I had the life-changing experience of acting with Uta Hagen in a two-person play a few years before she passed away. I was excited to be working with this legendary actor and teacher, but also daunted by the prospect of being the only other person on stage with her, so I re-read her books, both to prepare for my role and to prepare for her.
Well, nothing could prepare you for Ms. Hagen. When we met she was in her early eighties and still a force to be reckoned with. She was demure, passionate, charming, ferocious, tireless, and theatrical. As a student of her writing, that was the biggest surprise for me—everything she did was real, and grounded, and deeply human, but she had an extravagance of gesture, a physical and vocal lyricism that had its roots in an earlier era.
She really did practice what she preached about the physical life of a character. She insisted that we have the actual set-pieces and props, even kitchen appliances, in the rehearsal room. No cardboard mock-ups for her — “I want to have opened and closed that refrigerator door a hundred times before I set foot on the stage,” she said. All through rehearsals we used a cruddy old plastic take-out container to hold the cookies she’d serve me in act II. On the day we moved into the theater, the designer had replaced it with a fantastic metal cookie tin which was in every detail exactly the sort of thing the character would have had in her kitchen. Ms. Hagen took one look at it, called it a name, and hurled it into the wings. We used the plastic cookie container for the run of the show.
Her obsession with these details was neither frivolous nor selfish. She was a generous actor, the reality she created for herself on stage was contagious, and acting with her you felt both safe and free. I remember a scene in which I had a speech about losing my mother to Alzheimer’s disease. I felt the speech needed to be emotionally full, and because my own mom had passed away, and I’d lost family to Alzheimer’s, I never had to use substitutions — the emotion was always there for me. But one night as I began the speech I sensed that the emotion wasn’t coming. I might have panicked, or tried to force it or fake it, but sitting there talking to Uta I didn’t want or need to be false. I thought of her advice not to try and pinpoint when or how emotion will come (emotional memory, page 51, item 2), I knew she would accept whatever I gave her, and I went on to the end of the speech, dry as a bone. Then I stood, began my next line (something innocuous like “Would you like a glass of water?”), and came completely undone. As we were walking off stage after the scene, she turned to me with a twinkle in her eye and said, “That was interesting.”
You should know that Ms. Hagen disowned Respect for Acting. After she wrote it, she traveled around the country visiting various acting classes and was horrified by what she saw. “What are they doing?” she’d ask the teacher. “Your exercises” was the proud response. So Ms. Hagen wrote another book, Challenge for the Actor, which is more detailed and perhaps clearer, and should certainly be read as a companion to this. She hoped it would replace Respect for Acting, but it hasn’t, and I think the reason this book endures is that it captures her first, generous, undiluted impulse to guide and nurture the artists she loved.
In this book, you will hear Ms. Hagen’s voice and catch a glimpse of who she was. She wanted us actors to have so much respect for ourselves and our work that we would never settle for the easy, the superficial, or the cheap. In fact, she wanted us never to settle, period, to keep on endlessly exploring, digging deeper and aiming higher, in our scenes, in our plays, in our careers. Respect for Acting is not a long book, and with any luck, it will take you the rest of your life to read it.
Copyright © 2008 by David Hyde Pierce
Born in Germany, Uta Hagen moved to Madison, Wisconsin, at the age of six. With the exception of several interruptions for study in Europe, Ms. Hagen received most of her schooling in Madison, her home until age sixteen. After training briefly at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, she made her professional debut in 1937 in Dennis, Massachusetts, as “Ophelia” in Eva Le Gallienne’s production of Hamlet.Learn more