The Definitive Guide to Uta Hagen’s Acting Technique

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Photo Source: Courtesy ITC Films

Since the beginning of theater, actors have struggled to create a truly systematic way to teach acting. American actor and acclaimed acting teacher Uta Hagen came closer than anyone has before or since. Hagen is a favorite among actors for two reasons: She was an acclaimed actor in her day, and her approach is incredibly practical. 

Hagen had a unique way of using principles from Stanislavsky’s System—which encouraged actors to behave realistically in imaginary circumstances—to develop practical tools for actors. In this guide to Hagen’s acting technique, we’ll break down some of her most famous exercises and where actors can study her methods today. 

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Who was Uta Hagen?

Uta Hagen was an acting teacher and a Broadway actor who developed an acting technique built on Stanislavsky’s System. 

At the tender age of 18, Hagen—born in Germany but raised stateside—made her Broadway debut in Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Her portrayal of Nina had critics raving, and it became clear that the teen would leave a mark on American theater. Thrust into the Broadway big leagues, Hagen was forced to develop techniques to perform Chekhov’s famously subtext-heavy writing. This experience gave Hagen the confidence to codify her technique for conveying natural behavior onstage. 

Hagen played some of the most iconic roles during the golden age of American theater. Her best-known roles include the title role in “Saint Joan,” Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Desdemona in “Othello,” and Martha in the premiere of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” If it weren’t for McCarthyism and Hagen’s unjust ensnarement in the Red Scare, she likely would’ve taken Hollywood by storm. But because of the Los Angeles blacklisting, she remained in New York and became a fixture on stage.

In 1947 she began teaching at her husband’s acting studio, the Herbert Berghof Studio, which still teaches her techniques today. She was awarded several Tony awards for her acting and a National Medal of Honor for the Arts for her contributions to American theater. She died in 2004.

What is Uta Hagen’s acting technique?

Hagen’s acting techniques encourage actors to avoid over-intellectualizing their processes and instead root themselves in rigorous observation of daily life. The five key elements of Hagen’s technique are substitution, transference, specificity, authenticity, and preparation. We break each one down below:

  • Substitution: Hagen’s substitution is a variation of emotional recall. But unlike Strasberg’s Method, which asks actors to mentally recreate the emotional conditions of their lives onstage, Hagen’s technique focuses on pinpointing moments where activities or sensations from an actor's lived experience intersect with the scene at hand. For Hagen, substitution is more about the actor convincingly putting themselves in the circumstances of the performance, rather than importing their own life’s defining moments into their work.
  • Transference: The actor’s duty, according to Hagen, is to find their relationship to the character based on their own experience and perspective—a process she terms “transference.” Hagen is also very clear that an actor should never substitute circumstances on stage that they’re uncomfortable talking about or exploring publicly. 
  • Specificity: Hagen taught that an actor knows what to do and how to behave on stage by interacting with objects that would realistically be in the environment of the scene. Hagen insisted actors rehearse with the specific props that they would use in the final performance and visualize specific objects when looking at blank walls or into the audience. 
  • Authenticity: In her studio, Hagen pestered students to fully utilize props, costumes, or even architectural features of the venue to motivate authentic action. During scene work, Hagen’s students always had a pile of props and furniture on the stage because it was their relationship to objects that manifested in naturalistic behavior.
  • Preparation: Hagen asserted that developing authentic behavior and performing a role fluently requires rehearsal. She believed that a two-minute exercise based on an actor’s life required at least an hour of rehearsal. Hagen created a series of exercises to help actors observe human behavior and recreate it on stage to assist with preparation.

Hagen’s technique is a favorite among actors because it’s a middle ground between internal (representational) and external (presentational) work. These methods are also helpful for actors who wish to be self-sufficient or maintain autonomy in their training process. Before Hagen ever gave critiques to actors, she asked how they felt after their performances and if anything felt unusual or off. This gave the actors a voice in how their performances were interpreted and also reinforced skills of self-observation and reflection—which Hagen insisted were paramount to develop for a professional working actor. 

What are some of Uta Hagen’s exercises?

Uta Hagen’s exercises are her greatest gift to actors working today. She developed them between Broadway jobs to solve some acting problems that she had never seen anyone tackle to her satisfaction. The result is that Hagen’s exercises give actors a way to observe human behavior and catalog it so they can recall it onstage when it is useful in a role. Some examples of Hagen’s exercises include: 

