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A Stella Adler turf war in L.A.

The New York City branch opens an acting studio in its West Coast sibling's backyard.

June 29, 2009|David Ng

She launched the careers of some of the most successful actors of the 20th century. Marlon Brando, her most famous pupil, once wrote that "she imparts the most valuable kind of information -- how to discover the nature of our own emotional mechanics and therefore those of others."

Stella Adler, the high priestess of the American theater, was known for her boundless generosity toward young actors. At the same time, she was a notoriously competitive, even combative, personality -- a clawed dowager who wasn't afraid of making enemies or cutting down those who disagreed with her pedagogical techniques.

The schools she founded during her lifetime -- one in New York and another in Los Angeles -- carry on her tradition of acting as a quasi-religious calling. But as recent developments have shown, the schools also have inherited her prickly side -- especially when it comes to dealing with each other.

While they both bear her name, the institutions have operated separately with different boards of directors since Adler's death in 1992. Their relationship over the years has been distant and sometimes cool, according to people affiliated with the schools. Now, the organizations are going head to head for the first time as competitors.

Earlier this month, New York's Stella Adler Studio of Acting opened its first West Coast branch at the Pico Playhouse near West L.A. The new program, which offers classes in stage and on-camera acting, is being run completely independent of the existing Stella Adler Los Angeles: A Conservatory for Actors, which has operated in Hollywood since 1985.

The awkward arrangement begs the question: Why are two schools that were founded by the same person -- and that teach the same acting technique -- competing with each other?

Leaders at both said that simple economics plays an important role. In a city bursting with aspiring actors, there's money to be made for a school with an aggressive agenda.

But mostly, the friction stems from the simple fact that geographically, the schools have never had any reason to collaborate until now. John Jack Rodgers, executive director of Stella Adler Los Angeles, said he initially approached the New York school about working together.

"We reached out strongly to them," he said, adding that he received only a noncommittal response after a number of overtures. "I can only assume that they want to call the shots. Obviously, we would prefer to do this with them, but they are going ahead without us."

Tom Oppenheim, who runs the New York school (and is Adler's grandson), declined to comment on his relationship with Stella Adler Los Angeles but said "we have nothing but respect for what they are doing."

A spokesman for the New York school later added that there is "no structural way for the two schools to join together without each giving up its own identity."

The territorial standoff -- with rumors of ego clashes and a communication breakdown -- comes at a time of robust growth for each institution. The Los Angeles school, which Adler founded in the final years of her life with the help of Irene Gilbert and Joanne Linville, had long been plagued by mismanagement and debt. In 2007, a new group of directors -- led by Rodgers and actor Mark Ruffalo -- took control and since then, the school has been working to regain its organizational footing.

"Our first priority has always been carrying on Stella's legacy and maintaining the level of excellence," said Ruffalo.

The New York school began a capital campaign last year to raise $30 million to $35 million for a new facility. The institution, which Adler founded in 1949, is also in the midst of a geographical expansion, including an overseas program that is 2 years old.

The title of the New York school's West Coast branch is the Ron Burrus Studio Los Angeles. Burrus, who previously taught at the Los Feliz Playhouse, is directing daily operations, but the school remains an extension of the New York studio and is being promoted as such. To help launch the studio, the school hosted a lecture last week with Annette Bening as part of an ongoing series of talks with prominent stage and screen actors.

Of the schools that Adler founded, the New York institution is the larger, with an annual operating budget of about $5 million and close to 500 students a year. The Los Angeles school is less than half that size in terms of dollar figures, with a annual budget hovering around $2 million and an average of 170 students at each of its eight-week sessions. Both schools operate on a nonprofit basis, with the majority of their budgets coming from tuition and donations.

An acolyte of the legendary Russian teacher Constantin Stanislavski, Adler emphasized script analysis and interpretation in her classes. She famously detested the Method style of acting promoted by Lee Strasberg that encouraged actors to use their own psychological pasts to conjure authentic emotions. She once described that style of acting as "schizophrenic and sick."

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