Uta Hagen: Actor, Teacher, Author, and Human Rights Advocate
Uta Thyra Hagen (June 12th, 1919 – January 14, 2004) had one of the longest and most impressive acting careers in American theater. Her work was expansive and dynamic, shaping a generation of emerging actors in the mid-to-late 20th century. Hagen dedicated her life not only to her acting, but to writing best-selling texts, and to teaching at the Greenwich Village-based HB Studio, founded by her husband Herbert Berghof. Hagen was also a an uncompromising human rights advocate. Though she was placed on the Hollywood blacklist for a number of years in the 1950s, she continued to believe in, and to teach, the importance of art and theater for social change.
Born in Göttingen, Germany, Hagen moved to Madison, Wisconsin with her family when she was seven years old. There her father served as head of the University of Wisconsin’s Art Department. From a young age, Hagen dreamed of becoming an actress. After studying briefly at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and the University of Wisconsin, she left school to focus on her acting ambitions. By the time she was 18 years old, Hagen had been cast in the leading role of Nina in a 1938 Broadway production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull.
Hagen met her future husband Herbert Berghof in the 1947 Broadway production of The Whole World Over. Born in Austria, Berghof had fled the expanding Nazi regime and moved to New York in 1939. In 1945, he opened a studio in an empty Chelsea loft, hoping to create a space where artists could practice theater work between jobs without contending with the pressures of commercial success. Upon meeting Hagen, Berghof invited her to teach at his studio, and she soon became an integral part of the organization. Ten years later, Hagen and Berghof were married.
It was during this period of the late 1940s and 50s Red Scare that Senator Joseph McCarthy and others stoked widespread anti-Communist hysteria and repression. Hagen, outspoken on political and human rights issues, was one of many figures in the entertainment industry to be blacklisted in Hollywood at this time. In her 1991 book A Challenge for the Actor, Hagen recalls the difficulty of this dark period “when personal beliefs and convictions were challenged, when being left of center was considered a crime, when people of note were made the dupes of congressional committees in order to intimidate lesser-known citizens into submission…it was the only time in my life when I was made fearful or felt that I had lost control over my own destiny. And for that, I have the right to remain outraged!”
Closed off from the opportunities of Hollywood, Hagen developed deep roots in the New York theater world, in which she participated as both an actor and a highly esteemed teacher. Her contributions to theater pedagogy live on in many ways, not least in her understanding, interrogation, and promotion of the profound linkages between politics and theater. The first chapter A Challenge for the Actor, “The Actor’s World,” begins:
Since the time of the ancient Greeks a democracy has depended on its philosophers and creative artists. It can only flourish by continuous probing, prodding, and questioning of the social conditions under which man exists and tries to better himself.
Nevertheless, she asserts, “as actors we must not consider ourselves immune from the need to learn about our world, our country, and our immediate community.”
Hagen’s beliefs and their influence continue to hold sway at HB Studio, which still operates in Greenwich Village today. With the help of fundraising by students, alumni, friends, and colleagues in 1959, Berghof and Hagen were able to purchase 120 Bank Street for their theater, and in the early 1960s, they expanded to the one-story garage at 124 Bank Street. A few years later, the company added the adjacent brownstone at 122 Bank Street to the complex.
Hagen’s accomplishments are so extensive as to be nearly innumerable. She won her first Tony Award in 1951 as Georgie Elgin in Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl, and her second in the original role of Martha in the 1962 Broadway premiere of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for which she also won the London Critics Award. Over the course of her acting career, she received nominations for a Daytime Emmy Award and for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and won the Obie Award for her title role in Nicholas Wright’s 1996-1997 production of Mrs. Klein. In 1981-1983, Hagen was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame and the Wisconsin Theater Hall of Fame. Three years later, Hagen was awarded the Mayor’s Liberty Medal along with The John Houseman Award and The Campostella Award for distinguished service in 1987. She won her third Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1999, and in March 2003, Hagen was awarded the National Medal of Honor for the Arts, for which she was honored at the White House.
Notable students of Hagen include Katie Finneran, Liza Minnelli, Whoopi Goldberg, Jack Lemmon, Debbie Allen, F. Murray Abraham, Rita Gardner, Steve McQueen, Amanda Peet, Marlo Thomas, Jerry Stiller, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Hal Holbrook.
To learn more about the Uta Hagen, the HB Studio, and other theaters in the Greenwich Village Historic District, check out the “Transformative Women” and “Theaters” tours in our interactive map: Greenwich Village Historic District: Then & Now Photos and Tours.