The history of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting includes not only Stella Adler but also bears inclusion of Konstantin Stanislavski, Jacob Adler, Harold Clurman and the Group Theater.
From 1905 until her death eighty-seven years later, Stella Adler dedicated her life to preserving and expanding the highest level of art in the theatre. The youngest daughter of Sara and Jacob Adler, Stella began her career on her father’s stage at the age of four in a production of Broken Hearts. She 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.
Taking a brief leave of absence in 1934 to travel to Russia, she stopped in Paris, where she met and studied for five weeks with Konstantin Stanislavski. When she returned to The Group Theater with a new understanding of his work, she began to give acting classes for other members, including Sanford Meisner, Elia Kazan, and Robert Lewis, all of whom went on to become notable theatrical directors and acting teachers.
For six years, Stella worked in Hollywood as an associate producer at MGM and played a number of roles (under the name Stella Ardler) in movies such as Love on Toast (1937) and The Shadow of the Thin Man (1941). She returned to New York and London to direct and act in many plays, among them the London premiere of Manhattan Nocturne, the Off-Broadway revival of the Paul Green/Kurt Weil anti-war play Johnny Johnson, as well as Sons and Soldiers, Pretty Little Parlor, and He Who Gets Slapped. Her last stage appearance was in the critically controversial production of Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet, and I’m Feeling So Sad (1959).
In the early 1940s, Stella began to teach at the Erwin Piscator Workshop at the New School for Social Research. She left the faculty in 1949 to establish her own studio called the Stella Adler Theatre Studio (later renamed the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting and finally the Stella Adler Studio of Acting). She went on to teach some of the most prolific stage and film actors of the 20th Century.
Konstantin Sergeyvich Stanislavski
Born in Moscow in 1863, Konstantin Sergeyvich Stanislavski had a tremendous affect on the art of acting. Having experience as an actor, producer and director, he asserted that the theatre could not be meaningful unless it moved beyond mere external representation, which was the style of acting at the time. Over a span forty years he created an approach that brought the psychological and emotional aspects of acting to the forefront.
In the United States today, Stanislavski’s theories are the primary source of study for many actors. Among the many great actors and teachers to use his work were Stella Adler, Marlon Brando, Harold Clurman, Sanford Meisner, Bobby Lewis, Uta Hagen, Marian Seldes, Wynn Handman, and Lee Strasberg. Many artists continue to demonstrate the potency of Stanislavski’s powerful ideas in their work.
Harold Clurman has been called the most influential figure in the history of the American theatre. Born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1901, Harold Clurman had his first exposure to theatre at the age of six when his parents took him to see the great Yiddish actor Jacob Adler. While attending the Sorbonne in Paris, Clurman first began to formulate his vision of a new American theater.
Between 1935 and 1980, Clurman directed over forty plays, including Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing and Paradise Lost, Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, Eugene O’Neill’s Touch of the Poet, Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Jean Giraudoux’s Tiger at the Gates, and Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. He wrote seven books, including The Fervent Years (a history of The Group Theater) and On Directing. From 1953 until his death in 1980 he was the drama critic for The Nation. As the passionate and talented leader of The Group Theater and as one of the century’s most eminent theater critics, Clurman invigorated American theatre with his political and artistic idealism.
The Group Theater
In the summer of 1931, three young idealists, Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg, were inspired by a passionate dream of transforming the American theatre. They recruited 28 actors to form a permanent ensemble and conceived the Group Theater as a response to what they saw as the old-fashioned light entertainment that dominated the theatre of the late 1920s. In over ten years and through 26 productions (every one of them an American play by an American writer), The Group Theater not only met these goals, but altered the course of American theatre forever.
The Group was based on an ensemble approach to acting and was the first company in America to be trained as such. When the Group produced Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets, originally Awake and Sing!, Golden Boy, Rocket to the Moon and Paradise Lost, the Group’s plays included William Saroyan’s My Heart’s in the Highlands, Kurt Weill and Paul Green’s Johnny Johnson and Maxwell Anderson’s Night Over Taos.
During his time with the group Lee Strasberg came up with his own acting techniques which were based on the innovative “System” of the Russian master Konstantin Stanislavski and began to instruct the members in what he called “my method of acting,” or later, “the Method.” Stella, displeased and uncomfortable with Lee’s way of working, traveled to Paris in 1938. There she met with Stanislavski, and they worked together daily for five weeks. Stella remains the only American acting teacher to have had direct contact with Stanislavski.