Louis E. Catron.  A Primer for Actors--BOOKS FOR ACTORS.


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       "A Primer for Actors" offers you information about helpful books, constructing your résumé, getting appropriate headshots, making your own website, and preparing for auditions.  You'll also find tips that are designed to help you become more effective.  Throughout there are websites you'll want to visit for additional insights. 

        Here we look at books for actors

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        You learn acting from classes and workshops, from being in productions, from working with excellent directors and actors.  You also learn from books like those listed below.

        The "best" books are those you trust, that you underline, fill with marginal notes, the ones you always tote with you as you move about the country, the books that stimulate your creativity.  I think of "best books" as the "est factor"--that is, a superlative like that which we see as a suffix used to form the superlative of adjectives and adverbs.  They are the books that make you want to yell, "Eureka!"--"I have found it!"-- like Archimedes did while sitting in his bath and discovered a mathematical principle of displacement.  Obviously, "best" is subjective and we each will develop our own list.  I think you can consider those mentioned below. 

        If you have access to a very well-stocked library, you may be able to find at least some of these.   For your convenience, there are links to Amazon, should you wish to order any of these for your personal library.


        He's the most frequently quoted author in theatre.  Theories are based on (the theorists tell us) his principles.  This or that concept is "good" because (the conceptists say) it echoes this guy's standards.  Book after book tells you what he said.  But are they really quoting him correctly?  Because Aristotle is a major foundation stone for Western theatre, you owe it to yourself to read him.  Not just read but comprehend his concepts.  He is lucid, clear, direct. 

Aristotle's Poetics .  F. Fergusson and S. H. Butcher (Translator).  Amazon link.


        Acting is an art and therefore descriptions and "how to" books about creating the art ultimately somehow miss some essential qualities, the spiritual wholeness.   Some books come close, though.  Uta Hagen's, for one.

        The craft of acting--such matters as vocal projection, diction, stage sense, making an entrance, handling props, timing, body language, gestures, and the like--ought be easier to describe in a book, but we live in an era where the craft of acting is, sadly, ignored.  I guess "craft" is too mundane?  Somehow "beneath" the artistic temperament?  The "true artiste" doesn't have to bother with mere craft?  Plah. 

        The following books can help you hone your artistic approach although I fear they won't do much for your craft. 

Respect for Acting .  Uta Hagen.  Excellent, excellent, absolutely excellent.  Many times while directing I wish I could call a halt to rehearsals and have the cast spend a week or two with Ms. Hagen's book.  Her reasons why actors should not  be backstage directors (the bane of a director's life and the despair of the cast!) alone make this required reading, but the rich advice on such matters as "Scoring the Role" and, especially, her constant urging to work collaboratively make this a primary book for actors whether beginning or advanced.  This two-time Tony winner and teacher at the Herbert Berghof Studio is able to bring together her multiple talents in a finely honed book.  (If you're interested in knowing details about Ms. Hagen's career, you might visit WIC Biography. Link.Highly recommended.  Amazon link.

A Challenge for the ActorUta Hagen.  This is both something of a revision of Respect for Acting as well as a new book.  The differences are strong enough to warrant a close study of both.  In this book she appears a bit more relaxed and she discusses some of her personal life (for example, her reactions to the Army-McCarthy hearings are fascinating).  Highly recommended.  Amazon link

An Actor Prepares.  Constantine Stanislavski.  The first of his trilogy.  Amazon link
Building a Character .  Constantine Stanislavski.  Amazon link
Creating a Role .  Constantine Stanislavski.  The last of his trilogy.  (Have you noticed the A, B, C order of the titles, which are in a 1, 2, 3 order?) Amazon link
One trick in reading Stanislavski is to go slowly.  The writing style tempts one to skim, but then you lose the meaning behind his parables...and, yes, he teaches and illustrates his points with parables.  Reading them creatively, applying imagination to uncover what they mean, will help you grasp his points more clearly.  Stanislavki has his fans and detractors, but even those in the latter group must recognize that he revolutionized theatre.   If you're a serious actor, you owe it to yourself to dig through his books.  Highly recommended.

