Show: FRESH AIR
Date: NOVEMBER 04, 1998
Head: Acting Teacher Uta Hagen
Sect: News; Domestic
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross.
I've heard many actors say with reverence that they studied at the HB Studio in New York. That's the studio run by my guest, the celebrated actress and teacher Uta Hagen. The studio was founded by her late husband Herbert Berghof in 1945.
Some of the actors who studied there incl
ude Jack Lemmon, Stockard Channing, Matthew Broderick and Lily Tomlin. Many actors have studied Uta Hagen's books, "Respect for Acting," and "A Challenge for the Actor."
Uta Hagen started her acting career over 60 years ago, and worked with now-legendary people, including: Eva Gallion (ph), The Luntz (ph), and Paul Robeson. She was born in Germany and moved to Madison, Wisconsin at the age of six when her father accepted a position teaching art history at the University of Wisconsin.
In 1995, Uta Hagen sta
rred in the title role of "Mrs. Klein" off-Broadway. Now she's starring off-Broadway in "Collected Stories." She plays Ruth Steiner, a prominent writer and teacher who lives alone. I asked her to describe the story.
UTA HAGEN, ACTRESS; ACTING TEACHER: The play is about her relationship to a young protege -- who develops into a protege, a young writing student. And they form a very very close relationship, like mother and daughter. And eventually the young writer betrays by taking material and personal thing
s of the teacher's life and capitalizing on it. And it's actually a play about betrayal - to me at least.
GROSS: Now, is there a relationship that you were able to draw on in preparing for this role?
HAGEN: Well, betrayal is something, I think, everybody has experienced and I think that's why the play has such -- reaches so many people on that level. To trust someone, to take someone into one's life and form a close relationship, and then have that relationship abused and used for personal gain I think is
not uncommon, unfortunately. And I think that's, thematically, what it's about.
GROSS: I guess I'm wondering too if you've ever been wary of students who you have become very close to feeling that at some point they might cross over a line?
HAGEN: No. You see, in acting it's different. They can't steal anything of mine. I'm offering most everything in my techniques, but they have to do it on their own and they can't -- when you're good it's very hard to have anybody copy you.
GROSS: You once said t
hat and your age, I think, 79 now, it's hard to find roles that aren't about Alzheimer's disease.
HAGEN: Isn't that the truth? Work that has to do with intelligent people and functioning people is very difficult. It's a wonderful world.
GROSS: Is that very frustrating for you? Would you like to get more...
HAGEN: Oh, sure I mean -- between when I found "Mrs. Claren" (ph) I was so thrilled which is the last play I did. And I went into the doldrums, I thought I'll never find another challenging role.
And in my director, William Cardenall (ph), whose is also the director -- the artistic director of the HB Playwrights Foundation where I work, found this play and I just flipped, and I've been happy ever since -- since last January when I began working on it.
GROSS: Let me ask you a question that I hope you don't misinterpret, but I think most people find that once they're in their 30s their memory starts to not be as good as it was.
And everyone I know seems to be struggling with this.
I'm wondering if over the years you felt that any sense that your memory isn't as a sharp as it once was, and if you have to like learn lines in a way different from a way you used to when you're much younger.
HAGEN: No, no. It takes me longer to learn lines because I learn them correctly, and not because my memory's gone. But when people memorize lines mechanically they're learning them wrong anyway, and I can do that very quickly.
People say "I'm a fast study" -- I say "So am I if I just want the mechani
cs." But I once know what I'm talking about to learn the content of what I'm talking about, and have the words become inevitable through my connection with their meaning that takes a long time.
GROSS: You're known as a great teacher as well as a great actor, and you've written a couple of books about acting. You write that there are hundreds of different people within you who surface through today.
And you recommend that actors find the person within them that's closest to the role that they're playing?
HAGEN: Well, there's only one person in you. In other words, when you create a role you are selecting from various aspects of your life and putting it together to create that new character. But all that has to spring from your understanding of yourself, and that's what takes so long.
GROSS: You said that an experience that has served you many times including when you played Blanche in "Streetcar Named Desire," an experience from your childhood when you were pelted with hard snowballs by kids in the neighbor
hood, and you were called an atheist.
What is it from that scene that stayed with you so much from that experience?
HAGEN: Well, it was a cold winter night. I was hounded through the streets with snowballs by children -- that's terrifying. I've never forgotten it, it was like being in hell.
