Phil Gyford’s website

'Respect for Acting' by Uta Hagen

I made these notes last summer, but it’s taken me nine months to get round to typing them up. My notes on Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares seem to be useful to plenty of people, so maybe these will too. Hagen’s book was the only required read for my Foundation acting course at the City Lit, and we’ve had to do some of the solo exercises she describes.

Part 1 — The Actor


4-6 Lists people who use “methods” in their performance, even if they say they have no particular technique.

6 Anecdote. Acting with Albert Basserman. He only began to play fully in first dress rehearsal. She kept waiting for her “turn” to speak, but never found it. After she said, “I can’t apologise enough, but I never know when you’re through!” He was amazed: “I’m never through! And neither should you be.”

1. Concept

11-13 Two kinds of acting: Representational — imitating a character’s behaviour. Presentational — trusts a form will result from identification with the character.

12 Representational actor Coquelin, 19th century, called fellow actors together backstage: “I cried real tears on stage tonight. I apologise. It will never happen again.”

13-17 What an actor needs beside talent: All-round arts education; training and perfecting of the voice and body; a point of view about the world. Theatres must have a point of view to succeed.

17-18 It is no use wanting to be “the best” — you must do your “own best.” Value only your opinion of your acting, and that of a few trusted people.

2. Identity

24 We have an image of who we think we are, but we are more than this — we can be childish, stupid, angry, arrogant, etc. An actor must develop a full sense of his own identity.

25 You play different roles in life depending on who you’re speaking to, where you are, what you’re wearing, etc.

26 If you have to play a particular type of person and don’t think any of you is like that, you’ll only be indicating what they would do.

28 Some actors get stuck playing a single “personality.”

28-9 We might think we’re not shy, vengeful, etc, but we probably have been at some point and we must use those times.

30-31 Read biographies and histories and put yourself in them. Don’t just look at paintings, put yourself in them.

3. Substitution

34-9 When faced with a role, you may have to find substitutions for moods, objectives, feelings, settings, history, locations, relationships, periods, etc., in order to feel what the character feels. More so if they or the setting, character, etc. is unlike things from your life.

39-42 You don’t need to be literal. If someone’s trying to kill your character, look to the character’s objectives, think of times you’ve been terrified of something or someone.


Your substitutions are complete only when they have become synonymous with this actor, this play’s events, these objects you are using in your stage life and produce a significant action. You may even forget your original source — fine!

43 Intangibles like colours, textures, elements of nature, music, etc. can be stimulating too.

43-4 Don’t tell others your substitutions or they’ll evaluate the source’s consequent action, rather than finding their own relationship to the action.

44-5 Make all details of place, objects, relationships, needs, obstacles, etc. particular, not general. It’s not just an ashtray — is it expensive? heavy? Where did it come from? etc.

4. Emotional Memory

46 The recall of a past emotional event in order to recreate the emotion and its physical response — sobbing, laughter, etc.

47 An emotion happens to us when we lose our reasoning control — generally we don’t want this loss of control, so it can be hard to recall the emotion.

47-9 The initial tendency is to think of an event in general to bring about the emotional response. This sometimes works but it is more reliable to find a release object — an item, sound, smell, etc. that you recall from the event, which releases the censor. One way of finding one: tell a friend the story of an unhappy event from your life. Describe the surroundings, weather, sounds, etc. One of these will release the pain anew. You can build a collection of these trigger objects.

49-50 Avoid examining experiences that you’ve never wanted to talk about — this isn’t psychotherapy!

50-51 If an emotion or object is losing its freshness, this could be because:

  1. You are stopping to demand that you feel, because you have not made your object synonymous with the one on stage.
  2. You are anticipating how or at what second the emotion should manifest itself.
  3. You have dwelt on the emotion for its own sake, rather than for furthering your stage action.
  4. You are weighing the degree of intensity of previous use of the emotional experience.
  5. You are fearful that the emotion will elude you, etc. etc.

5. Sense Memory

52 Recall of physical sensations in order to make the audience (and you!) believe you’re really cold, hot, tired, etc.

53-4 Sleeping and waking: Get comfy in bed, concentrate on one area of your body. Close eyes and centre them straight ahead. Direct your inner attention to an unconnected object — a leaf, cloud, wave, etc. Then direct attention to something in the given circumstances — what time is it? Have I overslept? etc. Then open eyes and sit up.

