Ten Must-Read Books for Theatre Actors
OnStage Washington Columnist
An actor’s work is never done. If you’re not onstage or in front of a camera, you might be found taking classes, doing research, or volunteering backstage. Sometimes, especially when actors run into dry spells between projects, it becomes essential to become your own teacher, and one great way to do this is by reading acting books. Regardless of your individual level of experience, it never hurts to explore what the greats have written on the subject. So, in no particular order, here are the ten acting books with a spot of honor on my bookshelf.
1. An Actor Prepares, Constantin Stanislavski
Stanislavski, as anyone who has studied theatre knows, was hugely influential to modern acting. Although his System is not perfect and has been further refined since his writings, reading Stanislavski’s theories should be homework for every actor. This book covers key Stanislavski topics such as imagination, emotional memory, and the super objective, and is written in a narrative style that keeps the text engaging.
2. Meisner on Acting, Sanford Meisner
If you’re going to read Stanislavski, might as well look at another great, Sanford Meisner. Meisner branched off from Stanislavski’s work to create his own system, the Meisner Technique, which focuses more on externally based techniques. This book is also structured as a narrative as it describes the work taking place in an acting class over the course of fifteen months.
3. A Challenge for the Actor, Uta Hagen
Uta Hagen’s writing is powerful yet straightforward in the techniques and concepts she proposes. This book, A Challenge for the Actor, is my personal favorite because of the ten useful exercises included, but Respect for Acting is also a wonderful text worthy of a read. Hagen’s techniques include topics such as living moment to moment, endowment, and defining destination. If you enjoy Hagen’s work, I recommend also watching the videos of her class which all available online.
4. Acting Power, Robert Cohen
Cohen’s book is a wonderfully accessible text which breaks down key acting concepts into clear, real world terms. He urges you to strive to be a “great actor” rather than just a “good” one, and offers a variety of useful ideas and exercises. Quotes from other actors/teachers and whimsical illustrations help make this book a fast and enjoyable read.
5. A Director Prepares, Anne Bogart
Anne Bogart founded her company SITI with Tadashi Suzuki in 1992 and continues to breathe new life into the modern acting world with her innovative work involving viewpoints, devising and Suzuki methods. This book is a collection of seven essays which dive deeply into the challenges of being a theatre artist.
6. The Actor and the Target, Declan Donnellan
This book was assigned to me for a class, but quickly changed the way I (and many of my fellow classmates) thought about acting. Donnellan addresses the problems actors run into and addresses them with a special focus on his concept of the target. It is a practical book which will push actors to move out of their comfort zones.
7. Freeing the Natural Voice, Kristin Linklater
Linklater’s vocal techniques are a great way to work on your vocal instrument. Most of the book consists of exercises for relaxing the vocal mechanism and gaining better control. In addition, Linklater uses imagery and some illustrations to make it easier to understand the exercises from just reading the text.
8. Impro, Keith Johnstone
Whether improv is an interest of yours or not, Johnstone’s seminal book on the subject is a useful read for any performer. Johnstone outlines various methods and exercises to increase free flowing creative energy.
9. Audition, Michael Shurtleff
Oh, auditioning. It is both the bane of our existence and an actor’s bread and butter. Fortunately, casting director Michael Shurtleff shares his wisdom in this fantastic book. He lists twelve “guideposts” to work on and also covers topics such as the nuts and bolts of auditions and styles of monologues.
10. Acting as a Business, Brian O’Neil
All this acting theory is very good and well, but eventually one must get down to the nitty gritty: the business. O’Neil’s book is the most thorough guide to all the practical elements actors should know. He has published multiple editions to keep up with the ever changing industry of show biz, so look for the fifth edition to get the latest tips.
This is by no means an exhaustive list and only represents the books which have made an impact on yours truly. Know of a great acting book you don’t see listed? Leave a comment and add to the conversation!