Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Stella by Starlight

Were she still alive Stella Adler would have turned 108 this month but she would have told you she was a mere girl of 102. For many years Stella fudged her birth year to keep her true age a mystery. I went to see her lecture one drizzly April day at Toronto's Town Hall in the mid 80s when she was in her eighth decade. Looking stunning in black evening gown and honey-coloured curls she walked on stage to a standing ovation. You would not have known she was 82 and she certainly wouldn't have told you. But she was willing to tell us plenty else that day with this caveat: "I'm not going to tell you anything you don't already know. I'm just here to remind you, to reawaken your imagination."

And before really getting into her subject matter she implored us to give her our undivided attention. "New York actors," she said, hoping the comparison would make us more astute, "are very bad at listening. It's not sitting back. It's not just with your ears. Listening is with everything you have. Listening is with your blood and your bones."

Of the members of the legendary Group Theatre, Adler was the only one to have actually studied with Stanislavski, the great Russian actor and teacher whose systems and teachings the Group took for their own. "One of the things Stanislavski taught me was the importance of location: Where are you? Where?" And then she told us an anecdote about preparing to play Nora in A Doll's House. "Because I wasn't joining in the conversation at a dinner party the host asked me what was on my mind. I answered: 'Norwegian topography.'"

Other lessons passed down from the master: "All plays take part in the present. It is up to the actor to create the past. You don't think so?" Adler challenged, her kolh-lined eyes scanning the audience. "Well let me do the thinking. I gave up a lot of fun to think. I could've been a real fun time girl!"

Everything save the audience's attention moved down an octave as Adler spoke in a soft low voice to unravel the dark mystery that was August Strindberg, a man who hated woman as much as he loved them, a man who wanted to marry a virgin, and who, in pursuit of this goal, wed and divorced three actresses in succession. A fact that produced a delighted guffaw from Adler.

"Strindberg," she told us, "created what he called the 'thrid sex': the emancipated woman." A sex he could never quite abide, for he felt essentially that woman's place was beside man, caring for him and his offspring. "How do you like him so far?" she asked us, and a woman in the first row yelled: "If he weren't already dead I'd kill him!"

But for all his dark complexity and obvious misogyny, Adler told us she still respected Strindberg and his work for having posed the questions that concern us all and for having so embraced the daily struggle that confronts us all. Adler then performed a small piece from Miss Julie. "...I climb and climb, but the trunk is so thick and smooth and it's so far to the first branch. But I know if I can once reach that first branch, I'll go to the top just as if I'm on a ladder. I haven't reached it yet, but I shall get there, even if only in my dreams."

Having covered Strindberg and touched on Ibsen, Adler's assistant, a young man whom she addressed as Eddie, all but tugged at her sleeve to get her to wrap it up as she had gone into overtime. As she quietly had words with him the audience caught a name (she talked in a stage whisper, of course) and broke into applause. The name was Tennessee Williams.

Adler read from an account written by Tennessee about his sudden move from poverty to riches following the success of The Glass Menagerie on Broadway. Williams recounts in the piece the spiritual vacuity he'd found whilst living like a king in an ivory tower. Swamped with insincere accolades and false attentions he finally fled his Manhattan hotel suite and escaped to anonymity and the earthly reality of Mexico.

"Success," he wrote of the time, "is like a wolf waiting to eat you, each and every fang one of the small vanities..." At this metaphor Adler nodded knowingly and sadly, her golden curls quivering under the hot stage lights. Her eyes sparkled with tears as she told us she could feel Tennessee writing this with all the stops pulled out. She read on: "...the public Somebody you are when you have a name is a fiction created with mirrors...the only somebody worth being is the private solitary and unseen you that existed from your first breath."

Concluding with a piece from Orpheus Descending, Adler was youthful in her delivery, ancient in her comprehension. Total silence reined as the last line was delivered. Then with eyes raised towards the clear blue of an imagined sky, she summarized: "A bird that can't be seen..." remembering the one who'd written of that bird, the one who had longed to be "a kind of bird with transparent wings the colour of the sky, a bird you can't tell from the sky..."Stella Adler, who, as a member of the Group Theatre in the early 30s, helped to remove "starism" (as she called it) from American acting, has nevertheless earned a place among the stars - not so much Hollywood's constellation (it has been said that her career in movies was dwarfed by the anti-Semitic bent of the 40s and 50s) but among the celestial bodies of the heavens: beautiful and pure: Stellar Stella.