Born Feb. 10, 1901, Stella Adler made her theatrical debut at 4 with the Independent Yiddish Arts Company, an ethnic troupe run by her parents in New York. In addition to her parents, all five of her siblings were actors. By 18 she was appearing in London's West End and it was in England that she met her first husband, Horace Eliashcheff. The marriage did not last long.
She moved back to New York after a year abroad, and at 22 made her Broadway debut in Karel Capek's The World We Live In. Adler spent the next years travelling North and South America performing vaudeville. Then she attended a performance by Constantin Stanislavski and his Moscow Art Theatre in 1922. His U.S. tour was a transformative moment for American theatre in general and would have a large impact on Adler's life in particular. In 1925 she joined the American Laboratory School, where former Moscow Arts actors Richard Boleslavski and Maria Ouspenskaya imparted what they'd learned of the Stanislavski method.
In 1931 Adler became one of the founding members of The Group Theater, along with Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg. It would go on to become arguably the most influential ensemble in the 20th century, its influence extending beyond theatre and into cinema.
Three years into her tenure with The Group, Adler left with her then husband Clurman for an intensive 5-week study with Stanislavski himself, becoming the only American to undergo direct tutelage by the Russian master. Those five weeks would dramatically change her life, just as her first encounter with Stanislavski had done 12 years earlier.
The Stanislavski System, as it was then known, was an acting technique that grew largely out of Russia's social realism movement. Stanislavski wished to eradicate melodrama, diva-tude and the unnatural performances that largely plagued theatre in his day. Whereas the rehearsal process had typically been a slipshod, disorganized affair, Stanislavski imposed order onto it, forcing his actors to be disciplined and analytical, learning not just lines and accompanying stage movements, but coming to understand their character's psyche through exercises, close reading of the text, extensive research and calling on their own emotional memories.
This last aspect proved to be the most controversial, and would result in Adler splitting from The Group Theatre upon her return to America as she believed Lee Strasberg, in developing what would soon become known as "Method" acting, was overemphazing emotional memory in ways that distorted Stanislavski's original teachings and goals. "Drawing on the emotions I experienced, for example, when my mother died to create a role, is sick and schizophrenic," she once said. "If that is acting, I don't want to do it." There were other reasons for the split – she believed The Group didn't produce enough works with strong female characters, and she was reluctant to get involved in the left-wing politics many of The Group espoused (many of the theater's members would later be called to testify before HUAC as suspected Communists).
Adler had another motive for leaving, and it would be the same force that later proved to be the downfall of The Group Theatre – Hollywood.
In 1937 she moved to California with hopes of becoming the next star of the silver screen, even going so far as to get a nosejob (not so common in the 1930s) in hopes of enhancing her screen presence. The move was largely unsuccessful. Though she landed a 6-year gig as an associate producer at MGM, her acting work (under the name Stella Ardler) was limited to a few appearances in films like Shadow of the Thin Man and My Girl Tisa.
She returned to New York and in 1949 founded the Stella Adler Theatre Studio (a name that would undergo changes through the years and is now the Stella Adler Studio of Acting). It wasn't long until the school lured its most famous student, a young actor named Marlon Brando. In a foreword to Adler's 1988 book The Technique of Acting, Brando wrote:
"Stella Adler was much more than a teacher of acting. Through her work she imparts the most valuable kind of information – how to discover the nature of our own emotional mechanics and therefore those of others. She never lent herself to vulgar exploitations, as some other well-known so-called 'methods' of acting have done. As a result, her contributions to the theatrical culture have remained largely unknown, unrecognized, and unappreciated."
In addition to occasionally acting and directing on Broadway, Adler taught at the Yale School of Drama and led NYU's undergraduate drama department. But it was her own school that had the largest impact. Along with Brando, Judy Garland and Dolores Del Rio were notable among her early students. Later students included Robert De Niro, Martin Sheen, Harvey Keitel, Candice Bergen and a host of others who went on to successful Hollywood careers. In 1985 Adler would open a second school in Los Angeles, where she tutored Nick Nolte, John Ritter, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek and Mark Ruffalo.
A colorful, regal figure who would often arrive to classes in a mink coat and with a retinue of assistants, Adler continued teaching well into her 80s. She died of heart failure Dec. 21, 1992, after a long, interesting life. She was 91.
"You can't be boring," she told her students. "Life is boring. The weather is boring. Actors must not be boring."