Scott Balcerzak is Associate Professor of film and literature at Northern Illinois University. He was supported by the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies and is currently writing a book on Stella Adler and male movie stars.
During an October 1, 1972, class, Stella Adler (1901–1992) warned her students about relying upon hearsay: “People will say Ms. Adler likes to study with boys more than girls. Rumor. People say Ms. Adler loves everybody. Rumor. People say Ms. Adler is conceited. Rumor.” For much of her lifetime, the public knew the acting teacher Stella Adler more through rumor than reality. Much of the press focused on her public feud with the Actors Studio’s Lee Strasberg, with whom she disagreed on the fundamentals of Constantin Stanislavski’s technique. Stories also circulated about her theatrical personality, which reflected her background as an actress raised in the Yiddish theater and later with the famous Group Theatre. Her biting wit and sometimes harsh critiques of students became the stuff of theater legend.
Such acting heavyweights as Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Elaine Stritch, Warren Beatty, and Mark Ruffalo received her instruction. Yet Adler wrote only one thin volume on acting, The Technique of Acting (1988). Produced late in her life, this book was written only after prodding from publishers. Adler saw her purpose as an ambassador of the methodologies of Stanislavski, with whom she studied in 1934, and this role was fulfilled in the classroom. As a researcher, my immediate goal was to understand Adler as a teacher through the Harry Ransom Center’s extensive collection of her teaching materials. What was the daily reality of the Stella Adler Studio?
Before my arrival, I believed that the Center’s audio archive of Adler’s classroom recordings would simply supplement as the paper materials that provided detailed transcriptions and class notes. But this was not the case. The recordings capture the dynamics of her daily routines. The earliest archived recordings are from 1958 and reveal an environment noticeably more intimate than her packed lectures in the 1980s and 1990s. In these earlier classes, one can hear individual students perform and then Adler and the class respond. You hear the daily struggles of young actors in mid-century New York City, hungry for Adler’s approval. The microphone unobtrusively records everything from insightful comments to the mundane frustrations faced by every teacher, such as latecomers and unprepared students. Through these recordings, one hears how Adler engaged and encouraged young actors day to day.
The classes I heard showed Adler as equally supportive and critical of male and female students. In her criticisms she could be harsh: in a 1958 recording she yells at a young man performing Lt. Commander Queeg’s courtroom speech from The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1953), “You went back to the crap, the dirt, the filth, the indecency of showing your acting. It’s worse than being a whore.” Such a critique told as an isolated anecdote might suggest her personality as volatile, but the recording captures a more nuanced Adler very much attuned to the students’ perceptions of her. Joking to ease tensions after her outburst, she asks the class, “Am I being mild?” She also lets the students know such critiques are a part of theater tradition, “Don’t be insulted. My father threw me off the stage.”
(Please turn volume high) Hear Stella Adler teaching in this recording from an October 1, 1972, Technique 1 Class. From the Stella Adler and Harold Clurman Papers, Harry Ransom Center. (c) Stella Adler Studio.
The next recorded class finds Adler returning to this student and the speech to discuss how to perform compulsive behavior, a defining attribute of the character. Adler discovers that many students misidentify “compulsive” for “impulsive.” In response, Adler the teacher becomes Adler the actress, as she demonstrates the behavior through improvisations. When a student correctly characterizes compulsion, she is very supportive, “What he said is ‘you push the world out of it.’ And that is brilliant.” Adler’s passionate personality not only characterized her classroom, but supported her instincts as a teacher, and her ability to listen and develop her lessons in response to what the students do and do not comprehend.
Marlon Brando credited Adler with changing the direction of theater and film acting. This remarkable influence had little to do with self-promotion or writing books, but was born out of the daily work of a committed teacher.
The sound recordings of Stella Adler’s classroom teachings are available for listening and research in the Reading and Viewing Room. The Ransom Center is home to the Stella Adler and Harold Clurman Papers.
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