54 Yawn: Open wide, inhale, push jaw down and back, push air into lungs then exhale.

To pretend it’s dark: Open eyes wide, expand muscles around them until eyes almost feel glazed.

55 To be hot or cold: Think of one part of your body and its sensation (eg, sticky armpit) and then think what you’d do to alleviate the sensation (eg, lift arm). In that moment of adjustment you’ll have the overall sensation.

Fatigue: Where are you tired? Shoulders? Feet?

56-7 Cough: Where in your throat does it tickle?

Cold: Localise the sense of swelling in the uvula and try to swallow.

Nausea: Think of your queasy stomach, inflate your cheeks slightly, wait for saliva, breathe deeply.

Headache: Recall a specific one in a specific spot. What do you do to ease it?

56 “It is not your responsibility to show the condition, but to have it so you believe it, and deal with it in terms of the play’s action.”

58 Research the physical conditions for things you haven’t experienced and use familiar analogues.

6. The Five Senses

60-63 Concentrate on how things look, sound, feel, etc. in real life so you can recall them accurately when needed.

63 When listening to someone on stage, don’t just listen to the words — listen to the context — how they’re said, what you’re experiencing, etc.

64 It’s rare that you make constant eye contact with someone you’re talking to in real life, so don’t do it when acting.

7. Thinking

65-7 Don’t consciously decide what your thoughts should be. Have real inner objects, and these will lead to relevant thoughts as you perform actions.

8. Walking and Talking

68-70 You can’t follow a direction like “He rises” without an objective — it will feel and look false. Arthur Hopkins: “The reason for walking is destination.”

70 The clothes you wear, even in rehearsals, affect your movement.

71 Don’t memorise all your lines and their inflections too early, or you will never be able to get rid of them.

10 Reality

74-7 We can’t just use anything from “real” life on stage. We must only take relevant things. And some reality will be distracting to the audience (eg, if you create rain they’d be thinking “how did they do that?”). Fights etc. can’t be “real.” You can’t “use” everything accidental that happens — some won’t be appropriate to the situation.

Part 2 — The Object Exercises


81-5 She has created some exercises so that actors can practice alone, just as singers, dancers, musicians, can. Nine questions to ask yourself in order to act:

  1. Who am I? (Character)
  2. What time is it? (Century, year, season, day, minute)
  3. Where am I? (Country, neighbourhood, room, etc.)
  4. What surrounds me? (Animate and inanimate)
  5. What are the given circumstances? (Past, present, future and events)
  6. What is my relationship? (To events, characters and things)
  7. What do I want? (Character, main and immediate objectives)
  8. What’s in my way?
  9. What do I do to get what I want? (Action: physical/verbal)

87-8 When doing the exercises don’t look for “interesting” events — use definite, mundane needs. Don’t mime — use real props. “A minimum of one hour of rehearsal for each two-minute exercise is recommended.”

11. The Basic Object Exercise

89 “Re-creating behaviour which leads to the achievement of a simple objective.”

91-4 A couple of minutes doing something. Answer the questions above. However much you improvise while rehearsing, the final performance must be definite, but it should appear spontaneous, as if done for the first time.

12. Three Entrances

89 “Preparation and its influence on the entrance.”

95-6 Actors protect themselves from the shock of first contact with the audience by sneaking on or making a spectacle. Wrong. “My three essential steps of preparation are: What did I just do? What am I doing now? What’s the first thing I want? [As I’m entering.]

97-100 Be in character while waiting to go on. Think about what you’ve just been doing, do whatever your character’s doing now, and continue in character as you enter. If you need to be in a certain state upon entrance, you may be able to create some immediate history to help you (eg, you’ve just struggled through a storm to get there, so you feel tired by strong).

13. Immediacy

89 “Dealing with the problems of anticipation while searching for something lost or mislaid.”

102-5 Looking for something as if you don’t know where and when you’ll find it. While practicing you’ll improvise but for the performance you must make decisions about your course of action, and give them logic. Search for a small item — easier to search for if there are few props in the way.

