Many actors have avoided seeing themselves perform until now
When the coronavirus pandemic forced millions of Americans to shelter at home in March, Jamie-Lynn Sigler chose to do something she had avoided for decades: watch herself in her most famous role on television.
“I was actually way better than I thought,” Ms. Sigler said after viewing the 1999 pilot of “The Sopranos,” the hit HBO series in which she plays Meadow Soprano, the teenage daughter of mobster Tony Soprano. She said she’s now watching an episode of the 86-part show every week or so.
For many actors, the idea of seeing themselves perform is flat-out unbearable. They have an aversion that industry observers say is due to a mix of obsessive self-criticism and fear of losing the confidence required to pull it off in future roles.
“You lose precious innocence when you watch yourself,” said Lisa Pelikan, an acting teacher at New York’s HB Studio.
‘The World Goes Away’ and Other Lessons From Online Acting Class
Remote learning may not be ideal, but Zoom encourages acting students to be more nuanced, more private and more intimate.
By Elisabeth Vincentelli | Published April 28, 2020
Christian Kelly-Sordelet was leading his HB Studio class onstage combat through leaps and tumbles. He demonstrated uppercuts and parries, and how to pretend to be hit. He showed how not to obscure your face from the camera when making a slashing motion with a stage knife.
That last bit, useful for movie and television work, was particularly apropos: This was a Zoom class and students were watching on their screens. And with everyone stuck at home, the weaponry got creative. There was a rolled-up magazine, something that looked suspiciously like a pen and a particularly intimidating spatula.
Like so many social interactions these days, acting classes have moved online. This was, at first, daunting to even the most experienced teachers.
“We were all really scared,” Austin Pendleton said of his fellow instructors at HB Studio, in Greenwich Village. “We had tutorials every day.”
There have been complications — in addition to worrying about their lines, actors now must troubleshoot frozen screens and disagreeable laptop mics — but for many the online experience is proving challenging in a good way. “I think I’m learning a lot from this — I just don’t yet know what it is,” added Pendleton, who has been with HB Studio since 1969.
Reacting to a scene partner’s body language and expressions is an integral part of learning how to act. Zoom, clearly, isn’t optimal in that department. But certain rules were followed in the classes I sat in on: Students turned off their audio and video feed unless they were performing a scene. When two people rehearsed a scene, they disabled their self view so they could see only their partner. And students were finding ways to make the most of it.
Portraying the closeted headmistresses in an excerpt from Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour,” Krista Magnusson and Amanda Fox used their surroundings and props: Magnusson arranged books on a shelf, Fox looked as if she were grading papers or writing down notes.
“Anything you play is always about the other character,” Pendleton said after the class. “This is where Zoom helps because all you see onscreen is your partner. The world goes away.”
“I was surprised in yesterday’s class by how connected I felt to my scene partner,” said Magnusson, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. She had studied with Pendleton in 2018, and when HB Studio announced its spring term would be online, she jumped at the opportunity to work with him again. (Another HB alum, Lawrence Ong, attends Carol Rosenfeld’s course from Shanghai, where the three-hour sessions start at his 10 p.m. The virus may have stopped international travel but it has not stopped international exchange.)
Some instructors have focused on the intimacy that Zoom creates — the idea of getting closer is built into the name, after all.
Mercedes Ruehl, the Tony and Academy Award-winning actress, said her HB Studio students “instinctively pitched to the small screen so they became more nuanced, more private, more intimate as actors.”
“The flick of an eye can make a difference,” she added. “I didn’t have to say anything — they were like homing pigeons.”
An essential part of any educational process is feedback, and that seemed to work online much the way it works in person, dependent on each instructor’s style. Pendleton tended to give notes in the form of anecdotes pulled from his extensive acting and directing career, leaving it to the student to figure out how the anecdotes could be applied. Ruehl was more granular, giving directions on inflection and rhythm, and even where to look. When a student was supposed to whisper and slipped into a regular speaking voice, Ruehl requested the exercise be repeated; she also invited comments from her group.
Online teaching actually suits the acting pedagogy of Uta Hagen, the influential actress and author who was a mainstay at HB Studio for decades. She insisted on “psychological realism and using the self authentically,” Edith Meeks, HB’s executive and artistic director, said an email. “We use the real physical, emotional, sensory relationships of our own lives to test the authenticity of the relationships we create to tell the story of the play. Zoom does allow an intimacy that lets us see into one another’s spaces.”
While nobody is arguing that remote technology can make up for people sharing a room — a vital part of acting, even for film or television — it allows for flights of fancy that are not dissimilar to performing in front of a green screen.
“We were doing some Ibsen and someone put a picture of a fjord as their background,” said Evan Yionoulis, the Richard Rodgers director of the drama division at Juilliard, adding that students were even finding ways to do some tricks: “Somebody spills water on one side and the splash comes in another square.”
