Uta Hagen, 1919-2004

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

I am proud to say she was my friend.

Hal Prince

Photo: Jack Mitchell

You can learn an awful lot from watching great actors work—you learn what good acting looks like and when you work with them they can sometimes tell you how they do it—but they are seldom teachers as such. They do not teach you how you should do it. Uta was the exception. A great actor who was also a very great teacher.

By the time I first met her, I was only 26 but I had done over 60 plays in Canada and England, and I had worked with some great directors—Peter Brook and Tyrone Guthrie; great actors—John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Alec Guinness; great stars—Katharine Hepburn, Tyrone Power; and remarkable contemporaries—Christopher Plummer, Nancy Marchand, Sada Thompson, Ellis Rabb, Bill Ball, and so on, and had picked up tips and tricks from all of them. I was a confident, experienced, and facile actor and I knew a lot about other people's acting but very little about my own. Until I worked with Uta.

Though I have never taken an actual acting class with her, I have read her books, of course, I appeared in three plays and a public reading with her and had many talks tète-à-tète over the years, and during the course of all this she taught me how to act.

I met her when I played in A Month in the Country with her on television, and she took me under her wing. We rehearsed the play for a couple of weeks and got into the studio and did the camera rehearsals but at the dress run—this was in the days when tape was difficult to edit and you had to do whole scenes in one take—when we got to my big scene, Uta kept stopping and fussing and generally wouldn't let us get a run at it. I was very worried by this but she said "The scene is ready and will be fine but I know you; if I let you run this now, when it comes time to do the one that matters you won't throw yourself at the scene—you will try to repeat the effect of the dress run." This was of course true and I saw that it was true and I started from that moment to learn how to do it—as she does it—always the same but new each time.

A couple of years later, for the English production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I came from London to rehearse with Uta and Arthur Hill, who had been playing it on Broadway for a year. I learned the lines on my own and learned the blocking with a stage manager before I rehearsed with the rest of the cast. In the first break of that rehearsal she took me aside and said "You are clipping cues. That means you are not allowing yourself to hear the other actors. You act listening but you don't hear. You are not affected by the other characters. Naturally—that's how you had to learn it. But you must now quickly relearn it to put in the blanks when you don't know what will happen next." Well, it was an unusual circumstance but I'm afraid that was how I always learned lines. I wanted it to be smooth and easy. But she taught me that "the line through" is not a straight line but a zigzag. She encouraged me to delight in playing the glitches—the lies—the secrets in the text and to use the energy produced by acting surprise to vitalize the performance.

When I was trying to become an acting teacher myself I called her a lot for advice, of course, and what her advice boiled down to was "Really the hardest thing we have to learn—and that cannot be taught—is how to want to do it 8 times a week, in sickness and in health, to good houses or bad, free and fresh and the same every time." Now, it is true that you cannot teach that passion to someone who doesn't have it but many of us do have it at the beginning and lose it; and what can be taught, and what she does teach, is how to keep it and strengthen it. She taught me to do it as she has taught many others. I think of it as Respect for Acting. I know she came to dislike that first title of her book but for me it exactly describes her greatness both as a teacher and as an actor.

Richard Easton (from a speech originally given at the the Dramatist Guild Mage Evans and Sydney Kingsley Awards, June 6, 2002)

Oh my Uta, my mighty mentor, ferocious shatterer of illusions, bringer of light. How can I believe you are gone?

I stood at Uta's bed two weeks ago, stroking her arm, blessing her. How could this frail woman be the giant who had inhabited my life?

I studied with Uta Hagen for seven years in my early days as an actress in New York. Every week I climbed the stairs to her small studio on Bank Street. She sat, always at a little table to the right, with a pad of clean paper, a pencil and her cigarettes, armed and ready for work. And it was serious work. God help you if her hand began to write while you were up on stage. I can still hear that pencil scratching in the dark, my heart sinking at the sound. What had I done? What had I left undone? What, oh what would she say? For Uta treated us like pros, even as beginners, and there was no escape from her eagle eye. The lights would come up, she'd lean forward and ask in her deep, scratchy voice full of intelligence and wit and experience, "O.K., how did you feel?" She always asked this question, because above all she wanted us to be accurate about ourselves. She knew very well that one day she would not be there, that we would have to learn how to distinguish good performances from bad.

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