Stella! Mother of Modern Acting by Sheana Ochoa

2nd Jun 2014

Sheana Ochoa
Acclaimed actress Stella Adler went on to teach some of the most famous actors in American history, including Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. We take a look at the only biography documenting Adler's extraordinary life, both on stage and behind-the-scenes.

Sheana Ochoa is a journalist and playwright. Her first book, Stella! Mother of Modern Acting, is also the only biography of one of the foremost pioneers of twentieth-century American theatre.

Stella Adler was born in 1901. Her parents, Jacob Adler and his wife Sara, were both actors. Jacob, a Russian Jew, had come to America to escape the anti-Semitic pogroms that spread across Europe in the late 19th century. He became one of the greatest stars of the Yiddish theatre. Based in New York’s Lower East Side – the most over-populated tenement on earth – the Adlers were treated as royalty.

Yiddish theatre companies were presenting serious drama long before Broadway raised its game. Stella made her first stage appearance before her third birthday. Her childhood was chaotic, and she would always feel more at home in the theatre than outside of it.

By the 1920s, the Yiddish theatre’s influence was waning. Married with a young daughter, Stella realised she would have to branch into the mainstream to sustain her acting career. She was devastated by her father’s death in 1926. Shortly after, she met a brilliant young director and critic, Harold Clurman, who encouraged her to join the Group Theatre, a dynamic creative force during the Great Depression.

However, Stella grew disenchanted with her work. Lee Strasberg, the group’s director and teacher, required actors to look inside themselves to play any given role. In 1934, Stella travelled to Paris to study with Constantin Stanislavski, whose philosophy of acting had also inspired Strasberg.

Upon her return to New York, Stella adopted a more faithful interpretation of Stanislavski’s teachings. Her rift with Strasberg was permanent, and she would spend the rest of her life urging actors to work ‘from the outside in’, emphasising textual analysis and imagination rather than Strasberg’s psychological approach.

In this riveting, multi-layered biography, Sheana Ochoa reveals how Stella Adler’s influence has extended beyond the theatre, into the heart of creative life.While in Europe, Stella learned of the threat posed by a new tide of fascism, and was frustrated by the complacency of many Americans. She began teaching actors, and directing. In 1942, she married Clurman. The couple later moved to Hollywood, where Stella became involved in producing films.

But she could not stay away from the theatre, and later became a mentor to a young Marlon Brando. Deeply concerned with the resettlement of Jewish refugees after World War II, Stella’s covert work for Zionist groups – smuggling passports across Europe – brought her to the attention of the FBI. In 1953 she was blacklisted, which ended her movie career. When interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Stella narrowly avoided prison and refused to ‘name names.’

During the 1960s, a young Robert De Niro studied at Stella’s New York school for four years. Stella remarried in 1965, and was shattered by the death of her third husband, Mitchell A. Wilson, in 1973. She later opened a second school, and spent her final years in California. She died in 1992.

Strasberg’s ‘Method’ is perhaps better-known, but Ochoa argues that Stella Adler’s technique is more widely practised today. Unlike Strasberg, she scorned publicity. Her grandiose manner could be offputting, and she was said to favour male students. Retaining a critical distance while acknowledging Adler’s achievements, Ochoa concludes that Stella’s contrary nature both helped and hindered her cause.

Stella! Mother of Modern Acting is fully documented, intersecting the life and times of an extraordinary woman with some of the most famous names and dramatic events in modern American history. In this riveting, multi-layered biography, Sheana Ochoa reveals how Stella Adler’s influence has extended beyond the theatre, into the heart of creative life.