Introduction to Uta Hagen – who was Uta Hagen?


Uta Hagen (1919 – 2004)was a multi award winning actress, a highly respected acting teacher and the author of two world renowned best-selling acting text books Respect for Acting” and A Challenge for the Actor”. 

She also wrote a cookery book and a memoir, had a wickedly acerbic sense of humour, a raucous laugh, a deep raspy voice, a mischievous nature, and an uncanny ability to hone in on the element of your scene or exercise that wasn’t working. As a teacher was consistently supportive, respectful, encouraging and generous. She possessed an extraordinary insight which she used with laser sharp accuracy to guide her students lovingly and respectfully to better awareness and more truthful performances….. but neither did she suffer fools, or tolerate lateness or ill preparedness. She smoked like a train and took her dog GB, named after her favourite playwright George Bernard Shaw and her cigarettes everywhere with her including the classroom. I know that sounds crazy now but smoking in public places didn’t become illegal in New York city until 2003. It wasn’t that long ago but it was a different era.

Ms. Hagen, and yes that is how everyone addressed her and referred to her, was born in Prussia (now Germany) in 1919 to an opera singing mother and an art historian/musician father. When she was six years old the family emigrated to the USA and settled in Wisconsin. It was there she received most of her schooling albeit peppered with frequent study trips to Europe. Her first marriage to Jose Ferrer lasted for ten years, giving them their daughter Letitia (Letty), but ultimately ending in divorce partly because or her long-concealed affair with actor Paul Robeson, who had been her co-star in Othello. That affair didn’t just impact her marriage but would also have a major impact on her career later on. Ms. Hagen met Herbert Berghoff in 1947 when she played opposite him in The Whole World Over on Broadway. It was he who persuaded her to start teaching and later that year she became part of the faculty at his acting studio, The Herbert Berghoff Studio (HB Studio) in Greenwich Village, New York.  They married in 1957 and were a formidable partnership both romantically and professionally until his death in 1990. 

I first heard of Uta Hagen when I was living the life of an au pair/tequila slammer girl/ ski bum in Aspen, Colorado, USA having had a mid-life crises in my 20’s, jacked in my marketing job and started travelling (but that’s a whole other story!) I happened upon an acting class taught by Alice Spivak author of “How To Rehearse When There Is No Rehearsal” and acclaimed acting coach visiting from New York, who it turned out had been trained by Uta Hagen. At the time, I didn’t know who either of these women were, but all that would change and so would the direction of my life. A light bulb went on for me. I was finally ready to follow my heart and explore the world of acting. I had the great good fortune to train with Ms Hagen at the HB Studio from 1992 – 1995. She wasn’t just my teacher, I counted her as a friend and we stayed in touch and corresponded even after I left New York and moved to the UK in 1996.

Ms Hagen died in 2004 after suffering a stroke in 2001.


Ms. Hagen won two Best Actress Tony Awards, two Drama Critic Awards, and an Obie. She was elected to the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981. In 1999 she was awarded a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement and in 2002 the National Medal of Honour for the Arts. Despite all the accolades and awards she is purported to have said “awards don’t mean much”, I love that about her.  

Ms Hagen trained briefly at RADA in London,  made her professional debut in 1937 in Dennis, Massachusetts, as “Ophelia” in Eva Le Gallienne’s production of Hamlet. In 1938 she made her Broadway debut as “Nina” in the Alfred Lunt’s famous production of Chekhov’s The Sea Gull. She won her first Tony Award, The Drama Critic’s Award and The Donaldson Award for her performance in Odets’ The Country Girl in 1951. 

Her list of illustrious theatrical credits is mind blowing so I will name but a few: Shaw’s St. Joan; In Any Language; The Deep Blue Sea; The Magic and the Loss; The Island of Goats; Tovarich; The Lady’s Not For BurningThe Affairs of Anatol, and Cyprienne (Divorçons); Turgenev’s A Month In The Country; Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire opposite at least four different Stanley Kowalskis including Anthony Quinn and Marlon Brando.

In 1962 she won her second Tony Award when she originated the role of Martha in the Broadway premiere of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf going on to win the London Critics Award for the same role in the West End production in 1964. 

as the vulgar, scornful, desperate Martha, Miss Hagen makes a tormented harridan horrifyingly believable.”

New York Times. 

The fact that Ms Hagen originated the role of Martha is just one of the many reasons why Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is one of my favourite plays and why I am determined to take on the role of Martha myself someday. Meanwhile, until someone casts me in it I’ll keep working on it. That is one of the joys of acting class, working on roles and material that you might otherwise not get the chance to explore. As part of my research recently I was beyond delighted to discover that the Original Broadway Cast Audio Recording of Edward Albee’s  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf starring Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, George Grizzard and Melinda Dillon is now available to listen to free on YouTube. I highly recommend it. Uta Hagen is extraordinary in it! The sheer range of her vocal resources and her unerring ability to wring every ounce of emotional truth from every single line she delivers is breath taking.

