Great Acting Teachers! Who is?…Stella Adler (1901 – 1992)

Written by Elizabeth Brendel Horn

March 31st, 2016

“In your choices lies your talent.”

Ever heard a director say, “Make a choice!”? He or she probably borrowed a page from Stella Adler’s book on acting. Adler, one of few American actors to study directly with Constantin Stanislavski, was originally a member of the Group Theatre alongside Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg. Adler’s conflicting views with Strasberg caused her to leave the Theatre, though her career as an esteemed theatre educator continued to flourish. Notable performers influenced by Adler include Robert De Niro, Martin Sheen, Salma Hayek, and Marlon Brando.


Adler’s technique is grounded in body, voice, and imagination, and promotes making specific character choices that are different from the actor’s own self. To make informed choices, Adler encourages outside research, claiming that no actor possesses all of the life experience needed to play every role; a dedicated actor should research and gather firsthand experiences to appreciate a character’s occupation, hobbies, and so on.

Sensory Imagination

Adler also relies on sensory imagination exercises to help an actor fully imagine the given circumstances and backstory of a character, believing that “the theater exists 99% in the imagination.” For example, Adler’s students might be charged with selecting a random line from an unfamiliar play and using their imaginations to create the world and circumstances surrounding that line to perform it as fully as possible.

The Actor Tools

To Adler, these imagination exercises are most effective when they inform the vocal and physical choices of an actor. As Adler says, “Don’t be boring,” and much of her work focuses on exploring the scope and size – or as she says, “sense of epic” – of an actor’s vocal, physical, and emotional performance. This grandness in performance lends itself well to acting on stage.

High School Training

Today, Adler’s techniques live on at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in both Los Angeles and New York. At the New York location, high school students can participate in the Teen Summer Conservatory, a five-week program of intensive 30 hours per week training in movement, voice, speech, stage combat, acting for film, and more, available for 14-17 year old students. Advanced students can apply for the Teen Rehearsal and Performance Intensive, a more rigorous program that ends in a public performance of an original play. Both pieces require an audition and interview. Additional training is available for adults. Also check out The Art of Acting by Stella Adler, compiled and edited by Howard Kissel.

Elizabeth Brendel Horn is an assistant professor in Theatre for Young Audiences at the University of Central Florida.
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