The Definitive Guide to Stella Adler’s Acting Technique

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Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

Men have often dominated the history of American acting.  But one woman refused to sit quietly in the wings—instead pulling the American method in a bold new direction. This woman was Stella Adler, an artist and teacher who was determined to demystify acting and help actors create deliberate performances. Though Adler died in 1992, her self-named studios still operate in New York and Los Angeles. Here’s everything you need to know about Stella Adler’s technique.


Who was Stella Adler?

Stella Adler was an American actor and acting teacher. She was born in 1901 into one of the most famous acting families of New York’s Yiddish theater scene. She was on stage at an early age and grew to be a celebrated actor herself. Adler was also a fierce intellectual. Her professionalism, proficiency, and comprehensive knowledge of plays primed her to become one of the most influential acting teachers in American history. 

In the 1920s, actors who trained at Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre arrived stateside to perform and lead classes. For intellectually curious actors like Adler, the arrival of Stanislavsky’s System was a bolt of lightning. Adler began studying with Stanislavsky’s students Maria Ouspenskaya and Richard Boleslavsky at their American Laboratory Theatre in New York. Through this class, Adler was invited to join the Group Theatre, co-founded by Lee Strasberg, who would later become her greatest rival. 

The Group distinguished itself as a revolutionary ensemble. But Adler was frustrated with Strasberg’s interpretation of the System. Strasberg had never met Stanislavsky. But he insisted that his interpretation—which emphasized “affective memory”—was correct.  Adler felt that affective memory was torturous and warped younger actors in the Group. So she traveled to Paris to ask Stanislavsky himself—and prove Strasberg wrong.

In Paris, Stanislavsky clarified his teachings and shared how his thinking had evolved. Stanislavsky constantly refined his techniques, so his former students who taught in America were working with an outdated version of the System. The primary difference was affective memory; Stanislavsky had moved away from it altogether. The father of the System vindicated Adler’s interpretation of his techniques.

Adler became the only American acting guru who actually studied with the creator of the System and had his blessings. So Adler returned to the United States and began teaching her Stanislavsky-approved theories. 

What is the Stella Adler technique?

Adler’s technique is founded on an actor’s ability to imagine a character’s world. Adler believed that over-reliance on personal, emotional memories limited an actor’s range. Her technique encourages actors to expand their understanding of the world, in order to create compelling performances. Adler taught her actors to deliberately observe the textures, aesthetics, and sounds of everyday life, enabling them to conjure detailed and realistic mental images on stage. When those mental images are nuanced—and the actor can authentically express this imagery to the audience—the actor delivers a truthful performance.

In addition to imagination, the Adler technique also relies on: 

  • Discipline: Because Adler grew up in a family of professional actors, she believed acting was a lifestyle. This belief manifested itself in an undying insistence on discipline. To Adler, discipline required actors to maintain their health, stand by their commitments, and strengthen any weak points—from a quiet voice to a bad back—that could limit their performance. 
  • Text analysis: Adler taught her actors to analyze the text for key elements that dictate the character’s nature. Adler also emphasized learning history and prized an actor’s ability to understand many time periods, languages, fashions, and geographic locations. 
  • Action: According to Adler, an “action” is something one character does to another character to elicit a specific desired response. First, the actor must identify ways to convey the play’s circumstances by completing an action. Second, the actor’s actions must honestly reflect what the actor has observed from life.


Which famous actors trained with Adler?

Marlon Brando is probably the most iconic Stella Adler student. She taught into the 1980s, so plenty of recognizable faces crossed her stage. You can even find videos of Adler shouting critiques at actors like Mark Ruffalo at the beginning of their careers. 

Others famous actors who studied with Adler or at her studio include: 

  • Robert De Niro
  • Benicio Del Toro
  • Phyllis Diller
  • Christopher Guest
  • Salma Hayek
  • Harvey Keitel
  • Kate Mulgrew
  • Diana Ross

Where can actors study Adler’s techniques today?

These days, actors can study Adler’s method at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. The studio has two locations: one in New York (which partners with NYU’s Tisch School for a BFA-granting program) and one in Los Angeles. The studio also offers online classes. 

If you want to take a deep dive into Adler’s techniques—especially her style of script analysis—try reading Stella Adler’s books: 

What are the pros and cons of Adler’s method?

One benefit of Adler’s training is that actors develop the ability to be both imaginative and disciplined in their work. Actors who commit to the Adler technique find it easier to immerse themselves in the invented world of their performances. They also tend to be well-equipped to tackle characters that are very different from themselves. Because of the focus on craft, Adler’s techniques are also less emotionally depleting than systems that rely on emotional memory. 

Adler’s technique also has its challenges. Mastering her methods requires commitment to noticing the world around you, maintaining your health, and analyzing scripts. Actors who don’t commit the time will not see results. And while Adler’s system is less emotionally taxing than affective memory-based techniques, all the script analysis and research can make it more mentally draining. 

How can I expect my acting to evolve using Adler’s techniques?

Many Adler students find that the training expands their ability to connect with a wide range of characters. This is in line with the Stella Adler Studio’s core belief that “growth as an actor and as a human being is synonymous.” The focus on professionalism and discipline also gives many Adler students a feeling of constant readiness to tackle new roles. 

Most Adler trained actors notice an increased ability to deconstruct a text and find connections that inspire creative choices. As actors gain experience, they also develop a sense of independence in their work, creating compelling roles with little outside guidance.

How does Adler compare to other famous acting teachers?

Adler’s technique is frequently compared to Lee Strasberg’s Method. This makes sense since Adler and Strasberg were former colleagues who developed their acting theories simultaneously. They were also both inspired by Stanislavsky's System. Strasberg and Adler’s most significant difference is that Strasberg relies on an actor’s personal memories to build a performance, while Adler relies on imagined circumstances. As teachers, they were both willful and passionate coaches, alternately cajoling or scolding their students to reach new heights. 

Adler’s technique is an internalized acting style, similar to Stanislavsky’s system, Strasberg’s Method, and Meisner technique. Adler always left the door open for her students to grow by training in other acting styles; she believed that her technique complemented any other acting training type. 

To extend your range beyond Adler, it is helpful to supplement it with acting techniques that focus on external movement and improvisation. Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s Viewpoints method, Suzuki technique, Grotowski method, and Boal technique are all excellent choices.

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