GROSS: What is it from that experience that you summon up when you need to for a role?
HAGEN: I don't know.
GROSS: OK. I'm wondering if there is a kind of experience that is so frightening or rich for yo
u -- if you've used it to draw on several times for roles. Does the experience dry up, does it lose its power to have that energy for you?
HAGEN: No. As a matter of fact, that experience might wear out because I've talked about it a lot. If you don't talk about it a lot it stays useful. When you explain to an audience -- to somebody, a friend or -- no, not a friend -- a colleague who's working with you -- what sources you're using, if you tell them that your secret is gone. Now they look at you with that kno
wledge of what you're using and judging it. And you can't use it anymore.
GROSS: That's interesting. So, you won't talk about these things with the people you're performing with?
HAGEN: No, no.
GROSS: But you'll talk about it with your students?
HAGEN: No, not when I'm using it in an immediate role. I'd give them examples like the snowball. Now that's used up for me because I've talked about it a lot.
GROSS: In one of your books about acting you talk about how you can't be inert onstage,
and you have to find out what it is that you actually do when you think you're doing nothing so that you can do that kind of thing onstage.
Have you thought about that a lot, what it is your doing?
HAGEN: I'm going to interrupt you right now.
GROSS: Go ahead.
HAGEN: Because, again, everything you are discussing you have read -- it interests you. Are you an actor?
GROSS: No, I'm not.
HAGEN: Then it's none of your business. Now, let me explains to you why. It may interest you, it may fasc
inate you, but if -- you see I feel that in the theater everybody thinks they connect -- everybody is fascinated about another human being onstage.
It's very convincing they usually are sure that they could do it to which is not true at all. If you would go to a violinist, you would not asked him about his bowing arm, about his elbow position, about his phrasing, and if he told you you wouldn't know what he was talking about, and you would be bored.
If you went to a painting class -- a watercolor class, and
you saw a teacher showing somebody how to wash a piece of paper that is going to have watercolor put on it in a minute, and said, what do they teach here? How to water down a page?
It is not the secrets, but the craft itself. You wouldn't ask a scientist because you wouldn't know what he was talking about, and you must -- I feel, an audience should learn to respect acting as a craft in the same way that you -- if I do explain it it might titillate you, you might understand a little of it, but the real impact or
import of it for a fellow artist you would not get.
I don't say that to offend you, I just believe that with all my heart.
GROSS: I want to say I totally respect what you're saying, but I just beg to differ on a couple of things. For example, I would be asking the violinist about their phrasing and bend of their arm and all of that.
GROSS: Well, because I think...
HAGEN: Do you play violin?
GROSS: No, but...
HAGEN: Then I think you're -- you might ask him, but I think t
he violinist would look at you like you were nuts. And I think you are.
GROSS: What I have found as someone very interested in these things is that, for instance, if the violinist talks to me about his or her phrasing it might help me hear music -- hear things in music that I didn't hear before.
I find that actually understanding more about craft is not only interesting in its own right, but helps me perceive things that I didn't perceive before which I like.
HAGEN: That's a very valid p
oint, and may be I'm just in reaction to so many people who asked these questions without -- the misunderstanding of the layman in terms of an acting technique are so profound that I think I've pretty much had it in my life with that. I think that's probably part my rebellion.
GROSS: I'll tell you another reason why I be interested in hearing your thoughts about acting -- though I respect you for not wanting to talk about this -- is that I think really good actors have great insights into the body and how the b
ody is used, how the body communicates, how the voice communicates.
And also that great actors are great observers of other people, and they just have great insights into how people think and move.
HAGEN: That's true, but you see the body, again, which I am gung ho about - and talking about it all the time. I believe that the body as an instrument of communication is all-powerful, and the biggest influence in my life for that training came from modern dance.
Without being balletic or dancerish, but it v
ery strongly influenced me. However, very fine actors very often cannot define themselves what it is they're doing. Loretta Taylor could not tell you what she was doing. She had no -- she was intuitive, instinct great performer.
GROSS: Actually I've noticed that as an interviewer that some of the great artists I've interviewed...
HAGEN: Oh, God some the best ones can't -- and I happen to have -- because I've been teaching I found in my own work that very often when I couldn't explain something it was bec
ause I didn't understand it myself. When I couldn't articulate it, it was because it was fuzzy in my own head.
Now, I do know that I can do it, nevertheless, but I may not be able to communicate it to someone else.
