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Inspiring Reads

Aspiring actors look to books that are primers—how-tos about the craft and the business. Working actors look to books for other things: inspiration; a sense of community, of their place in the grand history of the art form; solutions to recurring acting problems; reassurance and entertainment.

If you've been reading this column regularly, you probably already know what books I strongly recommend for actors who are learning—or refreshing their knowledge of—the craft. They include:

Uta Hagen's eminently down-to-earth second book, A Challenge for the Actor (Scribner, 1991), which provides concrete, useable techniques for the stage.

Stanislavski's An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role (Theatre Arts Books, 1989), a trilogy without which an actor's bookshelf is incomplete.

Those peeks-inside-the-classroom: Sanford Meisner on Acting (Meisner & Dennis Longwell, Vintage Books, 1987) and Strasberg at the Actors Studio: Tape-Recorded Sessions, edited by Robert H. Hethmon (Theatre Communications Group, 1991).

I also love the interviews-with-actors types of books, like Toby Cole's Actors on Acting: The Theories, Techniques, and Practices of the World's Great Actors, Told in Their Own Words (Crown, 1995), not to mention Simon Callow's On Being an Actor (St. Martin's Press, 1995).

But enough about what I think. I'm more interested in what you—teachers, actors, directors—have found useful when considering the inner workings of the actor.

Los Angeles film/TV actor/director Scott Paulin recently read Truffaut: A Biography, about the late French filmmaker-turned-actor François Truffaut, by Antoine De Baecque and Serge Toubiana. "It's about a life in art," said Paulin, "about a time when theatre was a serious art form investigating the human condition…. Truffaut's work and his life were the same thing. That's something I believe in—that your life and your work ought to be the same. But I feel like a dinosaur. Everything now is seen in corporate models. It's a period in the United States that concerns me because it's so anti-artistic. You very rarely hear a young actor or director proudly stand up and say, 'Principally I'm an artist.' They'll talk about big films, little films, budgets, how many people saw it, demographics, but they won't talk about serving muses."

Both Paulin and his wife, TV/film actor Wendy Phillips, also love Horton Foote's Beginnings: A Memoir. "I'd recommend it to people at the beginning of their careers," said Paulin. "It's like the Truffaut book, in that it's about the formation of an artistic consciousness." Added Phillips, "Horton writes from such a simple, clear place. He comes to New York as a young man to be an actor. By the end he's becoming a playwright." In his letters to Tennessee Williams, the two discuss age-old artists' qualms: Do I have talent, do I have anything to say, should I chuck it and get a regular job? "It makes me chuckle, it warms my heart," said Phillips. "It helps you keep the faith."

Gregory Wallace, American Conservatory Theater company actor, loves Stanislavsky in Focus by Sharon M. Carnicke (Routledge, 1998). "It's so great to see some of the prevailing myths about Stanislavski knocked down!" he rejoiced. "I recommend it to young actors and old actors alike." The author uses newly available, post-Communist-era primary resources to reassess the master teacher/director's theories.

Geoff Elliott, co-artistic director of L.A.'s A Noise Within, recommended late American Conservatory Theater artistic director William Ball's Sense of Direction: Some Observations on the Art of Directing (Drama Book Publishers, 1984). Although it focuses on directing, said Elliott, "his vision and approach were so gentle, so all-inclusive, really comforting in terms of creating an environment in which people felt safe to create."

San Francisco-based stage actor Geoff Hoyle picked three favorites. His first choice was Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (Hill & Wang, 1994). "Brecht is so out of style now," he commented. "But he provides such a complete aesthetic for the theatre, very different from the kinds of theatre you see nowadays. The book debunks the myth of stardom and commercial success. Theatre is a social tool and a vocation." Hoyle also recommended Theatre Games: A New Approach to Drama Training, by Clive Barker (Methuen Drama, 1988). Barker, Hoyle's mentor at the University of Birmingham, worked with famous British director Joan Littlewood, a heroine of Hoyle's. Finally, Hoyle mentioned Craft of Comedy, by Athene Seyler (Theatre Arts Books, 1981), "a fun book about playing boulevard comedy."

