When Tom Oppenheim took over as artistic director of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in 1995, he asked himself, “What does it mean to be the Stella Adler Studio of Acting today?” Part of honoring his grandmother’s legacy meant ensuring that the studio is rooted in her belief that growth as an actor and a human being are synonymous. Since then, he’s worked to create an environment that nurtures theater artists — they train 500 at a time — so that they value themselves as well as others.
His initiatives have included launching the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company, which is named after Adler’s second husband, and starting an outreach component that gives free actor training to low-income New York City public school students as well as at Rikers Island.
The Manhattan native, who studied at the National Shakespeare Conservatory and with his grandmother, lives in Washington Heights with his wife, Nina Capelli, the studio’s director of cultural programming, and their two children.
Tell us about your grandmother and what legacy you hope to continue with the studio now.She was a grand woman. But we called her Stella; we didn’t call her grandma. She was a unique grandmother in that way, but a great woman, teacher of acting and theater person. Central to her legacy, I’ve built on and hope to continue to build on her technique of growth as an actor and human being. All of her techniques and everything she wrote and said, that was the energy underneath it.
How do you try to retain its original mission?I was primarily committed to making sure the studio didn’t degenerate into a wax museum devoted to Stella’s memory, but a living, breathing expression of her spirit. So I was focusing on examining the past and the tradition that preceded Stella. It began with her father, Jacob Adler, who was a great actor and producer. He came from Odessa [in what is now Ukraine], and was born in 1853. The tsar outlawed Jewish theater in 1883 and he left first to London and then seven years later, in 1889, came to New York City and built the theater [Union Theatre, a Yiddish-language theater]. So it was the matching of that history to the future and making the studio remain as relevant and impactful today and tomorrow as it did with Stella.
What aspects did you change?Part of it was relinquishing dogma, so we weren’t tied to engaging faculty that had studied with Stella, but finding teachers who harmonized with the insight that growth as an actor and growth as a human being are synonymous. That freed us and there was curricular restructuring that we did. And really, continue to do, because it’s always a kind of a work-in-progress. In addition to that, the environmental aspect of the mission was to create artistic and cultural events beyond the theater. We did these in honor of Harold Clurman who was Stella’s second husband and created the Group Theatre [a 1930s theater collective that produced plays relevant to that era]. It began with a lecture but then evolved to include a poetry reading series and a concert series, which was renamed after my father, David, who was an important New York figure. He was a great classical clarinetist. He played with Igor Stravinsky and the Budapest String Quartet, but then made films and worked in television. Then became the dean of the School of the Arts at NYU and it was under him that that school became Tisch School of the Arts.
Tell us about your outreach program.It includes a free afterschool program for high school students. They all live under the poverty level. The mission is to bring free actor training to people who can’t afford tuition. We plugged into middle schools and high schools in the South Bronx, all low income schools that don’t have access to the arts. And then we have a very developed program on Rikers Island; we’re there every day of the week training all the populations- adult women, adult men, teens, young adults, transgender. All those are aspects that come from Stella that we’ve taken and evolved.
Explain your current show, “One Drop of Love,” and what your mission is with that project.It came out of another show we presented through our playwright division. Part of the division is identifying a playwright in residence, so a few years ago we reached out to playwrights that identified as playwrights of color. We read 150 to 200 plays and lowered that down to five. One of the five plays was written by Beto O’Byrne, who is half Mexican and half Irish. And he wrote a play called “Loving and Loving,” about the Lovings [an interracial couple whose marriage was deemed illegal in Virginia in the ‘60s and became a Supreme Court case], written before the movie. In relation to that play, we wanted to engage in a conversation about being mixed race, and racially diverse couples and families. Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni, who wrote and performs “One Drop of Love,” was one of the people who engaged in that conversation. She was so interesting and compelling that wanted to continue that conversation, and are bringing her show to the studio later this month.
What are your future plans?My dream is to formalize the transformation of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting into the Stella Adler Center for the Arts. We would still use the nomenclature of the Stella Adler Studio backstage in relation to young people who want to study, but create a bigger title that better describes who we are. And to one day find a real estate opportunity that facilitates it. And to raise money to be able to build each of those centers. To have someone in charge of the music, poetry, and so on.