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Acting, art, and life
on March 9, 2001
This great book has a quick and enthusiastic Introduction by former student Marlon Brando, and then consists solely of transcripts of cogent and thought-provoking lectures of the legendary and revered acting teacher Stella Adler (1901-1992). Howard Kissel has compiled, or possibly combined, tapes in order to come up with these "classes," or chapters.
Adler was an eloquent and reverential philosopher of acting, a teacher and acting coach extraordinaire of Brando, de Niro, Warren Beatty, Harvey Keitel, Candice Bergen, and many more. As a young, serious actress she had traveled to Paris, in order to study with Konstantin Stanislavsky, founder of "Method" acting. She was his only American student. She brought his philosophy back to the US, but added her own considerable beliefs to it. She cautions students: "Don't read his book, because it makes absolutely no sense. He came from a culture entirely alien to yours, and you won't understand it."
The twenty-two classes are seemingly presented verbatim. Each 'class' forms a chapter, and has a named subject as its organizing principle. ("Acting is Doing," "Developing the Imagination," Building a Vocabulary of Actions," "Understanding the Text," Dressing the Part," "Instant and Inner Justifications," etc.) Each class is clear, thoughtful and thought-provoking, and wonderfully stimulating. Adler focuses on meaning and the soul of the thing - at all times. In addition, she is delightfully concrete, so you are never lost in well-meaning platitudes.
Right off the bat, you are educated as to why acting is not a cousin to, for example, fashion modeling. Adler is blunt, and supports her assertions. Acting has nothing to do with being "discovered," it is not about fame or celebrity. She bemoans the loss of the theater companies of mid-century, and the opportunities they provided to actors, who are now left to 'go it alone.'
To Adler acting is a labor of intelligence and will and love, a "profession that is over 2000 years old" and one that requires boundless energy and a sort of selfish (but not narcissistic) ambition first, and then "critical seeing, self-awareness, discipline, and self-control" - for starters. She talks about the importance to an actor of the use of one's imagination, the disciplined willingness to actually do the research -in order to care deeply and conscientiously about the play. She asserts, "A great disservice was done to American actors when they were persuaded that they had to experience *themselves* on the stage instead of experiencing the play. Your experience is not the same as Hamlet's - unless you too are a royal prince of Denmark. The truth of the character isn't found in you but in the circumstances of the royal position... [to play the role] your past indecision on who to take to the prom won't suffice."
This book is stimulating, uplifting, thought-provoking, and deep. You do not have to be interested in 'doing' acting in order to enjoy her wisdom. Worth reading, and rereading.