Stella Adler

Artform: Theatre

by Mary Moynihan

‘In life, as on the stage, it’s not who I am but what I do that’s the measure of my worth.’

Stella Adler (1901-1992) was an actor, director, educator and acting teacher who had a powerful influence on actor training. Stella was born in New York City in the United States in 1901. Her parents Sarah and Jacob Adler were both classical Yiddish stage actors and had their own acting company. Stella first appeared on stage at the age of four in a production of Broken Hearts presented by her parent’s theatre company. Stella’s father Jacob Adler was considered one of the greatest Yiddish actors of his time. According to the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, Stella:

Spent her young adult life performing throughout the United States, Europe and South America, appearing in more than 100 plays in vaudeville and the Yiddish theatre. Following her Broadway debut, she joined the American Laboratory headed by Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, both former members of the Moscow Art Theater. In 1931, when Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford created The Group Theater, Stella was invited to join as a founding member. With the Group, her roles included Sarah Glassman in Success Story, Adah Menken in Gold Eagle Guy, Bessie Berger in Awake and Sing and Clara in Paradise Lost.[1]

Stella was very influenced by the work of the American Laboratory Theatre, a drama school and theatre company set up in 1923 by two former actors from the Moscow Art Theatre in Russia who moved to America: Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya. They had both worked at the Moscow Art Theatre with Konstantin Stanislavski, the Russian theatre director, producer, actor and teacher, who is considered the founding father of actor training.

In his book The Fervent Years, theatre director Harold Clurman, who became Adler’s second husband from 1943 to 1960, identifies the American Laboratory Theatre as the school ‘where, for the first time, the technique of acting according to the Moscow Art Theatre was being taught to American students’. The training the actor received at the Lab was rigorous, comprehensive and carefully coordinated. Approximately 500 students attended the Lab during its seven years of operation from 1923 until 1930 and much of the spread of Stanislavski’s influence in America is due to the subsequent activities of Lab-trained personnel’,[2] one of whom was Stella Adler. It was at the American Laboratory Theatre that Stella first met Harold Clurman, and actor and teacher Lee Strasberg who had come for drama lessons.

Harold Clurman went on to become one of American’s greatest theatre directors. It is believed that his first introduction to theatre was to see the great Yiddish actor Jacob Adler perform, who was Stella’s father. Clurman studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and returned to America where he attended the American Laboratory Theatre before setting up the Group Theatre and going on to direct over forty plays including Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing and Paradise Lost, Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov and Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller. Clurman wrote several books including a classic on theatre directing called ‘On Directing’. Harold Clurman invited Stella to join the Group Theatre.

From 1931 Stella worked as an actor and teacher with the Group Theatre which was set up in the summer of 1931 and ran until 1941. The Group Theatre original founders Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford were ‘inspired by a passionate dream of transforming the American theatre. They recruited 28 actors to form a permanent ensemble dedicated to dramatizing the life of their times. They conceived the Group theatre as a response to what they saw as the old-fashioned light entertainment that dominated the theatre of the last 1920’s. Their vision was of a new theatre that would mount original American plays to mirror – even change – the life of their troubled times. Over its ten years and twenty productions, they not only met these goals but altered the course of American theatre forever.’[3] According to an article on Stella Adler by Judith Laikin Elkin:

Clurman invited Adler to join the new theater, initiating a love-hate relationship between the highly individualistic star and the communally committed Group. Although she has written that Clurman was her savior, Adler hated having to submerge her personality into the ensemble, rotating between starring roles and bit parts. Clurman maintained that the discipline was healthy, but Adler felt that the women in the company were coerced into going along with the men. Recalling Adler years later, Clurman described her at this time as “poetically theatrical, reminiscent of some past beauty in a culture I had perhaps never seen, but that was part of an atavistic dream. With all the imperious flamboyance of an older theatrical tradition — European in its roots — she was somehow fragile, vulnerable, gay with mother wit and stage fragrance.[4]

The Group Theatre promoted an ensemble approach and a sense of truthful engagement in performance similar to the Moscow Art Theatre. They saw theatre as a ‘cultural force’ and created work that was more than entertainment, putting on productions that addressed social and political concerns in American at that time that probed ‘the depths of the soul’. From 1931 on, Stella worked with them apart from a brief period in 1934 when she took a break and travelled firstly to Russia and then to Paris where she studied for five weeks directly with Constantin Stanislavski. Stella remained the only American acting teacher to study directly with Stanislavski. On her return to the Group Theatre Stella taught acting classes with the other members including Elia Kazan and Sandford Meisner who went on to become notable theatre directors and teachers themselves. Stella promoted an approach to acting that involved the imagination rather than a main focus on using the actor’s own personal experiences which she believed was too limiting. Again according to Judith Laikin Elkin:

In Paris, she challenged Stanislavsky himself. According to her memoir, she accused him of having ruined the theater. He responded that perhaps she had not understood his method correctly, and (possibly on the strength of the Adler family legend) gave her several weeks of private instruction. Apparently, he expressed surprise that directors in America were still teaching theories that he had abandoned, such as the use of affective memory to activate a role. Adler, reinforced now by Stanislavsky, believed that conjuring up real-life personal tragedies in order to exhibit anguish on stage was “sick.” “Don’t use your conscious past,” she urged the company on her return. “Use your creative imagination to create a past that belongs to your character.” According to Group members, her formal presentation of the revised theory galvanised them and improved their work. Adler now began giving acting classes herself.