Among the acting books, Los Angeles teacher Diane Salinger recommended Edward Dwight Easty's On Method Acting (Ivy Books, 1994); Uta Hagen's first book, Respect for Acting (Wiley & Sons, 1973), and Michael Shurtleff's Audition (Bantam Books, 1980), which I love, too; it purports to be about auditioning but is really about the craft itself. Salinger also said her students are greatly inspired by Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self (Basic Books, 1996)—"It helps you deal with things that stand in the way of your career"—and poet Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (W.W. Norton & Co., 1994) "inspires courage and confidence."

Another L.A.-based teacher, Margie Haber, recommended a non-acting book, The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey (Random House, 1997). "Spontaneity and being present are the same in tennis as in acting," she said. "You need to trust that you're really experiencing and looking at the people across the net. Just be present—it's a whole new adventure for actors. Actors are always one step ahead. If you're one step ahead in tennis, you can't possibly hit the ball."

Freelance director Kenn Watt, who works frequently at San Francisco's Magic Theatre, immediately thought of The Presence of the Actor, by Joseph Chaikin (TCG, 1991). "Joe is so articulate about the spiritual dimensions of performing in public and what it really means to be an actor," he mused.

"Of course I recommend my own book," said Los Angeles coach/teacher Judith Weston, and I do, too: Directing Actors. Added Weston, "I recommend that actors read lots of nonfiction: memoirs, profiles, biographies of real people—newspapers. Actors can learn more about acting from reading about people in newspapers and watching documentaries than they can from reading books about acting and watching movies." Her favorite magazine is The New Yorker: "I learn fascinating things that in some surprising and oblique way make me better understand acting."

Which brings me to Los Angeles coach/teacher Ivana Chubbuck's comments. "I believe acting is a physical art form," she said. "You have to get up on your feet. Some people have read every book on the subject but can't act. If you're doing a specific character—say, a serial killer—a book about the mind of a serial killer could help. For A Beautiful Mind, research about schizophrenia could help—psychological profiling. But I don't believe in books about acting [in general]."

Granted, you can't learn how to act from a book. Nor can most of us learn how to act from experience alone, or from classes alone. It's the combination of all three that teaches you the ropes—and keeps you inspired, and inspiring for others to watch.

Other recommendations:

Phillips: Masters of Light: Conversations With Contemporary Cinematographers, by Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato (University of California Press, 1986). "You realize that cinematographers approach storytelling with as much detail and depth and insight into the script as actors do. Wonderful, inspiring."

Libby Appel, artistic director, Oregon Shakespeare Festival: The Empty Space, by Peter Brook (Simon & Schuster, 1997); The Complete Works of Shakespeare ("the best acting text there is"), Addison-Wesley, 1997; Mask Characterization: An Acting Process, by Libby Appel (Southern Illinois University Press, 1982).

Elliott: Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare, by Isaac Asimov (Avenel, 1997). "His insights about Shakespeare are so entertaining. It sounds dry but it's not. It's a great book to read before you tackle one of the plays."

Watt: Anne Bogart: Viewpoints, a collection of essays (Smith & Kraus, 1995). A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre, by Anne Bogart (Routledge, 2001), "in which she's articulate about what directors need from actors."

Anne Bogart (as recommended to Watt): At Work With Grotowski on Physical Actions, by Thomas Richards and Jerzy Grotowski (Routledge, 1995).

Weston: Stanislavski's memoir My Life in Art (Theatre Arts Books, 1987); Harold Clurman's The Fervent Years (Da Capo Press, 1988)—"so enlightening."

Olympia Dukakis: The Actor Speaks: Twenty-Four Actors Talk About Process and Technique, by Janet Sonenberg (Crown, 1996), and Nikos Psacharopoulos' Toward Mastery: An Acting Class With Nikos Psacharopoulos (Smith & Kraus, 1999). BSW

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