Top 20 Theatre Reading List

In the last few weeks a number of people have asked me and Sara a version of the question, "Where did you learn to make theatre?" The answer is that both of us had professional training, Sara at an NYC conservatory and me in a mentor / apprentice training program. But, like any craft we've mostly learned by doing, by putting on shows for the last decade or so. (Note: If you're interested in learning by doing we hope you'll contact us to get involved.) While there's no substitute for experience, we've also done a pretty sizable amount of research over the years so, here's a list of twenty books from our company library that we feel have been the most helpful to us in our work.

We hope you'll find something here that sparks your interest!  

(The ones with asterisks are our picks for, "Books we would save from the sinking ship so that we could start, "The Desert Island Theatre Club.")

THEORY

* The Empty Space - Peter Brook
The most important book on western theatre in the last century. It's hard to imagine a theatre artist working today whose work has not been in some way influenced by the ideas in this book (whether they know it or not). If you have not had the opportunity to be excited by Brook's deep understanding of what the theatre can be (and what it all too often becomes), do your self a favor and pick up this short and easy read.  

* The Necessity of Theatre - Paul Woodruff
This little known book is easily the second most important book on theatre written in the last century, and absolutely the most important of the last 25 years. Woodruff is guaranteed to send you reeling with his fresh definition of what theatre actually is, what separates good theatre from bad, why we need it, and how we can potentially use the new definition he proposes to make theatre better. A fairly easy read, engaging, and incredibly important.

Three Uses of the Knife - David Mammet
Like him or not, Mammet's deep (and sometimes deeply cynical) ideas about what constitutes 'drama' are clearly articulated and well thought out in this short book. His no-nonsense approach to the craft of writing and directing is presented here along with many interesting observations about the structure of drama itself. Especially worth a read for playwrights. 

Bodied Spaces - Stan Garner
Garner, a professor at UT Knoxville, has written a fascinating book about the connection between the medium of theatre and the phenomenological reality of our lived experience. It is an incredibly interesting and deeply insightful read that will transform the way you think about the medium forever; but it's also very difficult. If you don't mind taking the time to do additional research on the internet looking up new words and concepts (or if you are already familiar with the philosophical ideas surrounding phenomenology) then the rewards for cracking this book are unique and rich indeed. (The UT Hodges Library has a copy for checkout with a library card.)   

The Theatre and Its Double - Antonin Artaud
Like talking with your crazy genius uncle about theatre. Inspiring and exciting, full of phrases like, "Theatre is here to remind us that the sky could fall on our heads at any moment!" Much of the experimental theatre and performance art of today can trace its way back to the ideas found in this turn of the century book. It's more of a manifesto than a practical guide to making theatre, but there are some very interesting concepts to be found here, and its a great way to rekindle your excitement in the art if you feel like you've gotten into a rut.

Theatre of the Oppressed - Oggusto Boal
Utterly indispensable for the activist artist, but a fascinating read for anyone interested in the power structures surrounding theatre, entertainment, and education throughout history. Part theory, part practical guide to creating theatre designed to educate and provoke action from the community. Boal's seminal work is the brilliant product of his artistic political activism and scholarly work in Brazil during the mid century, and its hard to imagine modern political theatre (including events like the Occupy Wallstreet movement) without this book.  

Poetics - Aristotle
The starting point for all western theatre theory (if you want an eastern viewpoint check out the ancient Indian Natya Shatra) and one that anyone involved in theatre should at least read once. It's  fairly short, and there are definitely lots of worthwhile ideas to be found here. Be sure to pick up a compendium to help you clarify some of what the old Greek guy is saying because its ripe for misinterpretation if you haven't spent a lot of time studying Ancient Greek Philosophy.  

PRODUCTION

* The Cycle - Michael M. Kaiser and Brett E. Egan
For producers, Artistic / Executive Directors, board members, or anyone running a theatre company, this book offers simple and workable operating principals that can be applied to arts organizations of all sizes at any stage of their development. Kaiser's operating principal "The Cycle" marks a clear path between artistic product, community engagement, fundraising efforts, and advertising. We run Knoxville Theatre Club based on these operating principals.    

