HB Studio: A Jewel of Theatrical History



HB Studio has been a home for actors, playwrights and directors since it was founded in 1945 by Herbert Berghof. Herbert was a protégé of German director Max Reinhardt. When things got dangerous in Austria during Hitler’s regime, he came to New York City as a refugee. He joined fellow actor and director refugees who were interested in continued study of classical European theater training. In the pre-gentrified neighborhood of the West Village, Berghof founded HB Studio at 120 Bank Street when he bought a horse stable.

It was not the gentrified area we know today. It became a home to many artists and writers during this century long transition from a commercial district. Somewhere in that transition HB Studio made it to the West Village. The uber gentrification continues today with many casualties in theaters, clubs and artist performing or rehearsal spaces. Thank God, the HB Studio continues to thrive in 2023. This is a jewel of theatrical history.

In 1947, Berghof met the celebrated actress Uta Hagen on a production of The Whole World Over, directed by Harold Clurman and he invited her to join him in teaching at the studio. The two artists married 10 years later.

Berghof directed the Broadway premiere of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in 1956. He acted in many Broadway shows and films. His best-known film might have been Cleopatra. He made some money on that film and invested it in the renovation of the studio.

Hagen was a fantastic actor who played Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Martha in the premiere of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Hagen was a victim of McCarthy’s Red Scare in the early 1950s and her promising film career was cut short. She continued to act on Broadway where she met Herbert. She devoted her life to teaching and writing several acclaimed books on acting. Both Uta and Herbert continued acting in New York but the Studio and its ongoing expansion took up much of their time.

The Legacy Continues

ACTOR’S CLASS AT HB STUDIO. Photos courtesy of HB Studio.

“Yes, from 1947 on, it was the two of them together. I believe they married in 1956. They added the 124 Bank first, then bought 122 Bank,” said Edith Meeks a former student at the HB Studio. She explained that 124 Bank Street was a garage which became the theater space while 122 Bank Street was a townhouse that became more class and support space.

Herbert died in 1990 and Uta took over as artistic director until she died in 2004. I spoke to Carol Rosenfeld who has worked as a teacher at The Studio for 50 years. She is also Founding Director of the Uta Hagen Institute. Rosenfeld said, “After Uta died, we investigated what was happening at the school. At the end of that year, I suggested strongly that we have Edith Meeks run the Studio.”

Meeks took over as Executive & Artistic Director and she is still running the HB Studio today. “I was a student from 1982 until the early 1990s, always returning to class and to teach between job opportunities. Herbert invited me to teach in 1987 and this has always my home base,” she said.

Meeks speaks highly of her students who want to learn the craft of acting. “We also offer playwriting, screenwriting and directing classes. Directors and writers also benefit from studying acting,” she added. “Thankfully, the Studio survived the Covid Pandemic and is back with full classes and shows in the theater. Members of the community are absolutely welcome to come to our public programs! Check out our readings, labs, public talks, works-in-progress showings and productions.”

Rosenfeld remembers teaching in the 1970s. Students who came to this special place paid $1.50 for the four-hour class. Carol, like all who teach here, is a working actor. “For so many of my students, I think it’s just important that they’re here and have a space to work on the craft of acting because there are so many who don’t understand what it is,” she said.

The price has gone up with inflation and time but it is still very reasonable. Meeks said, “When I started in the 1980s it was about $5/class session. In 2013 we reconfigured prices to take better care of our teaching artists, secure the institution and face our long-term building needs. It’s about $23/hour or $46/session now. A three-hour, 10-week in-person acting class is $655.”

Both women work hard to keep the Studio going to provide a space for actors to work on their craft. This commitment to craft and work is something that came through in every interview I had with Edith and Carol.

When asked about her favorite moment at the HB Studio, Edith said, “Among my most vivid memories is a moment from my second year in Herbert’s class—when the circumstances of the character and the scene dropped in and I found myself “flying” as Miss Hagen liked to call it— alive in the character in the moment. I remember sensing the excitement of the class, and Herbert’s awakened interest, and finding myself at a loss to explain what had happened to me. I said to him, “But I wasn’t doing anything.” And he said—“Yes. that’s right.” I understood that all the careful work I’d done—and I had done a lot of very thorough, diligent, careful work—had prepared me to let go, to be there as I really was.”

A short list of actors who took classes there included Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Liza Minnelli, Fritz Weaver, Geraldine Page and Anne Bancroft.