Thursday, August 26, 2004

Stella Adler and Method Acting

In recent obituaries and retrospectives for Marlon Brando, much is made of the fact that he was a “Method” actor. I do not know much about the subject, so I recently read the book STELLA ADLER: THE ART OF ACTING (ed. Howard Kissel). Adler was one of America’s foremost acting teachers—Brando was her student.

THE ART OF ACTING presents the grande dame in her own voice. Using audio tapes, transcripts and her personal notebooks, editor Howard Kissel brings Adler’s acting classes to life on the page. Adler was a fierce believer in the transformative powers of the theater, and she is at turns passionate, imperious, dynamic, and eviscerating with her students. You really had to have a tough skin if you were in her class. Adler says, “I’m very aware that this class is antagonistic to your time. It challenges the suppositions of your time. But you want to be a professional, and this is a 2,000 year-old profession.” Adler was a force of nature, which comes through clearly in the book.

Stella Adler was the daughter of a prominent stage family and took to acting at a very young age. She was later part of the prestigious GROUP THEATRE in Depression-era New York, performing works by such greats as Eugene O’Neill and Clifford Odets. It was during this time that she traveled to Paris and met Konstantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor that created the original “Method”. She was to be the only American acting instructor that studied with him.

There really is no easy way to describe the Method. The rise of the modern theater in the late 1800s, featuring works by such playwrights as Strindberg and Ibsen, brought new challenges to actors. Stanislavski was one of the first to recognize these new challenges, and he developed techniques to help actors discover the essence of the characters and play and to transmit this knowledge to the audience. For Adler, acting exercises using intelligence and imagination lead the actor to the mind of the character. This is in great contrast to another great American Method acting teacher Lee Strasberg, who believes the re-creation of experienced emotions was at the heart of the actor’s task. Put in the most simplest terms: for Adler, acting was doing something, for Strasberg, it was feeling something, and they both had their own techniques to reach those goals. Both Adler and Strasberg had fierce debates with one another over the interpretation of Stanislavski’s Method. Adler was always proud to point out that she was the only one to study with him.

In his afterward to THE ART OF ACTING, editor Howard Kissel likened the Method to ancient religious texts that have been disseminated and transformed by followers with varying interpretations. Adler herself says, “The Method is something you’ll find through me. I am one of the two million people who have been inspired by it. But my particular contribution will be to make you independent of the Method. You will then have the strength to refine it and go your own way.” THE ART OF ACTING is not a how-to book, it is truly a philosophy book, and one that stretches far beyond the realm of acting. I am not an actor, nor have any great aspirations to be one, yet I found this book to be quite inspirational. I think anyone trying to lead a creative-based life will gain by reading the ideas of this great woman of American theater.

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