EYES ON STAGE – Acting Lessons

A Russian director I once worked with, who’d been with the Moscow Art Theater, told me he could teach the “true Stanislavsky method,” not the false U.S. version being taught by Stella Adler and others.

“It’s all in the eyes,” the director told me. “Acting is done with the eyes.” You can see it in silent movies, of course, and especially in Eisenstein’s films, with the actors staring and glaring very effectively at one another.

My own experience with actors trained in the Method (U.S. version) found them spending too much time on “inner process” and not enough on how they projected their characters—or even their voices—on stage. Comedy, especially, can be ruined by actors who spend so much time processing their thoughts that they ruin the timing needed to trigger laughter.

Late in her career I worked on a project with Kim Hunter, who as a young actress won a Tony and an Oscar for her performances as Stella in the play and film of A Streetcar Named Desire. Her early career was destroyed by the McCarthy-era blacklist. She helped bring an end to blacklisting, according to lawyer Louis Nizer, with her testimony in his legal case against the blacklisters. Sadly it was too late to restore the momentum of her career, and later audiences mainly got to know her for her excellent performances, under heavy chimpanzee makeup, in the Planet of the Apes movies.

Kim was a kind and generous person, so I was surprised by the intensity of her dislike of another actor of her generation, Uta Hagen, who by coincidence had also been blacklisted. I suspected it was partly due to Hagen’s late-career starring run off-Broadway, as the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, in a theater near Kim’s apartment. Meanwhile our project, a play I wrote for Kim and her husband, who was an actor also, had so far only had some readings in the Village and in regional theaters.

We also did one at the near-by Lee Strasberg Institute. When I set it up, Kim said, “Well, I suppose he’s been dead long enough for me to go there.” Although she was part of the Actors Studio in its early days, she had a falling-out with Strasberg, who was prominent as a Method guru.

I never learned why she felt so negatively about Strasberg. I did, though, ask about Hagen, who taught a version of the Method at her HB Studio (Hagen was the “H”). In fact, when my stepdaughter sat in on an adult class at HB, she found it boring and old-hat, just repeating exercises she had already learned in the children’s program at the Neighborhood Playhouse, another New York theater school. The instructor, by the way, taught the Method at HB throughout his career, but his own breakthrough in the movies came in a role in which he did comic shtick in a funny voice.

Kim, in ordinary conversation, was never “actorish”; you forgot you were speaking with a world-class artist. But she could have been Lady Macbeth as she told me about the time Hagen replaced Jessica Tandy during Tandy’s vacation after Streetcar’s first year on Broadway. Kim and Uta performed as Stella and Blanche DuBois for four weeks, on stage together through scene after scene.

And what was Uta Hagen’s failing on stage? With eyes burning and her voice emphatic and intense, Kim shouted: “She never looked at you! She looked at the audience! Or off into space! Never at the person she was speaking to!”

The Russians would have hated it.

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A short film with no dialog (all eyes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9K6rsOwllU

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