Stanislavsky in Focus.  Sharon M. Carnicke.  Sarah Dixon, a colleague and excellent acting teacher, brought Carnicke's book to my attention.  Sarah is a devout believer in the value of this book and her enthusiasm is contagious. Carnicke proves that much of what we think we know about Stanislavsky is wrong because we've read inept translations and because so much of our knowledge is filtered through "the Method" as taught at the Actors Studio.  If you want the Truth, this book is for you.  Recommended.   Amazon link.

Sanford Meisner on Acting.  Sanford Meisner.  Every actor needs to know "The Meisner Technique."  He believes acting is about reproducing honest emotional human reactions, a concept I wholeheartedly endorse and one that I firmly believe is one primary principal of "good" acting.  His goal is "to eliminate all intellectuality from the actor's instrument and to make him a spontaneous responder to where he is, what is happening to him, what is being done to him," a concept that can rankle university professors who are reluctant to so casually dismiss the intellectual.  Certainly his technique has its devoted followers who believe in him with a remarkable fervor.  This book gives you insight into this valuable approach to acting.  The drawback is that the book likely it is best when used while enrolled in a Meisner course because partners are necessary for Meisner's primary exercise of spontaneous repetition, but perhaps you can pull together a small group of serious actors to explore this approach to acting.  Highly recommendedAmazon link.   If you want to know more about the Meisner Technique, visit the Sanford Meisner Center (Link) and start by clicking "training." 

On the Technique of Acting:  The First Complete Edition of Chekhov's Classic to the Actor.  Michael Chekhov.  Known for his focus on  the "psychological gesture"--external action leads you to an internal insight into the character, very much like "the James-Lange" theory--and for his insistence that acting requires the physical more than the intellectual, Chekhov has been a staple for decades.  A veteran of the famed Moscow Art Theatre, he marries Stanislavki's ideas to his own.  Although this book says it is for actors, in fact it is also an excellent book for directors.  You may find that at times he seems abstract, but hang in there:  you can get on his wavelength.  Amazon link

The Actor's Checklist: Creating the Complete Character.  Rosary H. O'Neill.  O'Neill's book seems to slip under the radar of acting teachers.  It deserves better.  The author compiles and adapts the strengths of both Stanislavski and Meisner into a thoughtful, well-ordered, organized approach to creating in-depth characters.  Helpful exercises enhance her commentary.  I debated whether to include her book in this section or in the "audition" section (below); the "checklist" would be a fine device to evaluate your audition as well as your performances.  Amazon link.

True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor.  David Mamet.  This is not a book for the beginning actor.  It is for those who have accumulated experience and who've studied Stanislavki, especially those who are in despair about Lee Strasberg's adaptation of Stanislavki into "The Method."  Mamet is tired as hell of that Strasberg approach--he believes it creates hammy, fake acting--and one feels he has had it with "Method Actors" he's encountered.  I bet he had a damned good time time writing this attack, and if you're like me, you'll have fun wondering just which actors in particular made him come to these conclusions.  You may not want to accept all of his points, but this book can give you some necessary skepticism.  And fun, too:  when someone vents as well as Mamet, it is enjoyable.  Amazon link


        Auditioning is crucially important for the actor because a successful audition leads to being cast whereas an audition bomb will....but we don't want to think about that. There are audition techniques you need to learn.  These books give you valuable advice. 

Audition: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to Get the Part.  Michael Shurtleff.   This book's title is misleading.  It is about auditioning, yes, and it has superlative advice that will help you master the audition process.  But it is also about acting, and you will find the insights remarkably helpful.  It is a relatively old book, but it has gained "classic" status.  I think this is the first book on auditioning you get for your library.  Highly recommendedAmazon link.

How to Audition for the Musical Theatre:  A Step-By-Step Guide to Effective Preparation .  Donald Oliver.  At times Oliver becomes so earnest about helping you avoid pitfalls that he sounds dictatorial, as for example in his list of songs not to use for auditions, but his advice has sound reasoning--there are songs that are so often used that most performers shouldn't use them at auditions unless that piece really resonates with you and you can give it a personal flair and a new life.  Some may find his humor strained; others will appreciate it.  He covers significant practical matters like headshots, casting directors, and agents.  Appendicies contain valuable hard-core info like how to find sheet music, surely one of a singer's nightmares.  Amazon link.

Next!  Auditioning for the Musical Theatre.  Steven M. Alper.  A former student highly recommends this book and she's someone I've always trusted.  Amazon link.