GROSS: Perhaps you'll let me ask you about the voice inside "Do speak on the radio."
GROSS: I know that you've recommended singing lessons for people who aren't necessarily going to be singing onstage but are just going to be speaking. What you feel you've lear
ned about your voice from studying singing? I'm assuming you studied it.
HAGEN: I did -- it's the same with like when I say dance - modern dance for the body of the actor which does not make them self-conscious about stage movement, but gives them a sense of alignment, a sense of -- an awareness of their body in space.
In the same way, singing rather than voice for the theater makes them not listen to themselves. It prepares the vocal instrument -- the diaphragm, the whole tone of the voice in the head. W
ithout making -- now listen to yourself when you talk. Do you understand what I mean?
The self-consciousness -- when it makes you listen how it sounds you're going to be a bad actor. Your voice has to be there for you to serve you when the time comes.
GROSS: Right. So, you're not worrying about how you're doing your lines.
GROSS: You're learning about the sound, and physicality of your voice.
HAGEN: Exactly. It's there from the singing, it serves -- the instrument is ready
- it's primed.
GROSS: My guest is actress and acting teacher Uta Hagen. She's now starring off-Broadway in the play "Collected Stories." We'll talk more after our break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is actress and acting teacher Uta Hagen.
Your acting career was launched by what I perceived to be as a very bold gesture when, I think, you were 17, you wrote a letter to Eva Gallion asking if you could work with her.
GROSS: And I think that's a ver
y brave thing to do.
HAGEN: I didn't even think it was brave, I just -- I was also very stupid. I thought she still had the civic repertory which I knew had read a great deal about and heard about. And it was the only repertory company in America at the time. There hasn't been one since, I don't think - a real repertory company.
And she was doing great place and contemporary new playwrights, and Ibsen (ph), and Chekov, and Shakespeare -- and that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a part of that. And
based on that, I wrote her and I said this is what I want and could I audition for you, and I want to be a part of the theater.
And I didn't realize that the Civic had already folded, and she was still functioning but not in that capacity. And then she was working on a production of "Hamlet," which I didn't know, and I went home after my addition with her in spring of '36, no '37.
And I was -- my father wanted me to go to college because at that time you couldn't get a job that Macy's if you didn't have a d
egree - it was during the Depression. And I was itching to just go into the theater, I didn't want to do college.
So, I thought, I'll do it in a three-year plan and take summer school, and one to enroll in summer school and came home and there was a letter from Miss Gannon asking if I would be interested in coming east and working with her on "Hamlet." And that was my debut in the theater Ophelia.
GROSS: Now, was that letter based on her having seen you or just based on your letter?
N: No, based on my letter. My letter to her.
GROSS: What did you say in that letter about yourself, that's a good indication.
HAGEN: I don't know. I really don't know how I used to persuade people that I was fabulous because I guess I believed it. And I don't know how I interested -- my agent said to me -- who was my agent at the time, she said, I don't know, when you walk in, you knew you were great so we believed it.
And I don't think I had egomania at all, I just believed I had a big talent and I
was going to be a great actress.
GROSS: So, what was it like for you playing Ophelia so early in your career?
HAGEN: I don't remember. You see, it's all like a haze and blur, it was a wonderful experience and in essence I studied with it because I worked with her on the play and that whole company with fencing lessons and we had all sorts of extracurricular things we were asked to do.
And we wove our own costumes at her looms, and it was a phenomenal experience for me. And then when that was finished
which went very well in Dennis -- we played in Dennis, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, and got wonderful reviews from Elliott Norton and all the fine Boston critics.
And then she was going to do eight plays in repertory, and work on it for three years. She had a huge grant for that, and I was going to be part of that, and I rehearsed with her for three months and she abandoned the whole thing because she felt the company wasn't good enough which I don't think it was.
And so, I worked with her on the "Sea Gull,"
I work with her on other roles in the fall, and then in Christmas the whole thing was collapsed. And then I went on to do the "Sea Gull" with the Luntz (ph). I don't believe it when I left, it's because it's like some fairy tale.
GROSS: Well, before we go on to your experience with the Luntz, you mentioned that you had fencing instruction when you were with Eva Gallion. Have you ever had to fence in a role, what is the point of studying fencing?
HAGEN: Oh, fencing is like tennis for an actor. It's the i
deal sport to learn for agility, for give and take, for spontaneity, for -- oh, it's fabulous.
