In Your Choice Lies Your Talent

By Shonni EnelowOctober 27, 2014

In Your Choice Lies Your Talent

Stella! Mother of Modern Acting by Sheana Ochoa

WHAT WAS IT about the combination of the acting theories of Constantin Stanislavsky and the United States of America in the middle of the 20th century that produced such vehement loyalties and ferocious rivalries, such devotion, love, contempt, and rancor? What strange cultural chemistry led to the emergence of the mid-century gurus of American actor training whose names resound in acting classrooms to this day? The age of the celebrity acting teacher may be on the wane, but the impact of the “Method” generation — Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen — is far from over: collections of their writings and lectures are still being published, often with prefaces and introductions by contemporary movie stars who testify to the sacrosanct wisdom to follow, offering as evidence their own experiences with the genius teachers without whom they’d still be little putzes from the suburbs with a nickel and a dream.

When I began as an acting student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts at the beginning of this century, the writings of those teachers — their books with grand, satisfying titles like Respect for Acting (Uta Hagen), A Dream of Passion (Lee Strasberg), The Art of Acting (Stella Adler) — retained some of the status of oracle. I feasted on their delicious extravagance, their theatrical assertions, their unshakable conviction in the divine power of acting.

I’m not kidding: they talk like that. And that’s a big part of the appeal. Being an actor can feel like an abject position — until you’re famous, you have little control over what, when, where, and how you do what you do — but these teachers made us feel like the vocation was something deep and important. And actors repaid that devotion in spades: Lee Strasberg may be the most famous and infamous in the culture at large, but he is only one of the original group of American Stanislavskians who maintain a potent cachet among actors and aspirants, not to mention the generations of their former students. With this devotion often comes defensive loyalty and allegiance, flamed by the internal conflicts and competitive hostilities between these large, theatrical personalities. The sectarian struggles among American acting schools drove otherwise reasonable people apoplectic, as David Krasner documents in his introduction to Method Acting Reconsidered, titled (in quotation marks) “I Hate Strasberg.”

Fortunately, a spate of recent books and articles have started to pry open what had for too long been a closed, almost cultish phenomenon. (In addition to Krasner’s edited volume, Sharon Marie Carnicke’s Stanislavsky in Focus and Rosemary Malague’s An Actress Prepares: Women and “the Method” are both notable). Sheana Ochoa’s new biography of Stella Adler does not belong with these analytical works, but it does partake in this long-overdue reassessment, unlocking some of the complex intersections between Stanislavsky-based acting and 20th-century American culture.

The history of what would be called (sometimes derisively, sometimes reverently) “method acting” begins with the highly successful American tour of Constantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) in the 1920s. Since the turn of the century, Stanislavsky and his colleagues had been experimenting with new techniques and styles of performance. Influenced by naturalism early on, but also interested in the avant-garde aesthetics of symbolism, Stanislavsky believed that acting should be experiencing, and developed numerous exercises and script analysis techniques with the goal of creating more truthful behavior on stage. Some of these were connected to Stanislavsky’s readings in psychology; others were influenced by Tolstoy’s theories of art and by yoga. When his theater toured the United States, audiences found their performances uncommonly un-showy and realistic and marveled at the strength of the ensemble. After the tour, two former members of the MAT, Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, started a school for American theater artists, the American Laboratory Theatre, where more than 300 students practiced their teachers’ version of Stanislavskian techniques. Lee Strasberg, a young, inexperienced but idealistic Jewish son of a garment presser, and Stella Adler, scion of the legendary Yiddish theater family (the Adlers were something like the Barrymores of the Lower East Side), were both students of Boleslavsky and Ouspenskaya, and inspired by the seriousness with which they took the art of acting. When Harold Clurman (also idealistic, also Jewish, who went on to become an important critic and director), Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford (a graduate of Smith College, not Jewish, a crucial part of this story but a criminally little-studied one) began the Group Theatre in 1931, Adler became a member.

What happened next is the stuff of theater legend. Both Jewish children of immigrants, raised in New York, Adler and Strasberg’s personalities could not have been more different: where Strasberg was introverted, deliberate, and severe, Adler was expansive, self-dramatizing, and glamorous. In the Group Theatre, they clashed from the start. In the early days of the Group, Strasberg was solely responsible for acting training: all members of the ensemble would go to his classes and learn his Stanislavsky and Boleslavsky-based techniques, which focused on internal, psychological work and especially on emotion. His most famous and controversial exercise, the emotional memory exercise, required actors to remember, and ultimately relive, powerful emotions they’d felt in their lives. Adler, already a star in her own right, had been acting practically since infancy alongside her legendary father, Jacob Adler; she joined the Group Theatre for idealistic reasons and because, with the Yiddish Theater dying and Broadway unsatisfying, she didn’t think she had better options. But she hated Strasberg’s approach to acting and also, clearly, felt insulted by it — she, Stella Adler, who had been on the stage since she was two years old, needed to practice remembering traumatic events in order to cry in a scene?

