"Literature is freedom." – Susan Sontag
I love books. I've always loved books. Forever labeled a bibliophile by my friends and family, I proudly wear the term as a nametag. In nearly every room of my home, you'll find a menagerie of them. Books of all colors, shapes, sizes, and bindings. I am endlessly comforted by their presence. In troubling times, I reach for a good book and for the peace it offers. When my mind rattles with excess energy, an engaging read will focus and still my thoughts. For me, reading is an act of meditation.
Lately, I've taken even more solace in my books than usual. For a year, not yet half over, 2020 has already added an excess of wear and tear to our troubled spirits. Daily routines have been upended, and for some, left altered beyond recognition. Relationships, once thought concrete, are now left malleable. The deluge from this pandemic is relentless. So, to fight the good fight, we socially distance ourselves – becoming nations of hermits.
For many actors, an extended reclusive life can be especially challenging. Despite the social qualities and culture inherent to our craft, many performing artists are, by their nature, introverts. If you are such an artist, this will likely come as no surprise to you. To deliver a mindful, honest performance, we actors must give so much of ourselves. It is an enriching but exhausting ritual. To recharge, we find nourishment in our alone time. Still, even the most inward of introverted actors need social engagement from time to time. And so, when an essential part of our humanity is left paused, we must nurse our mental health. We do this not by drowning our woes in excessive drink, or by binging away our days with 1001 streaming channels. Instead, we actors can best take care of ourselves by continuing our education.
An actor's training is never complete, nor is it bound to academic halls or drama studios. In the age of social distancing, this education can safely arise simply by opening the right books. Which will be the right ones for you, no one but you can decide. Thankfully, books are mystical constructions. They tend to find you at the appropriate time.
Below is a list of 18 books that found me when I needed them the most. I present it in no particular order or grouping. Though I have titled it "The Great Acting Books," I do not claim this to be the definitive list of greatest works on the subject. The title is an homage to Roger Ebert's Great Movies series, which he described as a compilation, "…selected because of my love for them and for their artistry…" (The Greatest Movies II, xiii). It seemed a fitting name, as I used similar criteria for the selections found here.
The Great Acting Books
1. Sandford Meisner on Acting by Sanford Meisner
– For Meisner, acting is about your scene partner(s) and losing yourself through play. It's a purely external craft for Meisner. Written over a semester, this book offers a glimpse inside his classroom, and the students and games found there.
2. The Actor and the Target by Declan Donnellan
– A kindred spirit to Meisner, Donnellan beautifully tackles the head games all actors wrestle with. He helps to silence those distracting voices inside us by refocusing our attention on the external details, actions, and partners of our work.
3. The Art of Acting by Stella Adler
– Adler began a follower of Stanislavski. Yet, over her illustrious career, she transformed those teachings into something more truthful to her experience. By blending the internal and external into a powerful technique, it helped to inform the likes of Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro.
4. How to Stop Acting by Harold Guskin
– If it's good enough for Richard Jenkins (a student and peer of Guskin), it belongs on this list. Here is an immensely readable book that, like the title suggests, is straightforward and unadorned. Learn how to approach and develop roles with clarity.
5. Acting in Film by Michael Caine
– I reference this book in almost every acting class I teach. It's a great place to begin taking your skills to the next level if you're interested in screen acting. Charming, funny, and packed with techniques that are easy to apply to any TV or film project.
6. An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski
– The man, the myth. Stanislavski is the master behind that elusive technique known as "The Method." For him, truth in performance comes from its association to our internal experiences, which, when paired with script text, can create something singular.
7. The Power of the Actor by Ivana Chubbuck
– Do you struggle with script analysis? Do scripts leave you always wondering where to begin? If so, read this. Chubbuck's teaching has impacted many Hollywood actors by giving them a practical technique that demystifies both character and script.
8. Acting Without Agony by Don Richardson
– A smart alternative to the Method. Like Guskin, Richardson has helped many performers find their footing through a simple shift of perspective that can contain multitudes. Covering stage and screen, it is readable, brief, and worthy of one's time.
9. True and False by David Mamet
– Sure he's a curmudgeon. Sure his interviews devolve into rambling diatribes. But, this Pulitzer winning writer-director is also capable of speaking common sense. Here, he destroys the idea of character, the Method, and other magical acting notions.
10. Theatre by David Mamet
– Like the other Mamet entry on this list, this is a short piece packed with blunt observations about acting theories, impossible directions in scripts, Stanislavsky, and more. He comes out swinging and doesn't stop punching until the book ends.
11. The Art of Film Acting by Jeremiah Comey
– I first encountered this book in my senior year of drama school. I'd always wanted to be both a stage a screen actor, but the latter felt opaque, impenetrable. The key that unlocked it began with Comey's book.
12. The Empty Space by Peter Brook
– Shakespeare lovers take note, legendary director, Peter Brook, serves up an eloquent exploration into theatre performance and technique, with brilliance, clarity, and more than a little Bard. His socio-psychological observations reveal his exquisite artistry.
13. The Open Door by Peter Brook
– Like Brook's other entry here, this book broadens our understanding of acting and theatre, leaving us thirsty for the next role. Here, he tackles a broader view of performance by investigating a more global perspective. Each chapter offers insights from a true sage.
14. Improvisation for the Theater by Viola Spolin
– Improv starts with Spolin. Her technique frees us, allowing for raised awareness, intellectual impulse control, and numerous ways into the world of characters and performance. If you think improv is simply a comedic exercise, get rewired here.
15. The New Business of Acting by Brad Lemack
– If you plan to be a screen actor, you need to know a lot more than just acting techniques. The industry is a harsh landscape, full of expectations you may not be aware of. Get on the right path by reading this excellent book on the business behind the craft.
16. The Actor and the Alexander Technique by Kelly McEvenue
– Acting is as physical as it is mental. How we move, how we stand, how we hold ourselves can make or break a performance. McEvenue, thankfully, provides us with a wise approach to our physicality that improves our stamina and unlocks our voice.
17. Freeing the Natural Voice by Kristin Linklater
– Linklater is famous for her work with performance and the human voice. Her exercises were a staple in my drama classes growing up. This book examines the connection between language, breath, and voice. By the end, your acting voice will likely be forever changed.
18. The Places that Scare You by Pema Chodron
– The only entry on this list not directly about acting. Chodron, a Buddhist nun, famous for her insights into mindfulness meditation, offers here a lovely philosophy that calms our fears and softens our hard edges. For the anxiety-prone actor, this book is a must.
We can use the stillness brought on by this difficult period as an opportunity to strengthen our connection to the acting craft. By returning to our training, we undoubtedly lift our mind, body, and spirit. Why? Because it is a celebration of our truest passion. And passion is, among other things, a wonderful healing elixir. When these strange days pass (and they will pass), we can then each reemerge a wiser, more cunning artist.
Stay healthy, fellow actors. There are many exciting projects in those brighter days ahead. In the meantime, happy reading!
What are some of your favorite acting books? We'd love for you to share your list with us, so leave a comment below.
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