Adler and Hagen: Lessons in Acting

Uta Hagen and Paul Robeson in "Othello."

I used to act in high school. Every year, I was given the same, tiny bit parts but I never seemed to understand why. I kept hearing “there are no small parts, only small actors,” from teachers attempting to cheer me up, but the roles never got better. Even as I watch movies I see that there’s a definite difference between me and, say, Daniel Day-Lewis or Kate Blanchett, but why? After seeing Stella Adler and Uta Hagen teaching their methods, I finally understand why. I was never trying. I was never feeling a role or giving my character a life that I believed in. I didn’t care about relatability or drawing on experiences, I was just regurgitating lines.

Adler and Hagen both employ similar but different methods of acting. Both rely on a level of imagination combined with drawing on personal experiences and memories, though that balance shifts. Adler is an empowering being–her voice and body are commanding and sometimes her acting seems a little over the top. But after hearing her critique and explain specific roles and scenes, you realize it’s more than just her being melodramatic. She’s drawing from something raw and real. She comments often about the soul and how it is an integral part of portraying any character. How art helps you remember what your soul is, and how without it, you cannot act to the best of your ability. This analogy is one that is truly visceral and the actors who understand it create a stage presenece that is intense, commanding, and relatable.

While Adler seems to emphasize intensity, Hagen is more about human nature and realism. She told actors to draw on what makes a character human–it doesn’t matter what time period the character is from or who they are, they have a life and a family just like everyone else, and they engage in activities in mannerisms that all people do. Being able to draw on those factors creates a way of performing that enraptures an audience. I was particularly interested in the “playing with small objects” method that she used in teaching–getting down to that very basic activity of trying to do something difficult (working with a very small object using your bare hands) not only takes you back into a very real place but also can induce emotion that you can draw upon when you feel lost.

Perhaps the message I got from today is a little sad–I realized the reasons why my acting skills never really seemed to cut it. But in another sense, I’ve become aware of what makes actors so relatable and powerful, and how these two women worked to make their (incredibly effective) methods known to the public.


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