20 June, 2017

Ask Al: Best Acting Books

Dear Al,

What are some standard acting books everyone should read?

David S. ‏


Dear David,

Wonderful question!

Of course acting books, like all books, are very subjective. Sometimes one can read a certain book and get very little out of it, whilst someone else can read the exact same book and have their perspective changed forever.

The lesson – you have to peruse them all.

Often, the exact same person can return to a text at a different place in their life, and have a mind-explosion they could not have had when they first picked a text up. Life is like that—I’ve had books be “blah” in college that changed my life in adulthood, or sometimes even just understood completely new things I was not privy to internally in the previous version of my self that resonates more distinctly in my present.

Because The Art of Acting is created from the only clay we have—ourselves—we must continually re-visit the craft, look inward, and tune up where our skills are matched with our new personal growth. The more we fully marry and utilize our personal growth with an ever-sharpening skill set, the better actor and human being you will continue to grow to become.

While some of these are practically biblical, some classics and others contemporary classics, each offer differing ideas and approaches to acting; from the practical, to the more theoretical, to the gosh darn spiritual. As you have probably experienced with acting, sometimes one small insight can completely shift the way you think about your art, and how you practically approach it.

I’d like to recommend these All-Star must-haves for students, aspiring and professionally working actors alike.


1. An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski
The be-all godfather of contemporary Naturalism-based acting techniques, and without a doubt THE most famous acting teacher in the world, An Actor Prepares is the Bible of acting books, and thus not only must be included in this list, but deserves to be Number 1.

In this very readable handbook, Russian-God-of-Actor-Training Constantin Stanislavski explains general acting exercises, and and illuminates what acting actually IS, which thus serves as foundation to every actor’s further training, and creation of roles.

The book is beautifully-translated and is an enjoyable read for any actor with a passion for the craft, as wellas for the history of actor training.

Humorous 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. The book includes a variety of exercises and some brilliant autobiographical experiences that focus on relaxation, concentration, and techniques that will help get the actor into character.

Titanic acting pillars such Emotional Memory and the “Magic If” are taught and explored in this book, all of which lay the groundwork for the majority of the great acting we bear witness to today.
I have lived a long life, was rich, got poor; seen a lot of the world, had a wonderful family, children, that life has scattered all over the world. I have longed for fame, found it – been honored young and now I am getting old. I know my time on earth is running out. Now ask me wherein we find happiness? It is in knowledge and understanding art and the labor of cognizing it. While learning about oneself, one can learn nature and the meaning of life – We can cognize the soul. There is no happiness above all this.” – Constantin Stanislavski

2. Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen (with Haskel Frankel)
This book is the heart and soul of my own personal technique as both an actress and a teacher. It is the backbone of my classes, and could not be more practical and straightforward. It also, incidentally, comes in audio format which I love to listen to from time to time!

Straightforward as it gets, Uta Hagen’s p r o f o u n d book has helped multiple generations of actors hone their craft. (I will quote my student Alphonse who, multiple times in his journal wrote in all caps "YAAAAAS UTAAAAA" and just... leave it at that... Great actors do not perform effortlessly, or merely through learning the appropriate tricks and cheats to manipulate an audience.

Her theory is simple and true: dancers have the barre, singers have scales, but waht do actors have to "practice" their craft? Here, she answers that. Uta introduces series of Step-by-Step exercises to help the actor re-familiarize themselves with their humanity; to 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 a specific character’s role, and Hagen also adds in some invaluable sage-like wisdom about nerves, how to stay fresh in a long run, and priceless anecdotes from her own career.

3. Acting, The First 6 Lessons by Richard Boleslavsky
I will admit that this was my first ever acting book, given to me by my first ever acting mentors Lucy and Jimbob Stephenson. It arrived one day in a beautfiful care package as I was about to perform in Our Town (a play, incidentally, Jimbob performed for wounded veterans alongside Thornton Wilder himself), and came with a beautiful book inscription I shall treasure always. For this, and many reasons, it is my favorite. 

Richard Boleslavsky's knowledge of the theater was based on an impressive depth and breadth of experience. A member of the Moscow Art Theater and director of its First Studio, he worked in Russia, Germany, and America as an actor, director and teacher. He was a leading Hollywood director in addition to producing plays and musical comedies on Broadway.

In his beloved classic, master acting teacher Richard Boleslavsky presents his acting theory and technique in a lively and accessible dramatic form (meaning, he literally writes it as a play, starring himself and his student known as The Creature). Boleslavsky's slim volume has long helped all artists better understand the craft of acting, but above all,  what is truly required to to grow as a lifelong artist.

4. The Art of Acting by Stella Adler (with Howard Kissel)
"Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one." - Stella Adler
Of course Stella Adler, uber-quotable diva extraordinaire, one of the first membrs of The Group, who is one of the most important teachers of acting.

