Adler, Stella (1902–1993)

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Adler, Stella (1902–1993)

American actress, director, acting teacher, and founder of the Stella Adler Theater Studio in New York City. Name variations: Lola Adler (stage name), Stella Ardler (film name). Born Stella Adler on February 10, 1902, in New York, New York; died on December 21, 1992, in Los Angeles, California; daughter of Jacob P. and Sara (Lewis) Adler (distinguished actors and producing managers in the Yiddish theater); sister of Frances, Julia Adler (1897–1995), Luther, and Jay; half-sister of Abe, Charles, and Celia Adler (1890–1979), offspring of her father's two previous marriages and an intervening liaison in Russia; attended New York University; studied acting with her father and Maria Ouspenskaya; married Horace Eleascheff (divorced); married Harold Clurman, in 1943 (divorced 1960); married Mitchell Wilson; children: (first marriage) daughter, Ellen Oppenheim .


made first appearance on stage at her father's theater, The Grand, New York, in Broken Hearts (1906); played continuously in her father's company throughout the United States; first appeared in London at the Pavilion Theater as Naomi in Elisha Ben Avia (1919); returned to New York and appeared in Martinique, The Man of the Mountains, and The World We Live In (1920); for one season of vaudeville, appeared coast to coast on the Orpheum Circuit; appeared with the American Laboratory Theater in the role of the Baroness Creme de la Creme in The Straw Hat (October 1926), as Elly in Big Lake (April 1927), and as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (November 1927); played a season at the Living Place Theater with Bertha Kalich (1927), and with Jacob Ben Ami (1928); starred in a repertory of plays in United States, South America, as well as Paris, Antwerp, and Brussels (1929); played a series of leading parts with Maurice Schwartz and Samuel Goldenberg in plays at the Yiddish Art Theater, Second Avenue, including: Kid-dish Hashem, The God of Vengeance, The Witch of Castile, The Lower Depths, The Living Corpse, He Who Gets Slapped, Liliom, and Jew Süss (1930); played over 100 parts (1927–31); joined the Group Theater (1931), and played Geraldine at the Martin Beck Theater in The House of Connelly (September 1931); played Dona Josefa at the Mansfield Theater in Night over Taos (December 1931); played Sarah Glassman in Success Story at the Maxine Elliott Theater (September 1932), and Myra Bonney in Big Night (January 1933); played title role in Hilda Cassidy at the Martin Beck Theater (May 1933); played Gwyn Ballantyne in Gentlewoman at the Cort Theater (for the Group Theater, March 1934); played Adah Isaacs Menken in Gold-Eagle Guy at the Morosco Theater (November 1934); played Bessie Berger in Awake and Sing! at the Belasco Theater (February 1935); played Clara in Paradise Lost at the Longacre Theater (December 1935); played Catherine Carnick in Sons and Soldiers at the Morosco Theater (May 1943); staged Manhattan Nocturne at the Forrest Theater (October 1943); played Clotilde in Pretty Little Parlor at the National Theater (April 1944); directed Polonaise at the Alvin Theater, (October 1945); played Zinaida in He Who Gets Slapped for the Theater Guild at the Booth Theater (March 1946); directed Sunday Breakfast at the Coronet Theater (May 1952); directed a revival of Johnny Johnson at Carnegie Hall Playhouse (October 1956); played Madame Rosepettle in Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet, and I'm Feelin' So Sad at the Lyric, Hammersmith Theater, London (July 1961).


under the name of Stella Ardler, made her film debut in Love on Toast (Paramount, 1938); subsequently was associate producer of Du Barry Was a Lady (MGM, 1943); appeared in The Thin Man (MGM, 1944); and My Girl Tisa (UA, 1948).

To chronicle the life and career of Stella Adler is to journey through almost a century of American theater. She was born in 1902, into the rich acting tradition of the Yiddish-American theater in New York, where acting was a noble profession and the truly great were royalty. She studied with the master, Russian actor-director Constantin Stanislavski (1863–1938). She performed in over 200 productions, in comedies and tragedies that ranged from the classics to the new realism and beyond. In the 1930s, she was part of the Group Theater, which gave rise to some of the most talented playwrights, actors, and designers of the day, and was committed to producing the great social and political plays of that era. She directed for the stage and worked in films. Lastly, she was a teacher, a passionate disciple of Stanislavski, and a founder of The Stella Adler Studio, whose graduates include acting giants Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, and Warren Beatty. In a loving tribute to Adler written shortly after her death in 1992, Robert Brustein, director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, praised her for the profound respect and admiration she had for acting and actors and for her attempt to instill a nobility of purpose in her students. "In her deepest being," he wrote, "Stella embodied the art of our profession and what it could become. Her loss impoverishes us in more ways than I want to think about."

