Theatrical Trailblazer

Stella Adler

Stella Adler was born on February 10, 1901 in New York City’s Lower East Side. Her parents, Sara Levitsky and Jacob Adler, were among the Yiddish theater elite.

The whole family acted in Jacob Adler’s company, the Independent Yiddish Artists Company, which was known for putting on Yiddish translations of classical plays, such as those by Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Ibsen.

Stella Adler debuted at the age of four in Broken Hearts, and throughout her childhood she played boys as well as girls. Stella attended the socialist Workers School and New York University.

Adler made her debut in London in 1919, in the role of Naomi in Elisha Ben Abuya. She returned to New York to star in a number of plays, and then spent the next ten years touring in vaudelville and Yiddish theater in the United States, Europe, and South America.

In 1931, Adler met her second husband Harold Clurman, one of the co-founders of the Group Theater, a cooperative ensemble dedicated to reinvigorating the theater with plays about important contemporary topics. She joined the Group and with them did some of her best work, including her role as Bessie Berger in Awake and Sing.

In 1934, Adler took a leave of absence from the Group to travel to Russia and study in The Moscow Art Theater and in private sessions with Konstantin Stanislavski, whose motto was “Think of your own experiences and use them truthfully.” Adler left the Group in 1937 because she felt that there was a shortage of good roles for women and that the plays were written for a male audience. She then moved to Hollywood to try her luck in the movie industry. After six years as an associate producer at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio and a number of roles in movies such as Love on Toast (1937) and The Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), she returned to Broadway to act and direct. Check out this clip of Stella Adler talking about the Stanislavski Method and her break with Lee Strasberg over the idea of “sense memory”:

By the mid-40’s Adler was teaching at the New School for Social Research and in 1949 she founded the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting in New York City, where she taught for a decade. Adler’s belief that “the theater exists 99% in the imagination” was the cornerstone of her teaching. She stressed to her students that the actor’s main role is to search between the lines of the script for the emotional undertones and the unspoken messages. Some of her most famous students include Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Warren Beatty, and Candice Bergen. Adler later became an adjunct professor of action at the Yale School of Drama. Stella Adler died of heart failure in her Los Angeles home on December 21, 1992 at the age of 91. She is remembered by her students as an inspiring, yet very tough, critic and to this day is viewed as one of the foremost influences of contemporary acting.