  • The Basic Object Exercise: Sometimes called “two minutes of daily life,” this exercise requires the actor to replicate activities from their own daily routine in specific detail (think making breakfast or getting ready to go out). The goal of this exercise is to increase the actor’s awareness of their un-observed behavior. 
  • Three Entrances: Starting off-stage, the actor enters the environment of the scene. The actor's performance should answer three questions: What did I just do? What am I going to do? What is the first thing I want?  
  • Immediacy: Hagen asked actors to search for a small object that they need. You can perform the exercise on a set or in your home. As you search, you should observe the behavior and thoughts that arise as you authentically try to find something. The objective is to identify the thoughts, behaviors, and sensations you experience when you genuinely don’t know the outcome, so you can use them on stage. 
  • Fourth Side: This exercise starts with a phone call to a person you know. You should call them with a specific objective in mind. During the conversation, Hagen wants you to focus on your surroundings and the specific objects that your eyes rest on. The purpose is to help actors observe how they interact with all dimensions of an enclosed physical space so they can recreate the feeling of privacy on stage. 
  • Endowment: This exercise is designed to help actors apply their observed behaviors to endow props with qualities that they cannot safely have on stage. Hot irons and sharp knives are typical examples. The Endowment exercise asks actors to believably treat objects on stage as though they have the qualities the actor needs in a scene.

What are Uta Hagen’s nine questions?

Uta Hagen’s nine questions help actors develop the granular details of their character’s backstory. The questions come from Hagen’s first book, “Respect for Acting,” though in her later writing, she condensed and revised them to six steps. 

Uta Hagen’s original nine questions are: 

  • Who am I? This question’s answer includes all relevant details from name and age to physical traits, education, and beliefs. 
  • What time is it? Depending on the scene, the most relevant measure of time can be the era, the season, the day, or even the specific minute. 
  • Where am I? This answer covers the country, town, neighborhood, room, or even the specific part of the room. 
  • What surrounds me? Characters can be surrounded by anything from weather to furnishings, landscape, or people. 
  • What are the given circumstances? Given circumstances include what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen to a character. 
  • What are my relationships? Relationships can be with other characters in the play, inanimate objects, or even recent events. 
  • What do I want? Wants can be what the character desires in the moment, or in the overall course of the play. 
  • What is in my way? This is the actor’s chance to understand the obstacles the character must react to and overcome. 
  • What do I do to get what I want? In Hagen’s teaching, “do” means physical action. 

In her later book, “A Challenge for the Actor,” she condensed her original nine questions to six steps. Uta Hagen’s revised six steps to building a character are: 

  • Who am I? 
  • What are the circumstances? 
  • What are my relationships? 
  • What do I want?
  • What is my obstacle? 
  • What do I do to get what I want? 

Later in her life, Hagen distanced herself from her first book and encouraged her students to rely on her second book, which she felt was clearer about her concepts. Both books are popular with acting teachers and students today, however. Hagen’s questions and steps are the foundation for all of her acting exercises. Whether you rely on the nine questions or the six steps depends on personal preference. 

Who are some famous actors who studied Hagen?

Famous actors who studied Hagen’s technique include Matthew Broderick, Faye Dunaway, Whoopi Goldberg, and Gene Wilder. Other recognizable Hagen students include: 

  • Victor Garber 
  • Steve McQueen
  • Liza Minelli
  • Amanda Peet
  • David Hyde Pierce

Where can actors study Hagen’s technique?

Actors can study Uta Hagen’s acting techniques at the HB Studio in New York City. The studio is named after Herbert Berghof, Hagen’s husband. The studio offers in person weekly classes, alongside a full-time program, online courses, and a six-week summer intensive program. 

Actors can also study Hagen on their own by reading her books: 

The  DVD set of Hagen teaching, titled “Uta Hagen’s Acting Class” was released in 2004. It is an invaluable look into how Hagen’s mind works and how she developed her techniques. (Watch an excerpt below.)

WATCH:

What are the pros and cons of Hagen’s technique?

Uta Hagen’s acting system is terrific for building organic, contemporary roles. Hagen’s exercises can be incredibly granular, perfect for filling in the details for characters in non-crisis circumstances. Hagen’s technique is not dependent on a guru’s eye. Instead, it stresses habits of self-assessment and reflection, making her method self-sufficient in a way that is practical for working actors at any phase in their career.

While Hagen’s techniques will make you a better actor no matter what genre or style you’re playing in, her exercises may be less helpful in high-concept directions. If you perform a lot of Shakespearean acting or classical theater roles, you’ll need to add voice and movement training. However, it’s worth emphasizing that Hagen’s techniques won’t detract from performances in heightened productions—you’ll just need some additional training.

What other acting methods complement Hagen’s technique?

Acting techniques that teach collaboration through physical movement and training—like Viewpoints and Tadashi Suzuki’s method—best complement Hagen’s technique. 

Because Hagen’s technique is so emphatic about creating natural action, the most complementary acting techniques are those that extend the actor’s physical repertoire. Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s Viewpoints method identifies “Six Viewpoints” of time and space to train actors to collaborate physically through movement instincts. Tadashi Suzuki’s self-named physical training encourages martial-arts discipline onstage, and Jerzy Grotowski’s techniques reinforce highly physical improvisation.  

Very few acting techniques work against Hagen’s method. The only real conflict is with Strasberg’s Method. Hagen’s work completely refutes Strasberg’s reliance on emotional recall and using an actor’s personal, emotional experiences to build a role. 

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