Gathered on the stage—the last in New York on which Hagen would appear, as part of a Nov. 14, 1999, reading of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, starring Matthew Broderick, Mia Farrow and Jonathan Pryce, to benefit her beloved HB Studios acting school—were her daughter Leticia Ferrer; fellow actors (and sometime students) Lindsay Crouse, Laila Robins, George Grizzard, Marlo Thomas, Austin Pendleton and David Hyde Pierce; playwright Edward Albee; friend Father Steve Chinlund; and HB colleague and director William Carden, who presided over the event.
"Uta said she had not wanted a memorial," said Carden in his opening remarks, "and I know from experience that when you set out to do something Uta didn't want, it could be pretty tough. But she also told her students that they should never read their reviews. And I know for a fact that she read every one. When I asked her about this, she said, 'Well, I'm older! I know how to read them!'"
The afternoon event was replete with similar affectionate and humorous tales of Hagen's legendary tenacity and take-no-prisoners approach to her profession and life in general. Yet, for whatever hard words Hagen had had for the speakers—as an actor or as a teacher—her contribution to their lives and craft seemingly left them with only feelings of gratitude, respect and love.
David Hyde Pierce, who was her co-star in the last play she performed in, the Los Angeles premiere of Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, remembered fighting with her over a bit of stage business involving a phone. Seeing Pierce was not backing down, Hagen swore, lit a cigarette and said, "I wish you'd have some respect for me!" Pierce replied, in angry tones, "Until the day I die, I will have nothing but respect for you!" The rehearsal hall cleared and the two continued to "thrash it out" from the stage to the lobby to the parking lot, for 45 minutes. "By the time we reached her car, we were in love," said Pierce.
A tearful Robins called Hagen her "artistic mother," noting various similarities in their backgrounds. Robins played Hagen's daughter in Off-Broadway's Mrs. Klein, one of Hagen's final roles. "She said," Robins recalled, "it's not a question of whether we can do this. It's whether we want to do the work." Robins also remembered many happy bar discussions in which they would talk passionately about the play. "And heaven help me if I ordered something like a camomile tea, instead of 'a proper drink.'"
"It was fun to act with her," remembered her Virginia Woolf co-star George Grizzard. "She was a great dame." He said he still had a scarf she had knitted for him during intermissions of the Albee play. "She always had to be doing something," he said. Many of the reminiscences surrounded Hagen's most famous role, that of the man-eating, embittered Martha in Albee's 1962 epic. Albee told how Geraldine Page had actually been the first choice for Martha, but was rejected when Page's mentor, Lee Strasberg, "said it would be all right if Alan Schneider directed her in the play, but only if Strasberg could be present at rehearsals at all times." He went on to say Hagen's Martha was only equalled by the one other: the Martha performed by Hagen 37 years later in the benefit staged reading.
Austin Pendleton, who began his career as a student of Hagen's at HB, and eventually taught at the school, remembered an early preview of Woolf as the "moment when it all came together for" him, when he knew acting would be his life's work. Talking of Hagen's influential books "Respect for Acting" and "Challenge for the Actor," Pendleton said, to general laughter, "I always had this theory that Uta was afraid that she was in danger of becoming a 19th century actress, just tearing around the stage. And that's why she came up with this elaborate method of acting, from which she never wavered—to keep herself in check."
Pendleton told of another time when, unshaven and disheveled, he reported to HB Studios to participate in a reading of The Importance of Being Earnest, only to be greeted by one of Hagen's patented withering glances. "You might think about how the character might dress," she said. "I remembered that today," said Pendleton, rumpled, his hair uncombed, "when I saw all these people up her dressed so nicely. I'm sure when I get home there's going to be a message on the answering machine from Uta."
Several speakers revealed that Hagen, the serious artist, was not above base theatrical chicanery. After falling off the stage during a performance of Six Dance Lessons and being persuaded to halt the performance, Hagen confided in Pierce that, "I wanted to finish the show because I knew I'd get my hand." And Pendleton explained how Hagen once taught him a bow designed to milk the utmost applause out of the audience. The curtain call involved bowing slowly at the waist "as if the performance had completely drained you," and then, as you rose, grabbing the back of a chair for support.
She apparently used the trick in Six Dance Lessons. "We had performed this light comedy about a widow and a second-rate dance instructor," said Pierce, "and she acted like we had just done Tosca."
Several speakers talked of visiting Hagen during her last months, when she was confined to her apartment and attended on by nurses. Crouse recalled a moment under the tutelage of Hagen which altered her career. Having just finished a long speech from a Giraudoux play in Hagen's class, the teacher sat silent, then finally told her student, "What you just did was simple and honest and tender. That is your power. And if you don't know that by now, I have nothing else to tell you." Years later, Crouse sat by the side of an ailing Hagen, who was weakened by a stroke. Hagen confessed she was frightened all the time. In answer, Crouse repeated Hagen's words from the acting class.
Ferrer, the last to speak, said that Pierce, who called weekly after Hagen's stroke, phoned Uta on her final day, and was the last voice Hagen heard before she died.
At the start of the memorial, Carden retold a famous story illustrative of Hagen's artistic conviction and bravery. At the age of 18, she auditioned for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne for a production of The Seagull. Having been ordered by Lunt not to perform anything from The Seagull. Hagen prepared A Doll's House instead. However, just before the audition, Hagen impulsively decided to perform as Nina from the Chekhov play. She got the part, her Broadway debut.
Soon before she died, Pendleton participated in a reading of The Seagull in Hagen's Greenwich Village apartment, in which Hagen sometimes played both Arkadina and Nina. They were working from a modern translation. But, on one occasion, Hagen suddenly lapsed into the Stark Young translation she had enacted with the Lunts, some 60 odd years before. "It was still there," Pendleton said. "That truth. That absolute knowledge of what she was speaking."
Ferrer closed by staring out at the capacity crowd, many of them HB students, and saying, "I was her daughter. You were her children."