Stella Adler (1901-1992), actress, teacher, and founder of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, devised a unique style of acting that centered on an actor’s imagination. As the daughter of professional actors, Stella Adler made her own acting debut at the age of four, as a member of her parents’ Independent Yiddish Art Company.
Among Adler’s influences were Konstantin Stanislavski and Lee Strasberg. Adler was said to one of the few American actors who actually studied with Stanislavski. And while her acting method has similarities to these two renowned icons, she separates herself from the pack by adding the power of imagination to the concept of emotional recall.
Adler believed that focusing too much on recalling personal emotions was not a healthy way to approach the art of acting. She said, “Drawing on the emotions I experienced – for example, when my mother died – to create a role is sick and schizophrenic. If that is acting, I don’t want to do it.”
Stella Adler was a proponent for independent thinking among actors. She encouraged her students to enter the field of acting with a strong point of view and mission, and to use the theatre to express their ideals. Adler believed that students who approached acting in this fashion often pursued their training and their craft with a greater passion and commitment.
Imagination and Choice
Don’t use your conscious past. Use your creative imagination to create a past that belongs to your character. I don’t want you to be stuck with your own life. It’s too little. ~ Stella Adler
Adler believed that the most powerful and important tool that actors have at their disposal is their imaginations. She taught that the use of imagination was more effective than relying solely on personal experiences and emotional memory.
As part of her teachings, Adler, stressed the importance of making personal and imaginative choices when interpreting a script. Actors, she professed, needed to make choices based upon instincts and imagination to fully understand a writer’s intentions.
Henry Winkler, a student of Adler’s, played the iconic character “The Fonz” in the long-running sitcom Happy Days. As an often-told story goes, one of the decisions he made about is character was that The Fonz never combed his hair. When told that a scene required The Fonz to use his comb, Winkler said that he didn’t see it that way.
As you could imagine, Winkler’s interpretation of his character did not sit well with the producers. He was ordered to follow the directive and comb his hair in the scene. But instead of complying with their wishes, Winkler approached the mirror, took out his comb, decided that he could not improve upon perfection, and then withdrew his comb. This legendary action can be seen on the show’s opening credits.
Stella Adler believed that actors needed to build up a wealth of resources beyond their own knowledge and experiences, so they could more accurately and convincingly portray a wide array of characters. She felt that actors’ capabilities increase when they expand their knowledge base. At the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, students are encouraged to focus on learning cultural, social, political, and historical ideas to develop “resources of information” from which they can draw to enhance their overall value as an actor.
The long list of celebrities who have studied Adler’s acting style include Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Candice Bergen, Melanie Griffith, Warren Beatty, Teri Garr, and Harvey Keitel. To learn more about Stella Adler and her acting style, read her book, The Art of Acting with a preface by Marlon Brando.