The Williamsburg Roots of the Adler Acting Dynasty
American theater and film acting owes a huge debt to Stella Adler who is perhaps the most influential teacher of the dramatic method in American theater history. Adler’s method went on to dominate American acting for more than half-a-century and is still the dominant acting method now. The roots of Adler’s success in teaching acting go back to her mother Sara Adler who founded The Novelty Yiddish Theater that once packed in audiences at 778 Driggs Avenue.
Those of you who know local history well might be familiar with 778 Driggs Avenue. It is the same building where Detective Frank Serpico was shot and nearly killed in the 1960s. Before the building was converted into an apartment house it was an entertainment venue for the huge Yiddish speaking community that called Williamsburg home.
The Adlers were the royalty of the Yiddish theater. Sara Adler was born in the Russian Empire in 1853 and became a star of the Yiddish theater there until Yiddish performances were banned in 1883. She and her husband left for New York where they continued to act in the Yiddish theater. Sara divorced her first husband and re-married famous actor Jacob Adler in 1891 and they had six children.
Wealthy American theater producers first opened the theater on Driggs Avenue in the 1880s, but by 1903 there was a demographic change in the area and the theater re-opened as the Novelty Theater performing Yiddish plays to newly arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe. Around 1911, Sara Adler took control of the theater and young Stella played many parts there, even though she was just a child. All five of her siblings were actors too and performed on stage at the Novelty. Like her Brooklyn contemporary Mae West, Adler had little formal school with the theater largely replacing her formal education.
The fare was often very sophisticated drama including the plays of Strinberg and Ibsen acted in Yiddish. The New York journalist Lincoln Steffans considered the Yiddish theater far superior to the offerings of New York theater at the time. Stella Adler absorbed many of the great lessons the Yiddish theater had to offer, but she was destined to perform in mainstream theater. She made her first appearance on the London stage at age 18 and her Broadway debut at 21.
In 1922, the legendary Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski made his only U.S. tour with his Moscow Art Theatre. Adler saw these amazing performances, which made a powerful and lasting impact on her career and formed the basis of her acting technique. She joined the American Laboratory Theatre, which was run by actors who had worked under Stanislavski. In 1931, she joined the Group Theatre whose members were also leading interpreters of the method acting technique of Stanislavski.
Adler moved to Hollywood where she acted in films for six years, but eventually, she returned to New York where she set up the famous Stella Adler Studio of Acting in 1949. Over the years she taught such legends as Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Dolores Del Rio, Lena Horne, Robert De Niro, Elaine Stritch, Martin Sheen, Harvey Keitel, Melanie Griffith, Peter Bogdanovich, and Warren Beatty, among others, the principles of characterization and script analysis.
The Novelty closed in 1919 and the bricks from the old theater were used to build the apartment house on S. 4th Street where Serpico was shot. The legacy of the little Yiddish theater on Driggs Avenue, however still reverberates far beyond Williamsburg even today. Stella died in 1992, but her famed method lives on.