Uta Hagen’s “Respect for Acting” is a guide disguised as a memoir, meant to seduce with anecdotes rather than attack with facts. At 54, Hagen was old enough to write with the confidence of a tutor, but young enough to remember the problems experienced by all aspiring actors. Beginning as a gifted amateur and emerging into one of America’s most superb performers, her understanding of the craft comes from years of experience. There’s a sense of personal communication in “Respect for Acting” that can’t be said about other discussions on the subject, which lack either detail, imagination or both.
“Respect for Acting” is at its most cerebral when it deals with the ideas and intentions in the mind of an actor – the section on substitution is fascinating by itself. Hagen’s technique turns a neutral stimulus into an emotional one by conjuring intimate experiences and memories: If actors limit themselves to the gravity of the script, they create a closed system where emotion depends on circumstance. Actors who live in that world aren’t fooling anybody – but when they take the play into their own world, then you’ve got something. When Hagen played Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” she didn’t have to try very hard to make Blanche’s life work for her:
“I never had a sister, nor did I have a relationship with another girl who was psychologically identical to Blanche’s with Stella. I may put together my relationship to a girl who ‘felt’ like a younger sister (of whom I expected respect and attention, whom I enjoyed bossing and giving advice to, and whom I loved) with a relationship to a friend upon whom I felt dependent for love and comfort. I may even use a dozen elements from a dozen different relationships from my past and put them together to build this new relationship with my stage Stella, endowing her at different moments in the play with these borrowed qualities.”
To practice substitution only during major plot points would reduce the emotion to convenient intervals. Not every actor can get into character with the same treatment Hagen does with Blanche, but substitution is a sensible way to try.
Acting is a lot more complicated than that, though. It’s not enough to simply be inspired: “Respect for Acting” includes exercises that can be practiced during readings, rehearsals or even on your own time. Hagen deals with stage techniques that can benefit all aspiring actors, like how to treat the fourth wall. Because characters live in their own private world, they depend on the fourth wall to separate themselves from reality. But how can an actor directly observe the fourth wall without breaking into it? Hagen suggests we provide it with imaginary objects from the play: When Maggie fixes her makeup in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” she sees a mirror, not an audience.
It isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sometimes actors who need places for their characters to look at will find a clock or an exit sign and behold! – a target. The problem here is that actors can’t reflect emotions with “targets”: If Hamlet is supposed to question his own existence, the answer isn’t going to come from an exit sign.
Although Hagen takes her own admiration for the craft almost to the point of parody in the final passages (“…and respect for acting!”), they contain the most practical tutelage in the entire book. Since conflict comes from action, she gives an emphasis to the behavior and motions actors should prepare with. Stage direction can be useful in understanding the play for the first rehearsal, but since adverbs like “angrily,” “gladly,” “gloomily,” “passionately,” “sadly,” etc., can only be explained and not acted, Hagen says she trims them out of the script by retyping it, eliminating unnecessary details.
Just as empty stage direction is discouraged in theater, Hagen’s techniques are useless in print. It’s not enough to read the exercises: They must be rehearsed, practiced and performed.