Not Self-Made: Part 3

Q: Who has been your greatest inspiration(s) and why? (cont…)

My last two blogs covered the biggest influences over my personal life and teaching style. The basis of my professional work, however, can be described in two words: Uta Hagen.

Uta was influencing my life and work years before I met her. I had the good fortune of having a high school drama teacher who knew her approach. He taught us from her first book, Respect for Acting. I spent three years in high school doing her object exercises and taking trips to New York to watch classes at her HB Studios.

Although I was exposed to a wide variety of techniques throughout college and graduate school, I found that Uta’s thinking on acting most resonated with me. Years later, we were introduced by our mutual friend and colleague Karen Ludwig. I brought Uta out from New York to teach at my studio, and twice engaged her in a rare public discourse on acting at Paramount Studios and at The Writers Guild. Her classes at my studio were filmed and when edited together with workshops in New York and Canada, became the basis of the DVD Uta Hagen’s Acting Class.

What inspired me most about Uta is that she never set herself up as a guru. She was a colleague, there to help the actors find their own way. Many actors who teach are jealous of their students. They would rather be up there themselves and look for every opportunity to get up and demonstrate in class. Uta never did this. I remember an actress in my class was doing a scene from Tennessee William’s play A Streetcar Named Desire for her. The actress was very nervous and said, “Oh Miss Hagen I can’t believe that I am doing the role of Blanche in front of you!”

Uta said, “Why does that matter dear?”

The student replied, “Because you played Blanche!”

Uta laughed and said, “Darling, that was a million years ago! Who cares what I did; let’s see what you do.”

This, to me, is what true teaching is all about. The teacher should help the actor find their own way. Uta never even called her work a technique. She thought it was common sense. She also kept growing and learning. Uta wrote her second book, A Challenge for the Actor, because she felt she had learned and had more to offer. If she had lived another twenty years, she would have written a third book.

She was endlessly fascinated by life and the human condition. She was down to earth, and full of mischief and playfulness. Uta Hagen never stopped advocating acting as a craft. She was tough on students but never disrespected them or yelled and screamed the way some teachers do. She also knew how to make a few key points and not overburden the actor with more than they could handle. She would help just enough to set the actors on a good path, without robbing the students of the chance to make discoveries themselves.

Uta Hagen, along with my grandmother, Julia Brandt, and my teacher, Dr. Marjorie H. Eubank, are three very determined woman who were very different and yet shared similar attributes. They didn’t give up.