10 Weeks at the Stella Adler Studio – where Robert De Niro, Elaine Stritch and Marlon Brando once studied
By Sarah Levitch
Photos by Kathryn Harrington
When you have an experience that touches your heart and soul, meet people who inspire and accept you, and get to live in a city you’ve always dreamed of, the feeling is almost indescribable. This summer, I had the opportunity to spend 10 weeks in New York City at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, taking classes for 22 hours a week (equivalent to one semester), where some of the greats – including Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando and Elaine Stritch – have studied.
The studio is hidden away on the second and third floor of a typical New York building, scaffolding and all. With tiny hallways and small studios, the classes forced intimacy. There was no hiding here. I must confess, my first week was overwhelming and scary. Every morning I would hit the ground running, pushing my way through the tourists of Midtown, only to arrive to a class full of strangers, all of whom were older than me and half of whom were international students.
OUR FRIEND WILLY
My first class was “Shakespeare,” and initially, I was terrified. But the instructor began by saying that we shouldn’t be afraid of William Shakespeare. Even though his language may seem daunting, we must bring him off his pedestal. So, we referred to him as “our friend Willy.” The teacher then handed us the famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue from the play “As You Like It” with 10 minutes of class left to prepare. One by one, I watched as my classmates delivered their interpretation. While it’s easy for actors to immediately judge their fellow artists, I kept in mind that I wasn’t competing with these people – I was going to spend the next 10 weeks growing and learning alongside them. With this thought in mind, I confidently stood up and took my turn. I wasn’t so scared anymore; I had Willy by my side.
The weeks to come became what I can only describe as the most beautiful experience I have ever had. A group of 15 students – all with differing ethnicities, sexualities, interests and backgrounds – came together through a shared passion for acting to create an environment where we weren’t judged or excluded. We shared our weaknesses, our strengths and our stories. We grew not only as actors but as people.
Before entering the class titled “Ensemble,” I assumed we would be doing team building exercises to, well, build our ensemble. However, the class turned out to be about building not physical trust but emotional. The first assignment was to bring in a song that meant something to us. We would play one minute of the song then explain why we chose it. I decided on “Soak up the Sun” by Sheryl Crow. Every Saturday when I was younger, my dad, brother and I would drive out to Goshen, Kentucky, to have dinner with my granny. “Soak up the Sun” was one of the songs my dad would play just about every car ride. As I sat in front of 15 people I had only known for a week, I listened to Sheryl Crow’s rustic voice and was taken back in time. I could hear the laughter from the car rides, see the rolling hills and horses and smell my granny’s homemade lasagna. Before I could utter a single word, tears poured out of me as if someone had just turned on a faucet. Coming into this program, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to access such raw emotions, yet here I was, the second week in, crying about my childhood in front of a group of strangers.
One of the most important questions an actor must ask themselves when dissecting a scene is “Why?” Why is my character saying this, doing this, etc. As an actor, I now find this technique bleeding more and more into my personal life. I am constantly questioning my words, thoughts and actions. Most importantly, I ask myself why I want to be an actor. I hadn’t been able to answer this until my time at Stella Adler, but this is the conclusion I arrived at: I want to inspire. I want to provoke thought. I want to evoke emotion and personal connection. I want to call attention to issues. I want to shed light on what is in the dark. I want to bring forward new ideas. I want to make an impact. I want to leave this world better than I found it. I want to challenge and scare, because doing what scares and challenges us is what makes us better people.
Walking away from the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, I carry a metaphorical suitcase of knowledge, ready to conquer the acting world. As I continue my journey as both an artist and a human, I get closer and closer to discovering my true self. Even though I look to the future with uncertainty, with my suitcase and friend Willy at my side, I know for sure that my passion and reason for acting is all I need to take me where I need to be. VT
Sarah Levitch grew up in Louisville and is currently attending the University of Hartford.