Auditioning for the Musical Theatre.  Fred Silver, Charles Strouse.  And yet another former student swears by this one.  We agree that the book does an excellent job of urging singers to act the song.  For me, the great musical theatre performer sees a song as story-telling and personalizes it.  Think of the song as yours.  For examples of how singers do make the songs theirs, listen to the great sylists like Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett.  Singers should think of themselves as actors who happen to sing.  Hitting the notes is nice, sure, but that's not all there is to it--there's a story, emotions, quite often an objective.  Amazon link.

The Ultimate Broadway Fake Book: Over 720 Songs from over 240 Shows for Piano, Vocal, Guitar, Electronic Keyboards and All 'C' Instruments.  Stanley Green.  Why is this listed here?  For those auditioning for musical theatre, this can be a valuable resource.  Any fake book, however, requires a good to very good accompanist, which you can hope you'll find at your auditions.  Stanley Green has written fine books about Broadway musicals, which makes him an authoritative person to compile this fake book.  One may argue about his choices and omissions, but the number of selections impresses.  Amazon link.

Getting the Part: Thirty-Three Professional Casting Directors Tell You How to Get Work in Theater, Films, Commercials, and TV.  Judith Searle.  Although this collection is so broadly based and has so many contributors that you may feel the contents skim more than give rich details, you're bound to find some new insights in the compiliation of advice from those who make the decisions about you.  Amazon link

The Actor's Encyclopedia of Casting Directors: Conversations with Over 100 Casting Directors on How to Get the Job. Karen Kondazian, Eddie Shapiro (Contributor), Richard Dreyfuss.  The comments (above) about Searle's book apply here, too.  Amazon link.

Regional Theatre Directory--2001-2002 .  For actors, and others in theatre, the directory lists 438 Regional Theatres (LORT, SPT, etc.) plus dinner theatres.  It gives audition information and descriptions of the theatres.  Dorset Theatre theatre directories linkYou may want to check the same source for other books such as a summer theatre directory.  Directories.


       The ancient art of improv has two uses in modern theatre.  One is an exercise, used in acting classes or during rehearsals.  The second is performance, when imaginative actors make up storyettes on the spur of the moment, often starting with key ideas from the audience. 

Improvisation for the Theater: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. Viola Spolin, Paul Sills.  If you're going to learn improv, best do it from experts.  Viola Spolin, in many ways the mother of modern improv, certainly is one; and Paul Sills (her son), known for his Story Theatre, is another.  They have the credentials to make this one of the primary books for improv.  Amazon link.

The Second City: Backstage at the World's Greatest Comedy Theater (book with 2 audio CDs).   Sheldon Patinkin, Robert Klein (Narrator), Alan Arkin.  Some of my happiest theatrical memories come from Second City events and this book reinforces them.  I envy our graduates who've gone to Second City, because they are in a major group.  Without the CDs this book would be much less impressive.  This isn't a scholarly history, a thorough coverage, or an insightful examination of how Second City performers create.  Instead, it is rather like getting some friends together to look at school yearbooks.  Zany friends.  If you've never been to Second City, this gives you some of the experience as if you were there; if you have been, this will remind you of the theatrical excitement.  Amazon link. 

Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre.  Keith Johnstone. Amazon link.
Impro for Storytellers. Keith Johnstone.  Amazon link.    These books have some unfortunate problems--copyediting errors, a strange chapter here and there, and exercises that could be more clear--but their basic thrust can enhance creativity.


        It is tempting to think that one's professional career will be on Broadway, but in fact you can find marvelous opportunities in the 320 excellent not-for-profit professional theatres in towns all across America.  The Guthrie (Minnesota).  The Mark Taper (California).  Goodman (Illinois).  Actors Theatre of Louisville (Kentucky).  The Arena (Washington, D.C.)  Add to them the numerous dinner theatres, theme parks, and cruise ships and your possibilities grow.  A guide to them is essential and here's a good one. 

Regional Theatre Directory 2002-2003: A National Guide to Employment in Regional & Dinner Theatres for Performers (Equity & Non-Equity), Designers, Technicians.  Jill Charles.  This annual is an excellent reference.  Because theatre is fluid, you will want to be sure you get the latest edition.  Amazon link.

