Sunday, May 10, 2009

Saving Uta Hagen

I have been snooping around on the Acting Methods and Approaches Message Board and a couple of times I have seen posters speak of Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg as essentially equivalent in terms of the approach to acting that they espouse. This is a misperception, and it seems to spring from two sources: first, a belief that what Hagen calls "transference" (earlier, "substitution") is somehow roughly equivalent to "affective memory", the technique that defined Lee Strasberg, and second, the fact that Uta Hagen does discuss and even recommend affective memory in her books, which does seem to align her with Strasberg. In that sense, the confusion is not entirely without warrant. I propose to shed some light on both of these, and demonstrate that although Uta Hagen has a pragmatic openness to the possible uses of affective memory, she does not regard it as the alpha and the omega of compelling acting, as Strasberg does.

Before we proceed, let's define some terms. Here is what the Cambridge History of the American Theater has to say about Strasberg and the use of affective memory:

And in a technique called affective memory, … Strasberg believed he had found a reliable aid for achieving [true emotion]. … What Strasberg prized about the technique was that the actor would be using true emotion – his own reawakened real-life feelings – to color and deepen his performance. . . Maintaining that the technique was the surest way of achieving the style of psychological realism the Group was searching for, Strasberg placed it as the foundation of his work

The idea is that the actor, while rehearsing and performing (this is key, as we'll see later), is making use of emotionally charged episodes from her own life in order to summon the feeling appropriate to the scene. Over the years, this has been controversial, to put it mildly. Most famously, Stella Adler argued that Strasberg had been mistaken in giving primacy to this practice. From the Wikipedia entry on Stella Adler:

Adler's biggest issue with Strasberg concerned whether an actor should use the technique of "affective memory" (recalling a personal event or sensory experience for more expressive and truthful behavior), or living in the moment, using your partner to create a believable result. It's been said that after Strasberg died, Adler asked for a moment of silence in her class for the famous actor. Afterwards, she allegedly claimed that it will take a hundred years to repair what Strasberg did to acting.

To some extent, the use of affective (or emotional) memory has become a kind of line in the sand in the teaching of acting in this country: you either believe in it or you don't, and most of the time, never the twain shall meet. For a good example of this, check out the writings of David Mamet and the practical aesthetics crowd: they take the reviling of affective memory to heretofore unknown heights.

Interestingly, Uta Hagen is someone who appears to walk the line between the two camps, although, I will ultimately maintain, her heart belongs clearly in one of them. In both her books, Respect for Acting and A Challenge for the Actor, she describes the practice of affective memory. She is very careful, though, to qualify and limit its use, characterizing it as a means for meeting certain kinds of challenges posed by a role, but not as an end in itself. Here she is, close to the end of her discussion of emotional memory in A Challenge for the Actor:

You will need to supply personal psychological realities only when direct contact with the events, the objects, and your partner fails to stimulate you, when the imagination alone fails to support your specific actions during the moment-to-moment give and take that will prove you are alive on stage.

For Hagen, affective memory is a kind of stopgap when the things which are supposed to galvanize an actor in a scene (circumstance, relationship, need, pushback from scene partners) are, for whatever reason, not doing the trick. Then, the actor might use a dash of affective memory in order to stir the pot, but:

The sole purpose of developing a limber psychological instrument, and the correct technique of spontaneous emotional recall, is to discover and execute the consequent actions (what we do about what we feel) and to give substance to the actions which are the true communicators of our character.

So Uta sees some possible place for the use of affective memory, but her priority is doing, which places her comfortably in the camp of Adler, Meisner, and those who emphasize being in the moment over reliving the past.

So much for affective memory. However, I believe that the source of the confusion about where to place Uta Hagen relative to Strasberg comes not from her flirtation with emotional memory, but from her concept of transference, which she previously called substitution. In a nutshell, transference is a way to create investment in the persons, places, and things from the fictional world of the text by making reference to people, places and things from our own experience. If I were playing Blanche DuBois, then I might use my own sister Elizabeth as a transference for Stella. My relationship with Elizabeth becomes an experiential frame of reference for my relationship with Stella (Hagen speaks of the transference as evoking the "essence" of the relationship). Ideally, I would come to value "Stella" in a way approximated by the way I value my sister Elizabeth. So transference is a way of creating correlations between people, places and things in the world of the play and similar persons, places and things from my own experience. The goal of transference is not to put me in an emotional state, but to help me orient myself towards whoever or whatever I am interacting with appropriately and compellingly.
Uta Hagen is very clear that transferences are something that is used to prepare to do a scene:

[A transference] should not lead you to private feelings and reveries when you are on stage. A transference is incomplete until the original source has become synonymous with the material in the play...[When practicing transference] I have not hung onto an image of [the person from my own experience] or dangles their images before my eyes. That would cloud my awareness of the partner and my influence on him.

While in the scene, Uta Hagen wants the actor present to his partner, not recycling feelings from your personal history. This much is clear.

The confusion about an identity or strong affinity between Hagen's views and Strasberg's arises, I think, because Hagen does ask the actor to make use of his personal experience through transference, but she asks him to do so, by and large, as a way of preparing to act, not as a technique for acting itself. But because she does point to the sensible use of the personal experience of the actor (and why not?), she is often misunderstood as an advocate of emotional memory as THE way to act as a scene. And that, she most emphatically is not.

In my own classes, I assign readings from Hagen on transference, inner monologue, sense memory (frequently confused with affective memory but quite distinct from it), and physical life. She writes on these things inspiringly and clearly, and has great things to say on these subjects. I don't make use of emotional memory, as I don't see it as a primary means of getting the job done. I don't dispute that it can have a limited kind of usefulness in preparing a performance, for example, for a scene that has to start at a particularly strong emotional pitch. But a scene is like a roller coaster ride, and emotional memory is useful only for getting to a particular altitude. In the scene, you have to get to that altitude with the right momentum and speed, and headed in the right direction. If you need to start from a great height, emotional memory might help you reach that starting point, but the real work is learning to take the ride, and enjoy it.

I do recognize, though, that Lee Strasberg trained a number of great actors. There is a phrase that Hagen uses that gestures at another potential use of emotional memory: she speaks of becoming "psychologically limber." It reminds me of a remark of Kafka's: "A book should be an axe to break up the frozen sea within." Emotional memory can be a technique to break up the emotional sod, so to speak, to tune one's emotional instrumeent, to use a pretentious turn of phrase. People do have blockages and inhibitions, and emotional memory can be a way of overcoming emotional constipation, quite apart from the use it might have in a scene. To use it successfully in this way, as emotional uncoiling, it would take a teacher of extraordinary sensitivity and integrity, as this type of work would likely take people to some very fragile places. I have heard tell of teachers who teach this technique and are simultaneously abusive, and I hope one day their bad karma catches up with them. And pedagogically, I believe there is as much to master in the much more immediately useful skills of coming to grips with a character's circumstances and entering into them, playing off the partner and embodying a need in a scene. Further, there is nothing to say that engaging in this much more grounded type of work, with much clearer lines between the art and the personal life, cannot stretch the actor in ways that will help her to achieve the psychological limberness Uta Hagen recommends. I have seen it happen, and it has been, and continues to be, supremely satisfying.

It might have seemed like Uta Hagen needed to come back to the five and dime, but in the truth, she never left.

(This post is from the blog of the Mother of Invention Acting School in Los Angeles and San Francisco ( an acting class in Hollywood/Los Angeles and San Francisco for serious, motivated students.)

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