’t as close as they had been when he studied with her or afterward when she mentored him in his first Broadway productions. So I don’t know how she felt about his decision to take the Hollywood route. I’m sure she was proud of his success.

GF: Stella only worked in a handful of films, early on.  What were some of her reasons for eschewing the money and, perhaps, fame associated with film?  Does it have to do with her not being fond of celebrity?  If so, did she feel she was sacrificing a film career that might have worked out for her?

SO:  After Stella’s first film as the lead opposite John Payne in Love on Toast, she waited around in Hollywood for more offers to come in and they didn’t come right away. She wasn’t used to waiting around, having grown up on the Yiddish stage, working year round. She returned to New York to try to build a company with the great director Max Reinhardt, but that didn’t pan out either, although she ended up performing in a play he directed. Stella wanted to be a movie star because she felt it was the barometer of success in her field, but for someone who had come from the rich tradition of the Yiddish theater and later worked with directors like Harold Clurman, Reinhardt, Tyrone Guthrie, and who had studied with Stanislavski, her standards were higher than what a career in film could offer. Her decision to leave Hollywood didn’t have anything to do with her revulsion toward publicity, but rather her need to be challenged with roles and great directors worth her talent and artistic standards.

GF:  That makes it sound like she felt she was above the movies.  The movies of the thirties and forties produced directors from Howard Hawks, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Jean Renoir to John Huston, Michael Curtiz and Orson Welles.  Surely these are talented directors worth her talents.  And the actors of the period, including those she worked with as well as other greats from Katherine Hepburn to Laurence Olivier.  I guess my question is, given how important a real presence is to film and stage success, do you think she just had trouble succeeding in the movies and rather than admit defeat said it wasn’t challenging enough? I ask because in the book, it says that she had a great ambition to be a movie star and even worked with Louis B. Mayer to learn the business of the movies.  If it were her great ambition, why didn’t she seek out better roles?

SO:  There’s no doubt there were talented people working in film during the 30s and 40s, but during the 30s, Stella was committed to her work in the Group Theatre, a depression-era ensemble that revolutionized American theater from which sprung not only the great acting teachers of modern times, but the playwright Clifford Odets and film and stage director Elia Kazan. If you left the Group, as Franchot Tone did, to pursue a career in Hollywood, it was thought of as “selling out.” Let me clarify, Stella never said she didn’t pursue a career in Hollywood because she thought she was above it; that is what I gleaned. She needed the artistic rigor of the theater to feel fulfilled.

GF: And she was blacklisted, too, wasn’t she? Maybe that had an effect as well?

SO:  She wasn’t blacklisted until Red Channels was published in 1950 so that didn’t directly affect her chances of being a film star. As I mentioned, she grew up in the Yiddish theatre, which served as a beacon of hope for the Jewish immigrants who had fled from persecution and were now living hand to mouth on the Lower East Side. By coloring in the plays of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov with Jewish characters and themes, theater meant more than entertaining or educating; it validated one’s very existence. And no less so for Stella whose parents couldn’t offer her much in the way of a sense of security by giving her a stable and nurturing upbringing. They were too busy performing. Stella’s self-esteem came from the stage. Hollywood’s monotonous retakes, early call times, waiting around for the shot to be set up would have been murder for Stella who needed to perform to feel a sense of achievement. I don’t know what would have been worse for Stella: being out of work between films with nothing to feed her insatiable need to perform or the boredom of life on a film set.

GF:  So becoming a movie star wasn’t really a celebrity thing but more of a personal need to achieve success in acting.

SO: Her great ambition to be a movie star wasn’t so much for the fame as it was this idea that international stardom was the only way to live up to the Adler name she had inherited. If she wanted to achieve in her realm what her parents had in theirs, she thought it meant being a movie star. When it didn’t come to pass, she had to reinvent herself through teaching where she was able to continue performing for the rest of her life without being limited or dictated by the need for box office success on Broadway or in Hollywood.Stella02

GF: Stella continued to work with actors who primarily did film work, such as Shelley Winters, who she helped out when she was cast on stage in A Hatful of Rain.  You mention a few people in your book who kept, or tried to keep, the Adler schools of acting going, from Irene Gilbert to Arthur Mendoza, but no one seemed to be able to duplicate the same success, or beloved stature, among the acting elite since.  With the renewed fame of the Actor’s Studio, thanks to the tv series, do you think Stella’s legacy is in danger of being forgotten?

SO: Stella Adler’s legacy never matched that of the Actors Studio for the reasons I gave before, not during her time and certainly not after her death. The Studio’s branding power no longer has anything to do with Strasberg or Adler. A list actors who studied with one or the other or both go on the TV show.

GF:  But her ideas and techniques are what survive and that matters more than the name, I suppose.

SO: Stella’s contribution of disseminating Stanislavski’s emphasis on the given circumstances of the play or film, building a character from the author’s intentions and not the actor’s personal experience, and an insistence on scholarly analysis of the author’s themes, is standard curriculum for those actors that are actually interested in studying acting craft. Not all do. I didn’t write the book to save her legacy from being forgotten, but to clarify her enormous contribution to the art of acting. She lives on in spirit whether actors or audiences realize what they are experiencing, in no small part, comes from Stella.


If you happen to be in the New York  area anytime over the next few weeks, you may be able to catch a few events around Stella Adler (complete list here).


3 Responses Stella! Mother of Modern Acting.
Posted By kingrat : May 21, 2014 6:28 pm

Thank you for bringing our attention to the important work of Stella Adler.

Whatever Adler’s feelings were about Brando not returning to the stage, others were disappointed that he did not.

Posted By Doug : May 22, 2014 1:48 am

Whichever discipline an actor ‘uses’, there is something inherent in each individual actor that touches us…or doesn’t.
I can’t imagine ever being bored by Ginger Rogers; no matter how many variations of characters/roles she played, she was always watchable.
I’ve voiced my displeasure with Jerry Lewis here before; for me personally his schtick wore down to paper thinness decades ago, and I can’t imagine NOT being bored by him in his film vehicles.
He was okay in “The King of Comedy” mainly because it wasn’t his movie.
Acting from within or without, the best actors follow their discipline well, are craftsmen working their craft.
The actor who played Tevye in the community theater production of “Fiddler” that I saw a while back absolutely nailed the role, bringing Tevye to life; I daresay that his performance would have
been appreciated on Broadway. A master craftsman in a podunk town production. If I had to guess I’d say that his performance was from ‘the outside in’.

Posted By Doug : May 26, 2014 12:47 pm

Watched “Shadow of the Thin Man” last night to note Adler’s performance; she was right on the money, solid and fun to watch.
Here’s a ‘millions of dollars’ idea which I share for free:
“How Nora Met Nick”-the story of the case which brought the sleuthing couple together. Possibly he’s undercover as a gangster-he sure seems to have a lot of pals that he sent ‘up the river’-and she’s an heiress who’s lost some jewels or something which Nick is called upon to search for through his underworld contacts.
I’d watch that movie! Asta as a pup!

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