Richard Easton on Uta Hagen

After Uta's death, Richard Easton, who had played with her in A Month in the Country and in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in London spoke:

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 uptips 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 coupleof weeks and got into the studio and did the camera rehearsals but at the dressrun—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 some one 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

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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