Uta Hagen, 1919-2004

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

Uta set standards and held us to them. On the first day of class she would announce, "Ladies, get your hair out of your face now, and keep it there." She paid attention to details: "Don't close your fan after you say the line—it's pointless and cheap. Close it on the line. Good! Now you're someone to be reckoned with; you're strong and clear."

To keep us honest she told cautionary stories of her own youth on stage. When she played Nora in A Doll's House, she learned that if she tossed her head as she made her final exit, she would get applause. Then one night she found the courage not to call attention to herself as she went through the door. There was a heavy silence, the sound of every soul in the house resonating with compassion for Nora. The actress had disappeared.

No matter how many years we spent with her, growing up as artists under her care, she was always the master. Only once did I make the mistake of treating her like a colleague. I confided in her, pro to pro, "Uta, you know that scene in the second act of Vanya, where Elena comes into the room where Sonya has been with Astrov? God, is that a tough entrance—you walk onstage and say 'The storm is over.' You're just standing there, and you have to say, 'The storm is over.' Oh my God, Uta, how on earth do you deliver a line like that?" She looked at me, stunned, her hand went to her heart, her head tilted back and she inhaled a gasp. "How do you deliver a line like that?" she rasped. "Oh, my dear," she began, her eyes searching the space in front of her, "you know what it's like in a big, old summer house, when the skies crack open and the rain comes crashing down, and everyone races to shut the windows, and everything is wet: the floors, the curtains; the bedclothes are soaked; the rain is everywhere. As the storm plays out the house becomes an oven: airless and steamy, oppressive. Your marriage is stifling you; the house is stifling you. You can't sleep, you wander through the halls, and suddenly—suddenly—you are in the room where Astrov has been! He has been there only a moment before! You touch what he has touched, you hold his napkin to your face. It's still warm! He is so near you can't breathe! You could faint! How wonderful! Open the window, get some air! The storm is over!"

Photo: Jack Mitchell

Uta held nothing back, not her criticism nor her care. Her comments could be searingingly blunt, but like Ariadne, she could lead you steadily out of the maze. There was only one, ultimate goal: the baring of the human heart. One afternoon I was doing a monologue in her class. I was determined not to hear her pencil scribbling, so my concentration was focused. I relaxed, and became very simple and open. At the end of the speech, she was quiet. Then she said to me, "Lindsay, what you just showed us, that is your power. If you don't know it, there is nothing I can teach you. Do you understand?" I nodded to her and sat down. From that moment I had my mission in life: to share as if there is nothing to fear.

In October, I went to see her. She was bedridden and paralyzed. We talked for a while about the theater, and then she turned to me. "I am frightened," she said. "I am frightened all the time." I held her gaze. "Oh, Uta," I said, "You have nothing to fear. You have done nothing but good. But the fact that you told me. That is your power. If you don't know that . . ." And she began to smile.

Lindsay Crouse

In the summer of 1997 Billy Carden called to tell me that Uta Hagen was looking for a play. I told him that if I did have a play that might be suitable for her, it was Collected Stories, which had just ended its run at the Manhattan Theatre Club. He suggested that I send it anyway, which I did, expecting to hear not another word about it.

A few days later he called again to inform me that Uta had not only read the play, but loved it and wanted to do it. I was perplexed. Hadn't Billy explained that the play had literally just been produced (the estimable Maria Tucci had done it), that the part actually called for a woman closer to 55 than to 80 and, moreover, hadn't he disclosed that the Times hated it? Yes, but apparently Uta was undaunted. In Ruth Steiner, the complex writer and teacher at the center of the play, Uta Hagen saw a role she could sink her legendary teeth into. I thought if nothing else came of it, I would at least have the unexpected pleasure of seeing a theatrical eminence at work—in one of my plays.

Billy rehearsed Uta and Lorca Simons in the two-hander at HB Studio. I stopped by one afternoon and tried to make myself unobtrusive at the the back of the theater.

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