7 of the Best Acting Books to Have on Your Shelf

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“Acting for Dummies” is the silliest name for a book on acting because acting is certainly not for dummies. It takes a real education to look natural in front of an audience or camera. As an acting coach, my teaching style consists of myriad techniques learned over the years from some very gifted teachers in the industry. This mix is also reflected in my reading list. Between my Kindle and my bedside table, I have perused and read far too many books to list in one article. However, I’d like to recommend seven must-haves for aspiring and working actors alike.

Important Books for Actors

1. “Audition” by Michael Shurtleff

I consider this book to be the bible for aspiring actors. If youre just beginning your acting career, this is a great place to start! It covers everything you need to know to get the part. Mr. Shurteff’s 12 infamous guideposts have influenced my own work in developing my simple technique to help actors learn how to direct themselves. From relationships to finding the love and humor in the scene, Shurtelff’s steps will help you nail your audition every time.

2. “Meisner on Acting” by Sanford Meisner

Meisner or Method? That is the question. Well, it may not really be an either-or. It’s often insightful to know both. Although I did not train with Sanford Meisner, I was fortunate enough to study with many teachers, including Wynn Handman, who were Meisner disciples. In this gem, Meisner gives it to you straight on how to live truthfully in the moment under imaginary circumstances. Your library is not complete without this one.

3. “Respect for Acting” by Uta Hagen

Simple and straightforward, Uta Hagen’s profound book has helped generations of actors hone their craft. She introduces a series of exercises to help the actor connect to the moment, fellow actors, and the audience. “Who am I?” “What do I want?” and “What is my relationship?” are three of the nine questions explored to define your character’s role specifically. Hagen also includes invaluable advice about stage nerves and how to stay fresh in a long run.

4. “An Actor Prepares” by Constantin Stanislavsky

Funny at times, this book takes the actor through Stanislavsky’s self-developed system which helps the actor to master his craft as well as stimulate creativity and imagination. Now referred to as "method acting," the book includes a variety of exercises and some autobiographical experiences that focus on relaxation, concentration, and techniques that will help get the actor into character. Emotional memory and the “magic if” explored in his book laid the groundwork for much of the great acting today.

5. “Improvisation for the Theatre” by Viola Spolin

Considered the mother of improvisation, Viola Spolin developed a series of acting exercises and theater games to free the actor’s creativity, allowing play beyond the scene. Many modern improv groups such as Second City utilize Spolin’s techniques. If you want to learn truthful acting and how to be in the moment, add this to your library to make it complete.

6. “Actions: The Actor’s Thesaurus” by Marina Calderone

Acting means TO DO. Thousands of action words are alphabetized and categorized to help you find what you are doing in every beat. This book will help you play specific actions and get away from making general choices.

7. “The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act” by Isaac Butler

What, exactly, is “Method acting”? Isaac Butler tackles this elusive question in his historical recount of the craft, taking the reader from Stanislavsky’s system all the way through the Method’s influential—and controversial—evolution to its place as a modern cultural staple. Deemed “the most important book about acting” by Nathan Lane, Butler draws from a legendary cast of actors, writers, directors, and teachers in his narrative that invites an experience, rather than a read.  

So there you have it! My seven top picks no actor should be caught without. Master your craft, empower yourself, and enjoy the journey.

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Denise Simon
Denise Simon is a New York-based acting coach and career consultant who has been involved in the entertainment industry for more than 30 years as an actor, teacher, director, casting director and personal talent manager.
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