The Definitive Guide to Stella Adler’s Acting Technique

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Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

When you think of Method acting—or the Method—you might get flooded with conflicting emotions and contradictory opinions. While the Method is undeniably the de facto American style, it is also surrounded by controversy and mystique. Several high-profile actors, from Marlon Brando to Daniel Day-Lewis, Marilyn Monroe to Angelina Jolie, have donned the acting style like a runway fashion. The Method is often associated with acting teacher Lee Strasberg—who was known for his aloofness, temper tantrums, and emphasis on actors using a controversial tool, emotional recall, in scene work. Strasberg’s Method was a response to Konstantin Stanislavsky’s method called the System—which was developed at the Moscow Art Theatre in the early 1900s.

Thus, the mythos around internal acting techniques—where actors apply in-depth psychological and mental interpretation of characters and their circumstances—has often been dominated by dudes.

However, early on, there was one woman who wasn’t having it, and she grabbed the American Method by the tusks. This woman was Stella Adler, an artist and teacher with such an intense life force that her legacy of training not only lives on today but thrives in esteem and celebration. Though Adler died in 1992, her self-named studios are alive and well in New York and Los Angeles—and getting accepted into them is considered a feather in a young actor’s cap. Below, we’ll answer some questions about the queen of the American acting technique and why her fierce rebelliousness was so critical to how actors train as artists today.

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Who was Stella Adler anyway, and why is she such a big deal?

Stella Adler was born into one of the most popular acting families of New York’s Yiddish theater scene. She was onstage at an early age and what talent she didn’t genetically inherit, she learned and earned through experience. For the Adler family, the lights and applause of the stage were as familiar to their daily lives as reading the paper or grabbing a cup of coffee. Stella Adler demonstrated some distinctive early traits that would ultimately light her path into the DNA of American acting. She was not only considered a legitimately skilled actor—earning her cachet—but she was also a fierce intellectual. It was this combination of professionalism and proficiency, coupled with her sharp intellectual prowess, that primed Adler for being one of the great—and most respected—gurus.

In the 1920s, actors who trained with Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre arrived stateside to tour Russian productions and lead classes for eager American actors. The status quo for acting in the States was rooted in big, broad gestures and elastic expressions. So, when Stanislavsky’s actors arrived and demonstrated a more fragile, intricate, and naturalistic style of acting, Americans were as gobsmacked as they were desperate to learn.

For intellectually curious actors in New York like Adler, the arrival of the System was a bolt of lightning—Americans had been struggling with what it meant to be an actor. The System plopped an entire technique into the laps of artists who were thirsty for a language to describe an actor’s work. And—most importantly—the technique made sense in theory and in practice!

Adler began studying with Russian actors Maria Ouspenskaya and Richard Boleslavsky at their American Laboratory Theatre in New York. Adler’s family made fun of her for doing the training, but the Russian model of intellectualized theater fed Adler’s academically inclined brain. Because of her experience growing up on the stage, Adler was the most advanced student in the school and was invited to join the Group Theatre, which was co-founded by Lee Strasberg, the founding artistic director of the Actors Studio.

The Group—and its Stanislavsky-inspired acting style—distinguished it as a revolutionary ensemble, and to this day, its work is considered historic. However, Adler was discontented and frustrated with the direction and teachings of Strasberg. Strasberg, who had never met Stanislavsky, insisted on the correctness of his interpretation of the System, which emphasized “affective memory” (or emotional recall). Adler felt that the practice of delving into lived memories and experiences to display truthfulness onstage was not only unnecessary but torturous. And because Adler was one of the most experienced actors in the ensemble, she believed the emphasis on re-creating the stimulus of lived memories onstage was manipulating younger and more naive actors in the Group. So, what did Adler do? She went across the ocean to interrogate Stanislavsky himself—and prove Strasberg wrong.

At the time, Stanislavsky was in Paris, and Adler approached him pronouncing that she loved the theater until he came along—now, she hated it. This blunt testimonial intrigued the ever-curious Stanislavsky, and he invited her to train with him. In Paris, Stanislavsky not only clarified his teachings but shared with Adler his evolution of thinking. Stanislavsky was always refining his techniques, and by the time his students from the Moscow Art Theatre were teaching in America and his books were translated into English, an outdated version of the System had already taken root stateside. The primary source of outdatedness? Affective memory, or emotional recall—Stanislavsky had moved away from it altogether! The father of the System vindicated Adler.

Despite the clarification, the crux of the System remained the same: Actors should behave realistically in unrealistic circumstances by emphasizing the character’s circumstances and finding actions within those circumstances to complete seriously onstage. But where would the motivation for these circumstances arrive if not from the actor’s own life? Adler insisted on the imagination—and Stanislavsky agreed! An actor is an artist, after all, and an artist’s greatest tool is the ability to imagine. So, Adler returned to the States and began professing her Stanislavsky-approved theories. Thus, Adler became the only American acting guru who actually studied with the creator of the System—and had his blessings.
American actors clamored to study with Adler upon her return to New York. For the years remaining, often sitting in a throne-like chair, Adler zapped students with challenging instructions, blunt observations, and sermons on the dignity of acting as a lifestyle, and actors loved it.

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What are the key elements of Adler’s technique?

Because Adler grew up in a family of professional actors, she believed acting was, well, a lifestyle. This belief manifested itself in an undying insistence on discipline—and this is perhaps the essential element of Adler’s technique (even over the use of imagination). Adler taught that the imagination could only be cultivated if an actor is consistently examining the nuances of life. When an actor deliberately notices the textures, aesthetics, and sounds of everyday life, the power of the imagination expands and the actor’s toolbox grows.

