The master acting teacher Uta Hagen can remind you to pay attention.

Last semester, I assigned an essay prompt titled, “Evaluating a Creator I Admire,” which asks the students to think through their criteria for a successful creative individual and apply it to someone whose work they’d like to emulate.  They picked fascinating people: politicians, scientists, urban gardeners, designers, actors, dancers, painters, writers, and even software programmers.  I loved reading these essays because they not only introduced me to creative figures I would not have noticed otherwise, but they also told me a great deal about each student writing the essay—what do they value about the creative life?

Uta Hagen (1919-2004). From the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

But when I came across a student essay about the master acting teacher Uta Hagen this past fall, it made me excited to dig back through my own theatre library: stacks and stacks of play scripts with a smattering of writings by Stanislavski, Grotowski, Brook, and Hagen herself.  This is a part of my book collection that has sat painfully dormant for nearly four years.  (Graduate school coursework can do that, you know!)  Yet the chapters, ideas, and voices felt so familiar when I flipped through them the other day, especially Hagen’s 1973 book Respect for Acting.

All artists who considers themselves “actors” have to deal with a certain perception, both from the people around them and from within themselves:  sometimes it’s hard to have respect for acting.  Too often the actors themselves rely wholly on instinct, resisting any encouragement to intellectualize the work.  The problem with making acting all about instinct is that you lose reverence for it as a craft or art form; it just becomes something you “do.”  But when actors choose not to respect all the intricacies of the craft they’ve chosen (or maybe the craft that’s chosen them), they value the work less and less.

I love how Uta Hagen resists this devaluing of theatre performance in Respect for Acting.  Although an audience should never see all the technique hidden underneath a performance, her book reveals that technique (if that’s what you’d like to call it) must be available and must be utilized.  Otherwise, you’re just strutting about onstage hoping things will come together.

Here she is describing the myths she believed about acting, myths that made her come close to losing respect for it as her craft:

I used to accept opinions such as: “You’re just born to be an actor”; “Actors don’t really know what they’re doing on stage”; “Acting is just instinct—it can’t be taught.”  During the short period when I, too, believed such statements, like anyone else who thinks that way, I had no respect for acting.

She goes on to explain how this implicit disrespect stems from how easily some actors throw aside the need to “prepare for a role” by simply plunging in, even at the risk of ruining the work altogether:

A talented young pianist, skillful at improvisation or playing by ear, might be a temporary sensation in a night club or on television, but he knows better than to attempt a Beethoven piano concerto.  The pianist’s fingers just won’t make it.  A “pop” singer with an untrained voice may have a similar success, but not with a Bach cantata.  The singer would rip his vocal chords.  An untrained dancer has no hope of performing in Giselle.  The dancer would tear tendons.  In their attempt they will also ruin the concerto, the cantata, and Giselle for themselves because, if they eventually are ready, they will only remember their early mistakes.  But a young actor will unthinkingly plunge into Hamlet if he has the chance.  He must learn that, until he’s ready, he is doing the same destructive thing to himself and the role.

But how does the young actor ever get ready for Hamlet?  That’s what Hagen explores in this book.  What I’m finding is that all of her advice for actors coming into their own as artists actually applies well to just living intentionally.

Take this concept, for example: part of the “work” of acting is learning to pay attention.  If an actor cannot understand the basic reactions of her own five senses, how can she take the moment one step further to impact the senses of others—whether it be her fellow players or the audience?

Hagen thinks paying attention is paramount if we truly want to call ourselves artists, but her words also imply that paying attention is vital to functioning meaningfully as a human being:

A great danger is to take the five senses for granted.  Most people do.  Once you become aware that the sources which move in on you when you truly touch, taste, smell, see and hear are endless, you must also realize that self-involvement deadens the senses, and vanity slaughters them until you end up playing alone—and meaninglessly.

For Hagen, practicing sensitivity to our own five senses and the stimuli that impact us keeps us from drowning in a bog of self-involvement.  Paying attention—listening for the intent of others’ words, letting smells and tastes jog our own memories, giving into the pleasure (or disgust) of a certain sense—humanizes us to a fuller extent.  She may have only intended this advice for that overly eager actor itching to play Hamlet prematurely, but she implicitly offers some good guidance for living with real presence.

Uta Hagen (who passed away in 2004) is just wonderful in print, but she’s even more compelling when you see her in action as a master teacher.  Even in this video (a montage of moments in her acting class), you get the sense that what she’s after is constant, unwavering truthfulness—an obviously wise goal for acting and for living.