Stella acted in numerous productions with the group including her role as Bessie Burger in Awake and Sing by Clifford Odets. Her last appearance with the Group Theatre was in 1935, in another Odets play, Paradise Lost. In 1937 she left and moved to Hollywood where she worked for six years as an associate producer at MGM and as an actor appearing in movies such as Love on Toast (1937) and The Shadow of the Thin Man (1941).[5] Adler returned to Broadway where she acted in and directed numerous productions in commercial theatre in New York during the 1940’s and 1950’s. She also began working with Erwin Piscator (a Greek-American director, producer, writer and actor) at the New School for Social Research, an adult education centre set up in New York in 1919, before setting up her own studio of acting in New York in 1949 called the Stella Adler Theatre Studio (later renamed the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting. While conducting her own school, she also taught at Yale University’s School of Drama (1966–67) and headed the New York University drama department in the 1980s. Adler herself performed until 1961.’[6]

Approach to Acting

Stella became a highly influential and recognised teacher of actors. She developed an acting curriculum that focused on a range of areas including speech, voice production, play analysis, imagination, characterisation and improvisation. She encouraged actors to build ‘characters out of the material provided in the playwright’s text, within the context of the historical period presented in the play, and motivated by the actors’ imagination rather than by their personal experiences. Witnesses of Adler’s workshop performances recall them as the most energetic in New York. Her teaching style can be seen in a video recorded in 1989, in which she exemplifies her own advice to students: ‘Get a stage tone, darling, an energy. Never go on stage without your motor running.’[7]

Stella placed a strong emphasis on an actor attaining a deep knowledge of the arts and culture from different periods in history in order to feed the imagination and to assist the actor to understand the given circumstances of the play. Stella’s approach places a strong focus on actions, imagination and given circumstances, as did Stanislavski, and in creating a step-by-step process of finding each individual action and justifying the action within the context of a script. Stella also believed that ‘growth as an actor and as a human being are synonymous.’

Stella had creative differences with Lee Strasberg in relation to how they interpreted the Stanislavski System of Actor training. Strasberg would later go on to develop his interpretation of the Stanislavski system into what became known as ‘method acting’. Stanislavski himself had abandoned the idea of ‘emotional memory’ as an actor’s focus for developing a character and the idea of using only personal experiences and emotions. Stella encouraged actors to develop their sensory apparatus and imagination (as did Strasberg), however Stella emphasised strong physical and vocal training to develop stage presence and to build up a carefully crafted and expressive use of voice and body language, as well as careful text analysis and research rather than using an actor’s own personal experiences from his or her past. ‘Her biggest mantra was perhaps, “in your choices lies your talent”, as she would encourage actors to find the most grand character interpretation possible in a scene, another favorite phrase of hers regarding this was ‘don’t be boring.’[8] Stella emphasised the importance of size and energy for an actor in relation to the size of the character and the size of the space the actor uses on stage, telling the actor not to bring the character to you or down to your level but to have an ‘actor’s size’ and to raise yourself as an actor up to the power or size of the character. She often referred to this as an actor’s ‘size’ or worthiness of the stage. Another quote from Stella is ‘Don’t use your conscious past. Use your creative imagination to create a past that belongs to your character. I don’t want you to be stuck with your own life. It’s too little.’ Stella is also quoted as saying to an actor who is doing a scene from A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, ‘Darling. You’re talking about one of the greatest concepts in human history. The freedom of the self. And you’re performing it as if you’re talking about a sale at Bloomingdale’s’.

Stella went on to teach some of the most prolific stage and film actors of the 20th Century including Marlon Brando and Robert de Niro. Brandon ’acknowledged only her and director Elia Kazan as his real mentors’[9]. Stella dedicated her life to ‘preserving and expanding the highest level of art in the theatre’[10]. Stella passed away in December 1992 in Los Angeles, California and was interned at Mount Carmel Cemetery in New York. The work of Stella Adler had a huge influence on twentieth century actor training. However, until recently, she has not received the same recognition in relation to her contemporaries such as Lee Strasberg or Sandford Meisner, partly due to the fact she was a woman working in a male dominated discipline. She was posthumously awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Live Theatre at Hollywood Boulevard in California on August 4, 2006.

According to Stella, ‘the word theatre comes from the Greeks. It means the seeing place. It is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation. The theatre is a spiritual and social X-ray of its time. The theatre was created to tell people the truth about life and the social situation.’ Stella believed that theatre had an important role to play in society and she had a passionate and committed dedication to the arts saying that ‘Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.’

Mary Moynihan is a writer, director, and theatre and film maker. Mary is Artistic Director of the Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Human Rights, incorporating Smashing Times Theatre and Film Company and Smashing Times Youth Arts Ensemble. Mary is also a Drama Lecturer at the DIT Conservatory of music and Drama, Dublin, Ireland.


The Technique of Acting by Stella Adler

Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov by Stella Adler, Barry Paris. (1999)

Stella Adler: The Art of Acting (2000) her master classes edited by Howard Kissel

The Fervent Years: Group Theatre and the Thirties. Harold Clurman and Stella Adler (1957). About the Group Theatre

Reunion: A Self-Portrait of the Group Theatre, Helen Krich Chinoy (editor)

Stella Adler: Awake and Dream (1989) R.M.Arts video documentary on Adler

The Great Acting Teachers and Their Methods (1995) by Richard Brestoff (covers Adler)

The Stella Adler Conservatory, Mark Hammer

Method Acting Reconsidered (20000) David Krasner Editor

Strasberg, Adler and Meisner, Alison Hodge 20th Century Actor Training

Acting with Adler (2000) Joanna Rotte.

Creating a Character: A Physical Approach to Acting, by Moni Yakim, Muriel Broadman, Stella Adler.

Collections: New York Public Library; Billy Rose Theatre Collection; American Jewish Committee Oral History Collection; Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (video interview with Adler)


[2] The American Lab Theatre by Ronald A. Willis, 112