In 1931, Adler was a founding member of the revolutionary Group Theatre, which took Broadway by storm with a series of naturalistic productions of socially relevant plays, such as Clifford Odets' "Awake and Sing" and "Paradise Lost." In 1934, unsatisfied with Group Theatre co-founder Lee Strasberg's teaching of Konstantin Stanislavsky's techniques, the determined Adler traveled to Paris and studied with Stanislavsky himself. She returned to the Group with her own understanding of his work and offered acting classes to other members, including Sanford Meisner, Elia Kazan, and Robert Lewis.

In this book editor Howard Kissel has taken tapes, transcriptions, notebooks and other sources to reconstruct Stella Adler's acting course in 22 lessons, which turned into one of the best ever books on acting techniques.

5. Strasberg’s Method
 by S. Loraine Hull
Arguably the most comprehensive book for anyone interesting in Method Acting, Hull very clearly lays out all the ideas of Lee Strasberg’s innovative and deeply culturally misunderstood teachings.

It’s also a very easy read, with understandable exercises that should benefit greatly every actor Method or not, who never had a chance to train with the man himself.

If Stanislavski is the Bible of Acting books, consider Strasberg's Method the New Testament, and this a really terrific prayer book, it contains everything you ever wanted to know about this approach.
Acting is the most personal of our crafts. The make-up of a human being – his physical, mental and emotional habits – influence his acting to a much greater extent than commonly recognized.” – Lee Strasberg

6. Sanford Meisner on Acting
 by Sanford Meisner (with Dennis Longwell
Meisner or Strassberg's The Method? Well, it is not truly an either/or, as both teachers were at the heart of the new American acting movement, and their approaches are not siblings, but rather, cousins. It’s often insightful to be familiar with both.

In this beautiful gem of a book, Meisner gives it to you straight on how not to act, but to live; to live truthfully, in the moment, under imaginary circumstances. KAPOW.

I will also add that this of all books gives one a real sense of being in the actual classroom with "Sandy" as he is called, and you feel a level of personal relationship with him as a both a luminary titan, and as a human being that seems to be speaking directly to you. 

Your library is not complete without this one.
"An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words." - Sanford Meisner

7. To The Actor: on the Technique of Acting by Michael Chekhov
Nephew to the greatest-of-the-great-Russian-playwrights Anton Chekhov,  and a student of Stanislavski, Michael Chekhov left Russia and Stanislavski behind, forming the first in a strong "anti-movement" of theatrical actor training. He went on to pursue a career as an actor, teacher, and director in Europe and America.

While he was an early advocate of Stanislavski, Chekhov differed from the great teacher in several key aspects: particularly in his insistence preference of physical creation and activation versus the psychological, and 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.) Both of these schools of thoughts were the burgeoning theories behind American Method Acting in the 1940s and 50s.

One of Chekhov’s innovations of technique is one of my favorites, and something I teach my first year acting students in our second semester: 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 over-insistence 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 and physical experience is beyond liberating, and I believe an essential tool in every actor's toolkit.

8. Audition by Michael Shurtleff  

I consider this book to be the contemporary classic for aspiring actors. (Re: If Stanislavski is the Bible, this is East of Eden / Atlas Shrugged / Invisible Man).

If you are just beginning your acting adventure, this is a really excellent place to start, as it covers everything from craft to practically "getting the role." Shurteff’s 12 (now famous) Guideposts have influenced my own work, my teaching, direction, all with the aim to help actors learn how to empower, direct and guide themselves.

From relationships, to actions, objectives, opposites, to finding the love and humor in any scene, Shurtelff’s Guideposts will help you focus in on the kernel of the scene or audition material every time.


The Actor’s Art and Craft
 by William Esper (comprehensive guide to Meisner's techniques)
Michael Cain: Acting in Film
The Intent to Live by Larry Moss
A Dream of Passion: The Development of The Method by Lee Strassberg

Translating Shakespeare by Dr. David Montee (my personal mentor! There's a photo of me as Rosalind)
A Shakespearan Actor Prepares by Michael York 
Playing Shakespeare by John Barton

The Actor Speaks by Patsy Rodenburg
The Second Circle by Patsy Rodenburg
The Actor and The Text by Cicely Berry

Freeing the Natural Voice by Kristin Linklater
Speak with Distinction by Edith Skinner 

The Lucid Body by
The Moving Body by Jaques LeCoq

The Viewpoints Book by Anne Bogart
The Empty Space by Peter Brooke


  1. AnonymousJune 20, 2017


  2. So like, this means by this time next month I will have bought 8 acting books and one highly anticipated After Anatevka!



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