Once the actor’s imagination is pulsating with inspiration, they can conjure detailed and realistic mental images from which to draw truthful inspiration onstage. When those images are nuanced and textured, and when the actor can authentically express the details of their mental imagery to the audience, the actor delivers a quality of truthfulness.

Perhaps the third most crucial element of Adler’s technique to highlight is the focus on identifying, articulating, and expressing a character’s circumstances. Adler taught her actors to interpret the text for key elements that dictate the character’s nature—be it social, economic, religious, geographic; the list can go on and on. From there, the actor must do two things: First, the actor must identify ways to convey these circumstances through the completion of an action (something the character does to another character to elicit a specific desired response). Second, the actor must cross-reference the circumstances of the character with what the actor has observed in life about how those circumstances manifest in society.

How do I know if Adler’s technique is right for me?

Adler’s technique has often served as a sanctuary for those who feel discontented by more psychologically manipulative methods. Marlon Brando was one of these actors. Outraged by Strasberg’s teachings, Brando credited his craft to Adler. Her technique does demand strict discipline and a well-fed imagination. It is not for those who want shortcuts or easy fixes—it requires deliberate and habitualized visualization and observation. Her teachings are complex—as, she believes, art should be. Because her exercises are complicated, Adler insisted that an actor pay close attention to their mental health. The work of her technique is mentally exhausting; her students should feel confident in their ability to cope, process, and seek support to sustain mental healthiness for the rigor of acting.

How does Adler’s technique compare to other well-known acting techniques?

Many American techniques are responses to Stanislavsky’s system. While Strasberg emphasized emotional recall, Sanford Meisner theorized that truthfulness could be found by digging into unconscious instincts through repetition exercises. Uta Hagen underlined the concept of substituting circumstances with compatible items from the actor’s life while Michael Chekhov insisted that actors learn gestures that have psychological meaning or universality. What all of these techniques have in common is that they stress the circumstances of a scene and mandate that actors identify and play actions that relate to the circumstances. It’s the path an actor utilizes to find the stakes of the circumstance or their action on which the theories differ.

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Where can I learn Adler’s technique?

There are two campuses of the Stella Adler Studio. One in New York (which is partnered with NYU’s Tisch for a BFA-granting program) and one in Los Angeles, the latter of which is named after her book: the Art of Acting Studio. Unless you’re also enrolled in NYU’s program, the studios grant certificates, not accredited degrees (like most acting conservatory studios). A good way to be introduced to Adler’s teachings is by reading a collection of her lectures edited by Howard Kissel, “The Art of Acting.”

Are there any pitfalls I should worry about with Adler training?

Adler-trained actors are defined by their ability to be imaginative while letting discipline drive their work. The vividness of the imagination is only put to practical use through professional, hardworking control. Be careful to always balance out your focus on the imagination with an overactive and dedicated sense of craft. For Adler, who grew up with a family of theater professionals, discipline was not only necessary for logistical functions, but it also defined the value of the art—which is stewarded by the actor.

Is Adler training better for film, television, or theater actors?

Though most major techniques, including Adler’s, were developed with the stage actor in mind, internal (Stanislavsky-inspired) techniques benefit from the intimacy of a camera’s gaze. When an audience’s eye is controlled, and a camera zooms in on an actor’s expressions, one can more vividly see the mental image work within the actor’s imagination. Adler-trained actors have a reputation for being disciplined artists—whether it’s in a rehearsal hall or on a soundstage. Because of the strict emphasis on craft, watching an Adler-trained actor on set or in rehearsal is like watching a carpenter building a piece of furniture; the actors have a clear sense of their tools, the process, and the steady (and humble) elbow grease necessary. Adler (and her disciples) created a class of working actors who have been sufficiently humbled in an industry that often fosters egotism.

How long does it take to learn Adler’s technique?

The lecture progression memorialized in “The Art of Acting” is made up of 22 sessions. The conservatory at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting lasts three years—the same amount of time as a traditional MFA program. These spans of time are merely designed to initiate an actor into a way of observing, listening, and working throughout life. In this sense, Adler’s technique—like most Stanislavsky-inspired teachings—is a lifelong practice that must be maintained with workshops, reflection, discipline, and artistic work.

How can I expect my acting to evolve?

A voracious and critical reader, Adler valued the sacredness of text and story. You will notice that your deconstruction of circumstances within a text will lend itself to a deep imaginative exploration and appreciation of the written word and the world it creates. From there, your imaginative interpretations will not only feed you with artistic liberty, but will also give you autonomy in the interpretation process of bringing a character to life.

What acting methods complement Adler’s technique?

Adler insisted that her technique and the Stanislavsky System are to be considered a foundational base for actors from which they can operate and grow in any direction. In this sense, Adler argued that when an actor properly and fully utilizes their craft, they will discover the appropriate style that a performance demands. In this sense, no matter what other techniques an actor trains in, Adler’s adaptation of the System will always be complementing the gig. Generally, though, it is vital for actors to balance out Americanized internal acting with more external acting techniques—like Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s Viewpoints method, or Tadashi Suzuki’s self-named technique.

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Who are some actors who studied with Stella Adler?

Marlon Brando
Robert De Niro
Phyllis Diller
Rhonda Fleming
Kipp Hamilton
Harvey Keitel
Jenny Lumet
Kate Mulgrew
Elaine Stritch

Who are some famous actors who use Adler’s technique?

Benicio Del Toro
Christopher Guest
Salma Hayek
Brion James
Judd Nelson
Anthony Quinn
Mark Ruffalo
Martin Sheen
Leslie Uggams

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