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The Top Ten Best Books on Acting Ever Written

July 3, 2011 BelowTheLine, For Actors No Comments
Sanford Meisner has been called “the theater’s best-kept secret,” and Sanford Meisner on Acting by Dennis Longwell gives some insight into what techniques the hugely influential drama teacher used in his 50-plus years of work. One of the founding members of the Actors Studio (with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Harold Clurman), Meisner developed his own special lessons based upon his understandings of the great Russian teacher Stanislavsky. Turning away from the sense-memory exercises common among his colleagues, his training focused instead on a realistic approach to imagination and creativity. Unlike many other educators associated with “the Method,” Meisner had little tolerance for self-absorption or striving after strong emotional effect, instead preaching that clarity of purpose and efficient use of the psyche are the actor’s greatest tools. Longwell’s book follows a class of eight men and eight women through one of Meisner’s 15-month courses at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse, with extensive transcripts taken directly from Meisner’s notes to the students on the basis of their exercises. With an introduction by director Sydney Pollack, one of the many influential artists who studied with Meisner (the book includes accolades from Maureen Stapleton, Arthur Miller, Gregory Peck, and Eli Wallach), this is an excellent introduction that helps to demystify the work of a great theatrical teacher.
To Adler acting is a labor of intelligence and will and love, a “profession that is over 2000 years old” and one that requires boundless energy and a sort of selfish (but not narcissistic) ambition first, and then “critical seeing, self-awareness, discipline, and self-control” – for starters. She talks about the importance to an actor of the use of one’s imagination, the disciplined willingness to actually do the research -in order to care deeply and conscientiously about the play. She asserts, “A great disservice was done to American actors when they were persuaded that they had to experience *themselves* on the stage instead of experiencing the play. Your experience is not the same as Hamlet’s – unless you too are a royal prince of Denmark. The truth of the character isn’t found in you but in the circumstances of the royal position… [to play the role] your past indecision on who to take to the prom won’t suffice.”
In her introduction to Respect for Acting, actress and teacher Uta Hagen talks about a time when she herself had no respect for the art of acting. “I used to accept opinions such as: ‘You’re just born to be an actor’; ‘Actors don’t really know what they’re doing on stage’; ‘Acting is just instinct–it can’t be taught.’” But this attitude of “you got it or you don’t” is fundamentally one that denigrates the craft, as she points out. Great actors do not perform effortlessly, or merely through learning the appropriate tricks and cheats to manipulate an audience. Great acting is about the difficult fusion of intellect and action–about sincerely and truthfully connecting to the moment, your fellow actors, and the audience–and Hagen’s thoughtful and profound book contains a series of observations and exercises to help an actor do just that. Her prose style is admirably clear and filled with examples from her own lengthy career both as a performer and in the classroom. While her exercises in sense memory and basic objects skirt close to the sort of self-absorption that followers of “the Method” are routinely accused of, they are presented clearly and with a focus on practical results. And in such places as her chapter “Practical Problems,” which includes discussions of stage nerves and how to stay fresh in a long run, her straightforward advice is invaluable.
If you like movies, this book is a great read. If you’re interested in acting in movies, it’s an essential read. If you’re interested in moviemaking (behind the camera), it’s still an essential read: buy extra copies to pass around on the set, especially if you’re a struggling filmmaker and you have a cast of friends who’ve never acted before.
As a teacher, Caine is as straightforward as he is as an actor. You watch his performances and you’re seeing an actor who understands that less is more. You read this book and you’re listening to an instructor who understands the same thing. Every anecdote he tells about films he’s been in and stars he’s worked with is not just namedropping, it’s ALWAYS relevant to whatever helpful point he’s making about the craft of film acting. And to him it is very much a craft, not an art. The art takes care of itself; it happens mysteriously, but it can only happen if you nail the craft first. No arty-flighty book about acting theory or the Method, this is a working-class, meat-and-potatoes manual that anyone can relate to, much like its author.
Michael Chekhov, nephew to the Russian playwright and student of Stanislavski, left Russia and his mentor behind to pursue a career as an actor, director, and teacher in Europe and America. While he was an early advocate of Stanislavski, Chekhov differed from the great teacher in important respects, particularly in his insistence on the use of imagination as opposed to memory in creating a role. (In a famous anecdote, Chekhov once performed a “sense memory” exercise in which he broke down over the tragic death of his aunt. When complimented on the truthfulness of his emotion, he admitted that his “aunt” was entirely imaginary.) One of Chekhov’s innovations of technique is the “psychological gesture,” in which a repeated external action leads to an internal revelation. Due to his insistence on the importance of the physical rather than the simply intellectual, Chekhov’s book is as focused on following its series of exercises as it is in study; acting, he would remind us, is always fundamentally a verb. For actors who feel “hemmed in” by an overinsistence on “feeling” a part or in drawing from their own experiences to feed a role, Chekhov’s focus on the primal and limitless nature of imagination is tremendously liberating.
So much mystery and veneration surrounds the writings of the great Russian teacher and director Stanislavski that perhaps the greatest surprise awaiting a first-time reader of An Actor Prepares is how conversational, commonsensical, and even at times funny this legendary book is. After many productions with the Moscow Arts Company, Stanislavski sought a way to introduce his new style of acting to the world outside of his rehearsal hall. The resulting book is a “mock diary” of an actor describing a series of exercises and rehearsals in which he participates. He details his own emotional and intellectual reactions to each effort, and how his superficial tricks and mannerisms begin to disappear as he increasingly gives over his conscious ego to a faith in the creative power of his subconscious. Rarely has any writer on the theater achieved the sort of lucid and inspired analysis of the acting process as Stanislavski does here, and his introduction of such now-standard concepts as “the unbroken line,” “the magic if,” and the idea of emotional memory has laid the groundwork for much of the great acting of the 20th century. While much excess and nonsense was to follow in the steps of Stanislavski’s writings, his original texts remain invaluable, and surprisingly accessible, to any actor or student of drama.
There is more to the acting business than just the acting. It’s understanding and applying the “business” side of acting that makes it possible for the actor to succeed. Bonnie Gillespie is right on target with her enjoyable nuts and bolts wisdom in “Self-Management for Actors: Getting Down to (Show) Business.” She takes the guess work out of the process of managing your career as an actor with clear guidance and a wonderful sense of humor. Precious time and money will be saved when knowing how to market yourself by doing it right the first time. Owning this book is one of the best investments any actor can make.
Actors who want to get inside the script and make it come alive now have a step-by-step guide from a Broadway director and renowned acting teacher. Honed by the author’s 35 years of teaching, this advanced book offers different warm-up exercises concentrating on the actor’s sense of smell, sound, sight, and touch; sensory tools for conveying the climate and environment of the text; tips for suggesting a character’s physical conditions; and much more. Individual exercises will help actors to free the voice and body, create a character, find the action and condition of scenes, and explore the subconscious for effective emotional recall. Readers will also find meticulous guidelines for best using rehearsal time and preparing for in-class scene work. The foreword is written by two-time Academy Award nominee Edward Norton. Those who act, direct, or teach will not want to miss the acting lessons that have made T. Schreiber Studio a premier actor training program.
What is good acting? How does one create believable characters? In “The Science of Acting“, Sam Kogan applies his theories and teaching to answering these questions. It represents a comprehensive and complete technique applying neuroscience and psychology to the role of acting. At its heart lies a unique and groundbreaking understanding of the subconscious, as well as an unparalleled insight into, and expansion of, Stanislavskis original Russian teaching.The book includes chapters on Awareness, Purposes, Events, Actions, Imagination, Free Body, Tempo-Rhythm, and Laws of Thinking, culminating in the Ten Steps to Creating a Character. In addition to providing practical exercises to develop skill and definitions to clarify difficult terminology, it is a simple and original step-by-step guide to creating a character and to developing an actors ability. In examining life and its recreation on stage, “The Science of Acting” is a study of human behavior and its application to acting which no actor or student of acting should be without.
A Dream of Passion by Lee Strasberg is a necessary read for any actor, teacher, director. It’s fascinating to read about his journey. Some of the stereotypes of his method are crushed in this book. Even if you don’t agree with his ideas or techniques it is an extremely interesting read on the evolution of theater in this country.


