Part of being a knowledgable actor involves rounding out your knowledge with reading. As wonderful as your talent may be, no actor is an island; and the artistry of modern acting has evolved from an interesting historic context. So I’ve comprised a reading list along a roughly chronological order, starting with:
An Actor Prepares by Constantine Stanislavski. The nineteenth century started with unchecked presentational acting. Furrow your brow to show anger. Stomp your foot to show things are really getting heated. In short, that kind of showy performance was all the rage back then. Then came along this revolutionary co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre and all around acting guru. His method of inner preparation resulted not only in a radical shift in acting style in Moscow, but for the entire western world. No longer was that silly furrow and stomped food going to cut the mustard. In fact, that type of showy behavior royally pissed the guy off. If actors didn’t bring some real internal impulse to the stage, he’d declare the entire rehearsal ruined and send everybody home. Stanislavski didn’t mess around.
The Fervent Years by Harold Clurman chronicles the storied days of The Group Theatre in New York city. These were the guys and gals that imported Stanislavski’s ‘method’ style to the states, circa 1931. It’s interesting to see their imported Russian style of acting mixed in with Russian style political doctrine. Communism based ideals were a big part of their theatrical experiment. No actor was more important than the other. Everybody got two slices of pizza and that was it; share and share alike, because the Group Theatre was a movement in ideals as well as realism. The mark they made on American theatre is indelible, and some of most famous actors, directors, and teachers of all time came out of their ranks. That includes the next two book titles on this list.
Sanford Meisner On Acting puts us in acting class of the Neighborhood Playhouse, sometime in the mid 80s. Meisner’s exercises break down the basic essence of scene work with simple, yet difficult exercises. The repetition exercise instills the need to listen emotionally and earnestly, as opposed to creating drama from the head. Like some far east Taoist method, it helps develop sound acting instincts by a simple repetitive practice. The door and activity is an ingenious exercise designed to practice pursuing scene objectives while simultaneously dealing with others. It’s good basic acting 101, an excellent beginners method.
Stella Adler: The Art Of Acting fills in where Meisner doesn’t. She was such a colorful personality, larger than life – and also the most diligent student of Stanislavski. This compendium of her lectures covers topics such as recognizing script details and their social significance, thus allowing the actor to maximize his/her impact. In general, she was total advocate of actors having strong opinions, and expressing them. Stella didn’t mince words. Marlon Brando (perhaps the all time great) was her protege, so I’d opine that she kinda knew what she was talking about.
The Success Principles by Jack Canfield. Alright, you might be wondering why this non-acting book is on the list. Well it’s because what he teaches is perhaps the most important lesson any successful artist should learn. Read the first chapter about taking 100% responsibility for your life. Even if you don’t read the whole book, this one chapter can be life changing. In short, it’ll tell you to stop complaining about things and start responding to obstacles with a response that will be empowering. And that, my friends, is all you really need to do.