Act 1 – Fun + Games    Act 2 – Walpurgisnacht (Conclusion)   Act 3 – The Exorcism 

Uta Hagen as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on Broadway in 1962 with George Grizzard as Nick(left) and Arthur Hillas as George (right)

In 1996, at the age of seventy six, in a performance I was privileged to witness in person, Ms Hagen “set a theatrical bonfire” (New York Times) and gave “theatre one of its most compelling sacred monsters since Mama Rose took her turn.”(Variety) in the title role of Nicholas Wright’s Mrs. Klein. The production garnered great critical acclaim during its eight month sell out run at the Lortel Theatre in New York and subsequent four month national tour to San Francisco, Washington DC, Boston, Conneticut and Chicago. For her work in Mrs. Klein, Ms. Hagen was nominated for the Outer Critics Circle Award, won the Lucille Ortel Award, won the Drama League Award and received an Obie Award and several other lifetime achievement awards. You can watch an interview with her about Mrs Klein and her career here 

At this point you may be wondering, if she was such big deal actor how come she didn’t do much film or Television? Well this is where her (alleged) relationship with Paul Robeson comes in.  He was a known to be left-wing and her association with him cast her under suspicion of having Communist ties during the McCarthy era.

Although she did appear in some film and television, she had a limited output because in 1947 she was blacklisted. That is to say she was put on the Hollywood Blacklist, a practice whereby the studios denied employment to entertainment industry professionals believed to be or have been or just alleged to have been Communists or Communist sympathizers. Basically she, along with many others, was barred from work by the studios. She finally made an auspicious film debut as the grandmother in the eerie best-seller The Other in 1972 at the age of fifty three. She went on to make other films including  The Boys From BrazilThe Doctor’s Story and Reversal of Fortune and several television appearances, including Playhouse 90Kraft Theatre Play of the Week, CBS specials, guest appearances on The Long Hot SummerLou GrantThe Twilight Zone, and The Home on PBS’s American Playhouse. Ms. Hagen even received an Emmy nomination as “Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series” for a four-day guest spot on One Life to Live. – now that’s what I call making an impression!

She continued to perform on into her eighties in Donald Margulies’s play Collected Stories andalongside Matthew Broderick, Mia Farrow and Jonathan Pryce she reprised the role of Martha in a staged reading of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in what the New York Times dubbed “the finest theatrical event of that year” Ms. Hagen’s last performances were in 2001 to record audiences for more than 3 months when she starred in the World Premier of Richard Alfieri’s Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks, with David Hyde Pierce at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.


Uta Hagen was one of the most renowned and respected acting teachers of the 20th century. To this day she and her technique are still hugely revered thanks to the ongoing work of her beloved HB Studio in New York  and the love, respect and support of all the generations of actors she nurtured, trained and inspired. 

Alumni of Uta Hagen’s classes reads like a who’s who of film & theatre and includes: – Gene Wilder, Robert DeNiro, Faye Dunaway, Whoopi Goldberg, Amanda Peet, Matthew Broderick, Geraldine Page, Jack Lemmon, Sigourney Weaver, Al Pacino, Liza Minelli, Judy Garland ….. and Pauline O’Driscoll (I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to list my name with that lot ☺) 

Having been invited by Herbert to join the faculty at the HB Studio to share her wealth of knowledge and experience with other actors in 1947 she went on to teach master classes there until her death in 2004. Uta and Herbert married in 1957 and were a “power couple” both personally and professionally right up until Herbert’s death in 1990 after which Uta continued to implement their joint vision for The HB Studio and The HB Playwrights Foundation. 

Thanks to the nudging of Alice Spivak I enrolled at HB Studio in Jan 1992 and did in a full programme of classes there whilst also studying with Alice Spivak in her private professional classes. At that time anyone who wanted to study directly with Ms Hagen in her classes had to first complete various other courses and get recommendations from those teachers in order to then be invited to audition for Uta’s classes. So that is exactly what I did, I worked my way up until finally got to audition for and was accepted into both her advanced scene study and advanced Shakespeare classes. 

Being in Uta’s classes was such a joy and privilege. It was creatively stimulating, challenging and inspiring. We didn’t just learn to act we learnt real “Respect for Acting”. We learnt professionalism, commitment, devotion, punctuality and how to rehearse effectively, efficiently and respectfully with a scene partner without the aid of a director. We learnt the importance of self- analysis, self -awareness and self – regulation for the actor. Her classes provided an entirely safe environment to explore and grow. Uta was a firm believer that the classroom or rehearsal room was not the appropriate place to work through any personal, emotional or psychological problems. It is to Uta I attribute a fun little adage I like to bandy about ever since everyone should have therapy/counselling first and then decide afterwards whether or not they needed it.”