She was cajoled to stay in the Group by the frenzied attentions of Harold Clurman, who apparently fell immediately in love with her, but she was never happy with Strasberg’s acting instruction. Famously, in 1934, she took a trip to Moscow and then to Paris where Stanislavsky was recovering from an illness and confronted him about what she understood to be his method; for the following five weeks, she received direct instruction from him, and when she returned to New York she announced to the members of the Group that Strasberg had gotten everything wrong.

Stella Adler is indelibly associated with her rivalry with Strasberg, the result of those overstoried days (the Group Theatre, despite its limited success, is probably the most documented American theater company ever), a rivalry that continued even after they’d both become celebrated teachers with very different approaches to The Method. On the one hand, the differences are easy to describe: Adler, following Stanislavsky’s method of physical actions, emphasizes script analysis and interpretation of the character based on his or her given circumstances, drawn from history and sociology. As Tom Oppenheim, the current head of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York and her grandson, explains, her approach is “outside in” while Strasberg’s is “inside out.” On the other hand, looking closely at the techniques of both teachers (not to mention Stanislavsky, who continually revised and updated his methods throughout his career) may lead one to conclude that this debate was about more than theory. Rosemary Malague, for instance, has argued recently that Adler’s rebellion was a rebellion from Strasberg’s patriarchal coercions: it is no accident, she claims, that the techniques she developed empower the actor to think and make choices on her own. Stella Adler’s famous dictum “in your choice lies your talent” Malague reads as a protofeminist statement about female agency over and against hegemonic norms of behavior. Indeed, Stella’s success as a teacher and the continued viability of the schools she started on the East and West Coasts are a striking professional achievement for a woman of that era, especially considering that, unlike Strasberg or Meisner, who taught at the already established Actors Studio and Neighborhood Playhouse, respectively, she started her school from scratch.

It is therefore somewhat jarring to open Ochoa’s biography and find that it begins on the morning of Strasberg’s death, with a long description of Stella’s reaction to it, in which Ochoa leisurely imagines her cab ride to work through a rose-colored fantasy of uptown New York, winding up to Stella’s oft-repeated one-liner, delivered to her acting students to what must have been great effect: “A man of the theater has died […] It will take 100 years before the harm that man has done to the art of acting can be corrected.”

But Stella Adler’s captivating life is simply not reducible to her battle with Strasberg; it seems insulting to begin by situating Adler in relation to Strasberg, an observer and commentator on his work. More insulting, and, indeed, ironic, is the book’s subtitle, “Mother of Modern Acting.” What would the woman who hated and resented being cast as Bessie Berger, the Jewish mother in Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing!, when she was a beautiful 30something; the woman who had almost no maternal contact with her own mother, Sara Adler, a Yiddish star in her own right; the woman who sent her own daughter to boarding school at two and about whom her granddaughter said, without rancor, “she wasn’t a mother”; say about being cast postmortem as just that — a “mother”? (Not to mention the less obvious but equally odd resonances of the title itself: “Stella!” is clearly a reference to the famous yelp of Marlon Brando, whom she famously discovered and taught, in A Streetcar Named Desire, again situating Stella in terms of the men around her.) For numerous reasons, including feminist ones, it is time we looked at Stella Adler on her own terms.

And let’s get this out of the way: you just have to call her Stella, as Ochoa does, along with, seemingly, everyone else, including her grandson Tom Oppenheim; if that creates feminist discomfort, as it does for me, it may be helpful to remember that “Adler” was, for her, her father and her family, and that to insist on her first name is to insist on her singularity and extract her from the position of “rival of…,” “lover of…,” “daughter of…,” etc. If nothing else, Ochoa’s biography, which is, astoundingly, the first one ever written about Stella, provides ample evidence that this is a life worth thinking about. Stella needs a serious critical biography, and hopefully Ochoa’s efforts will pave the way for one.

