Some actors are born great, some actors achieve greatness, and some actors have greatness thrust upon them. No matter which of the three categories you fall into, reading books about acting is an excellent way to nurture your abilities. Importantly, acting books can help with a myriad of skills including acting technique, auditioning, and self-marketing, all things that are important to any actor. Here are the top seven books that every actor should read.
1. An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski
This is the oldest book on the list and the first of the three acting books written by Mr. Stanislavski, a Russian character actor famous for his theatre work. In these pages, Stanislavski takes the reader on a trip through his system by following the experiences of a group of actors as they learn with their teacher. The result is an in-depth theory of acting that includes exercises and techniques meant to encourage imaginative and true performances. There is not a book on this list or an actor in the world who is not directly influenced by Stanislavski’s teachings in An Actor Prepares.
2. Audition by Michael Shurtleff
One irony of acting is that before you can act, you have to audition. This book by Michael Shurtlef addresses the art of auditioning from the perspective of an experienced casting director. Simple and informative, Shurtleff shares a 12-step guide with corresponding questions to help actors prep for auditions and callbacks. Some favorite techniques that emerge are “playing opposites,” “finding humor and love,” and “the moment before.”
3. Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen
Legendary actress Uta Hagen wrote a book that been a lifesaver for both theatre and film thespians. Along with practical acting advice like how to combat stage fright and how to avoid complacency when playing the same role for too long, the Tony-award winning Hagen also distills the core of acting into nine specific questions. You’ll have to read the book to see all nine and truly learn how to investigate them, but perhaps the most important question Hagen tells the reader to ask when it comes to their characters is “Who am I?”
4. Acting as a Business by Brian O’Neil
After you book a role and become a working actor, the best thing you can do is promote yourself. This book is written by a former talent agent and walks aspiring actors through the process of self-marketing as well as finding an agent to represent you. O’Neil writes updates to his book every few years and the most recent edition includes tips for how to use the internet as a tool and details recent trends in the entertainment industry.
5. Sanford Meisner on Acting by Sanford Meisner
Sanford Meisner is considered by many to be the best acting teacher ever and his technique is up there as one of the most practiced techniques among professionals. Regardless of the technique you prefer, this book offers insights and exercises as the reader follows a group of actors studying under Meisner. His famous quote pretty much encapsulates the tone of his writing: “Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”
6. Improvisation for the Theatre by Viola Spolin
Improvisation has become a core tenet for modern acting (and the modern comedy scene) and can find its roots in the innovative theatre work developed by actress Viola Spolin. The acting exercises she called “Theatre Games” later became the basis for modern improvisation in acting, and Spolin explains the process in her seminal book, Improvisation for the Theatre. Learn how to act in the moment without a safety net with Spolin’s lessons and exercises she lays out in her book.
7. The Intent to Live by Larry Moss
“I call this book The Intent to Live because great actors don’t seem to be acting, they seem to be actually living,” Larry Moss said. He is a highly-regarded acting teacher of recent times, having instructed hundreds, most noticeably Hillary Swank, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Justin Timberlake. He is a sort of contemporary master of acting instruction, like Stanislavski and Meisner in their times, making his book especially vital to the modern actor. He stresses preparation and script work and offers insights into developing characters and tackling difficult roles.
Acting is a skill that can be learned through education. For the actor that is interested in achieving greatness, any of the above titles is an ideal place to start. Once an actor masters their technique on camera and in auditions and realizes the power of marketing, greatness will eventually be thrust upon them.
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