(b. 10 February 1902 in New York City; d. 21 December 1992 in Los Angeles, California), flamboyantly theatrical actress, director, and producer, considered by many professionals to have been the best American teacher of acting and the Stanislavsky Method.
Adler was the youngest daughter of Jacob Pavlovich Adler, the legendary actor and manager, and Sara Lewis Levitska, the famed tragedienne. Their Independent Yiddish Art Company’s translations of Shakespeare and other classic and modern dramas attracted Yiddish-speaking intellectuals to New York’s Lower East Side theaters.
Onstage at the age of four in her father’s 1906 production Broken Hearts, Stella soon acted regularly with her parents and five siblings, the core of the repertory company. Stella’s “first true consciousness, was … in a dressing room” amidst her father’s costumes and makeup, watching him become “another man.” These experiences and Jacob’s personal attention to his favorite child’s training permanently affected her views about theater and life.
Formal education was embarrassingly fragmentary for the busy child actress, but she later saw her early exposure to classic dramas and the contextual research demanded by her father as excellent preparation for her later career. In her teens she attended New York University, pursuing the cultural and historical knowledge—the lack of which she later deplored in young American actors—required to perform classics.
Adler made her London debut as Naumi in her father’s 1919 revival of Elisha Ben Avuya, written for him a decade earlier. In 1922 she married Horace Eliasheff; the marriage ended shortly after the birth of Ellen, Adler’s only child. As “Lola” Adler, she first acted on Broadway on 31 October 1922, playing the butterfly Apatura Clythia in The World We Live In (The Insect Comedy).
In 1925 Adler found herself dissatisfied with commercial theater and seeking a “theatre with a signature” like the Moscow Art Theatre, whose 1923 American tour astonished professionals. She made a life-altering decision to attend classes at the American Laboratory Theatre, led by Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, former members of the Moscow troupe. In classes and productions there from 1925 through 1927, she encountered Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, who were already discussing a new theater based on European and Russian models.
Clurman’s passion for theater had ignited at age six, when he saw Jacob Adler as Uriel Acosta. In 1930 he found in Stella Adler the “the very flesh of my secret yearning” and rushed her into a volatile, combative love affair that lasted thirteen years before they married in 1943 and seventeen more years until they divorced. In 1992, in her last interview, she called Clurman a “savior,” responsible for “the opening of my talent, of my mind.”
In 1931 Clurman, Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford formed the Group Theatre; Adler joined the soon-to-be-famous ensemble for a summer in Connecticut, using Konstantin Stanislavsky—inspired techniques (such as affective memory) to rehearse its first New York season. Adler played Geraldine Connelly in the Group’s first production, The House of Connelly (1931), and Doña Josefa in Night over Taos (1932). Lovers’ quarrels with Clurman were often over Group issues as she sought to define her place within the collective.
Adler later remarked that her best role was the cast-aside secretary, Sarah Glassman, in Success Story (1932). Adler’s acting and Strasberg’s direction created a performance so real that many experienced actors came repeatedly to study Adler in her last scene, keening over the lover she had just killed. It was an “acting feat,” Robert Lewis recalled, that made one “wonder when he would see the like again.”
But as Gwyn Ballantyne in Gentlewoman (1934), Adler so hated her performance and Strasberg’s emphasis on “affective memory”—actors dredging their personal lives for emotions to relive on stage—that she took a leave from the Group to go abroad with Clurman. In Paris they met Stanislavsky. Dismayed at her complaint that his system made her hate acting, he worked with Stella for five weeks in private sessions that she had stenographically recorded.
Adler returned, inspired, to report and offer Group members classes based on her Stanislavsky sessions, emphasizing the actor’s use of imagination to find “truth within the play’s given circumstances” instead of Strasberg’s affective memory exercises. Robert Lewis, Sanford Meisner, and Elia Kazan attended her “liberating” classes. Strasberg’s jealous resentment, barely hidden then, emerged years later as bitter denigrations of Adler’s teaching.
Adler’s greatest critical success came in a role she shrank from until Clurman, directing his first production, slyly implied that she might not be able to do it. As the ungla-morous, fifty-year-old Bessie Berger in Awake and Sing! (1935), she contributed a lighter side to Clifford Odets’s angry characterization and, Robert Lewis claimed, set a standard for Jewish-mother parts never approached since.
When money troubles shortened the Group’s next season in spring 1937, Adler and Clurman went to Hollywood. “Too Jewish-looking” for filmdom’s Jewish moguls, she had her nose shortened, changed her name to Stella Ardler, and starred in Paramount’s 1937 comedy Love on Toast. She directed the Group’s successful international tour of Odets’s Golden Boy (1938–1939) but returned to Hollywood to play a femme fatale in Shadow of the Thin Man (1941); later she assisted Arthur Freed in producing the 1942 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) musicals DuBarry Was a Lady and For Me and My Gal. Her last film role was in My Girl Tisa (1948).
From 1939 to 1942 Stella taught at Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop at the New School; her classes evolved into the Stella Adler Acting Studio, which she opened in New York in 1949. She continued to act onstage for some years, but her desire to teach gradually replaced her need to perform. “Critically pummeled” as Madame Rosepettle in the 1961 London premiere of Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, she abandoned the stage. Meanwhile, her studio grew into a conservatory with a two-year program in play analysis and characterization taught by Adler and a faculty of twelve. Later she headed the Yale Drama School’s acting department (1966–1967), again taught at the New School (1970–1972), and gave classes for New York University drama students at her own conservatory thereafter.
Adler divorced Clurman in 1960 and married the novelist Mitchell Wilson. He died on 26 February 1973. In 1986 she added a Los Angeles Conservatory and divided her teaching time between the two coasts. American acting had already been changed by such alumni of Adler’s teaching as Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Robert De Niro, Ellen Burstyn, and Harvey Keitel.
Adler recorded her approach and exercises in The Technique of Acting (1988), the only book she published during her life. Her inspiring script analyses for performance are preserved in her posthumously published lectures, Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov (1999). Its informative biographical preface is based on the editor Barry Paris’s final Los Angeles interview with her, shortly before her death from heart failure at age ninety.
Adler’s lecture on Ibsen began: “Jacob Adler said … unless you give the audience something that makes them bigger—better, do not act.” Stella Adler’s life embodied that rule.
Memories of childhood are in Stella Adler’s introduction to Lulla Rosenfeld’s translation of Jacob Adler’s autobiography A Life On the Stage (1999); all the Adlers appear in Rosenfeld’s Bright Star of Exile: Jacob Adler and the Yiddish Theatre (1977). Harold Clurman vividly renders their romance and Group Theatre years in The Fervent Years (1945). The December 1976 issue of Educational Theatre Journal, entirely devoted to the Group Theatre, contains interviews and previously unpublished memorabilia; additional material appears in Wendy Smith, Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America (1990). Memoirs of Group members and works like Jay Williams’s Stage Left (1974) and Foster Hirsch’s A Method to Their Madness (1984) portray Adler from other viewpoints. Robert Brustein offers a valuable and affectionate tribute in “Stella for Star,” New Republic (1 Feb. 1993). An obituary is in the New York Times (22 Dec. 1992). Her rambling 1981 videotaped interview in the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at New York’s Library of the Performing Arts does not do justice to Adler’s charismatic personality and flamboyant classroom performance, both vividly apparent in “Awake and Dream!,” the 1989 PBS American Masters video by Merrill Brockway and Catherine Tatge.
Daniel S. Krempel