Edoardo Ballerini is an actor and a writer. He has appeared in over forty films and television series, including Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos and the indie hit Dinner Rush. He was last seen on Theater Row in New York in “Honey Brown Eyes.”You can reach Edoardo on Facebook or Twitter

Actors, What Kind of Success Do You Want?

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In the span of two hours I was referred to as a “semi-celebrity,” and had a woman write me asking “Who are you?” (Why she bothered to write is entirely a mystery, but hey…) Still, it did illustrate the murky waters of notoriety actors can swim in. Somewhere circling amongst the “A-listers,” the “has beens,” and the “never should have beens” are the “aren’t you?… no, never minds.”

Between the Taping and the Viewing…

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In the acting life, there is also a falling shadow, and it comes between the gig and the screening. Between the filming and the airing… Theater is different, of course, but for now let’s stick to the world of screens. After you walk off set for the last day, there’s a good chance you won’t see your work for months, if not even years, or if ever.

Reviews: To Read or Not to Read (h/t to @edoballerini)

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The Emerging Skills Needed by #Film Publicists

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The Mindset Change of Social Media

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I was recently interviewed for a blog and was asked about using social media for marketing a film. It really got me thinking about that question. Is that all most filmmakers see social media being used for? One big promotional effort only to be used when they are looking to sell something? I think within 10 years this will be a non issue as everyone will be adapted to social media. Those who have refused to start will be so left out it will be like the people who held out on rotary phones and terrestrial TV signals.

Using #Pinterest as a tool for your #Film #Marketing

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Speaking of Pinterest…I only recently started using it for the Joffrey project which is why all of my boards are devoted to that. Looking at them gives a good idea on the kind of thing you could use it for on your production. In my workshop presentations, I talk about posting regularly on your social channels and not just information directly about your film, but also about the interests of your audience; those who would be a fan of your film and of yourself as an artist. I am using the boards to show Joffrey history through pictures and videos. The ballets they created, the ballets they revived, their alumni dancers, Robert Joffrey through the years as well as photos of the merchandise available to buy through our site. It’s a balance of audience interest and promotion for the film.

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