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Adler, Stella


ADLER, STELLA (1901–1992), U.S. actress and acting teacher. An exponent of Method acting and probably the leading American teacher of her craft, Adler was born into a celebrated acting family rooted in the Yiddish theater (see *Adler). She made her stage debut at four, appeared in nearly 200 plays, and occasionally directed productions. She also shaped the careers of thousands of performers at the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting, which she founded in Manhattan in 1949 and where she taught for decades.

Born in Manhattan, the youngest daughter of Jacob Adler and the former Sara Levitzky, Russian immigrants who led the Independent Yiddish Art Company, Stella had five siblings, and they all became actors, notably Luther. Her parents were the leading classical Yiddish stage tragedians in the United States. Stella started on the stage in 1905 at the Grand Street Theater on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. She played both girls' and boys' roles and then ingénues in a variety of classical and contemporary plays over ten years in the United States, Europe, and South America, performing in vaudeville and the Yiddish theater. She won acclaim as the leading lady of Maurice *Schwartz, but she sought more versatility. Her work schedule allowed little time for formal schooling.

She was introduced to the Method theories of Konstantin Stanislavsky, the legendary Moscow Art Theater actor and director, in 1925 when she took courses at the American Laboratory Theater school, founded by Richard Boleslavski and Maria Ouspenskaya, former members of the Moscow troupe. Adler's most frenetic years were with the Group Theater, a cooperative ensemble dedicated to reinvigorating the theater with plays about important contemporary topics. The Group, founded by Harold *Clurman (whom she married in 1943), Lee *Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford, also believed in a theater that would probe the depths of the soul. Both aspects appealed to her and she joined in 1931. She won high praise for performances in such realistic dramas as Success Story by John Howard Lawson and two seminal Clifford *Odets plays, Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost. She was also hailed for directing the touring company of Odets' Golden Boy. Recalling her years with the company, she deplored a dearth of good roles for women in "a man's theater aimed at plays for men." But she credited the company with evoking in her an idealism that shaped her later career. "I knew that I had it in me to be more creative, had much more to give to people," she said. "It was the Group Theater that gave me my life."

Before the Method revolutionized American theater, classical acting instruction had focused on developing external talents. Method acting was the first systematized training that also developed internal abilities, sensory, psychological, and emotional. Strasberg, who headed the Actors Studio until his death in 1982, rooted his view on what Stanislavsky stressed in his early career. Adler went to Paris and studied intensively with Stanislavsky for five weeks in 1934. She found he had revised his theories to stress that the actor should create by imagination rather than by memory and that the key to success was "truth, truth in the circumstances of the play." She instructed: "Your talent is your imagination. The rest is lice." She was a stern taskmaster, believing that a teacher's job is to agitate as well as inspire. She demanded craftsmanship and self-awareness, calling it the key to an actor's sense of fulfillment. When students failed to understand roles, she acted them out, insisting: "You can't be boring. Life is boring. The weather is boring. Actors must not be boring."

She appeared in three films: Love on Toast (1938), Shadow of the Thin Man, and My Girl Tisa (1948). Her later stage roles included a fiery lion tamer in a 1946 revival of He Who Gets Slapped and in London an eccentric mother in a black comedy, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad, in 1961. She restated her theories in Stella Adler on Acting, published by Bantam Books in 1988. For her students, who included Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Warren Beatty, and Candice Bergen, she was both the toughest critic and the most profound inspiration, saying: "You act with your soul. That's why you all want to be actors, because your souls are not used up by life."

[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]

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