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Theatre Topics 12.2 (2002) 191-202

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An Interview with Stella Adler

Joanna Rotté

On a May afternoon in 1974, at her fifth floor address on Fifth Avenue with a frontal view of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Stella Adler granted me an interview. We were seated in her dining room at a cozy side table draped in linen where a maid served us tea. I had recently completed the two-year course of actor training at the Adler Conservatory and was struggling to sort out the techniques I had been given, with a mind toward writing about Stella's teachings. I was certain she understood the art and craft of acting better than anyone, and I wanted to know the path she had taken to wisdom. Eventually, as supporting material for my book, Acting with Adler, I compiled a history of Stella Adler's career, an abbreviated version of which I am pleased to offer here as context for the interview to follow.

Born in 1901 the youngest daughter of Jacob and Sarah Adler, Stella achieved eminence in the Adler family of theatre professionals, who, in the eyes of Harold Clurman, Stella's second husband, "loved the theatre passionately, down to its minutest details, and were 'idealistic' about it withal"(Clurman 110). Father Jacob, an actor in the heroic style and the undisputed monarch of the Yiddish stage, aroused his children to pursue artistic ideals and shun celebrity. Mother Sarah, illustrious in the style of romantic realism, was of hearty constitution and energy. When Jacob temporarily left her to take a servant as his mistress, she formed her own company, chose and directed the plays, designed and sewed her own costumes, polished and arranged the fruit sold during intermissions, and acted the main female parts. Stella considered her the greatest woman she had ever known. In analyzing Madam Ranevskaya in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, Stella evoked her mother who, she said, when there wasn't any money left during the Depression, went out and bought a carpet at Wanamaker's. Stella inherited the noble mien of her father (she was considered the beauty of the family), and the spirit of her mother (she was said to be the most deeply feeling of the Adler children), a spirit that could be called poetic and proto-feminist. My favorite Sarah Adler story, told by Harold Clurman in All People are Famous, entails an interview in which she stated her age as 68, which the reporter questioned: "But Madame Adler, how can that be? I just asked your son Jack his age and he told me 60. To which Sarah replied, 'Well he has his life and I have mine.'" (112-13).

In 1924 Stella joined the American Laboratory Theatre, an offshoot of the Moscow Art Studio Theatre. The Lab experience introduced her to the early ideas of Stanislavsky and distinguished her in the Adler clan, all of whom had learned their craft entirely in the theatre. With the exception of Jacob, they [End Page 191] made fun of Stella, since she had been on stage since the age of two, for going to acting school. The end of the 1920s found Stella contracted to Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theatre, in her estimation a "theatre of love" that provided her the two most enjoyable seasons of her years on stage. In an interview I conducted with Stella's niece Lulla Rosenfeld, a writer and the Adler family historian, she recalled Stella playing Nerissa to Frances Adler's Portia in The Merchant of Venice "as if they were two flowers laughing," as well as Stella performing in a Sholem Alelchem piece "as if she were a kind of Lillian Gish perfume."

When the Group Theatre was founded in 1931 under the leadership of Harold Clurman, Stella was prominent in the company. Most of the Group actors were acquainted with the rudiments of the Stanislavsky System, especially emotion-memory exercises, which they practiced under the supervision of Group co-founder Lee Strasberg. But it was not until 1934, when Stella entered into five weeks...