Theater Filter. Uta Hagen’s “Respect for Acting” Intro

Theater is filled with books on “how to act”. However, many of these books are full of nothing but convoluted word salad and biased personal prejudice posing as insight (I’m looking at you David Mamet). I’m going to, over time, examine chapter-by-chapter, the “great acting texts” just to see if what we’re still teaching young actors shouldn’t have been thrown out with Stanislavski.

Uta Hagen’s book Respect for Acting in one of the more well known books in the genre. I doubt if there is an acting school in the U.S. that doesn’t teach at least some of her theories. And it is for that reason I begin with her. And as I see no better place to begin than the beginning, I’ve decided to start with the introduction. While it doesn’t include any specific theories, it does give us a clear idea of what Uta’s larger philosophy is.

Uta starts off by trying to get on my good side. She expresses distain for the idea that acting cannot be taught, which she names the “sink or swim” method of acting, i.e. beyond good vocal and physical training, you’ve either got it or you don’t. She basically bitch slaps Mamet from the past. So, one point to Uta. She elaborates by saying that a skilled amateur pianist who plays by ear wouldn’t be up to Mozart and neither is a untrained but gifted young actor ready for Hamlet. Therefore, she goes on to reject the idea that everyones opinion on acting is equally valid. If there is skill to be had, then all is not equal. So far so good.

Uta now goes on to give anecdote after anecdote about actors and actresses she likes and what they’ve done to garner her favor. Examples include people who actually eat a meal offstage that their characters are supposed to be eating, a man who spends weeks in the places his characters lived, a woman who refused to memorize lines until they were an integral part of her character, etc, etc, etc. What she’s described here are not just pampered actors who take themselves far too seriously and who take liberties that are simply not an option in modern theater, but she has also given a perfect description of “method acting”. Which is the polar opposite of the “no skill” school she railed against at the beginning. I have issues with this view, and they’ll arise more fully as we go further into the book, but for now I’ll just mention the possibly apocryphal story where Olivier tells a ragged Dustin Hoffman, “Have you ever tried acting, dear boy?”

Another illuminating example mentioned is about Albert Basserman. She describes him as never coming to the end of his intentions, so she never knew when to say her line. Which is at once good advice, and at the same time perfectly hilarious. Yes, always keep your intentions alive, even while silent, but also don’t forget to read the script.

Uta’s last interesting comment in the introduction is discussion of “tricks” and how she came to lose them. “Tricks” in Uta’s mind seem to be (she’s rather vague) the difference between an exit in the Seagull where she places her

“full attention on the whys and wherefores of my leave taking, with no attention to the effect on the audience”

The result being a tearful and hushed auditorium (how she could tell I don’t know. I thought she wasn’t paying to attention to the effect). Or:

If however I threw back my head bravely just as I got to the door, I received a round of applause. I settled for the “trick” which brought the applause.

She seems, in these two passages, to be accidentally implying that technique and choice on stage, and living in the moment onstage, are somehow incompatible with each other. When what would be a better statement, is: Don’t make choices based off of the attention it’ll get you, make them off of careful attention to the script and characters around you. Because, if there could be a justified character driven reason to throw ones head back on an exit it would be called a “choice”. “Trick” then could be better put as: Attention-getting-device. These days we call it overacting, mugging, upstaging and “shmacting”.

The chapter ends with her admitting

I am not an authority on behaviorism or semantics, not a scholar, a philosopher, nor a psychiatrist, and I am frankly fearful of those who profess to teach acting while plunging into areas of actors’ lives that do not belong on the stage or the classroom.

I’m going to give Uta the benefit of the doubt here and assume that she doesn’t think people who are experts or do value those things she’s not an expert on, would want to go plunging into “areas of actors lives that do not belong on stage”. I am also not an authority in any of the areas she mentions, but I do think scholarship, philosophy, and psychology are remarkably important pursuits and worthy of the time of any actor who acquaints themselves with them. As for certain areas of life being off limits, I agree with this. Our experiences as people are impossible to detach from our portrayals of characters, and I don’t think Uta is taking issue with this. However, certain experiences that cause us to literally lose ourselves in recalling them and therefore turn our focus inward to our own emotions, instead of outward to the other actors, is detrimental to not only the performance, but our own mental health. To force yourself to relive some traumatic moment in your head every night on stage because your character is supposed to be heartbroken is, well, lunacy. “Have you ever tried acting, dear boy?” I think Uta is correct to be fearful of those who attempt to exploit it.

And there you have it! Intro done. Next time we’ll jump into Chapter 1: Concept.

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