STELLA ADLER was one of America’s most memorable theatre teachers. Her dynamic presence and strong ideals drew students from coast to coast, including many celebrities such as Marlon Brando, Elaine Stritch, and Robert De Niro.

Today, her legacy lives on through the theatre artists who use the technique she developed, drawing on the philosophies of Konstantin Stanislavski and the Group Theatre, a groundbreaking New York City ensemble founded in the 1930s.


Stella Adler in the 1941 film Shadow of the Thin Man.

Stella Adler in the 1941 film Shadow of the Thin Man.

Stella Adler was born in 1901 in New York City to a family of Yiddish actors. By age 4, she was appearing onstage with her parents, and her talent soon launched a career that took her from vaudeville to London to Broadway.

In 1925, Adler studied at the American Laboratory Theatre with two former members of Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre. There, she encountered Stanislavski’s system for acting, which encouraged actors to focus on their characters’ inner lives rather than outer expressions. Stanislavski had transformed Russian theatre. In the U.S., he also was inspiring a new, realistic style of acting to replace what had previously been broader and more melodramatic in tone. Stanislavski’s system greatly influenced Adler and other prominent theatre-makers of the time.

When Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg founded the Group Theatre in New York in 1931, they invited Adler to join. These innovators recruited a permanent ensemble of actors to create realistic, socially conscious theatre. However, the group’s members did not always see eye to eye.

Strasberg leaned heavily on Stanislavski’s idea of emotional recall, or the use of an actor’s personal memories to generate emotion onstage. Adler was wary of this approach and felt it limited actors to their small realms of experience. She traveled to Paris, where Stanislavski was teaching, to ask him whether emotional recall was necessary to create honest performances.

Adler studied with Stanislavski for five weeks and found that his teachings on emotional recall had evolved. No longer did he instruct young actors to look within themselves for insight on their characters. Rather, he urged them to use their imaginations and adapt their actions to their characters’ given circumstances.

These beliefs informed the rest of Adler’s long career as a teacher and performer. She taught at the Yale School of Drama, New York University, and The New School, as well as with her conservatory, known today as the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.

Stella Adler in a publicity image for the film The Shadow of the Thin Man.
Stella Adler in a publicity image for the film Shadow of the Thin Man.


While many notable American acting teachers, including Adler, were influenced by Stanislavski, their interpretations differed. These beliefs are at the core of Adler’s method.

Analyzing the script
One element of Adler’s teaching is its emphasis on script analysis and its respect for the playwright. Adler gave young actors more responsibility by asking them to understand the play themselves rather than relying on a director to interpret it. Actors must examine the script closely to determine a character’s personality and life circumstances. Then, actors align their actions with the character’s circumstances, rather than warping the character to fit their own experiences.

However, the script does not contain everything an actor needs to craft a truthful performance. According to Tom Oppenheim, artistic director of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting and Adler’s grandson, actors must conduct dramaturgical research to fill their imaginations with helpful specifics.

“You read very deeply, but you also read imaginatively,” he said. “If your play is set in St. Louis in 1930, you do research so that you are able to put flesh on the bones of the text, so to speak. You’d be encouraged to study history and understand the circumstances of the place and the period.”

Ron Burrus, a master teacher at the Art of Acting Studio in Los Angeles, encourages his students to think in terms of cause and effect as they analyze a script. The character’s dialogue is the effect, and it’s up to actors to determine the cause.

“Language measures the experience of something. That’s what words do,” he said. “We read the writer’s words, and we ask, ‘What is my character going through that would produce that experience?’”

Cultivating imagination
At the beginning of every class Burrus teaches, he asks students, “What did you learn today that’s new?”

Some students wonder how they could possibly learn something new every day, he says. But constant observation and curiosity are essential to developing an actor’s imagination.

Think of the imagination like an engine. As actors thoughtfully notice the world around them, observations provide their imaginations with fuel. The next time they need to bring a character to life, they have a wealth of details to inspire them.

Though actors draw from personal experiences under Adler’s technique, this is different from Stanislavski’s emotional recall. Instead of using personal memories to recreate emotion onstage, actors use real observations to fuel their imagination and create three-dimensional characters.

“You have nothing but your personal past,” Burrus said. “It all depends on how you use it. You can use it directly and lay it on the writer’s play. Or, you can take your inner life of imagery and create places and events that stimulate you as an actor.”

Elevating characters
While Adler famously told her students, “Don’t be boring,” this maxim goes much deeper than finding a memorable character voice or unique action.

“I think for Stella, theatre was a door that was opening to the divine,” Oppenheim said. “‘Don’t be boring’ was in service to delivering humanity the big ideas and bitter truths we need.”

In other words, “Don’t be boring” was about more than entertaining audiences. It referenced the need to think seriously about human nature and communicate important ideas. For Oppenheim, actors do this by letting their characters reflect something larger than life.

“The conviction was that you have to reach up to literature,” he said. “Plays are like poems — the characters are poetic creations, and we must reach up to them the way someone in the clergy would reach up to a saint. The reason people loved Marlon [Brando] is that he uplifted the characters he played. You’ll look closely and see an elevated person, an element of the divine.”


How can you use Adler’s ideas to become a better theatre-maker now? Here is advice from two experts.

Study theatre 
Oppenheim encourages young actors to treat theatre as they would a musical instrument or sport by practicing consistently. Comparing it to his effort to learn guitar, he said, “I noticed in practicing, it hurts the tips of your fingers a lot. That reminds me that learning anything takes enormous effort. One has to court discomfort and accept it, then grow.”

Exercise your imagination 
Creating imagery (or pictures in your mind) is an essential tool for an actor, and reading is a good way to practice.

“Read a book that takes place in another time in another country,” Burrus suggested. “But don’t go see a movie. That’s someone else’s selection of pictures. Read a book and make your own pictures as you read.”

Do work that matters
Most actors will never be famous, so make sure you value the work more than the results. Adler urged her students to create theatre that showcased their unique perspectives.

“Don’t wait around to be discovered,” Oppenheim advised. “Get busy working. Create projects, cultivate the intention of making art, and opportunities will come your way.”


Stella Adler Studio of Acting
The Technique of Acting, by Stella Adler
PBS American Masters series, Stella Adler: Awake and Dream!

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