The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway.  William Goldman.  Okay, so the Broadway season Goldman discusses was some decades ago (1967-1968).  Okay, you may think that the players and plays are pretty old.  Nonetheless, this is an excellent dissection of how that Great White Way operates, and little has changed since this book was published.  Goldman looks at producers, writers, actors, managers, stars, audiences, and the way "theatre parties" from distant towns dictate what plays are chosen for production.  What he does to critic Clive Barnes is absolutely delicious.  If you want to feel like you're the proverbial fly on the wall spying on everything that happens in Broadway theatre, this is the book for you.  Oh, you don't know Goldman?  He's a prolific author.  He won Oscars for the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men and has written other movies; his Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of  Hollywood and Screenwriting is one of his classic books.  Amazon link.

It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way.  Myrna Katz Frommer, Harvey Frommer.  The Frommer team has developed into excellent oral historians, by which is meant they interview subjects and report not only what they said but insight into the characterizations.  For us in theatre, Broadway is Mecca, and it fascinates us like a cobra does its victim.  This Broadway book takes you backstage to discover the events in the lives of those who made Broadway the theatrical center.  Meet Kim Hunter, who tells you of an accident with Marlon Brando during A Streetcar Named Desire.  Carol Channing talks about her beginnings.  Those who worked with Bob Fosse give you insight into that fabulous choreographer.  Bombs and successes are here.  When you've finished the book and think back, you'll discover a common theme:  these Broadway folks were remarkably dedicated theatre lovers.  Amazon link

Letters from an Actor . William Redfield.  In the 1960s Sir John Guilgud directed a "rehearsal clothing" Hamlet starring Richard Burton.  Hume Cronyn was Polonious and almost took the play from Burton.  Redfield was Guildenstern.  This is a marvelous account of how the production came together--or, perhaps, didn't (Redfield casts some doubt about Guilgud's directing ability)--and quite possibly is the best single book of an actor's perspective of theatre.  It isn't only about Hamlet:  Redfield's "letters" also deal with acting overall.  It is fun to read of the sense of awe Broadway actors had when meeting a star:  Elizabeth Taylor, then Burton's wife, is present during rehearsals, and Redfield is as star-struck as anyone can be.  Redfield is author of my favorite story about acting, and I urge you to read the book if only to experience the perspective of theatre from the point of view of a character actor hired to play the role of the Doctor (he's the character who appears at the end of the play to take Blanche away and is present primarily to be the ear so she can say "Whoever you are, I've always depended on the kindness of strangers") in the premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire--a point of view that I think encapsulates what it means to be an actor better than any story or essay I've found.  My copy long ago fell apart from constant reading, because I was forever giving it to students to read.  If you want it, better buy it soon:  there are red flags that suggest it may go out of print.  Recommended. Amazon link


        You find here a mixture of books about theatre that do not relate directly to acting but certainly are part of the actor's world. 

Feeling and Form.   Susanne K. Langer.  In this examination of symbols and the arts, philosopher Susanne Langer does what we expect of a philosopher--to see the essences, the true inner core.  Regardless of which specific art we follow, we are enriched to understand how we relate to the other arts.  Professor Langer, known as a leading figure in the philosophy of art, shows those relationships.  Her discussion of theatre is extremely insightful, more so than we customarily see in our standard theatrical texts.  For example, she agrees with Thornton Wilder that theatre is a present-tense art (in contrast to the novel, which is perpetually past tense), but she adds that it is the sense of the future that makes the work dramatic.  Her discussion of comedy is especially attractive.  Read this thoughtful book to discover exciting truths about theatre.  (If you've taken philosophy courses, quite likely you encountered Dr. Langer's best-known work, Philosophy in a New Key, which often has also been assigned in anthropology, literature, psychology, religion, and art history.)  My copy of this book is dog-eared, highlighted and underlined, and full of marginal notes, and I often return to it.  You may find it equally important to you.  Amazon link.

Technical Theater for Nontechnical PeopleDrew Campbell.  Actors need to avoid any implication of "we-they" atttiudes with the tech crews--after all, we all are members of the theatre world--and a great step forward to building a rapport with technies is to know what they do.  If you're a graduate of a good liberal arts theatre program, you probably already know much about tech theatre.  Others, however, really need to be familiar with what the tech crews are doing and this is the book that will guide you.  Equally, if you haven't had tech courses yet, starting here will be helpful.  Campbell has a knack of clarity combined with humor, and his book may well be the best intro to tech you'll find.  Amazon link.

