Transforming a Play's Lies Into Fact With Stella Adler's Help

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There is a reason we don't just hand out a script to the audience, let them read it, and then all go home. The opening lines of "Death of a Salesman" are "Oh, boy. Oh, boy." On the page it means nothing. In the hands of the right actor, however, an entire character can exist in those two sentences.

Achieving the size of a play's theme can only come after an exploration that gives the actor a key to the understanding of a character's relationship to the world created by the playwright. What emerges is the experience of the facts of the play.

As Stella Adler said, "Facts are death to the actor until they are fed through imagination and become experience."

In script analysis, Stella called the initial reading of the text "impressions." You are not worrying about the performance. You are not even worrying about the choices. You are taking in what's there. It might be the plot; it might be the characters; it might be the social moment in history; it might be the theme. It could be any of the countless number of facts of the play.

These "facts" are meant to get you thinking. Like switching on a light in a darkened room, it is the process where you discover what you have to work with. The room is filled with possibilities. All of these possibilities are there to feed into your understanding of the play.

Stella gave us another key: "Every play is a fiction. It's the actor's job to de-fictionalize the fiction." Or to appropriate the title of one of Harold Clurman's books: "lies that look like the truth." The fact is a lie until the actor gets hold of it.

The process of getting from the facts of the play to the experience of the play is what the actor's technique is about. As with any lie, every time you go back to it, you see more clearly, you understand it better, there's more detail. You begin to believe it more, and you connect to it more thoroughly. The experience of the lie is in you.

Working out loud rather than writing your choices down -- or merely thinking about them -- begins to open up the actor's instrument to the experience of every choice and line of text. There's an almost physiological response when the actor is totally connected, when the understanding penetrates not only the mind but the bones and muscles and skin. It also helps in achieving that joyful moment of "I've got it."

The actor's connection to the part and the character's world is what brings a play to life. And the more gifted the actor, the more in-depth the choices are in making this fiction real. Another Adlerism: "Facility is fine, but greatness must be paid for in blood."

Milton Justice, an Academy Award-winning producer, currently teaches at the Stella Adler Academy in Los Angeles. He was personally mentored by Stella Adler and has taught in New York, London, New Zealand, Australia, and South Korea.