Interview with John Jack Rodgers, Stella Adler Academy of LA

Stella Adler Academy & Theatre - Los Angeles Productions
Stella Adler Academy and Theatre - Los Angeles Productions
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The interview with Stella Adler Academy’s Executive Director John Jack Rodgers, a captivating and indeed intense conversation awaits discovery as an italian exclusive.

Stella Adler Academy, Intro

A star, a dream. It’s the Stella Adler Academy of Acting & Theatre in Hollywood, Los Angeles, the Academy of “non” acting par excellence, where everything feels like “truth.” Upon stepping inside, you can imagine breathing a welcoming yet solemn atmosphere. Reminding you of where you are, the bronze letters carved at the main entrance that seem to say: “Hey, you’re walking on the same ground as Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Mark Ruffalo, Warren Beatty, Harvey Keitel, Chris Cooper, Kim Basinger, Benicio del Toro!” and many others…

But the Academy is principally made up of individuals and human connections, with young people searching for their own identity. The academy doesn’t just teach you how to act, but helps you discover and understand who you are. What you can change in your life and in the world, and what you can do for the others. Here, you’re not just a number, you have a name. You have to get up with a “Captain my Captain!” attitude and try. Fall. Get back up again. And try once more. “The human being who acts is the human being who lives,” Lee Strasberg said. And here, we learn to live by nourishing our souls.

Stella Adler Academy, The Interview

John Jack Rodgers, Stella Adler Academy: “The importance of being human”

The Stella Adler Academy of Acting & Theatre was founded by Stella Adler in 1985 along with Joanne Linville and Irene Gilbert. In a world where men have often dominated the history of american acting, one woman refused to sit quietly in the wings. Instead, pulling the american method in a bold new direction. This woman was an artist and teacher who was determined to demystify acting and to help actors create intense performances. Could you tell us something about the glorious history of this Academy?

J. What you just said is terrific and true. A lot of people don’t know that Stella studied personally with Konstantin Stanislavski. She was the only american for sure, many say the only english-speaking person who ever studied personally with him. She happened to be in Paris at the same time that he was in Paris and she studied with him. She spent some time with him and received a lot of his newer thinking at that time, then he brought that thinking back to New York City. Some, like Sanford Meisner, actually studied under her for a while to get the newer approaches that Stanislavski had spoken of. Eventually, Stella was put under contract to WB Studio, and so she moved to Los Angeles. When other actors at the studio heard that she had studied with Stanislavski, they wanted to study under her bit. She actually started her teaching career out here in Los Angeles and once the contract was finished, she moved back to New York. However, she kept coming out to Los Angeles regularly to teach quite often for periods of time. Then eventually she was convinced to open a permanent school here, that finally opened in 1985.

In the wake of this topic, there’s a nice quote by Mark Ruffalo – former student of this Academy – for Variety Magazine: “it was six months of sitting in a class and not getting up to do one thing when Joanne Linville said to me ‘also I think you can learn more almost as much sitting and watching, you can learn what you have to learn unless you get up and act. You have to work today’.”

The positive feedback he received from his first attempt at acting was encouraging. The Stella Adler’s method seems driven by the belief that growth as an actor and growth as a person are the same. The Academy provides the tools, and discipline to nurture and support actors who are committed not only to the art form but to a life of social engagement. Could you tell us more about the techniques or methods of your Academy and your teachers?

J. Joanne was right. Joanne Linville was also my teacher, as was Stella, and she’s right. We 100% still continue what Stella Adler, Irene Gilbert, and Joanne Linville started. We believe an actor has to get up on their feet. There are a lot of classes in Los Angeles, perhaps in every city around the world that are very large numbers. A lot of actors can sit in the back of the room and never get up. They don’t even have to be seen if they don’t want to be. That’s not what we do. You’re going to get up in this school we keep classes to a very small size, and you have to get up and work. That work entails reawakening the imagination. It’s very much imagination-based. All of the exercises in our school begin with reading the script, breaking down the script, understanding what the script is saying as a theme, as a story, as a plot line. Then particularly where your character fits into that, and then more specifically, you get into the time period.

Could you tell us more?

J. People are people but where you grow up does influence who you are. When is the time period? And then let’s look at that person’s life. How does that world and what’s going on in the world influence this person’s life? The next tear-up is who is his family? Who are these people and how did it influence your character? Then the next tier up is how this character, my character, reacts to this training. What I like to say, is that the important aspect of this technique is the script break down and analysis. We really study the script in order to inform our imaginations. If we know all of this triangle of history, of this person, we can begin to build who is this person. Then we take that into performing in front of the camera or the stage. All of that work and every exercise in the school from script analysis and script breakdown through the technique classes, reawaken our imagination even to the point of acting.

