First, the play. It was the first time I had ever seen the original production of a great play—and a preview at that. I knew nothing about it beforehand, other than that it was about two college faculty couples drinking together in the middle of the night. And here was this dark, modern comedy and this harrowing Greek tragedy, and in the center of it was this great character, Martha, played by a teacher I'd just begun to study with, Uta Hagen.
And I had never seen her act before. But she had begun a process of saving my life as an actor. And now to see how everything she taught was pouring out of her in this jazzy, classical, electric way made it seem that everything was possible in acting. Clearly she had been developing this capacity for years. And she continued to develop it for the rest of her life, in a number of stunning performances. But I'm just telling you about the night that this passionate and generous devotion she had to her craft became a bolt of lightning that jolted me into a hope that has never left me since.
Maybe that is one way of defining what is meant by the greatest performance you ever saw in your life.
Austin Pendleton is an actor, director, playwright, and (at HB Studio) a teacher of acting. This fall he will direct "Detroit," by Lisa D'Amour, on Broadway. He directed the play last fall at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, where he is a member of the ensemble.