Stella Adler was born in the proverbial trunk, as were her five brothers and sisters. Her parents, Jacob P. ("the Jewish Henry Irving") and Sara Adler , were the foremost tragedians of the Yiddish stage in America. Her father, described as "large in frame, talent, and appetites," possessed incredible magnetism both on and off stage. Harold Clurman (Stella Adler's second husband) knew the man and saw him perform. "He 'seduced' not only his audiences, but his servants, his colleagues, his community, and most of all his family." Sara Adler, Jacob's third wife, also possessed a daunting talent, playing over 300 leading roles during her career. Clurman recalls her as one of the Jewish Theater's "first realistic actors."

It was no surprise to Stella Adler that her entire clan became actors. "In my family," she said, "immediately, when you could barely walk, you were put on the stage." Adler made her theatrical debut at the age of four in her father's production of Broken Hearts at the Grand Street Theater in New York. She trained and performed the classics in repertory with her parents for the next 12 years, including roles in the plays of Shakespeare, George Hauptmann, and Henrik Ibsen. She made her London debut in 1919 at the Pavilion Theater, and first appeared on Broadway in the 1922 smash hit, The World We Live In ("The Insect Comedy"), by Karel Capek.

Stella Adler attended New York University and later, in 1925, studied at the American Laboratory Theater with Maria Ouspenskaya and Richard Boleslavsky, both of whom had come to the United Stages after distinguished careers in Europe. It was Adler's first introduction to the acting techniques of Constantin Stanislavski, who, with Vladimir Nemirovish-Danchenko, had founded the Moscow Art Theater in 1898. Stanislavski's system for training actors—which would eventually become known simply as "the method"—was created out of practical necessity. The old-fashioned acting techniques simply would not accommodate the new schools of playwriting, described as "realistic" or "naturalistic," depicting the world and society as it was, instead of creating an idealization. Today, every modern approach to realistic acting has its roots in Stanislavski, although his system is rarely taught in its purist form and has, on occasion, been interpreted beyond recognition.

Prior to the 20th century, what there was of actor's training focused on a mechanical response to imaginary stimulus. Responses became fairly standard and therefore were easily taught or just handed down. For Stanislavski, the goal was psychological realism. His system emphasized teaching the actor to be sensitive to the stimulus (the imaginary situations within the play), from which the reactions would more naturally develop.

In its simplest form, the method comprises six components: (1) formulation of a flexible body and voice, which can respond to all demands; (2) observation of reality, from which the actor can build a character by selecting lifelike action, stage business, and speech; (3) perfection of stage technique by which the character is projected to the audience, without any appearance of artificiality; (4) formation of "emotion memory," which is the ability to recall from one's own experience how it feels to be in the emotional situations of the play; (5) thorough knowledge of the script, including intense analysis focusing on the character's background, environment, and relationships; and (6) concentration upon imagining, feeling, and projecting the truth of the stage situation to the audience.

Interpreters often forget that Stanislavski was a well-trained and skillful actor before he felt a need to create the exercises and disciplines that make up the Stanislavski method. Through years of experience on the stage, he had learned the technique of acting and then had found that technique was not enough. He never, however, claimed that technique was not essential.

In 1931, Adler and her brother Luther joined the Group Theater, which began as a workshop of The Theater Guild and became independent in 1931. (The Theater Guild, part of the little theater movement, was a subscription-based professional organization that in the 1920s introduced many of the leading experimental European and American playwrights and production techniques.) Founded by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford , the Group was a repertory company modeled after the Moscow Art Theater, and dedicated to introducing the Stanislavski method of acting and stage production to America. Providing a depression-era alternative to the commercial theater, it developed into one of the most exciting theater companies of the 1930s. Adler described the ensemble nature of the group: "This theater demanded a basic understanding of a complex artistic principle: that all people connected with this theater, the actor, designer, playwright, director, etc., had of necessity to arrive at a single point of view which the theme of the play also expressed."

In the summer of 1931, the two Adlers, along with a 28-member acting ensemble, which included Franchot Tone, Morris Carnovsky, John Garfield, Lee J. Cobb, and Sanford Meisner, retreated to a farmhouse in Connecticut to prepare for their first season under the direction of Lee Strasberg. There, Strasberg unleashed his interpretation of Stanislavski, putting his actors through rigorous rehearsal sessions that stressed improvisational work and exercises in what he called "affective memory." The Group's premier production of Paul Green's Chekovian drama, The House of Connelly, featuring Stella Adler in the role of Geraldine Connelly, won critical acclaim. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times wrote: "Their group performance is too beautifully imagined and modulated to concentrate on personal achievements. There is not a gaudy, brittle or facile stroke in their acting…. It is not too much to hope that something fine and true has been started in the American theater."