GROSS: I always thought that actors studied fencing in case they were playing a period piece, but you're saying that they studied fencing to be more physically responsive.
HAGEN: Oh, absolutely. You know, it's like -- I very often compare really good actors with very great tennis players. In other words, the give and take, the receiving and sending is -- the spontaneity and immediacy of that, once you sense that
then you know what acting is all about.
GROSS: Now you worked with Alfred Lunt (ph) and Lynn Fontaine (ph) on Broadway in the "Sea Gull." These are like great names of the theater but most people today have never seen them perform and know them only through legend. What were they like? What was so special about them?
HAGEN: Well, they were an enormous influence on my life. They just, if I say only one thing of discipline -- I've never -- what they pounded into me in terms of theater discipline has neve
r left me. And I tried to pass that on because I'm very shocked, most of the time, at young actors who don't understand what a discipline performer is like in terms of the simplest things of your own health and your rest -- readying yourself for work, of the hours you put into work.
I never -- I can work 12 hours in a row and not fall down, and the respect for the craft -- for the love of the theater, the need to make it into a true offering for an audience. I mean I knew some of these things before, but they w
ere kind of reconfirmed and I saw it in practice -- they were phenomenal.
GROSS: When you say they taught you discipline, could you elaborate on what it was that they taught you that helped you with discipline.
HAGEN: Well, they were disciplinarians in the toughest sense of the word. You were -- if -- your curtain was at 8:30 in those days -- your half-hour was at 7 -- at 8. You were in the theater at 6:30 and not a moment later.
Someone like Clarence Derwood (ph), who was a president of equity at one
point, a very prominent actor -- played with them in "The Pirate," and he played a part of the pirate who didn't appear until the third act, that was at 10:00. He was still in the theater at 6:30.
And the -- no-nonsense backstage -- never drink during the day, you don't come to the theater in a messy state, you look after your costumes -- she sometimes used to sit with me trying to teach me a decent makeup which I had classes in for years.
And she would smack my hands if my -- while I was putting on my ey
ebrow pencil, and say -- no, no, no. You make up for the -- not for the last row gallery with opera glasses, but for somebody in the front row with opera glasses. And that's what I'm talking -- that you don't have on a beautiful costume and have a malted milk and spill it in your lap.
In other words, everything had to do with true care of everything you did and everything you brought to a performance.
GROSS: Uta Hagen, she's now starring off-Broadway in the play "Collected Stories." Her latest book is c
alled "A Challenge for Actors." She'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross.
Back with celebrated actress and acting teacher Uta Hagen. She's now starring off-Broadway in the play "Collected Stories." She runs the HB acting studio in New York where she has taught since the late '40s. She started her acting career over 60 years ago and has worked with now legendary people.
In 1943 you played Desdemona to
Paul Robeson's Othello. What was it like to work opposite Robeson?
HAGEN: Well, it was wonderful. He was unbelievably, overused term, but a charismatic man with a great presence and enormous intelligence -- sense of humor. He was a great great man.
GROSS: Was there anything that was considered controversial about the production?
HAGEN: Everything was considered controversial that's why...
GROSS: Because so often Othello was played by a white actor in black face.
HAGEN: But it was the fir
st time in this country, no maybe not, maybe in some actor was -- I was trying to think of who else would play it, I don't want to have history cockeyed here. But it was, for a Broadway production, way ahead of its time in that sense. And that made it very controversial and very exciting, and no trouble at all. Everybody was thrilled with the idea that this was finally happening.
GROSS: Now, am I right in saying that you were later blacklisted?
HAGEN: Oh, yes I was blacklisted for 10 years. As a matter
of fact, I was graylisted -- in 1970 I did a production for CBS, and I said to -- there was a woman producer called Barbara Schultz, and I said, did you have any trouble getting me on? And she said, oh, God, yes. That was still in 1970.
GROSS: And do you think that that related at all to your work with Robeson?
HAGEN: It did.
GROSS: And your friendship with Robeson?
HAGEN: It did, no question about it. I also was a progressive, and a political -- I still call myself a liberal -- left liberal De
mocrat. I always was and I always will be, and it was that one time in my life when I would say I was a very proud to be an American citizen because I felt I was very active as such.
And the blacklisting and the -- what happened to me as a result, I say the governments still owes me an apology.
GROSS: So, you lost a lot of roles that you think you would have had.
HAGEN: Oh, of course. Oh, I know. It was at the -- kind of the most fruitful part of my career, I had just done Blanche for two years, I ha
d done the "Country Girl," I had done "St. Joan," and suddenly I was beginning to get big television offers. I never got another television, never got another film offer.
"St. Joan" was supposed to go on the road, I couldn't go on the road because they were writing the guild protest letters from Indianapolis -- from all over the country. And they -- and the worst thing they did -- I don't really care I say about that because I think in a way maybe it prevented me for being tempted by movies and stuff that I wou
ld have been sorry I did afterwards.
But what they did to me spiritually was that this was the only time in my life I was ever frightened. I've never been frightened of anything in my life, and that scared me and that's what I resent most.
GROSS: Did you have to testify?
HAGEN: Twice. I mean I had -- I was called twice, I only testified once eventually in a private session. But those were horrible days, those were days when you sat in a restaurant and if you started to talk politics you looked over y
our shoulder to suit if a waiter was listening and was going to report you.
My phone was tapped, I was followed by the FBI, and nobody ever even asked me to be a communist. That's what's so ironic about that whole time.
GROSS: Back to your acting. In 1947, you worked with the director Harold Klurman (ph), and you say that he took away all your tricks and brought you into a more modern approach to acting. What were the tricks that he stripped you of?
HAGEN: Well, the tricks -- what you learn actually
he stripped me of stuff that I had acquired as a professional which was pretty junky, you know, but Broadway tricks, you tell a funny joke just before you went on -- go onto the stage it that makes you into a professional which is junk.
And the slick entrances, and how to sit, and how to move gracefully, and self aware, and theatrically -- externally theatrically funny. Which I did not begin with, by the way, as an amateur Klurman let me back to being a good amateur which is that I believed who I was, I believe
d where I was, I had faith in what I was doing, I was not dishing it out front for consumption.
And he wouldn't let me to -- learn to fix line readings, to fix gestures, and he didn't let me do any of that. And I got back to where I've been, and I only now believe that it could be done that way and wasn't a deterrent but was true.
GROSS: You met your late husband, Herbert Berghof, in the theater. He was an actor and teacher and you run the studio that he founded. Did you meet him in a play? Were you on s
HAGEN: Yes, we were in a play with Klurman, as a matter of fact -- it was the same play, called "The Whole World Over" by Konstantine Sirminov (ph), not a very good play. And he was a replacement, and I had heard about him through many of my acting colleagues. Many of them studied with him, I thought he was a phony, he was a guru.
At the few meetings I had with him I thought he was a strange man, and then we started working together and there were love scenes. And a couple of kisses, and a
couple of hugs and a couple of weeks later we hit the sack and we never left. Forty-four years later.
GROSS: I imagine that it's a very kind of intensified experienced to be in love with somebody on and offstage. To enact this dramatic love onstage and to also feel it offstage.
HAGEN: I don't think it's that so much. It's working together, I think it needn't have been a love scene for us to fall in love with each other. But what was extraordinary about our relationship from then on was that we truly
did everything together. I mean he got me into teaching, he's the one who started the teaching.
And I said, I don't know how to teach, why do you want me to teach? And he said, you know how to act, can't you learn how to pass on what we've learned?
And when he put it that way, I thought that will be fun, and from then on I loved it. And we had the studio together and we played together for many many years. He directed me in many plays, and it was a unique fabulous life that I still can't believe is gone
GROSS: My guest is actress and teacher Uta Hagen.
Did you ever study, you know, the method?
HAGEN: No, never. I mean I've read all of Stanislovky's books avidly when I was young, and I still have my old copies that are all underlined with "So true" on the side. And I didn't really know why. And I also remember thinking why can't I do what he's telling me when I get onstage?
As a matter of fact, when I was asked to write my book, I was actually commissioned to write the first one by McMillan, I
said it can't be done because -- and drove me crazy because I said I can demonstrate something in one second that it takes the 30 pages to write - that's so boring.
But the -- my books are actually based on things that gave me problems as an actor. Every exercise, everything I came up with was based on my own problems sharing those with other actors which I think most of those problems every actor has had himself.
When people say, how do you know that? I say, because there isn't a mistake I haven't made. T
here isn't a mistake in the book that I haven't made 10 times, 100 times. So, then I see it in someone else and I can help them get rid of the problem.
GROSS: You mention that first book about acting that you wrote. You've, in a way, disavowed that book, and you have a second book about acting. What was the problem with the first book?
HAGEN: Well, when somebody -- I was watching an exercise in class and I was appalled, and I very rarely get impatient and this time I did, and I said, my God, what's the,
matter didn't you read my book? And she said:,yes. And I said, where does it say to do what you just did?
And she brought me the book and there was some sentence there, I said, oh, no. And I hadn't look at the book in 12 years. And I took it home and re-read it, and I said this has got to go. And I immediately started to revise it and spent another five years writing the new one.
And theoretically I agree with many of the things in the first book. But it's cute, it's superficial, it's convenient, I t
hink it can be as misinterpreted -- I teach all of -- I taught a lot in colleges. They say we're working from your book, and they're doing the opposite of what I say. They have managed to say what I wrote and interpret it the opposite.
So, I thought, this mustn't be, so I wrote the new one and I think you might -- people might not like it as much but they -- and they might disagree with it. You can't even disagree with the first one, it's so general.
GROSS: I wonder if you have actors who you've taugh
t who you've seen changed by working in Hollywood and achieving stardom there?
HAGEN: I have seen -- well, if they're talented and managed to get over the idiocy of Hollywood, they usually change for the better. But if they -- they improve. But if they -- I've seen professional actors -- stars whom I've worked with who were theater actors who were quite extraordinary and wonderful.
And they go to Hollywood for six, seven, eight years and they do sitcoms or they do nothing but movies, and they come back a
nd they are scared to death, they cannot sustain a performance, they tense up, they have not used their bodies, they're all used to closeups. And have really lost their ability, and that's a fact. I know four very specific examples that where you shudder.
GROSS: Do you have a performance tonight of "Collected Stories?"
GROSS: Is there anything special that you do on the day of a performance?
HAGEN: Yes, I do as little as possible, and I'll go home now from this interview and eat
by about three, and then at four I will lie down and I will get up at five-thirty and start making up in my home. And then I'll go to the theater at six-thirty and be there at quarter of seven, and then I will play at eight.
GROSS: Well, let me let you return to your preparation for tonight's performance.
It's really been a pleasure to talk with you. I thank you very much.
HAGEN: Thank you so much. Thank you, I hope I wasn't irritating you.
GROSS: No, I mean, no, no. I res
pect all of your opinions on this even if I do differ on some of them. But it's really been a pleasure and thank you very much.
HAGEN: Thank you very much for asking me.
GROSS: Uta Hagen is now starring off Broadway in the play "Collected Stories." It runs through January third. Her latest book is called "A Challenge for the Actor." You can hear her voice in an upcoming episode of "King of the Hill."
Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz read two poems about his mother, who has Alzheimer's disease.
is FRESH AIR.
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.
TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Uta Hagen
High: Stage actress and acting teacher Uta Hagen. She's taught acting for more than 40 years. She taught such actors as Jack Lemmon, Sigourney Weaver, Matthew Broderick and the late Geraldine Page. Her first book about acting, "Respect for Acting," was published in 1973. Her follow up
to that is the book "A Challenge for the Actor." She and her late husband Herbert Berghof founded the HB Studio in New York.
Spec: Uta Hagen; Art; Movie Industry; Education; Entertainment
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without
attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Acting Teacher Uta Hagen
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: NOVEMBER 04, 1998
Head: Poet Lloyd Schwartz
Sect: News; Domestic
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz is also a poet, and recently he's been riding poems about his mother. She has Alzheimer's disease and is in a nursing home. A few weeks ago his mother's nursing home hosted a national symposium on aging and Alzheimer's disease, and Lloyd was asked to read some of his poems.
it turned out to be a more moving experience than he expected.
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC CRITIC, POET: I was a little apprehensive at first, reading poems to a group of distinguished doctors, clinicians, and health care workers. What could my poems tell them that they didn't already know?
I decided to read three poems that were not only about my mother, but in which she herself speaks. My mother is 94 years old. One way these poems are important to me is that they are my way and keeping her -- keepi
ng her voice alive.
Although her memory has radically deteriorated, she's still very much herself, far from the nonentity Alzheimer's patients are so often thought to be. And every now and then out of nowhere she will remember something astonishing.
My mother has spent her whole life giving me things. What she has to give me now are the things she says.
"The Two Horses: A Memory"
You said you had lunch in Pittsfield.
Was it on North Street?