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Stella Adler Academy & Theatre – Los Angeles Productions

So, this method seems to encourage actors to expand their understanding and sounds of the world in order to create compelling and truthful performances. In your opinion, how important is it to “stay human” and be socially engaged? And how this cannot be separated from becoming actors and the art of acting?

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J. We firmly believe that it’s like you said, they are inseparable. If you are using your imagination to walk in the shoes of other people, what if that person is a peasant in the Middle Ages, or a poor working-class person in the United States or anywhere in the world in current times? You don’t have the right to look down on that character. You must get into their mindset and understand that world and what they were raised in, and how much of a struggle it is to be that person. If you’re also playing a tyrant, you must get into their mindset and try to understand why or how they justify their behavior. That opens our minds to different ways of thinking. That’s connecting to the humanity.

Now, we also believe in public service. As a nonprofit organization, we do outreach to public schools, and low-income areas of Los Angeles. We bring arts education into those schools because unfortunately, the education budget has been cut in this country. We try to fill that gap and we ask our students to help us do that so they do. Again, that enables us to see the lives of children who don’t grow up with privilege. Not everyone in our school is from a wealthy family. Some are, but we also have a lot of scholarships that we give to people who can’t afford to come to the school. That’s another aspect of it. Many acting schools don’t have that, they have kids whose parents can afford to pay. Instead we mix everyone together. All races, all colors, all religions. We have people from across the United States and all around the world. It’s very human. I call us: “the United Nations of acting schools.” We have people from Italy, from Florida, from Texas, from New York, from Illinois, from California, from Japan, from France, from England, Canada, and Australia.

So human!

J. Yes, it’s a wonderful thing, everyone together. There are many levels to being a human being. We firmly believe that all of that is mixed in with our outreach, using your imagination to walk in the shoes of many different types of people.

We strongly believe, that using your imagination and doing research into how this person lives, what they do for a living, what their suffering is, how they have to work and how they became who they are, also connects us to humanity through this imagination.

Could you please provide an overview of the program and lessons of the Stella Adler Academy of Acting & Theatre? How does this academy ensure student engagement and participation during the lessons? Anything else about the scholarships?

J. About scholarships, we generally ask student to come here and demonstrate their commitment for a term or two and then ask for a scholarship, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t offer them sometimes right at the beginning. The overall program is all about, like I said earlier, breaking down the script, and looking for clues as to who the character is. Analyze, imagine, and then perform. We analyze the script, and we inform our imaginations, then we build this imaginary character based on all of our research. Then we let go of all the research. We let go of all the work and let it exist in our bodies. We have it in us and We connect to it. We show up on set and warm up our bodies. We warm up our voices. We reconnect with the character and our notes then we perform. We go into just living truthfully through our imaginations in imaginary circumstances.

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Stella Adler Academy & Theatre – Los Angeles Productions

We are aware of the existence of the “Community Outreach Program”. Could you tell us more about this aspect and your social activity?

J. Like a nonprofit organization in US, We believe as actors and artists were supposed to be in service to others. There are theater companies, african american companies, and hispanic companies here in Los Angeles and many others. People who don’t have access to a theater and we share our home with them, sometimes for fees, sometimes for a small fee oftentimes for free. We’re not a rich organization. We offer as much as we possibly can help to them, and to others. That’s another way we are in service. Then we do outreach to area programs and schools. Over the years, we have worked with various senior living facilities, where we go in and we read with older people, but we do free children’s shows too.

We also believe very strongly that we’re not trying to build movie stars or actors who are all based on just an ego. We want to build actors who understand the work and that they are in service to a script and to an audience, and serve bigger ideas and ideals than just their own ego and stardom, and how do they look. Worry less about that, worry more about character and being in service to people.

“Sometimes life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one”. Thus spoke Stella Adler. I read the same quote to Mark Ruffalo in a Q&A at Cinema Troisi in Rome last week. I’ll report this quote because he emphasized to me the importance of putting all the various aspects of acting in a safe space of (he) art where we should be free and be able to explore any part of humanity, as you also said. And he shared with us the great teachings of this Academy.

Could you tell us what value this academy has for you and describe one specific moment or experience that has been particularly meaningful or memorable for you?