Adler's performances with the Group theater included roles in plays by Maxwell Anderson, Robert Lewis, Sidney Kingsley, and the Group's resident playwright, Clifford Odets. Her role as Bessie Berger in Odets' Awake and Sing is considered by some to be her finest work. Robert Lewis recalled that her portrayal "set a standard for Jewish-mother parts that has not been approached since; omitting the usual self-pity and leavening the dominating nature of the woman with lofty humor."

Adler's relationship with the Group was sometimes fragile. There were skirmishes with Clurman, who directed many of the productions, and to whom she was romantically linked at the time. Believing that "actresses were spiritually affected by their roles," she fretted that he was aging her prematurely by forcing her into the more mature roles, particularly those in Odets' plays. Adler also had a penchant for a somewhat high-toned lifestyle, including an apartment on Fifth Avenue and frequent jaunts to Europe, which did not always sit well with her peers, many of whom were young actors struggling through the dark days of the Depression. She loved fine clothes and was always beautifully turned out. Clurman remembers her hats, something of a trademark, which were "like the hats of stage stars prior to World War I." Brustein recalled that she dressed "like an elegant courtesan," and held court in her lavish digs. "Her roomy Fifth Avenue apartment, where she entertained so many notables, was furnished like a Venetian Bordello, with lowhanging chandeliers, burnished mirrors and overstuffed furniture."

Adler's greatest problem with the Group, however, was a growing resentment of Strasberg's idiosyncratic interpretation of Stanislavski's system, with his emphasis on "truth" and "reality," and his obsession with "affective memory." In 1934, dissatisfied with her performance in Gentlewoman, Adler took a leave of absence from the Group and went off to Europe with Clurman. They were on a stopover in Paris when Clurman received word that Stanislavski was in the city and that he should arrange a meeting. Clurman sent a note and received an invitation by return mail. Shy about accompanying Clurman, Adler hesitantly agreed. The details of the actual meeting differ slightly between accounts. Clurman recalls that Stanislavski was alone with his doctor; Adler remembers the presence of two others. Clurman describes the master as tall—6'4" at least—very much like Adler's father, but, unlike Jacob Adler, quite shy about having a woman in his presence. She remembers being the shy one, quite overcome with stage-fright. "I stood completely unable to move, forward or backward. I was paralyzed by the whole moment." Stanislavski suggested an outing on the Champs-Élysees. Adler remembers the laughter and camaraderie of a small group in the park, and watching Stanislavski interact with the others; Clurman only mentions the doctor in attendance because the master had suffered a heart attack the previous year and was under constant care. On the matter of Stanislavski's first words to her, Adler's account is more dramatic. She knew he sensed her reticence, because he "had the 'eye' and nothing got past him." She remembers it was he who finally approached her. "Young Lady, everybody has spoken to me but you." She blurted back, "Mr. Stanislavski, I loved the theater until you came along, and now I hate it." He simply answered, "Well, then you must come to see me tomorrow."

The next day, Adler went to see him—alone. Sensing her awe, Stanislavski broke the ice by telling her he knew of her family and their impact on the theater, especially her father. The relationship finally relaxed, and they became two actors solving problems. For five weeks, they worked together daily, beginning with her difficulties in Gentlewoman and working on improvisational exercises in imagination and isolating the circumstances (truth) of each scene. She took copious notes. He shared intimacies of his work as an actor: how it had taken him ten years to understand Ibsen and his part in An Enemy of the People; that he worked on his speech for two hours each morning because he was inclined to lisp. After the last session, Adler described wandering the streets of Paris in a daze, savoring the city and her moments with Stanislavski. "I had worked with the master teacher of the world, the man whose words were going to flood the world with truth. That sense he had, of how truthful you had to be; this was his heritage, this is what he gave away." Stella Adler's new passion was to spread the word.

At a big New York party once, Stella arrived late. A little girl watched her entrance with fascination, turned to her mother in awe and said, "Mommy, is that God?" For those of us who've been privileged to be taught by her … the answer would be a resounding, "Yes!"

—Peter Bogdanovich

She returned to the Group Theater with a formal report—complete with charts that Stanislavski had made for her—outlining the system as she had experienced it, and openly admonishing Strasberg for concentrating almost exclusively on the element of emotional recall, while de-emphasizing the study of text and character. In 1935, Adler made her final stage appearance with the Group as Clara in Paradise Lost, although she returned to stage in the touring production of Golden Boy in 1938. In 1940, Strasberg left the Group to found the Actor's Studio. A year later, the Group Theater came to its official end, though Clurman maintained that it never really ceased existing because of the familial ties that it fostered.

