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 Acting Technique: The Origin Story 

Stella Adler was born in 1901 in New York City to a family of Jewish 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.

Adler enjoyed a 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.


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.

Cultivating imagination

Ron Burrus is a master teacher at the Art of Acting Studio in Los Angeles. 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.

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. 


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.” 

Additional Resources 
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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