Remembering Uta

My first encounter with Uta Hagen was at a high school drama festival in Connecticut. She was in the middle of an amphitheater in a pool of light, speaking to a huge crowd of students and their teachers. I don’t remember a word she said, just the impression she made on us, that she was the real thing, someone deeply practical and powerful and real, an authority, an artist. Her book found its way then into my high school drama class, and through it, long before I met her, she began to teach me to use myself with courage on stage rather than pretend to be somebody else. After college, where I used her Respect for Acting as a manual to act with, I followed that thread to HB Studio.

In Miss Hagen’s second floor studio at 120 Bank Street, there were 35 students in class plus auditors. The room was packed, charged with nervous energy. Broadway actors and soap stars were seated alongside aspirants like me who had somehow made it through her audition process. I think I was physically ill before every scene I performed for her. She told us if we weren’t nervous, we should probably be worried; our nerves meant we cared about our work, understood what it was about. When I finished the scene, I would be suffused with warmth - miraculously cured. She worked through 10 scenes in 2 hours with astounding efficiency. She had trained herself to look for the one thing--not all the things--the one key thing that could unlock a scene for an actor.

We instinctively understood with her — don’t know that she ever even had to say it — that it was our responsibility to do with the scene everything we knew how to do to take it as far as we possibly could. We would not waste her time by doing less than that. And then what she offered us was the thing we hadn’t yet been able to grasp, and we would take that observation away and struggle with it. She was teaching us, not just how to act, but how to own our work, to break it down for ourselves and to solve our own problems, to wrestle with the role, using everything we had. If we didn’t have work prepared for her, she closed up early and went home to watch tennis. What I remember about her classroom is the marvelous collegial space she created, where each actor, reflecting on her work in the critique at the end of each scene, was vividly revealed and recognized as an individual. The hallmark of a Hagen actor, really, was how individual they were. She gave us that. There was no hiding.

She gave us practical tools to connect with, questions to ask that drew us physically, sensorily, into the world of the play; she helped us stumble upon inexpressible truths about the character; she taught us that acting was not a shell to construct, but a lightning rod.

She brought the whole of life, her appetite for life, into her classroom. The conversation was not so much about theater as it was about life. In between scenes, while actors were setting up, she talked about cooking, she told bawdy jokes. There was a lunch wagon in class and we competed with one another to bring something in that she would she enjoy, that she would exclaim about.  

She inhabited the character along with the actor whose scene she was watching. She spoke to us from inside the work, from her own struggle to free herself on stage. So her comments were a colleague’s comments; she taught us to place ourselves in the character's shoes by placing herself in our shoes.  We respected, feared, and loved her.

Edith Meeks

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.

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