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To Get Where You're Going, Know Where You're From

0221editorialtomoppenheim_4c Reality television and the mystique of shows such as American Idol, offering a promise of instant wealth and fame, are cheapening our ancient art form. This should be a cause for alarm for aspiring actors, for whom the theatre is the rightful training ground. The principles it requires must be embraced and continually nurtured. Furthermore, all good actors understand that the craft demands a lifetime of study and growth, not a few moments on a televised cattle call.

As the grandson of Stella Adler and the artistic director of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, I come from a tradition that believes the actor is an ever-evolving person, an independent thinker who studies his or her craft and is deeply connected to the outside world. The foundation of this vision came from my great-grandfather Jacob Adler, a legendary actor and producer in the Yiddish theatre of turn-of-the-century New York, and was handed down to his daughter Stella Adler and to Harold Clurman, who helped found the Group Theatre.

In his memoirs, Clurman describes being "transfixed" by the power of Jacob Adler's acting and also by the close relationship of actor to audience. The communal nature of theatre that Clurman encountered on the Lower East Side made an indelible impression on him, which undoubtedly shaped the Group Theatre.

Stella Adler was practically born onto the Yiddish stage, appearing for the first time at age 4. In her late 20s, Stella was courted by Clurman to be a founding member of the Group, where she spent a decade as a leading actor.

From these two experiences, together with her study with Konstantin Stanislavsky, Stella Adler developed a technique that maintains that growth as an actor and growth as a human being are synonymous. Adler's approach requires the full engagement of self: the physical, the emotional, and the intellectual. While her technique is rigorous and demanding, she also insisted that her students read literature and poetry, listen to serious music, study painting, sculpture, and history. Her script-interpretation technique entails a close reading of plays and an exploration of not just the text but also the social, political, sexual, and religious mores of the period. This connects an actor fully to the conflicting ideas and arguments of a play and releases a deeper, more impassioned
performance.

A vivid understanding of the imminence of the Russian Revolution, for example, brings the plays of Anton Chekhov into sharper focus and limns their poignancy and brilliance. A historical understanding of the Great Depression clarifies the stakes in the plays of Clifford Odets.
In general, the study of history allows us to examine our lives within the greater canvas of human civilization. It helps us to understand the similarities and differences in diverse periods and teaches us how to be at home in any play, whether period or contemporary. A true understanding of the past also allows us to see the particular and the universal in our everyday lives.

We must also embrace Jacob Adler's belief that the purpose of the performing arts is to edify and to uplift the audience. To do that, performers must learn the history of their craft and society. I recount this all not because I wish to repeat the past, but because I am passionate about the present and the future and recognize that history can sometimes illuminate our way forward.
The Yiddish theatre of Jacob Adler and the Group Theatre of Clurman were built from the ground up, by young people who were passionate about enacting change, under the most dire of circumstances. If they could do it then, so can we today.

Tom Oppenheim is the president and artistic director of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. For more info, visit www.stellaadler.com (New York) or www.stellaadler-la.com (Los Angeles).

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