Updated: Jan 6, 2021
There are BUTT-LOADS of books on acting out there. But which ones are the essentials? The workhorses, the time-tested ones you'll find yourself returning to again and again? Here are my top ten picks.
1. An Actor's Work by Constantin Stanislavski
Stanislavski was the real OG of modern, naturalistic psychologically-based acting, and his books are invaluable resources for building a rich understanding of the craft and improving your skills. This book is written fictionally in the form of a diary of a young theatre acting student named Kostya, documenting his experiences and lessons with other classmates learning under the instruction of a master teacher named Tortsov. Through this narrative, Stanislavski lays out all the principles of his system of actor training, which is still the fundamental basis of almost all actor training today. His influence cannot be overestimated!
Now you might be more familiar with a title called An Actor Prepares or perhaps also the subsequent volume Building a Character. Stanislavski's work was originally written in Russian and was translated into English by a collaborator named Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. There were several inaccuracies and mistranslations in those original publications. This newer edition, translated by Jean Benedetti, combines An Actor Prepares and Building a Character in one volume as it was originally intended. It is a more faithful translation of Stanislavski's writing, and is crafted for the purpose of being a practical guide for actors.
2. An Actor's Work on a Role by Constantin Stanislavski
This is the next volume in Stanislavski's work where he applies his acting system to the rehearsal process and the building an actual role. It was originally published as Creating a Role, but again this is a newer, more faithful translation done by Jean Benedetti.
3. Audition by Michael Shurtleff
Originally published in the 1970s, this book is a classic. It is invaluable for preparing for auditions, but it is also a great help for preparing any type of role for any purpose. Using the 12 Guideposts, it shows you how to quickly and effectively penetrate a text and figure out the most important things you as the actor need to consider and incorporate into your playing of a scene or monologue.
4. The Actor and The Target by Declan Donnellan
Feeling stuck and not sure how to proceed? This book addresses the typical obstacles or "blocks" actors often have when preparing a role. It works to reframe your thinking and free you from self-consciousness and strain by teaching you to place your attention externally on various "targets," or objects of your actions.
5. Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays by David Ball
This slim little book is a great guide for textual analysis. The book has several lessons, but mainly It teaches you to look at a script as a series of interconnected actions, or using its own terminology, as a series of "triggers" and "heaps," a series of falling dominoes. To make the play come alive in a realistic way that makes sense, it's important to not skip any steps, to always know what action caused the next action. The book also shows how much insight is revealed by tracing the actions backwards.
6. Freeing the Natural Voice by Kristin Linklater
Kristin Linklater is a world-renowned teacher of voice and speech. Her Linklater method is taught in many drama schools, and is described in detail in this book. It is full of interesting exercises to help you release tension and find ease in your speech and acting. Yes it frees the voice, but it also frees the body, and frees your acting! If you have the opportunity take a Linklater workshop, definitely do it. It will help to have the live experience to illustrate exactly how the exercises should be done.
7. A Practical Handbook for the Actor by Melissa Bruder, Lee Michael Cohn, et al.
Actors can sometimes get bogged down with too many tools in the toolbox. This book is a distillation of the most essential acting techniques you need to know. In that way it's simple, practical, and no-nonsense.
8. True and False by David Mamet
The subtitle of this book is "Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor." Indeed, in the book Mamet cuts through a lot of the frou frou, high-falutin B.S. actors are often taught. He scolds actors for the tendency to "ancestor worship." It's a good counterbalance to a lot of other acting books, including the ones on this list. But ultimately he still promotes the same fundamental techniques: acting is about action, and an action is an attempt to achieve a goal. As is fit for David Mamet, the tone of the book is biting and combative, but ultimately quite fun.
9. Acting in Film by Michael Caine
If you have any interest in film acting at all, this book is the best you can get on the subject. It's a practical handbook that explains the various challenges particular to film acting. As Michael Caine says, "Working in theatre is like doing surgery with a scalpel. Working in film is like surgery with a laser." Precision and subtlety are key. There is also an accompanying DVD which has Michael Caine explaining his techniques in a workshop. I remember back when my classmates and I watched it, some of us were a bit put off by the...shall we say...pomposity. But ultimately it was valuable instruction!
You can watch it on YouTube here:
10. Actions: The Actor's Thesaurus by Marina Caldarone and Maggie Lloyd-Williams
You should have this little book by your side every time you are sitting down to study your role. Like I said before, acting is about actions, and how well you perform is often dependent on how specific and precise your choice of actions are. If you're ever stuck, or can't come up with the perfect word to fit your objectives, this book can be a saving grace. It starts with a helpful little instructional guide in the front, then has an alphabetical listing of action words along with their synonyms. In the back you have an additional listing, with the words gathered in emotional groups (nurturing words, damaging words, using words, etc.)
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