She hasn’t been to a movie since 1990’s Green Card (“I had a dog for years,” she argues, “and if I went out I had to have a dog sitter”), and she considers the current state of theater abysmal: “There are too many showcases. It’s like you hang a piece of meat in the window. Nobody is working for the play, but for the agents and producers who show up. It’s corrupt.” And Uta Hagen has a hard time finding roles worthy of her in that business. “Every time a show closes, I go into deep despair,” says the 82-year-old actor who created the role of Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, “because I think I’ll never find another one.”
But Uta Hagen can still dance.
“You looked good up there,” I said at the beginning of our phone interview. I meant it: In her current role as Lily in Richard Alfieri’s Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, she waltzes and tangos with co-star David Hyde Pierce with a certain fluid ease I’ve come to associate with swing instructors, especially older women with radio-controlled microphones and snappy one-liners at the ready.
“That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me!” she exclaimed, as if she didn’t quite believe me. “For a few years in my teens I wanted to be a modern dancer, and I studied for years with a modern-dance choreographer, Hanya Holm. It’s served me my whole life, this sense I got then of my body onstage, my body in space. But I didn’t think I could still do it — it was the reason I turned the role down for a year. I didn’t think I was up to the dancing.”
“Well,” I said, “it looked as easy for you as falling off a log.” It was a moment before I realized my gaffe. She jumped to correct me: “No. Not off a log — off the stage!”
On Wednesday, May 30, during a preview performance at the Geffen Playhouse, Hagen went airborne for a few moments when, during a blackout in the transition between scenes, she stepped over the edge of the stage and fell two feet into the house. She was taken to UCLA Medical Center for observation and released later with not so much as a sprain. But the spill’s side effects linger. “I’m still achy,” Hagen admitted. “But I love to act so much that I don’t feel it when I’m up there.”
Many people who recognize Hagen’s name associate her with two of her books — Respect for Acting (1973) and A Challenge for the Actor (1991) — and the training studio she ran for years with her late husband, Herbert Berghof. She codified an acting technique based, in part, on her concept of “actions” in human behavior — the lengths to which we go to get what we want. (Students of Respect might recognize in Six Dancing Lessons a series of basic Uta Hagen improvs: One person is walking out the door, the other endeavors to make him stay, changing her methods as they fail or succeed.) Despite a lifetime’s emphasis on technique, however, Hagen remains nonchalantly non-theatrical. “It’s very easy to look like an actor,” she says. “Anyone with an ounce of talent could learn that in six months. It takes a lifetime to learn to be a human being onstage.” Has anyone come by it naturally? “Hardly anyone. You can go through history and maybe mention 10 actors who innately flower. The rest of them have to learn.”
And while she was happy to teach many of them, including Christine Lahti, Ron Silver and Matthew Broderick, she is even happier to be still doing it herself, 63 years after making her Broadway debut as Nina in the Lunts’ production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. “I don’t mind being known as an acting teacher. I just don’t want to go down in history as a teacher. Acting is my first love, and I would far rather be doing that. And acting makes me a better teacher: I’m still learning a lot.” Just don’t ask her what: “You wouldn’t ask a violinist about his bowing technique, would you? Acting technique is not something the lay public can understand.”