Adler married Harold Clurman in 1943; they divorced in 1960. Facts about the union are sketchy, as are those about her first marriage to Horace Eleascheff, and a third to Mitchell Wilson. In her book, Adler refers to Clurman, but only within the context of the Group Theater. "Harold was the man who did the most to open up my talent and my mind, who helped me educate myself about plays. He had significance in my life, in my theatrical life." In his somewhat loose autobiography, All People Are Famous, Clurman refers to Adler often—usually by her full name, Stella Adler—but his more intimate portrait is of her mother Sara, who lived with the couple during the later years of her life. He does, however, make much of Stella's "grandness." One story concerns the lean days during their courtship, in 1941, between the dissolution of the Group and the start of his career as a director. Adler evidently complained that he had not come up with a gift for her—jewelry, for example—in some time. He reminded her that he had debts amounting to $20,000. She snapped back, "A man of your stature should be in debt for a hundred thousand."

Brustein illuminates the relationship a bit more. "By his own account, Clurman 'rushed' this 'spiritually vibrant' woman into marriage, and their tumultuous union had the internal strains of any relationship that mixes love with work." Clurman may also have had a roving eye. Once, when Sara Adler was singing his praises, Stella confided that he liked women. Her mother shot back, "If he didn't like women, he wouldn't like you." There is only an aside recorded about Adler's third marriage, noting that she finally found "romantic fulfillment in marriage to the novelist Mitchell Wilson."

Adler did a stint in Hollywood, debuting in Love on Toast with a new, more "goyishe," name—Stella Ardler—and, apparently, a newly bobbed nose to match. She appeared in Shadow of the Thin Man in 1941, and much later, in 1948, made My Girl Tisa. She also worked as an associate producer with Arthur Freed at MGM on Du Barry Was a Lady and Madame Curie, and was involved with several Judy Garland films, including For Me and My Gal. Adler was instrumental in encouraging studio heads to nurture Garland's formidable talent.

Between the years 1940 to 1961, Adler, who continued to act and direct, taught as well. In 1941, she developed the Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research and taught for two years there. In 1949, she opened the Stella Adler Acting Studio. Following her own interpretation of Stanislavski's method, Adler designed a comprehensive two-year program with emphasis on play analysis and characterization. Hers was a no-nonsense approach that demanded dedication. According to Brustein, her script analysis course was unparalleled, with a syllabus of scene study that displayed the enormous depth of her knowledge of dramatic literature. She would not tolerate tardiness, gum-chewing, or smoking in class. She was also somewhat deferential to her male students. "She was famously tough on female students, some of whom she bullied and cowed into near paralysis…. This is not to say that women didn't adore her, but they usually felt intimidated by her powerful theatricalism."

Adler continued to perform in the United States and abroad until 1961, when a scathing review of her performance in a London production of Arthur Kopit's Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad abruptly ended her stage career. Brustein attempted an acting comeback for her in 1966 at Yale. He envisioned her in the role of the grand actress Arkadina in Anton Chekhov's The Sea Gull, but she agreed only if she could be directed by the great Russian, George Tovstonogov. Russian-American relations being what they were at the time made that impossible, so the production was canceled.

By 1960, Adler's studio had been renamed the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting, and included a staff of more than a dozen faculty members, although she personally continued to teach master classes in acting and script interpretation. Adler also served as adjunct professor of acting at Yale University's School of Drama and was associated with New York University for many years. She opened a second conservatory in Los Angeles in 1986. Her work and contributions were honored with a Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the New School of Social Research, and a Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Smith College.

Late in life, Stella Adler spent more and more time in Los Angeles, remaining active in teaching and managing her conservatory. She died of heart failure in her sleep on December 21, 1992. To the end, she was larger than life, ever the grand dame of the stage, even as she witnessed the American theater begin to lose some of its luster. She remained committed and hopeful, and ever dedicated to what her beloved Stanislavski had taught her: "The source of acting is imagination and the key to its problems is truth, truth in the circumstances of the play…. Creating and interpreting means total involvement, the totality of heart, mind, and spirit."


Adler, Stella. The Technique of Acting. NY: Bantam Books, 1988.

Brockett, Oscar G. The Theater: An Introduction. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.

Brustein, Robert. "Stella for Star," in The New Republic. Vol. 208, no. 5, February 1, 1993, pp. 52–53.

Clurman, Harold. All People Are Famous (instead of an autobiography). NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.

Strickland, F. Cowles. The Technique of Acting. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1956.

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theater: An Introduction to Theater History. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1983.

suggested reading:

Clurman, Harold. The Fervent Years: The Story of the Group Theater in the Thirties. NY: Hill and Wang, 1957.

Stanislavski, Constantin. An Actor Prepares. Translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. NY: Theater Arts Books, 1936.

Strasberg, Lee. "Acting and the Training of the Actor," in Producing the Play. Rev. ed. Edited by John Gassner. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1953.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts