01 June 2011

Herbert Berghof, Acting Teacher

By Kirk Woodward

[Finding an acting teacher can be a haphazard experience, often more luck than good planning. The best teacher for one student is not the best teacher for another, and a famous name isn’t always a guarantee that the fit will be productive. Kirk Woodward, who’s contributed many interesting articles to ROT over the two years I’ve been editing the blog, spent a short time studying with Herbert Berghof, one of the best-known acting teachers in New York and, indeed, the country. But both Kirk and I spent most of our training with far less-well-known teachers, he with Elizabeth Dillon and I, Carol Rosenfeld, women who were respected in the field and gave us tremendous gifts and practical knowledge and with whom we worked for many years. As a sometime teacher of acting myself, I have always advised my students that they should be sure to select a teacher who works for them, regardless of the reputation or renown and irrespective of whatever helpful advice other actors might give them. Still, it can be both fun and valuable to work, however briefly, with famous people, if only to see what it is that made them so well-noted. Useful and sometimes even brilliant knowledge can come from those encounters as well, of course. That’s usually why those teachers became famous—because they’re good. ~Rick]

I’ve only studied with one well-known acting teacher, and I’m not certain how well-known he is these days. His name was Herbert Berghof (1909-1990), and he and his wife, the illustrious actress Uta Hagen (1919-2004), founded the HB Studio on Bank Street, where I studied in the 1970s and – a plug here – where students continue to get an excellent education in performance techniques from theatrical professionals at reasonable prices!

To join Herbert’s class you had to interview with him. I don’t remember anything about the interview, except that it took place in his classroom and that I couldn’t figure out why he’d want me in his class. He did accept me, though, probably because I’d already studied with a good teacher at HB named Carol Rosenfeld. Unfortunately my acting was so full of bad habits that Carol hadn’t been able to help me much, and I really shouldn’t have been in Herbert’s class at all. I guess he had to accept someone. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, when I found a wonderful acting teacher named Elizabeth Dillon (also at HB), that I was able to start making progress.

I doubt that I performed more than two or three scenes in Herbert’s class. I wasn’t ready for him, and he wasn’t focused enough on people like me to help me much. The only scene I remember doing was one from Shaw’s Saint Joan. I prepared diligently for it and still wasn’t very good. All Herbert said was, “I must see you in a realistic scene.” I have no memory if he ever did or not.

Mostly I just had a great time watching and listening to him. Herbert was a burly man, bald on top, with penetrating eyes. He had come to the United States from Austria in 1938, fleeing the Nazis (I’m pretty certain he told us that Karl Jung helped him escape, but I haven’t been able to document that account), and he had a distinct accent. Like many male acting teachers he was surrounded by a coterie of young women who just happened to sit around him, helping out in class, eager to be within his aura, or possibly to get his help in being cast in something. He offered straightforward comments on scenes, and he told fascinating stories, one of which I will retell below.

Herbert’s approach to acting, like that of many other acting teachers in the United States, was based on the work of the great Russian director and teacher Konstantin Stanislavski, with a strong emphasis on practicality. I have read that when Bert Lahr, considering joining Herbert’s production of Waiting For Godot, asked how Herbert would get a laugh out of a particular one of Samuel Beckett’s lines, Herbert replied by dropping his pants.

So here are my notes on what Herbert said during the year I studied with him. I have grouped the quotations, added comments where I feel they might help, and occasionally phrased something a little differently for the sake of clarity, without, I hope, distorting the meaning.


[Herbert asked the famous German director Max Reinhart, his first teacher, how you know when your concept of a character is right.] “When everything in the play makes you walk and talk.”

If what you’re doing doesn’t make you want to walk and talk, you’re in trouble; replace it quick.

There’s no ‘ignoring a person’ in general. An action is necessary, or you’re ‘hung.’ [Herbert said that when he has no action to play, his shoulders go up.]

The best moments in a performance are always intuitive – the result of previous work, but never planned.

Each performance has to start from scratch. You cannot allow yourself the lived part.

Every step has to further your objective – in pursuit of something.

The reason you talk is because of the other person – not because you have lines. You have to talk to people, or a person, you want things from.

[Eddie Foy, Jr.:] “I’m not acting, I’m just reacting.”

[Your character is] not you, but made out of you.

Not the whole foot, but a toe at a time.

I want you to bring in some secrets.


[George Bernard Shaw:] “The faster you talk the play, the slower it gets.”

[Max Reinhart] “If you cater to an audience, you will see their backs.”


Most actors like to work on what they can already do. [Herbert made a comparison to pianists:] Actors always want to work with their strong hand.

The difference between meeting the character and accommodating your weaknesses to the part.

Playing the part as you is a corruption.

The biggest problem in an exercise is determining what is true and what is false.

The danger of commenting on a scene rather than living it.

“Casual” or “natural” isn’t the same as “real.”

You must divide the scene into beats, and say, “What happens in this beat?” and then, “How do I make this happen?” Then you make a long list – you won’t use all of it…


Particularlization – as when reading a novel and you start to cry – something touches you personally.

I want to see you eat an ice cream soda. I want you to know what happens to the straw.

Bert Lahr only asked one question: “Is it phony or is it real?” This was the result of a thousand opening nights, when nothing phony would play.

Fred Astaire – his ease is not “qualitative’ – it comes from the actual steps.

The last thing I want to know about Chekhov is that he’s Russian. The first thing I want to know is why people want to move from Ohio to New York.

Comedy is impossible with any muscular tension. What is untruthful just won’t be funny. [Quoting Hugo von Hofmannsthal:] “Pushing an old lady over the cliff can be funny, but it has to be a real old lady.”


Acting “madness” – actors become interested in the how rather than the what, and the action gets lost, so the scene seems to be in pieces.

If I put my shoes on first, and then my socks, I don’t have to play crazy anymore.

If I’m told “Your mother died” and I say “Oh my God – now I have to sell my opera tickets” – my mind is still on something very specific, and to me appropriate.


[A “substitution” is an equivalent that an actor uses in preparing a role. I may never have been a king, for example, but I may have had the experience of getting applause for something. I can use that experience as a substitution for the adulation that a king receives when entering the throne room. I may also use the audience that once applauded me as substitutions for the courtiers in the palace. A substitution gives the actor the faith that the experience is believable for her or him.

[When Herbert got to the United States around the beginning of World War II, with his thick accent he was invariably cast as a Nazi. Imagine how this must have felt to Herbert, who was Jewish and whose family had been largely wiped out by the Nazis. How could he, with those experiences behind him, possibly play one of Hitler’s followers? Herbert made use of a rather drastic substitution. He was living at that time in a miserable apartment in the west Forties of Manhattan, and it was overrun with cockroaches. When Herbert had to say “Jews” in the character of a German officer, he used as a substitution the cockroaches that infested his apartment. This enabled him to say the lines of the Nazi believably.]


The Good Doctor – “Chekhov on the Roof.”

[To a woman with great comic ability] Find – identify – those comic moments and do something else in them.

[Someone’s work is] passionate but not personal.


I hope these quotations from Herbert’s classes suggest the vigor and creativity behind his approach to acting. So, we might ask, who were his favorite actors? He admired many performers, but the two that he referred to the most in class – I invite you to guess – are you ready? – were Lassie (the dog) and Dean Martin (the singer). Neither acted on the stage; both made movies.

Reflecting on these unconventional choices, I realize that Herbert uses them to tell us important things about acting. Lassie’s strength is focus. Lassie focuses strongly – one might say perfectly – on whatever important is going on in a scene. By comparison, human focus can often be weak and wavering. Focus, Herbert is saying, is the foundation of good acting.

And his designation of Dean Martin as an outstanding actor is a way of saying that we all can contribute to the craft. Watch Martin in the movies he’s made. He’s not one of those actors who transforms completely for each role. (Actually there are fewer actors of that sort than we tend to think.) However, he uses what he has, and as a result can handle roles that are comic, serious, or parody. He understands what the script requires; he fulfils its requirements using the gifts he’s got; he does his job. One could do worse.

[One coincidental aspect to Kirk’s recollections of studying with Herbert Berghof (whom everyone at HB, even those who never studied with him, called Herbert) is that it was through the Studio that I reconnected with Kirk back in the ‘70s. Kirk and I were classmates in college at the end of the ‘60s, but we were both ROTC cadets and went into the army shortly after our graduation. He and I were good acquaintances then, both active in the university theater (and worked in the shop after graduation until the army called), but we weren’t friends. We had no contact for the ensuing five years. I think it was the wife of our college director who, when she learned I was in New York City and taking classes at HB, wrote me that Kirk was also there. Now, Kirk had no telephone back then so I had no way to locate him except to leave a note for him in the HB admin office—they wouldn’t give me his address—so that’s what I did, giving him my address and phone number (I was camping out with my cousin, who lived in the Village near the Studio and had just graduated from NYU law school). I was a little surprised when Kirk actually got the message and called me. We arranged to get together for dinner at my apartment—I cooked (like me, Kirk was a bachelor then). I made a casserole that included shrimp, a favorite food of mine so I thought it would be a big treat for Kirk. Well, it would have been! I was greatly chagrined to learn—only after I casually mentioned, “I hope you like shrimp”—that Kirk’s deathly allergic to shellfish. But he had planned to eat the casserole, which he’d spotted on the kitchen counter, without saying anything about his allergy. I’ve never forgotten that dinner—and I shudder a little every time I think about it. (I quickly threw together something else from whatever I had in the pantry—another casserole, I think, of a far simpler recipe. I wonder if Kirk’s wife knows that he might not have survived long enough even to meet her if things had turned out differently. Why he never spoke up right away, I’ll never understand—didn’t want to embarrass me, I guess.)

[Personally, I have a hard time with the Dean Martin focus—not Kirk’s explanation here, but Herbert's admiration of the singer-actor. There are so many far better actors Herbert could have held up as examples; I can't help feeling there must have been a little irony implicit in his invoking Dino that way. I guess, if you look at it as Herbert's attempt to make the point, as Kirk does, that even an actor of limited gifts can do excellent work by focusing on the job at hand, then it makes sense. I assume Herbert's explanation would be that if Martin could do what he did so well, then good/talented actors (like his students . . .) could and should do all that much better using Martin's example. As for Lassie, I recall that Uta Hagen had something to say on the subject of animals on stage:

[Even though the actors are in the midst of strong dramatic action, the audience will be riveted on a cat, sitting quietly in a chair, following a bit of blowing lint with its eyes. Now a cat
cannot be as fascinating as a human being! But the cat’s sensory apparatus is more powerful than a human’s, and It is more single-minded in its purpose, with no mental distractions to blur its instincts. The cat really exists with strong, spontaneous, forward-moving attention, and so it can surpass the actor, who is predictably busy with his stage life.

[I think that’s the same as what Kirk calls focusing strongly and perfectly.

[As for famous acting teachers, I never studied with anyone as well-known in the business as Herbert. The closest I came, I guess, was director Terry Schreiber (
K2, Devour the Snow, and The Trip Back Down, all on Broadway) at whose studio I studied after I left HB in the ‘80s. I only studied with him briefly because when I started at the T. Schreiber Studio, then on Washington Square, he didn’t have room in his class, so he put me with his colleague, actor Lee Wallace (Zalmen or the Madness of God and The Cemetery Club on Broadway; Private Benjamin and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three—the original version—on film). I got to like Lee so much, when Terry invited me over to his class, I asked if he minded if I stayed with Lee, and I did. (Lee also did many commercials and most people in New York recognized him as the man who looked like then-Mayor Ed Koch. Ironically, Lee’s role in Pelham was as New York City’s mayor.) When I was at Rutgers getting my MFA, two of our teachers were Avery Brooks (Spenser: For Hire, A Man Called Hawk, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on TV; Paul Robeson and Are You Now or Have You Ever Been on Broadway) and David Margulies (Zalmen or The Madness of God, Comedians, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Cafe Crown, and Angels in America). These men were among the best acting teachers I ever encountered, but I never collected the kind of memorable statements from them that Kirk has from his year with Herbert.]

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