Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Interview with Sheana Ochoa ~ Author of Stella! Mother of Modern Acting

Sheana and Raquel at BEA 2014
I got to meet the lovely Sheana Ochoa at Book Expo America back in May . Her book Stella! Mother of Modern Acting is one of the best biographies I've ever read. She graciously agreed to an interview for this blog which you can read below.


What made you decide to write a book about Stella Adler?

Ochoa: I worked at the Stella Adler Academy of Acting in Hollywood while I was getting my graduate degree in writing and immediately noticed that Stella’s contributions to American acting were not well known. Even her name is not as well known as Lee Strasberg’s. I wanted to correct that error and now that I think about it, I guess I could have chosen a different genre other than a biography to do so, but a biography hadn’t been written on her and that seemed another gap in the annals of theater. I love the unsung hero story.

How did you conduct your research?

Ochoa: Oh, the research! One could go on researching a person’s life forever and never finish the book. I loved sleuthing through libraries around the country, discovering old articles about her or her family on Nexus Lexus or the New York Times database, but the best part is the fieldwork. For example, once I got a hold of her FBI file, I learned where she had gone to school. I called up the school and discovered her records had been transferred to another school. I had to make a trip to New York anyway to interview more of her colleagues and family. I went to the school and basically conned my way into the basement archives where, voila, I found her “permanent record.”

Did you have any obstacles to overcome in your research?

Ochoa: I found it very difficult to extract anecdotes from people, which is a problem of the interview itself. Some people just aren’t natural raconteurs. Getting information worth anything and by that I mean, something that will translate into a scene in the book, or at the very least reveal something about the person that informs my understanding of her, is like pulling teeth sometimes. The interview is an art form in itself and you have to learn when to interrupt someone and lead them into a different direction when they’re determined to recount their own life instead of the subject's as well as learn to be quiet so they can find their way to the story you’re looking for.

A copy of Stella! Mother of Modern Acting
What kind of impact did Stella Adler have on the acting community?

Ochoa: Her greatest contribution was in script analysis, being able to dissect every line of a play and teach her students how to do the same to uncover what’s between the lines and uncover the themes of the great playwrights. But that came later in life. Her immediate impact came after studying with Constantin Stanislavski in 1934 and returning to America with a different emphasis on acting craft than the one Strasberg had been using. She opened up and refined acting by elevating the role of the actor to one as co-creator with the author. She would stress that the actor had the responsibility of building his or her character within the truth of the circumstances of the work. Subsequently her classes became studies of the human condition, part philosophical, part spiritual. Her students would say that going to Stella’s class was like going to church. It lifted you and it lifted the work not only of the actor, but the playwright (which can be applied to the screenwriter as well).

Who do you think is the most fascinating person in Stella Adler’s life? 

Ochoa: Stella was the most fascinating person in Stella’s life. And I’m not being facetious. There was no one else with the complexity, intellectual insatiability, capriciousness and larger than life presence than Stella. She was surrounded by the artistic and cultural elite of her time from Peggy Guggenheim to Leonard Bernstein, but Stella was in a league of her own. She devoted her life to inspiring others, but there were few people that could inspire her because they were not on the same intellectual and energetic plane.

Do you think Stella Adler would have been more well-known today if she would have done more self-publicity in her lifetime?

Ochoa: Stella once said, and this isn’t in the book, that had she concentrated on the sexual aspect of acting she would have been very well known. She was aware that she wasn’t very good at publicity because she would much rather spend her time on the work. She also had an impression of self-publicity as vulgar, which was a holdover from her parents’ attitude in the Yiddish theater.

Could you tell us little about the play Harold & Stella: Love Letters?

Ochoa: Sure. The letters were edited into a script. They were all written in 1942 when Stella and the great theater critic and director, Harold Clurman were living on opposite coasts of the country as the U.S. entered the Second World War. The steady stream of correspondence buttressed their long distance romance. Through their words we meet two theatrical giants before becoming giants. Both are dealing with romantic and financial uncertainties. Stella can’t get work she feels worthy of her talent and Clurman is under the threat of being drafted. We see a vulnerable side of Stella and the great commitment Clurman had to their relationship. I produced “Harold & Stella: Love Letters” for the Hollywood fringe festival and it won Best of Fringe. I also mounted one show during my book tour in New York. People prefer coming to an event over something like a reading at a bookstore so I was trying to be creative in my novice marketing efforts.

Stella Adler in a Hat
I adore hats and from your book I learned that Stella wore them all the time. Could you tell us a little about her fashion sense and what that meant for her as a woman and as an actress of the theater?

Ochoa:  Stella came up during the belle époque. It was a different time. Traditional. Social etiquette was as important then as social media is today. Much of that etiquette was having proper attire, being well groomed. If you were a woman you wore your hair up. If you wore it down, you could be mistaken for insane. It was a time when children respected their parents and teachers, and spoke to them deferentially. A time when men could shake hands and the “gentleman’s agreement” would seal a venture without necessarily having lawyers and contracts in the mix. Stella’s parents made a good living in the theater and she was brought up with the best of everything, including servants and governesses. She spent half her life accustomed and appreciative of the customs, dress and proprieties of the times. When the Cultural Revolution happened during the 60s, she didn’t catch the wave. She continued to dress the way she had been dressing her entire life. At times people perceived her as superficial, but she was merely a woman not willing to let go of the “costumes” that defined her.

What do you want readers to take away from reading your book?

Ochoa: I imagine the same thing I took from getting to know Stella: Art keeps society on the right path. Without it, we get lost, especially in this day and age, in the treadmill of work and romance and addictions and alienation from our fellows. We put our need for social validation in the form of the “right” job or relationship or house or car before our present experiences. We live in the past or the future, never taking the time to marvel at what is going on right in front of us. The other day I closed my eyes to focus on the birds singing in the yard and I counted five different birdcalls from various distances. Stella noticed such things and used them to teach actors how to experience the present moment of a scene and thereby give a truthful performance. She would tell her students, “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”

What are you working on now? 

Ochoa: This month I started a new book, not so different really from what I was talking about in your last question. We all have our bag of rocks, as Elaine Stritch’s husband would say, and mine is a misunderstood and unpredictable illness called fibromyalgia. I’m writing a spiritual memoir to help others living with the disease.

Thank you so much Sheana! 

1 comment:

  1. She's right: I've never seen another biography written about Stella Adler (and I've always wondered why). I'm desperate to check this one out!


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