Like Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler said that acting and doing are the same. Ms Adler, an original member of “The Group Theatre” (1931-40) honed her acting skills for many years and went on to become one of the greatest acting teachers in the history of American theater. Her father Jacob Adler, founder of the Yiddish Theater, had a major impact on both Stella and her brother Luther, also a member of “The Group” and a fine actor in his own right. Jacob Adler instilled in both son and daughter a reverence for the theater and its role in society. Ms. Adler learned a great deal from her father and brought his wisdom and teachings to “The Group”, where she acted and taught for almost ten years.
Ms. Adler said, “Where you are is who you are.”, and “Your talent is in your choices.” The question is how does the actor arrive at choices that resonate with an audience whether on stage or in front of the camera? Her most famous student, Marlon Brando said that Adler’s teaching went beyond craft. She taught him the importance of living a full life, staying in touch with all that life had to offer, and making sure to bring all of his experiences to his work.
For Adler, knowing “where you are” is a mandatory element of the actor’s preparation. Clearly our instincts play a huge part in creating a role, but there is more work to be done if the actor is to achieve excellence. The actor must understand that behavior changes from place to place, i.e. a church, theater, amusement park, courtroom, etc., and the actor must have a detailed understanding of the time and place in which they are expected to live. By way of example let’s look at 2 contrasting decades:
The 1950’s was a time of prosperity in this country and the home was a seemingly stable environment. Women, in the majority of cases, tended to the children as well as a wide variety of household duties. Men were the accepted breadwinners. Their role was to provide food, shelter, and security for their families. Conversely the 1960s was a decade of upheaval marked by racial tensions that accelerated the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the sexual revolution, the free speech movement, and a drug culture that was infiltrating the youth culture at an alarming rate. “Tune in, turn on and drop out” was the mantra of the ’60s generation. A far cry from the “Father Knows Best” and “Ozzie And Harriet” climate of the ’50s.
If you choose to ignore the realities of any given time and place you will disable your ability to live authentically. You cannot exchange one time for another. A play/role is not like working on an assembly line where the parts of the whole are interchangeable. To ignore the prevailing social, economic, political, sexual, and religious climate of the time eliminates your ability to play with any sense of truth.
Marlon Brando, contrary to what some may think, invested enormous amounts of time researching a role. In the film “Desiree”, Brando played “Napoleon” and understood that to play such a figure accurately required extensive research. Brando acquired not one, but several books on his subject and annotated them all in preparation for his role. He was not going to leave anything to chance. Knowledge of his subject was not a luxury it was a requirement and his responsibility.
Meryl Streep, Christian Bale, Daniel Day-Lewis, Michael Fassbender, are also well known for the time, effort and research they invest in a role. Talent aside, to ignore the necessary elements of your subject will put you at a distinct disadvantage. If you consider yourself one who aspires to art then you have to invest all of yourself in what you do.
Great performances require great words. Great acting however is never about the words. It is about bringing yourself to life and using all the tools you have at your disposal.