Colleagues, students, family and friends filled Broadway’s Majestic Theater Thursday to celebrate the life of Uta Hagen, one of the American theater’s greatest actresses and most respected acting teachers.
William Carden, artistic director of the HB Studios, founded by Hagen and her husband and fellow actor Herbert Berghof, opened the afternoon ceremony with remarks describing Hagen’s dedication to her art. She “quite simply loved to act,” he said, an idea underscored by several of the speakers. He also noted her preeminence as one who “practiced, taught and wrote about the art of acting” at an extraordinary level.
Carden noted that Hagen gave her last performance on a New York stage at the Majestic, at a benefit reading for the HB Studios of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” At 80, Hagen read the role of Martha that she’d created at age 43.
Albee, who spoke next, noted that the only performance, in his experience, to rival Hagen’s in the original production of “Woolf” was her reprise on the Majestic stage nearly four decades later: She was as “vital, tough, funny” as ever. Noting that Hagen was “intolerant of mediocrity” and “not always easy to work with” but capable of “heart-catching vulnerability,” Albee described his long, occasionally fractious relationship with Hagen in warm, dryly funny anecdotes.
Lindsay Crouse recalled her experience as a longtime student of Hagen and praised her for “teaching us to face ourselves.” Laila Robins, another student, who went on to co-star with Hagen in “Mrs. Klein,” spoke with emotion of her “artistic mother” but added that Hagen was a stern mentor who “demanded much and gave more.”
George Grizzard, Hagen’s co-star in the original “Woolf,” saluted the “energy, variety and most of all the truth” of her performances and her warmth offstage, too, recalling the scarf she’d knitted for him during intermissions. Austin Pendleton, a student who went on to establish his own career as a performer and acting teacher, provided insight into Hagen’s sharp instincts as a performer with a natural love of the spotlight. He demonstrated Hagen’s instructions on “how to take a curtain call for maximum effect”: bow deeply, suggesting emotional exhaustion, and add a staggering clutch for a nearby piece of furniture to underscore the effect.
Marlo Thomas recalled a story Hagen had told about her Broadway debut with the Lunts. Her mother had come backstage, and Lynne Fontanne remarked that she must be proud. “She has so much to learn,” came the disconcerting response. Hagen treasured the remark as a pointer on her artistic path, noting how she had come to learn that “no work of art is ever finished; no performance is ever for keeps.” Thomas concluded by adding that Hagen’s work was certainly “for keeps.”
“Frasier” star David Hyde Pierce was the last to co-star with Hagen in a professional stage production. He performed the two-hander “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” with Hagen in Los Angeles and became a dedicated friend. He offered fond, funny stories about Hagen’s savvy professional instincts, which sometimes belied her famous pedagogy. At an early performance, Hagen accidentally fell offstage and injured herself. She was implored not to continue the performance, although she wanted to. Finally convinced, she confided to Pierce the real reason for her strong desire to finish the performance: “I knew I’d get my hand,” she said.