Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Stella! Mother of Modern Acting by Sheana Ochoa

Stella! Mother of Modern Acting
by Sheana Ochoa
Applause Theatre and Cinema Book Publishers (an imprint of Hal Leonard)
ISBN 9781480355538
Hardcover - 354 pages
April 2014

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"…a vibrant woman, full of idealistic dreams and a relentless gluttony for life's offerings." - Ochoa

Stella! Mother of Modern Acting by Sheana Ochoa is an in-depth biography about the life and career of one of the greatest acting teachers of the 20th Century, Stella Adler. Adler was a renown actress of American theater, an actor's director, an important influence on many acting legends and even dabbled in film acting and producing.

Author Sheana Ochoa was surprised that such an influential figure in the world of theater and acting was not very well-known today. Adler's name is not as recognizable as Lee Strasberg or Constantin Stansilavski. This book seeks to change that.

The book starts with the life story of Stella's father Jacob Adler. He was a renowned Jewish actor of Yiddish and American Theater in New York City who had connections to many in the business including Alla Nazimova and Isadora Duncan. Jacob Adler's influence on his daughter was both good and bad and he became a central figure in her life even long after his death.

Life in theater is vastly different from the one of movies so it's very interesting to delve into this parallel world. Stella Adler grew up in the world of theater and it became the great passion that never dwindled. The author notes that "by age eight Stella was a seasoned professional." When she wasn't acting, she was directing and working with other actors.

"… Stella felt she did not belong in the world outside the theater. She would feel this way for most of her life." - Ochoa

Adler began teaching acting in 1934 after her trip and training with Stanislavski in Russia. Adler was involved with The Group Theater, known for it's socialist ideology and for key figures including Elia Kazan. This lead to her being put on trial by the HUAC. She was blacklisted prior to being on trial and she decided not to testify against her friends. After that she focused on teaching. The book goes into detail of acting technique and Adler's methodologies. It also explores her Jewish heritage and what it was like for her to be Jewish in WWII.

"Having transitioned from the Yiddish stage to Broadway, from Strasberg to Stanislavski, Stella displayed a forward-thinking approach toward the evolution of acting."- Ochoa

While not strictly a classic film book, fans of old Hollywood will find many familiar names including Shelley Winters, James Coburn, Franchot Tone,  Arthur Miller, Luise Rainer, Sylvia Sydney, Gregory Peck, Karl Malden, Ralph Bellamy, Marlon Brando, Harpo Marx, Charlie Chaplin, John Gieguld and more. Stella Adler had a short-lived film career which included Love on Toast (1937), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) and My Girl Tisa (1948). She also helped produce the films Madame Curie (1943) DuBarry Was a Lady (1943) and For Me and My Gal (1942).


Ochoa also delves into the personal life of Stella Adler and her relationships with husbands Harold Clurman and Mitchell Wilson, the loves of her life, as well as her tenuous relationship with her only child Ellen Adler. She struggled with depression and illness, including tuberculosis). Adler often struggled with money and always had a strong desire to have the appearance of glamor even when finances were tight.

"Stella knew exactly what she was doing; she understood the transformative potential of art and its capacity to edify humanity." - Ochoa

Adler's influence on the acting community was profound. To understand Stella Adler is to understand this and it is something the author does very effectively. I love this quote from Marlon Brando, one of Adler's students. And before you rush to judgement about "method acting", make sure you take note of the various explanations of how the methodologies of acting diverged greatly between Strasberg and Adler and Stanislavski.

"It is troubling to me that because she has not lent herself to vulgar exploitations, as some other well-known so-called 'methods' of acting have done, her contributions to the theatrical culture have remained largely unknown, unrecognized, and unappreciated." - Marlon Brando (foreword to Stella Adler's book)

This is the key to why Stella Adler is not as well-known today. She was never all that good at self-publicity. It was something she was turned off by but ended up being that missing ingredient that would have led to future immortality. This is a theme throughout the book and a point the author does very well to drive home.

This is the definitive biography of this complicated and talented woman. The book is seamless, natural in flow and very rich with information. Because there is so much information to absorb, I relished the short chapters (often 5-12 pages in length) as bite sized morsels that made the whole dish a lot more enjoyable. Each of these chapters starts with a great quote about Stella Adler from an important figure in the business.There are two sections of black and white photographs on glossy paper. These photos could have easily been dispersed throughout the book instead of relegated to their own sections. There is also a very lovely foreword written by one of Stella Adler's students, actor Mark Ruffalo.

I knew nothing about Stella Adler and next to nothing about theater and theater life. I'm very glad I read this book because it gave me a broader understanding of acting and actors which had previously been limited by my exclusive interest in film.

This book is pretty much flawless and I was quite captivated by it. I try to be balanced in my book reviews and point out any thing I find that didn't do the book any favors. I really couldn't find anything here to criticize. Ochoa has done a fine job with this biography! I'd be remiss if I didn't point out Ochoa's lovely writing style. It's very clear and focused and she uses some beautiful language throughout. I loved some of her metaphors, especially the one where she likens Harold Clurman sorting out his failed marriage to Adler as washing a dirty rag in clean water.

You can learn more about her book on her Stella Adler blog or about Ochoa on her website. Ochoa is also the producer of the play Harold and Stella: Love Letters. You can follow her on Twitter @SheanaOchoa.


Thank you to the publisher Hal Leonard/Applause Books for the copy I received at Book Expo America!



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