Jun 17, 2014

Book Review--Stella! Mother of Modern Acting

Stella! Mother of Modern Acting
Sheana Ochoa
Applause Theater and Cinema, 2014

You should have to pay to go to church and the theater should be free.
-Stella Adler

I have to admit I wondered how interested I would be in the life story of actor, director and teacher Stella Adler. Though I know something of the theater, most of my knowledge in that area has to do with the movie stars who began acting on the stage. I was drawn to Sheana Ochoa's biography of this legendary woman mostly because I wanted to learn more about how film actors like Brando and Shelley Winters developed their talents under her guidance. I ended up being entranced by Adler herself: her quirks, adventures and all-encompassing love for the theater.

Adler lived as a star: possessive, imperious, demanding and magnetic. She was a challenging personality, but she made up for that with a ferocious dedication to acting, and helping others to develop their craft, that was astonishing. Stella was born into the theater; she lived it, nurturing it tirelessly and for a lifetime.

She was the fourth daughter of Jacob and Sara Adler, two legends of the Yiddish Theater in New York City. She also had two brothers and numerous half siblings from Jacobs other marriages and affairs. Her father was the king of this wildly popular form of entertainment. The Yiddish stage was warm and lively, a more socially-conscious alternative to the operettas and melodramas that dominated Broadway in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The form was highly influential. In the book, John Barrymore is quoted as saying, "I did what everyone else did to learn how to act. I went to the Lower East Side to watch the Yiddish theater."

Stella! explores Adler's journey from a childhood performing with her family on the stage to renown as an acting teacher. Along the way she developed her chops as a founding member of the Group Theater, was one of the few female stage directors of her time and even attempted to find international stardom via Hollywood. She was also a devoted activist for her fellow Jews, performing in benefit shows, smuggling fake passports in the lining of her fur coat to save Europeans attempting to escape World War II death camps and even running guns for a Jewish resistance group.

Adler led a life more exciting than a movie, but whatever else she did, she truly lived for the stage. When she felt that her colleague in the Group Theater Lee Strasburg was misinterpreting the works of Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski, she traveled to Paris in order to study with the master himself. Then, for the rest of her life, she struggled to communicate what she had learned, first with fellow performers and eventually in her famous acting workshops. It was a quest that kept her vibrant and healthy, always looking years younger than her true age.

Ochoa communicates Stella's driving passion for her craft with visceral flair. No matter how imperious she could be, how entitled, Adler's determination to lift the theater also humbled her. Her personal relationships would suffer, and particularly that with her daughter Ellen and long-suffering second husband and theater legend Harold Clurman. She would do as she pleased, pursuing her passions with little consideration for others, but on occasion, she could also be remarkabely selfless. Stella! explores all these facets of Adler's personality against a rich historical background of theater in the United States and, to a lesser degree, Russia.

While I still haven't got a particular interest in the stage I was fascinated by both Adler's story and that of the theater world that nourished her. I understood why so many were captivated by her, and the meaning behind that name that I'd often heard, but whose significance I didn't understand. While I did perk up a bit more when I came across a good tidbit about Marlon Brando or Adler's dinners with Hollywood stars like Joan Crawford, I really enjoyed the book as a whole. It should be heaven for theater lovers and an engrossing read for anyone else.

Thank you to the Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group for providing a copy of the book for review.

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