Although it can feel disappointingly superficial, what her book achieves is admirable: the foregrounding of a crucial element of not only Stella’s story, but also the story of “the Method” in general: the intimate connection between method acting and the Yiddish theater. Although I winced often at Ochoa’s representations of it, Stella’s Jewishness is the most interesting part of the book. Unlike many other assimilated Jews in “show business,” Stella maintained a strong Jewish identity, and strong ties to Jewish communities and causes, throughout her life: Ochoa documents not only Stella’s childhood and adolescent Yiddish theater activities (worthy of a book themselves) but also her many actions on behalf of the Jews of Europe during the Nazi era, and, most riveting of all, her ensuing Zionist activism and even criminal activity on behalf of the Irgun group, the terrorist organization responsible for the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946 (she apparently ran guns for them).

A different, more reflective book could easily be built from these tantalizing accounts. Among other things, Stella’s story exemplifies the often contradictory position of American Jews in the mid-20th century: despite her Jewish identity and activism, she didn’t hesitate to get a nose job upon her arrival in Hollywood in the late 1930s, where she also accepted, in her few movies, being billed as “Stella Ardler.” Ochoa doesn’t ask these more complicated questions, nor those about the relationship between Stella’s Yiddishness and the acting training she taught for decades: for instance, what is Yiddish about Yiddish acting, and how might the answer change how we see, say, Brando? She also doesn’t deal much with the contradiction between Stella’s much-mentioned love of the trappings of upper-class life and her self-identification as a socialist who accompanied Bertolt Brecht to his date with the House Committee on Un-American Activities and was later called to testify herself.

Stella the activist, Stella the glamour queen; Stella the feminist, Stella the male-identified idolizer of her (apparently quite lecherous, if not actually pedophilic) father; Stella the self-dramatizing lover of theatrical affectation, Stella the realist, devoted to truth. This last pairing was to some the most discordant; after reading Ochoa’s book, one might feel inclined to agree with Robert De Niro that Stella’s “affectations went against her technique, which focused on authenticity.”

Then again, isn’t it the combination of “affectation” and “authenticity” that makes theater so wonderful in the first place? Ochoa’s pervasive use of the conditional tense (as in, “she would be wearing…”) to move from documentation to fantasy bothered me throughout, but by the end, it struck me that Ochoa was aping Stella’s own process of crafting a character: drawing from historical documents, but also making good use of her own imagination. Rosemary Malague has recently suggested that Stella thought of her own life as a role, so why shouldn’t her biographer think of it that way too? Even if it doesn’t always make for satisfying reading, there is something appropriate about this mythologized account of the life of a master self-mythologizer.

If I were going to play the part of Stella Adler as represented in Ochoa’s biography, I would start with the clothes. Ochoa is engrossed, not to say obsessed, with Stella’s clothes, which she imagines with gleeful intricacy, from the “lace-trimmed blouse and knee-length skirt with an ornately trimmed hem, woolen stockings, and black patent-leather shoes” she places Stella in as a child, to the “new velvet negligee from Bonwit Teller” and “matching pink quilted robe” she “might have worn” on her second visit to Moscow in 1963. One could easily craft a delicious costume from such descriptions, and then practice moving around her apartment’s “Italian color scheme of gold and Venetian green [which] theatricalized its French Provincial décor.” I would think about this flamboyance in relation to immigrant culture, the rise of the Jewish middle class, and the loss of Yiddish; in short, the mourning and melancholia of Jewish assimilation. I would imagine a woman who was primed from early childhood to think of herself as extraordinary, constantly frustrated by a world that seemed to think otherwise, and desperate to be a star in whatever circumstances available. I would portray a character who was intelligent, warm, generous, and talented, and also petty, cruel, narcissistic, and, sometimes, most terrifyingly, mediocre. Most of all, I would portray an idealist who would not and could not accept less than her ideals (or fantasies, depending on who’s talking). In other words, she’d be nothing like Stella Kowalski (the object of Brando’s howl), but rather something like an untragic, Jewish Blanche DuBois, born not to the desiccated Southern aristocracy but to a dynamic immigrant culture on the rise.

I’d need to do some extra research, but then I hope I’d be good. Despite its faults, Stella! portrays a powerful and fascinating woman, whose life story has much to offer those enchanted by the glitter and grit of the American theater.


Shonni Enelow is an assistant professor of English at Fordham University and the author of Method Acting and Its Discontents: On American Psycho-Drama, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press (2015).

LARB Contributor

Shonni Enelow is an assistant professor of English at Fordham University and the author of Method Acting and Its Discontents: On American Psycho-Drama, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press (2015).


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