By: Katie Anne Mitchell
ALBUQUERQUE, NM –The other day I was listening to an AOTS interview with Janis Ian on the Standing “O” site and I was stopped in my tracks when I heard Janis. In detailing her creative evolution, she described her experience as a student of Stella Adler. For those of you who don’t know, Stella Adler was one of the greats of the acting world, renowned for her teaching, and a personal heroine of mine. I could feel my heart leap out of my chest when I heard Janis recollect Stella Adler’s idea that people pursue creative writing careers because there is something inside them too big to get out any other way. This was an indescribably beautiful concept to me. Here was this larger-than-life person, Janis Ian, talking about how this other larger-than-life person, Stella Adler, had helped her to come into herself.
I was curious to explore the intertwining of Janis’ and Stella’s ideologies, so I sought out a documentary called Stella Adler: Awake and Dream, a film I would recommend to anyone in a creative profession. While I won’t go through the process of giving a formal review, I would like to share a few insights gleaned from watching the film and listening to Janis Ian’s interview, which I think can apply to anyone pursuing a career in creativity. If you’d like to watch the whole video you can access it for free here. You can listen to Janis’s interview here (you’ll have to subscribe for a small monthly fee to listen, but, hey, this goes to support Art of the Song and helps musicians earn a living).
1) Have the courage to fail
In Stella Adler: Awake and Dream, Australian Actress Sheryl Sciro described the fact that Stella gave her students the courage to fail. She was known for the fact that once you became a student of hers, you were hers for life, whether you wanted it or not. Although she had considerably high expectations for her students, she fought for and with them which, I think, resulted in a kind of assurance that they could and would have to continue, even after an inevitable failure or two.
Janis Ian seemed to cultivate a similar survivalist attitude as evidenced by her statement in an AOTS interview: “I never quite understand when people say ‘How did you survive that?’ How do you not survive that, what do you do? I mean, there’s no alternative.”
So, fail. At some point we all do. Then continue on, because if you love and are committed to what you do, then there’s really no alternative.
2) Act with your soul
One of the oft-repeated sentiments of Stella Adler during the video was “You do not act with words, you act with your soul.” In singing, like in acting, I think it’s easy to get caught up in the words and telling the audience what those words are, instead of sharing the feeling, the meaning, and the intent behind those words. Stella’s admonition that we need to be executing our creative craft using our soul is at the heart of any creative pursuit.
Although Janis Ian seems to put a bit more faith in words, her music lyrics are derived from personal struggles, from her relationships, sexuality, political division, she shares her soul with us.
I think if you are in any creative profession, sharing yourself to such a degree is necessary to produce a sense of authenticity and connectedness in your work.
3) Know what your calling is, then strive to be extraordinary in it
The final line of Awake and Dream is Stella Adler saying, “It is much better to know what you can do, and do it like Hercules.” This is preceded by her quoting an author who criticizes the quest of answering “Who am I?” I believe that through pursuing what we can and want to be good at to the fullest extent we can build who we are and avoid wasting time of trying to force an answer to a question.
Even Janis Ian describes how she was born with her incredible talent and, though she struggled in discovering whether singing or writing or both were her calling, she pursued these endeavors with an incredible amount of dedication. She says how during her periods where she wasn’t physically writing lyrics, she always was writing in the back of her head.
Acknowledging your calling to yourself and, eventually, the outside world is a vital part of creative expression. Pursuing that calling with dedication and fervor, well, that’s what makes you an artist.
4) “You have a huge responsibility in life to take life in completely” – Stella Adler
Looking at the lives of both Ms. Adler and Ms. Ian, it’s clear that to reach the heights of creative expression we must remember to observe, to absorb, and to live life to the greatest of our abilities.
I am grateful to Stella Adler, Janis Ian, and all the incredible Art of the Song artists for their wisdom and inspiration.