But Yionoulis said that class is still “about doing the work of acting — you can really tell if somebody is talking and listening, even on Zoom.”
At least the HB folks knew what they were getting themselves into; they started the spring term directly on Zoom. At Juilliard and scores of other schools across the country, faculty and students had to adjust quickly.
“June marked the centennial of actress, activist and teacher Uta Hagen’s birth. Her stage performances were legendary — she created the role of Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and starred in Othello with Jose Ferrer and Paul Robeson, which featured the first interracial kiss on Broadway. But because of her activism, she was blacklisted by Hollywood, so there are relatively few examples of her work in film.
Beyond her acting, her greatest legacy may be how she influenced generations of actors, teaching at HB Studio and writing two books that are popular with acting students across the globe. Reporter Jeff Lunden speaks with some of those former students and colleagues, including F. Murray Abraham, Mercedes Ruehl and David Hyde Pierce, about what made Hagen such an important figure in the history of American theater.
The goal, Hagen said, was to learn ‘how to be a human being on stage. And that never stops. You never stop learning about that. And not look like an actor, but look like a human being onstage and still have total communication with that audience. That’s the real craft and that’s bottomless.'”
On Monday, June 10, HB Studio held their Uta at 100 Gala, which celebrated actor Uta Hagen’s centennial birthday and honored actors Marlo Thomas and John David Washington and HB Studio supporter Alexander Bernstein. The gala was hosted by Tony winner David Hyde Pierce and Katie Finneran, and saw Tony winner Elaine May, Phil Donohue, Victor Garber, Helen Gallagher, Debra Monk, Caroline Aaron, Lonny Price, Scott Ellis, Stephen Bogardus, Gus Solomons jr., Laila Robins, Mark Blum, Jamie Bernstein, and surviving members of Hagen’s family in attendance.
Proceeds from the gala went to support HB Studio’s training and development programs for professional and emerging theatre artists.
If there was ever an age to celebrate with a blowout party, it would be 100. And while the actress and activist Uta Hagen passed away in 2004, her 100th birthday was cause for a big celebration on June 10, when nearly 250 guests attended the HB Studio Gala held in her memory. A crowd including Elaine May, Phil Donohue, Victor Garber, and three generations of Hagen’s descendants joined hosts David Hyde Pierce and Katie Finneran to celebrate Hagen and honor a group including Marlo Thomas (who won the Uta Hagen Legacy Award), John David Washington (who won the HB Next Generation Award), and Alexander Bernstein (who won the HB Community Leader Award). Proceeds from the evening will support HB Studio’s training and development programs for actors, playwrights, and directors. Read the article.
Uta Hagen at 100 will mark a season-long celebration of the centennial of the Tony Award-winning actor, activist, and HB Studio master teacher.
Beginning April 1, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts will display materials from Hagen’s archives. The exhibit, Actress + Activist: Uta Hagen at 100, will be on display on the third floor of the Lincoln Center branch through July 31, where viewers can examine readings of her unpublished diaries and mementos from her many theatrical performances, as well as objects related to the period in the 1950s when she was blacklisted for suspicion of being a communist sympathizer. The records come from the Library’s Billy Rose Theatre Division, which houses three major collections related to Uta Hagen: the Uta Hagen/Herbert Berghof Papers, the HB Studio Records, and the HB Playwrights Foundation Records.
The centennial will also include events, beginning with classes and demonstrations during an HB Studio Residency April 8–11. Learn more about the NYPL for the Performing Arts events.
HB Studio, one of New York’s original acting studios, has announced Uta Hagen at 100, a series of special events and workshops celebrating the centenary of its master teacher, the legendary actress and activist Uta Hagen. Uta Hagen at 100, honoring the three-time Tony Award winning actress and her legacy as a pioneering theater artist, activist and master teacher of HB Studio, will kick off on Monday, February 25 with a series of centennial events. The celebration will culminate on Monday, June 10 with a centennial gala honoring the actress, whose 100th birthday is Wednesday, June 12.
“Do you want to ask me about acting?” Mercedes Ruehl said, holding her water bottle. “I also take questions on faith and morals.”
On a wet Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Ruehl, the Oscar– and Tony-winning actress who stars in the Broadway revival of Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song” (now in previews), had just exited her apartment on West 42nd Street and was marching toward the Hudson River.
Flanking her, with the full-body adoration usually reserved for pet dogs or cult members, were two of her longtime acting students: Francesca Ferrara and Nick Feitel…read more
HILARY HOWARD, “…HB Studio owns its three West Village properties, all bought in the 1950s and ’60s. It, too, has undergone some belt tightening. Founded by the actor Herbert Berghof, who was joined later by Ms. Hagen, the school and theater collective established a reputation for quality acting classes (its alumni list includes Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange) at famously low rates. Continue reading →