Backstage: Broadway Behind the Curtain.  Rivka Katvan.  This is one of those "coffee table" books, rich with Katvan's photographs, full of those people you look upon with awe.  It makes you understand why you want to be an actor.  Amazon link.


        The search for the "best" theatre undergrad or graduate college, university, or professional training school can be frustrating.  Books can help, but read them with some skepticism.  Remember that many programs depend on one particular individual's contributions and artistic leadership and abilities;  if that person leaves the institution, quite often the result is unfortunate or even catastrophic.  Check the institution's website to see if the faculty has had turnovers.  Too, in this financially stressed atmosphere, colleges and universities are making severe cutbacks--and we all know that "the arts are frills" (yeah, right) and subject to attack by the number crunchers, which results in sharp cutbacks in staff, faculty, and programs.  Ask the departmental chair about finances.  Finally, recognize that there simply is no accepted way to "rank" theatre schools unless the author visits every theatre school for an extended time.  No one does.  Nor is there a professional national theatre examination board.  Any ranking therefore is suspect.

        Your best insight comes from actually visiting a number of institutions, talking with faculty and students, touring the campus and the theatre facilities, sitting in on classes, seeing rehearsals and productions, eating in the college caf, going through the library, staying overnight in a dorm, wandering the town.  Look at the campus bulletin boards, read the campus newpaper.  These sorts of steps help you get a better feel for the place than any book can offer.

Guide to Performing Arts Programs: Profiles of over 600 Colleges, High Schools, and Summer Programs .   Muriel Topaz.  This is one of the Princeton Review Series, which gives it respectability.  Certainly it has a number of helpful details, such as entrance requirements, scholarships and financial aid, and physical performance areas.  Check to be sure you get the most recent edition. Amazon link

The Performing Arts Major's College Guide.  Carole J. Everett.  The author evaluates programs in theatre, dance, and music and calls them "most highly recommended," "recommended," or "noteworthy." She also goes into detail about auditioning techniques.  If you accept her standards--or if you know how she came to her conclusions--this book will be helpful.  Parents and their kids interested in art can use this book to start their search.  Amazon link

Professional Degree Programs in the Visual & Performing Arts 2002 Peterson's Guides.  This publisher focuses on colleges and its guides are widely used.  Detractors say that the information is more a compilation of materials available on the Internet.  The advantage of this guide is that it lists programs.  Amazon link.


        The following books may not relate directly to theatre, but they aren't all that far removed, either.  Perhaps you'll find that they enlarge your view of humanity and yourself--which, all in all, is what theatre is all about.  Quite possibly they'll make you a better theatre artist. 

The Way of the Shaman.   Michael J. Harner.  Amazon link.
Mentawai Shaman: Keeper of the Rain Forest:   Man, Nature, and Spirits in Remote Indonesia.   Charles Lindsay.  Amazon link.
We give Thespis credit for being "The First Actor," but I nominate the prehistoric Shaman for that honor.  He was a spiritual leader who helped his tribe come to grips with the great mysteries (Arthur Miller says a playwright's job to "illuminate a certain mystery"), understand the will of the gods.  The Shaman would wear animal skins and makeup (playing the character), perform slight of hand magic, and enrapture his audience (a master entertainer).  Theatre, we're told, is an art of ritual.  I think we can better understand the roots of theatre by examining the ritual of the Shaman.  Not, I hasten to add, getting into mod "New Age" adaptations of the Shaman.  Harner's book gives you a historical concept; Lindsay shows shamanism as it exists even today in a isolated tribe.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Robert M. Pirsig.  No, really, you do not have to have a Harley hog, a tattoo, or a black leather jacket.  This book has little to do with motorcycles and everything to do with finding the delight of doing things right, of establishing values that support everything you do...and that, I submit, makes it intensely important for us in theatre.  This is an oldie, and your father or aunt may have read it.  If so, they'll likely tell you that the book made a major difference in their lives.  Give it a try.  If it doesn't click with you, perhaps the timing is off because you just aren't ready for this book's stimulation.  Put it aside and try it again later.  Amazon link.

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