14. The Fourth Wall

89 “The guarantee of privacy while using, not ignoring, the visual area of the audience.”

107-8 Using fourth wall for a primary purpose — looking in a mirror, reading time from a clock, etc. Imagine the objects, and attach them to features in the auditorium. How far away an object should be affects your body — practice, eg, looking in a real mirror from different distances. Don’t place your objects in the audience itself as they move and distract.

109-111 Secondary purpose — just having things there for your attention to wander to if needed. Don’t interact with the objects. Each actor has their own wall. Distance to the objects is irrelevant. Practice — when you make a phone call, where does your attention go? Work on a devised two minute call, use the same objects you looked at, but now imaginary. It shouldn’t be obvious that you’re looking at things.

15. Endowment

89 “Dealing with objects which cannot have total reality because they might otherwise control you; heightened reality.”

112-7 Endow objects with physical attributes. eg, shaving without a blade, removing wet clothing when it’s not wet, drinking water as if it’s wine. To practice, use at least three objects with physical properties that would otherwise control you. You can endow objects further by making them particular, giving them history.

117-8 You should be “rehearsing” every day, when you do things. Observe yourself — what are your inner and outer objects? What’s your sense of identity? What elements of your action are essential?

16. Talking to Yourself

89 “The problem of the monologue.”

120 It’s a monologue if you are alone talking to yourself. If you talk to the audience, it’s a duologue.

120-1 Be aware of when you talk to yourself normally.

122 When talking to ourselves we don’t usually tell the whole story or stay in sequence — it’s not necessarily clear from the outside.

122-3 When doing a monologue, first decide on your surroundings and what you’re doing — you probably didn’t go there just to talk to yourself.

17. Outdoors

89 “a) Relationship to space and nature, b) Finding forward-moving occupation without the help of furniture and props.”

124-5 Part one: Explore being in different outdoor situations, how your body reacts to the ground, temperature, surroundings, etc. Create four fourth walls. Search for your relationships with items on them. Become aware of how your body moves whenever you look at things.

125-8 Part two: Learn to watch what you do when on your own, doing nothing, while outside (eg, waiting for someone/thing).

18. Conditioning Forces

89 “Learning to put together three or more sensory influences — heat, cold, physical pains, hurry, dark, quiet, etc.”

130 The scene is rarely about these forces — they affect it.

130-1 Hurry: You must be precise about your destination and how long it will take to get there.

131-2 Quiet: You must know why and where the people are you don’t wish to disturb.

132-3 When practicing work on the task itself until it has logic and you are familiar with it. Add one condition at a time, get familiar with that before adding another. Start with the one that has least importance, end with one that requires the most conscious attention.

19. History

90 “Identify with and finding realities of historic time and place (the character taken out of crisis in the play).”

134-8 Take a character from a play set in the past and research the time and, if possible, the character. Perform an everyday task as the character. Try it wearing clothes that you can believe feel right (even if not historically accurate).

20. Character Action

90 “Objects as they affect two different characters in terms of behaviour.”

140 Choose two characters from the same country and time. Put them in a place and give them a common, simple, relevant objective. Select objects they might occupy themselves with. Construct behaviour logical to each character by changing your endowments of the objects to serve each character.

Part 3 — The Play and the Role


145 Don’t have to be rigid with the following rules, or use them in this order.

21. First Contact with the Play

147-8 Discard your first impressions of the play. Read it over and over.

148 Define what the playwright wants to communicate in a single active sentence.

150 Objective research should be 10%, subjective 90%. Intellectual work should be just enough to stimulate the creative imagination.

150 Next: Examine the play in terms of time, place, needs, conflicts. What’s the texture of the play? What adjectives would you use to describe it?

22. The Character

152-3 Don’t think of them as “he” or “she”. It’s “Who am I?” Study the play to glean facts about parents, upbringing, health, friends, interests, etc. What do others think of you? What do I want (or not want)?

154-5 Combine real people, events, from your past, or imagined ones, to give these facts reality.

156 Ask why the character does things, both in the play and in your created history. What do they think about it?

157 None of this needs to be discussed with others. It’s for you.

23. Circumstances

158-9 Decide the past, present and expectations for future circumstances. Not just for the start of the play, but during and between every act and scene.

