The Doyenne of Acting Teachers
Uta Hagen practices what she preaches - on stage and in the classroom at New York's HB Studio
NEW YORK — From Steve McQueen and Jack Lemmon to Whoopi Goldberg and Matthew Broderick, generations of America's finest actors have had one thing in common: They studied with Uta Hagan.
What distinguishes Hagen from many other influential acting teachers is her own renowned career. She has created roles such as the original stage interpretation of Edward Albee's Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and Georgie in Clifford Odets's "The Country Girl." Hagen is currently performing the title role in Nicholas Wright's "Mrs. Klein" to sellout off Broadway crowds.
Set in London in 1934, the play chronicles the personal side of world-famous child psychologist Melanie Klein. A German refugee who revolutionized the field with her controversial methods, she had a difficult relationship with her own daughter, also a psychologist, who emerged as one of Dr. Klein's most vociferous opponents. Critical acclaim for Hagen's performance as Klein has been unanimous.
"It's a joy to play," Hagen says in an interview in her home. "The play has such sustenance and substance for exploration." She still lives in the rambling Greenwich Village apartment she shared for decades with husband, Herbert Berghof, another veteran acting teacher, who died in 1990. Together they founded HB Studio, where young actors have been absorbing their methods for more than half a century. The school serves about 2,000 students a week and employs some 50 teachers.
In her preparation for "Mrs. Klein," Hagen discovered important personal connections to the psychologist, including "the need to work, and the need to explore human behavior. These are obviously comparable to me."
Hagen points out that understanding how people act in various situations unlocks the door to a solid performance. One of her principles, the concept of transcendence, leaps from her studio classes to the stage of the Lucille Lortel Theatre where she performs eight times a week - on top of her teaching schedule.
"You take something that triggers something in you, usually connected with a larger experience," she says. "That memory of an event, a place, or a person gets 'transferred' in the mind of the actor to the experience of the character being portrayed, enabling the actor to bring that character to life vividly."
Her students who have adopted this process say it has improved their abilities. Actor, director, and playwright Austin Pendleton says, "She shows you how to use all the stimuli that come to a character, whether they come from the environment or from the past." Pendleton credits Hagen with giving him "a process that an actor can actually use."
Hagen says: "My students always tell me, 'I'm so nervous before a performance,' and I tell them, 'It'll get worse.' " One of the most candid admissions in her popular book "A Challenge for the Actor" reveals that she still gets anxious before walking on stage.
"You must accept it as part of the job" and work through it, she says philosophically. The book also unveils the actors whom this revered teacher herself has admired. Along with Eleonora Duse (a rival of Sarah Bernhardt) and Laurette Taylor, she numbers the legendary monologist Ruth Draper and popular comedian Lucille Ball.
"Lucy was the cat's pajamas," Hagen says with a laugh. "She could take the most cockeyed presumption and make you accept it with blind faith, and once you accepted it, everything became 'truthful.' I always give as the example when she went roller-skating in the afternoon, went home, and couldn't get her skates off, and had to go to the ball on skates. She was a genius."
Ball served as a guest lecturer at the HB Studio years ago. "She gave a whole demonstration of how to use props," Hagen says. "She showed students how everything is based on truth, on human behavior."
Though Hagen usually schedules an afternoon nap to rest before each performance, she relishes the opportunity to play the part of Klein. She has little use for actors who "sign for six months, or even three months - these big stars who do it as a little breather in between their more lucrative work on the [West] Coast. It drives me crazy, this lack of commitment to a play."
Staying fresh throughout a play's long run, she notes, requires "that each performance has to be like you never played it before. That's the task I set for myself." She adds that today's students have "an openness and a more sober desire to work," in contrast to the previous generation "during the Reagan years, when they expected you to do the work [for them]. Unfortunately," she says, "I think it gets better when things get tougher. The more impossible it seems, the more the determination and dedication seem to rise."
Her reputation as a teacher grew from her status as one of Broadway's leading actresses. The German-born Hagen began her Broadway career at age 18 in 1938, as Nina in the Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne production of "The Seagull." She went on to "Key Largo," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "A Month in the Country," and several other major American plays. Some of the roles she created later served as vehicles for Academy Award-winning film performances, notably for Elizabeth Taylor in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and Grace Kelly in "The Country Girl."
Asked if other performers taking up her roles had disappointed her, she smiles and says, "I'm totally used to it. It's been true since I was a child. In the old days, with Miss [Katharine] Cornell and Miss [Helen] Hayes, or Ruth Gordon, if they had a big hit on Broadway, it was automatically bought by a studio for Bette Davis or someone else. I feel I made my creation. You don't own the role."
What does disappoint her is the escalating cost of theater tickets for the average audience member, making it harder for people to attend. "Tickets are $45 a seat! That's $100 if two people go, plus the subway. I don't have that kind of money. When we did 'Virginia Woolf' I think the top price was $9.90. And the previews were $3."
She realizes the economic pressures that producers face, but criticizes the mentality she says many of them exhibit now. "If you want adventurous, creative theater, you cannot say, 'Will they buy it?' Then you're making merchandise. You can't say, 'This is the formula.' The way to attract an audience is to do good work."
The production of "Mrs. Klein" bears out Hagen's philosophy. Originally planned as a limited run of two months, the show was extended an extra two to accommodate the clamor for tickets and has now been extended to June.