Uta Hagen, 1919-2004

Respect for a master actor and teacher who inspired others through the unmatched sublimity of her example

Laila Robins

I studied with Uta Hagen in the '60s. She taught me how to act. Anything that's wrong with what I do on any occasion is simply because I've forgotten something she taught, and means I must return to her book, Challenge for the Actor, which is the best book about acting I know. Uta, of all the great teachers I know anything about, was the most pragmatic. One day in class, a student said she was in rehearsal for a big Broadway show, and that she was having trouble functioning as Uta had taught her to because the director, a flavor of that month, was demanding instant results upon the receipt of any piece of his direction. This can be risky to the final product of an actor's work, so she was asking Uta, "What should I do?" Uta said, "He wants instant results?" The student said, "Yes." Uta said, "Then give them to him." Uta believed that if you absorbed the core of your technique completely enough, you should be able to make it work for you in any rehearsal situation, and that if you couldn't, well, then that meant you hadn't absorbed it completely enough. I think she thought of her classes as a shelter, a place to work freely and to grow, but not as a place to hide from the insane exigencies of this profession. Anyway, I had studied with her one summer term when all of a sudden she got the part in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I went to a preview. It was one of the greatest nights I ever had. Not only was it the most astonishing new play I had ever seen in a preview, but it was crystal clear from the opening moment that everything Uta taught could work, brilliantly. And that was true with everything I saw her do in all the years after that, right up to Mrs. Klein and Collected Stories. Her work never settled, in any sense of that word. Her sensibility was endlessly curious, endlessly open to artistic experience. Maybe the reason is contained in an answer she gave to a student one day, who said he didn't understand why she didn't think his scene had worked, because he'd never felt so relaxed. Uta replied, "They don't come to see you relaxed; they come to see you in danger." And she taught us all how to be in danger. I will miss her terribly.

Photo: Jack Mitchell

Austin Pendleton

I held her frail hand in mine and, George to her Martha, with more than a little stagecraft, slapped it hard. She loved it. At the full-house, black-tie reading, she chewed the script, the table, the stage—we had no scenery. At 80, she inspired and gave new life to a jaundiced actor. Me. I knew her but for a few weeks. She stays in my mind. We shall not see her like again.

Jonathan Pryce

I remember the exhilaration the first time Uta Hagen said to me "I have no criticism." All of us in her class at HB Studio longed to hear those words. We all knew we were learning from a living legend, and these words meant that for a brief moment, our work had met her expectations. I heard them twice in 13 years.

I moved to NYC to study with her at 19, just a year before Herbert Berghof died. In a city that could eat you alive, he and Uta created a safe house for actors with talent and commitment. If you didn't have the talent, you couldn't get in; without the commitment, you couldn't stay.

Uta Hagen imparted her wisdom for $7 a class. For the price of a movie ticket, I got to study with a master. It wasn't until 12 years later, at the pleadings of her HB staff, that she reluctantly raised the price to $10.

Before my first Broadway show I asked her how to handle my terrible nerves. All she said was "Tits up, Katie." A little shocked by her choice of words, I knew exactly what she meant. Do the work, then free yourself. Over a decade later I was able to return this phrase of encouragement when she was relearning to walk after her first stroke. I would shout it, and she would laugh.

She was my mentor and my friend. "Tits up, Uta."

Katie Finneran

Uta Hagen was one of our country's finest actresses. I first saw her Desdemona in Othello and kept up with her performances on stage and screen whenever possible. When I saw Mrs. Klein in 1995, I dropped her a note to say that in my mind she ranked with Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie. She followed that up with a stunning performance in Collected Stories.

In honor of her 80th birthday and in support of the HB Studios, she recreated the role of Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in a rehearsed reading. She hadn't aged.

Come to think of it, she could have qualified for a National Medal of Humanities, as she is co-creator of HB studios and is a master teacher. She is author of two of our finest textbooks on acting, which serve as benchmarks of university training in this country.

« Previous Page
Next Page »