* Mis-Directing The Play - Terry McCabe
In this short book McCabe lays out the do's and don'ts of theatre direction from conceptualization of the project through closing night. Of the many such books we have read, this one comes closest to our own philosophy about the role of the director, how they should comport themselves, how to go about the job, and what is needed in order to be good at it.

The Open Door - Peter Brook
Through anecdotes and stories, Peter Book talks about his lifetime as the theatrical director, the purpose of this role in the production team, a director's most important faculties, and different approaches to his projects. Akin to listening to an old master relate his thoughts on 'process' over a pint at the local pub, this book is best taken as a series of compassionate suggestions rather than the founding principals of a system. 

* The Perfect Stage Crew - John Kaluta
A truely excellent technical manual for producing theatre on a realistic budget with realistic resources. Presenting solutions to a myriad of real world problems and offering nuts and bolts advice on nearly every aspect of production from budgets, lighting, sets, properties, and much more. An excellent time-saving and stress-reducing investment for the novice theatre maker, and an excellent reference for the rest of us. 

Theatre Management - David M. Conte and Stephen Langley
While not as utterly indispensable as it once was (the most recent edition was published in 2007) this massive tome of reference material is still a wise addition to any producer's library. Full of useful advice gleaned Conte's years of experience as a Broadway producer, and including two appendices with useful forms, charts and contracts; we still return to this book for quick reference at a few times a year.

Curtains? - Michael M. Kaiser
The latest from Michael Kaiser, the author of "The Cycle" this short book raises many sobering and uncomfortable questions about the state of contemporary mid-sized American theatre and its unlikely financial viability by mid-century. A book that every producer should read when you're ready to confront the enormity of the looming problems that face us, and are willing to accept a sea-change in thinking that will be needed to prepare your organization for the difficulties ahead. Not to be mixed with booze.

* The Stage Management Handbook - Daniel Ionazzi
The only book on stage management we've ever found that itself feels like a stage manager: always anticipating your needs, perfectly organized, accessible, full of helpful ideas and lots of charts. Every theatre should have a copy to loan new SM's, and ever SM should have their own copy. 

ACTING

* A Practical Handbook for the Actor - Melissa Bruder
Revolutionary in its simplicity. Practical on every level, and a solid foundation for any actor. This short book is one that any actor from any theatrical training tradition can find use for. Especially good for artists beginning their theatrical training or who have tried heady academic / philosophical systems and are looking for a more grounded and workable approach. We use this book in many acting intensives because it removes any mysticism and focuses on craft.

* Actions: The Actors Thesaurus  - Marina Caldarone
In rehearsal specificity is key, and knowing what you are trying to convey is sometimes about discovering the differences between "imploring" and "requesting" this unique handy-dandy reference book can help you make short work of what can otherwise eat up valuable rehearsal time, adding intensity and intention to your work.  

The Body Speaks - Yoshi Oida and Lorna Marshall
With her unique vision of the performer's body and its relation to the performance space, Oida eloquently expresses her theories and provides plenty of practical exercises for achieving the physical goals she presents. A wonderful book for any live performer, but especially useful for theatre artists looking to bring the expressive capabilities of their body into greater focus.  

* Voice and the Actor - Cicely Berry and Peter Brook
A practical guide to voice and diction specifically tailored to the stage actor. Consisting almost exclusively of exercises designed to take the untrained voice to a place of competence and eventual depth and resonance, this book provides a wealth of insight, and is useful to any stage actor looking to improve the subtlety of their voice. 

An Actor Prepares - Constantine Stanislavsky
Like Aristotle's Poetics near the top of this list, there are plenty of interesting theories here along with some practical exercises, but Stanislavsky has been grossly misinterpreted on many occasions and some of the techniques in the book that have evolved into systems over the years have since fallen out of fashion or even been deemed unhealthy to the modern actor. Still, this book points the way to much of the acting in the last hundred years, and is very helpful in understanding why modern theatrical performance looks and sounds the way it does.

True and False - David Mammet
Brutally simple without any patience for sentimentally, this book offers an excellent counterpoint to the 'academic' or philosophical approach to acting that are so often encountered in theatre. Mammet offers simple lessons and honest insight that will serve to keep any actor grounded and focused on the specifcs of the job they are entrusted with doing. 

 

-- Sara Gaddis and JP Schuffman are the Co-Artistic Directors of the Knoxville Theatre Club.