J. There are so many. I do remember when I was a much younger student 34 years ago. I had a little motorcycle, a little scooter, like a Vespa. I took it up to the hills, to Stella’s house (ed. note Stella Adler) to help her. They asked me to drive Stella to and from class, so I got to spend time with Stella in the car alone, and we talked about the night, the class, and all that. I remember the first class with Stella. I went, sat in the seats and she was up on the stage lecturing us. I’ll never forget when she said:” You are actors, you are nobility. What you do is important. It’s important for the world because actors can change the world. The theater and film can change the world. If you’re doing it right. Even a comedy, a satire, a drama, a melodrama, you can change the world. Theatre has done that throughout history. Artists have done that throughout history. Be aware of your responsibility. Remember the importance of what you’re doing. Never just take it lightly. Always do your homework. Always do your work. Always show up on time. Not just because it’s the right thing to do and you’re a professional, but because it’s important. What you are doing is important for humanity, for the world, and for history.” I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. As a young actor, I started my first year in college acting. I didn’t have the nerve to act in high school. I didn’t have the courage. Right at the beginning, I felt that what I was doing was important, but no one had ever said it to me quite like that. I remember that moment, and I shall always remember that moment for the rest of my life.

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Thank you for sharing with us all these emotions. Do you want to add something?

J. Another moment I remember as a young student in class. I was working on a character. I had been assigned a character from the “Appalachian Mountains”. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the geography of this country, but it’s Kentucky and Tennessee, and way up in the hills, what they call “hillbillies”. It was the early 1930s, this play took place. I remember the teacher said to me here at Stella Adler (this is 1991 or 1992): “Don’t judge the character. You’re playing the character. You think it’s difficult for you to get into that? He’s smart. He’s not stupid. He’s not simple. He’s got a life and he’s got an education, and he’s making it work, way up in the mountains of Appalachia, in Tennessee and Kentucky.” He was telling me, basically, don’t judge the character. Step into the character and understand him. Just because he’s a hillbilly doesn’t mean he’s not a human being. I worked on really stepping into the character like we’re talking about, and using my imagination and the research to really understand this character and live in the scene through my imagination. That was another big moment for me at the school. I will never forget that.

What impact do you hope that the Stella Adler Academy of Acting & Theatre will have on your students and the community at large in the future?

J. That’s a good question. I have to say that every day I watch our students in the hallways. I watch their performances at the end of each term. Just last week we were doing that, and it was a joy because you see all their progresses. We’re teaching a process, a technique how to get to character. People learn that technique and learn how to apply it at different levels, at different paces, you might say. Some are quick to get it, some are not as quick to get it. Just because someone gets it quickly, or sometimes when someone takes more time to understand the work, doesn’t mean that they’re going to be any worse. Sometimes they blossom into the best actors. The joy is watching actors grow. Not only growing in ability as an actor but growing in confidence as a human being. We have students who come here so shy sometimes, they walk down the halls and they know that I run the school, so they’re afraid to even look at me. I always tease everybody and they’re not afraid anymore. It’s just another guy, I’m just another actor, I’m not anyone’s boss.

The importance of the community…

J. Yes, we’re all in this together. When I start to see that happening it’s a joy. Also, I want to instill in our students a responsibility towards humanity, all of it, and a responsibility to this place. There was Stella Adler, Joanne Linville and Irene Gilbert, that would be Milton Justice and Arthur Mendoza. Many of the teachers who taught me and then our generation took over. That would be Mark Ruffalo (he’s on our board of directors now) Tim McNeil, Chris Thornton, Rick Peters, Laura Leyva, and many of our great teachers now. I call this our “creative home.” This is a creative family. Eventually, the torch must be passed to our creative family of the next generation. I want them to feel a great responsibility to keep this place going because I think it’s an important place. Important in the heart and the work. Sometimes people come in here saying: “I want to be a movie star.” I think: “that’s great. I hope you are a movie star. Become Mark Ruffalo and help keep the school open!”.

Ph. Imagery by Oscar & Hollywood Walk of Fame / Mark Ruffalo in front of the Stella Adler Academy of Acting

I’m sure that this Academy will have an important impact on all your students and the community for your ideas, your soul, your way of acting, to be free and, above all, to take care of human beings. Now the last funny and maybe rhetorical question: This is “the week.” About this important night, who do you hope will win the Oscars?

J. I know two people this year who are nominated. I know them personally and know them well. One is Mark Ruffalo. I would be lying if I didn’t say I hope he wins because I love Mark. I consider him a dear friend and I’ve watched him, we grew up together. I’ve known Mark for 34 years. I think he’s a very fine actor and a very fine person. I would like to see him win. However, I mean it sincerely, I’m pleased that he’s nominated and I think all of the nominees are terrific, but I think Robert Downey Jr was terrific in Oppenheimer. It’s tough to say one actor is better than the other.
Then I know another friend of mine is my neighbor, is name is Edward Lachman and he’s a cinematographer, he’s nominated for cinematography. He’s a very nice guy. I pull for him, too, but they’re all great.

So, to recap: First thing to be a better human being, and then maybe to become a movie star..

J. Absolutely. Follow your dreams, but also follow your heart.

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