Uta Hagen – Respect for Acting

Uta Hagen – genius acting teacher and actress. One that made Stanislavki more understandable and practical for all western actors. One that took interest in a real acting technique, in ways that you can rely on your “instrument” each and every single time. She also made up exercises that one can do by himself/herself. She was frustrated by the fact that any other artist can practice his technique by himself, except for the actor who depends on his/her peers, on a rehearsal space or theatre.

Uta Hagen claimed “Respect for Acting” – which is also her first book’s title. She wanted acting to become a real craft, a respected profession, not just some “happening” based on talent or “a good day”, an inspired moment. She had been a successful actress while being a very gifted teacher, so her notes, her books on acting are full of practical advice. She has a very blunt way of seeing the acting process, and in her honest approach she uses recognizable situations for all students and actors.

Her books are a must read for all levels of preparation. They are very intelligible for the beginners, and also clarifying for the experimented ones. Some terms that are commonly used in our craft are often misunderstood, or largely tought, so they miss their use, and they become vague or only informational. Well, here is the source. The books are very inspiring also for those who have theatre experience and they could surely use some (re)organizing of their craft and knowledge. A true recap with explanations, examples, and most of all, exercises.

Uta Hagen is a German born actress, who grew up in America, and became one of the most acclaimed Broadway actresses by playing parts like Nina (The Seagull), Desdemona (Othello) or Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). She had a very influential meeting with the director Harold Clurman, who she worked with on A Streetcar Named Desire (playing the part of Blanche DuBois), where she opposed at least four Stanleys among which were Anthony Quinn and Marlon Brando. She became famous as a teacher working in HB Studio, New York, an important acting school co-founded by her husband Herbert Berghof (previous Actors’ Studio member). Among Hagen’s previous students are: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Whoopi Goldberg, Liza Minelli, Sigourney Weaver, Amanda Peet and Mathew Broderick.

Few quotes that I would like to tempt you with, so that you get her books and watch her acting sessions:

  • Substitution. “I use the word substitution in a much broader sense. In fact, I could even prove that substitution can be used every moment of the actor’s homework and throughout rehearsal period for every stage of the work. Consequently, it can have its effect on every moment of the actor’s life on stage. I use substitution in order to “make believe” in its literal sense – to make me believe the time, the place, what surrounds me, the conditioning forces, my new character and my relationship to the other characters, in order to send me into the moment-to-moment spontaneous action of my newly selected self on stage.”
  • The Object Exercises: Endowment. “Almost nothing in our character’s life is what it is – but we must make it so! We endow the given circumstances, our own character, our relationship to others in the play, the place, each object we deal with, including the clothes we wear. All must be endowed with the physical, psychological or emotional properties which we want in order to send us richly into actions from moment to moment. And so, the example of turning an apple into an onion can be a beginning of comprehending that by turning one thing into another, or by supplying missing realities, actions may become sharper than usual, and that reality can be heightened instead of ordinary. It becomes a distilled reality, and that is what I love about it.”
  • Character. “Every actor should explore similar questions about his role. He should find the questions in the play and solve them for himself with identification.Whether he uses real or imaginary experiences, or both, is unimportant as long as he can believe in them and tap them when he needs them. This question-and-answer game continues until all possibilities for it are exhausted. To bring about a new me, with new but solid roots, need not to be discussed with the playwright, the director, or with fellow actors. It is secret laboratory work, and must stay secret. It is essential homework.”


It’s never too late to learn something new, or to refresh your knowledge. With each book, workshop or encounter, we have a chance to open ourself up and start again with a new perspective. If you thought there are so many things about a role, a rehearsal, or a casting scene that you can’t do anything about… well, Uta Hagen shows you how many things there are, in fact, that you can work on, in your spare time, at home, or in rehearsals. She gives so much more power to the actor. He/She is not just someone who waits to be cast, or to be directed, anymore. The actor works on his craft, consciously, programmatically, he reaches high, but keeps his feet really grounded. Uta Hagen’s books are the result of a huge passion for our profession. You can find them here:

Respect for Acting

A Challenge for the Actor

And the lessons – Uta Hagen’s Acting Class:

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