160-4 Examine the when and where. How do those affect you? Your thoughts, constraints, actions, appearance, etc. Details of people, society, locations, etc.

24. Relationship

65-6 You must make relationships specific. Endow them. How are you related to other characters in terms of power? Is that willingly or unwillingly? In which areas (love, work, etc.)? Is a relationship reciprocal? Secret? What assumptions do you have about other characters (and vice versa)? What’s the history of your relationship? What do you like and dislike about them? What about them annoys you or pleases you? How do their actions affect you?

167-8 Don’t judge your character — reveal the human being.

169-70 You may have to combine people from real life for different aspects of a character you have a relation to.

170-3 It’s possible to play characters of a different age to yourself, but avoid clichés. Ages affect your relationships.

25. The Objective

174-6 Three categories:

  1. Overall. Part of the work on “Who am I?” General needs in life. Use substitutions if these objectives seem alien to you.
  2. For each scene. Should be linked to events and drive things forward.
  3. Moment-to-moment wihtin the scenes. The beats of the scene.

176-7 There may be conscious and subconscious objectives. The former are aligned with your self-image and sense of morality. Subsconscious — deal with them openly. What actions would you take if you followed these objectives? Then bury those and only pursue actions related to conscious objectives. Subconscious will influence. Or you might prefer to work on them the other way around.

177 Don’t confuse things you want to do (objectives) with what you have to do (which might be obstacles).

26. The Obstacle

182 There is always an obstacle. Find one if it’s not obvious.

27. The Action

184 “Acting” is doing. Everything above leads to an action.

185 Hagen crosses out any adjectives from stage directions — they are not actions. If you are sad, happy, etc. it will be because of the circumstances etc. and the result of actions.

186 The “mood” results from the actions. You can’t “get into the mood.”

187-8 Ask how you get what you want, how to overcome obstacles. Answer using active verbs. When performing you should be aware of the action’s effect on the object. But you don’t know if the action will succeed or fail.

188 Actions can be split like objectives:

  1. Overall, to overcome overall obstacles and fulfill overall objectives.
  2. Main action to overcome main obstacle and achieve main objective.
  3. Immediate action to overcome immediate obstacle and fulfill objectives within individual beats of the scene.

Work positively — not what you won’t do, but what you might or must do. Does it get you where you want?

28. The Rehearsal

191-2 Don’t be egotistical, don’t tell each other what to do or not. Be on time. Don’t waste time socialising — get on with work.

192-4 Do homework on a scene before rehearsal. First rehearsal, read through together for content only, a couple of times, without acting. Avoid emotions. Don’t discuss it! If your characters have a past, do an improvisation with them. If they’re competitive, play a game. If man and wife, improvise him coming home from work. If there’s a crisis, how does that then affect the routine?

Don’t discuss the place — set it up. Don’t settle on the first choice. Keep moving things for a bit. If the scene is in your room, ask someone to quiz you about it, every object and detail. Endow things, make them particular. If it’s supposed to be, say, chilly, work for a sense memory.

194 Don’t “help” your partner with their role. “You destroy all innocence of receiving” by watching them too much.

195 If, say, the actor is supposed to stop you leaving, but is too slow, leave! They’ll be quicker next time.

Then put the first beat of the scene on its feet. [She seems to be saying not to worry about the exact words, as the previous work will give you all you need to take you through the beat?] When the first beat seems valid, move on. Avoid run-throughs — save till last. Don’t finish a rehearsal just because it “felt good.”

29. Practical Problems

201 Have material ready for any audition. Have several monologues and scenes ready.

203 At auditions — When reading, give yourself an objective, head for it with improvised actions which are as real as possible. Endow whoever’s reading with you.

207 If you’re talking to the audience, decide who they are — put them in the correct time and place for the play. To avoid looking at individuals, place your imaginary audience as primary objects on the fourth wall.

209 Practice accents long before you get to working on the lines themselves — the accent should be second nature by then.

31. Style

217 Forget “style” — you can’t work from an outward appearance.

218 If you’re playing a comedy, don’t try to be funny. Similar for tragedy, etc.


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Monday 8 May 2006, 5:36pm

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