Oh Dad, Poor Dad...

I first met Uta in 1962.  I was in a play called Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad, by Arthur Kopit.  An exciting play, by Arthur Kopit, directed by Jerome Robbins, and playing opposite Jo Van Fleet and Barbara Harris, two very great and supporting actresses, with a dazzling supporting cast.

I was new in New York and I was one of the leads.  But that was the catch: I was radically inexperienced.  I was fresh from my undergraduate years, during which time I'd learned something about acting, but I'd never been in a play for any more than, say, two weeks.  Oh Dad.. had opened in February and now it was, like, May.  My ability to play the part I was playing was fraying, to the point of near-disintegration on too many nights.  I told the Stage Manager (Tom Stone) that I was going to have to quit.  The next day Tom called me and said I should stop at Jerry Robbins' apartment on the way to the theater that night.  I did.  Jerry said he didn't want me to quit.  He said that if I did, I'd never work again as an actor, and he didn't want that to happen.  This was very moving, of course, and for awhile I regained my confidence, but soon it began to fray again.  I told one of the actors in the play -- Barry Primus, a brilliant actor and a good friend -- that I had no idea what to do now.  Barry gave me subway directions to HB Studio, and said I should audition for Uta's class, which had meant the world to him, as it did to everybody I know who had taken it.  So I went down there and auditioned for her class, and got in, for the Summer Term.

That summer was transformative.  She was at once patient and demanding, which is the great paradox in teaching (or directing), and which not that many teachers and directors, even really good ones, can accomplish, at least not on a regular basis.  Uta came miraculously close to accomplishing it all the time.  A few years later, when Uta's husband, that genius Herbert Berghof, asked me to start teaching at HB, I wondered, "how does one do that?  I have no idea what leads Uta to her unerring, compassionate, and penetrating (sometimes fiercely penetrating) insights."  And then I remembered: the first thing Uta would just about always say, when she was offering a critique of a scene or exercise that had just been presented, was "What can you tell me?"  And then she would develop her insights about how to talk about the work she'd just seen from what she'd gleaned from what the student had told her.  So that's how I began to learn to teach (a process that took some time): I'd just say "What can you tell me?"  This did not, and still does not, lead me unerringly to critiques that have in them anything anywhere near the precision of what Uta would then say.  Still, it was a start.  And, all these years later, it's still a start.

Another thing, more personal: at the time I started studying with Uta, I was frequently troubled by a stuttering problem.  It would crop up occasionally my work in class.  Uta would refer to it, in her critique, as "vocal anxiety."  Nobody had ever called it that before.  Those two words began to knock the stigma right out of the stuttering problem, and (along with work by some stunning vocal teachers) began to alleviate it dramatically.  "Vocal anxiety": two words.  Infinitely precise, infinitely and off-handedly compassionate. And, again, infinitely transformative.  

I studied with herfor the Summer Term.  In the fall I got into a monumental and all-consuming thing called the Lincoln Center Training Program, in which the acting teacher was Robert Lewis, another great teacher.  And I was still in Oh Dad....  This meant I couldn't study with Uta anymore (though I resumed with her a couple years later).  But early in that fall, on a Monday night (a dark night for an off-Broadway show like Oh Dad...).  I went to a preview of a new play that Uta was in.  I'd never seen her act

before.  The play was called, yes, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  To see one's acting teacher act like that, with that richness, that depth, that astounding spontaneity gave me a new lease on my artistic life.  I saw her using all the techniques that she taught.  And I saw them working stunningly.  

I'm still riding on that wave.  Sometimes I fall into the water, but I'm still riding on that wave.

-- austin pendleton

Written by
Austin Pendleton

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