That reminds me of when we lived on the farm.
must be 80 years ago.
We went to a one-room schoolhouse,
Didn't you drive past it once?
Each row was a different grade.
I sat in the first seat of the first row.
The teacher's name was Ms. Brown.
She was so pretty,
I wonder if she's still alive?
The day before we left the farm
Our cat disappeared.
We couldn't find her anywhere.
I was sad for weeks.
Three months later she showed up
At our new house in Pittsfield.
I can't think of the number now.
My sister was in New York,
She didn't like the people she was living with
So she'd visit us.
She fell in love with the young man
Who lived next door.
Morris, your uncle Morris.
They got married and moved to Cleveland.
They're both gone now, aren't they?
You know, I can't picture her.
A few years later we moved to New York.
This just jumped into my mind.
I must have been three years old.
We were still in Russia.
Mir, a small town but famous for its yeshiva (ph
My oldest brother, Joe,
Took our horses down to the river.
They were the two best horses in the town.
My father had a Fayeton (ph),
A beautiful old buggy.
He was like a taxi driver.
He took people to Minsk or Vilna.
That day he was at the station --
the passenger station waiting for customers.
My brother was still just a kid.
He must have been washing the horses
In the river.
I can remember, it was a hot day.
Maybe he was giving them a drink,
I was watching the reins
Got caught around a pole in the river.
The horses kept twisting the reins
Around that pole. It was slippery,
The reins kept sliding down under the water,
And they were pulling the horses down with them.
I ran into town
And got my father
Who came running back with a knife in his teeth.
He jumped into the river
With all his clothes on.
He took the knife and sawed away at the reins
Until he finally cut through.
He saved the horses.
't thought about this
In a thousand years.
It's like a dream.
You get up, it's forgotten.
Then it all comes back. Didn't I ever tell you?
Look at me, I'm starting to cry.
What's there to cry about?
Such an old, old memory. Why should it make me cry?
I wanted to tell my mother about this poem, and this is what came out of that conversation.
He Tells His Mother What He's Working On
I'm writing a poem about you.
You are? What's it about?
It's the story about your c
The horses in the river.
The ones that nearly drowned?
I saved them.
You told it to me just a few weeks ago.
I should dig up more of my memories.
I wish you would.
Like when I lived on the farm
And one of the girls fell down a well.
I forget if it was Rose or Pauline.
It was a deep well.
I remember that story.
Have you finished your poem?
I'm still working on it.
You mean you're correcting it
With commas and semicolons?
When can I see it?
As soon as it's finished.
Is it an epic?
It's not that long.
No, I mean all my thoughts,
The flashes of what's going
Through my life.
The whole family history.
Living through the woe,
The river and the water.
Will it be published?
I have to finish it first.
It's better to write about real life.
That's more important
Than writing something fanciful.
I try to write all my poems about real life.
ou see, the apple never
Falls far from the tree.
I guess not.
You're my apple.
There's probably a worm crawling
Through that apple.
Then it's got
Something sweet to chew on.
Well, you're my tree.
Yes, I'm your tree.
You're an apple,
I'm the tree."
I think it meant something to this audience to hear my mother represented in her own words, and I was glad I read.
After the conference, I went downstairs to visit her. She seemed, as always, happy to see me, and
I was, as always, relieved when she recognized me.
I haven't been showing her any of my poems lately, but I told her about reading some of them at the conference. And since I had it with me, I decided to show her "The Two Horses."
She started to read it out loud. She just had a cataract operation and her vision is still dicey, so she had a little trouble making out the words. Sometime she got lost and had to read the same passage over and over again.
But the thing that really got to me was that as she
was reading she looked up and said, "This is about me, isn't it?"
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is director of the creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. His most recent book of poems is "Good Night Gracie."
Coming up, David Beancooly (ph) reviews a PBS special on the making of the TV series "Homicide."
This is FRESH AIR.
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
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Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Lloyd Schwartz
High: Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz is also a poet. He'll read two of his poems written about his 94 year old mother who has Alzheimer's and is in a nursing home. The poems are: "The Two Horses (A Memory)" and "He Tells His Mother What He's Working On." Both poems were published in the online magazine the "Slate." The poem "He Tells His Mother What He's Working On" can be found on the CD "One Side of the River: Poets of Cambridge & Somerville."
Spec: Lloyd Schwartz; Internet; Art; Media
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End-Story: Poet Lloyd Sch
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