Anyone who had secured a coveted spot in Uta’s class relished it, they worked hard, though it never felt like work. In Uta’s classes this acting thing we loved was considered vital and important and honourable work. I never worked harder or longer than I did in my NYC years but I was never more alive either. Alice Spivak, Uta Hagen and the HB Studio gave me the greatest gift of all by encouraging and allowing me to explore my creativity ….. discovering what it is that lights me up and gives me purpose. 

It was always “the work” itself that was important to Uta and she instilled that in all her students. In her class the process was always an exploration, the goal always to be truthful. Nothing was ever to be done for show or effect, and if we did find ourselves falling into that trap she would call us on it immediately and encourage us to delve deeper. To this day that is what drives me, finding the truth in the work that I and my students produce be that in class, in rehearsal or indeed at home in our own living rooms with no one to see us. 

There simply was no escaping her laser beam insight, she would get to the crux of what wasn’t working for an actor and why, instantly, but would never jump in to tell them what it was or to prescribe a solution without first asking them to self-analyse. “Ok, how did you feel?’ she would ask. In the early days that question absolutely terrified me and I would go completely blank but in time I came to appreciate its purpose and value …. I learnt to self-analyse and self-direct. Acting nirvana for us back then was the rare occasions when she would say “excellent, I have no criticism”….. to this day if she could somehow communicate that sentence from beyond the grave I would take it over any press review or award. 

The documentary Uta Hagen’s Acting Class is free to watch on YouTube. It is an absolute masterclass. It takes the viewer through examples of each of her exercises while also allowing them to experience what it was like to be in one of Uta’s classes. I love to watch it because it makes me feel like I’m back there, in that studio on Bank Street.

Ms Hagen wrote two best-selling acting texts, the seminal Respect for Acting was published in 1973 and the definitive A Challenge For The Actor in Oct 1991 so it was still very new when I was started at HB in Jan 1992. Both texts still enjoy worldwide distribution among university students studying drama but in my opinion the latter book, was and always will be the definitive go-to guide to her exercises. 

 In more recent years I have also had the great privilege to reprise my studies of all things Uta in HB Studio’s Hagen Teacher’s Lab with the wonderful trio Mark Nelson, Theresa McElwee and Carol Rosenfeld author of  “Acting and Living in Discovery” who I had trained originally trained with back in the 90’s.

SO WHAT ARE THESE EXERCISES? No, they are not sit ups or bicep curls although as you work your way through them you realise that you have started to sit up and take more notice of how you actually behave in certain circumstances rather than how you think you behave and that you are definitely developing acting muscles. 

There are a series of 10 Exercises (although I like to break them into two lots of 6) that build on each other incrementally.

  • It is a step by step, practical approach that is easily understood with exercises being tackled in bite sized chunks that build on each other.
  • The technique is self – sufficient so you can rehearse on your own, at home, in your office, in the park, at the beach or wherever.
  • Quantifiable, measurable results as you move through the exercises and begin to layer them on top of each other.
  • Her approach stresses the habits of self-assessment and reflection which are essential for all actors. You will never again be “bored” waiting for a bus/train/friend.
  • Practical, useful and immediately applicable for actors at any phase in their career.
  • Provides a way for you to keep continuity in your work, a way to get or stay “acting fit” whether you are actively employed as an actor right now or not.
  • Offers a methodical and deep way to prepare for any role, keeping it alive and fluid and open, be that for an audition, in advance of formal rehearsals for a theatre project or indeed in advance of a film/tv shoot where typically there is little or no rehearsal at all and the actor needs to arrive “ready to go”.
  • Given the current circumstances that humanity in general and the acting community in particular is experiencing, with so much work cancelled and interrupted, Uta Hagen’s exercises provide an oasis of grounded and embodied physical solo practice that you can do anytime anywhere.

It was an honour to study with Uta Hagen, it has been an honour to carry the torch for the Uta Hagen Technique and teach her approach in Ireland over the last 10 years so I am thrilled to now be in a position to offer this tried and tested training online via Zoom in one-to-one sessions where students are guided through the exercises from the comfort and privacy of their own homes. 

I was devastated to be informed recently, whilst writing this blog, that Alice Spivak died suddenly on November 9th 2020. She was a great and generous teacher and friend who I had lived with for a while in New York and who came to stay with me twice, once in Bath, England and once in Courtmacsherry, Ireland. May she rest in peace. 

Links for the books mentioned throughout this blog are for Amazon Germany because ever since Brexit that works out cheaper than Amazon UK when ordering from Ireland. If you prefer to shop on Amazon USA or UK see below for alternative links

Amazon UK LinksA Challenge For The Actor, Respect For Acting,How To Rehearse When There is No Rehearsal, Acting & Living In Discovery.

Amazon USA Links– A Challenge For The Actor, Respect For Acting, How To Rehearse When There is No Rehearsal, Acting & Living In Discovery.