If you’re interested in becoming a full time actor and want to learn more about the career path or if you’re already an actor and are searching for new acting techniques or inspiration, spending time reading books on acting can open you up to discover the next big thing that improves your acting skills and career path.
There are many different kinds of acting books: books about the techniques or craft of acting, books about auditioning, memoirs or autobiographies written by esteemed actors. There are also books that are acting adjacent, which can also be incredibly valuable; books about filmmaking, screenwriting and theater history. Finally there is a great book that many actors use for preparing their auditions and performances, a reference book when working on and preparing acting scenes and auditions.
Learning about the vast variety of acting techniques, hearing the trials, tribulations and investments of celebrated working actors, expanding your knowledge of the industry, reimagining how to prepare your auditions, and exploring the art and history of storytelling will always improve your own work!
Here is a full list of highly recommended books to learn more about acting:
AN ACTOR PREPARES
By: Konstantin Stanislavki
This is one of the oldest and most famous books on contemporary acting techniques. Stanislavski was a Russian actor, director and theater practitioner, born in 1863. He changed the course of acting forever, by directing and training actors to practice the “art of experiencing” rather than the “art of representation”. He stressed the importance of action, psychological realism and the power of imagination and emotional memory.
In this book, Stanislavski outlines his technique of psycho-physical acting through a series of exercises and mock rehearsals. It covers everything from the basics of acting, like determining your character’s motivation, to more advanced techniques like subtext and creating a disciplined ensemble. These exercises will help hone your skills as an actor and encourage imaginative and true performance.
RESPECT FOR ACTING
By: Uta Hagen
Inspired by Stanislavski’s system, trailblazing actor and acting teacher Uta Hagen offers a simple and straightforward series of exercises in this seminal acting book that is still widely read today.
In this book, Hagen presents the “Ten Object Exercises”; acting exercises still widely practiced today that an actor can do to improve your connection to behavior, environment, storytelling, revealing life, the space and objects around them, and the actions your characters take.
SANFORD MEISNER ON ACTING
By: Sanford Meisner
Many people believe Sanford Meisner to be the best acting instructor of all time and his techniques are widely used by many favorite working actors. Elaborating on the work of Konstantin Stanislavski, Mesiner developed a technique to help performers act before they think because, as he said, “…your instincts are more honest than your thoughts”.
This book follows a group of 16 actors who studied with Meisner in the mid-1980s. It details all the exercises he taught his students (the repetition exercise being the most well-known). His most famous quote is, “An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words'' and that was Mesiner’s gift: he showed his students how to listen and reconnect with their instincts and inner truth without being self-indulgent.
While nothing can replace taking a great acting class, this remains one of the greatest books from which to learn acting!
THE INTENT TO LIVE
By: Larry Moss
In his introduction, Larry Moss writes, “I called this book, the Intent to Live because great actors don’t seem to be acting, they seem to be actually living“.
Larry Moss is one of the preeminent acting coaches working today. He has coached a long list of A-list actors on their notorious roles and shares his anecdotes for how they experimented in shaping and perfecting those timeless characters.
Moss stresses preparation, rigorous script work and offers insights into how to bring to life vivid, dynamic characters. Read this classic, yet contemporary book to learn all about acting.
IMPROVISATION FOR THE THEATRE
By: Viola Spolin
Learning how to act and react in the moment outside the confines of a script is an integral part of modern acting. Viola Spolin is widely considered to be the mother of improvisation and in this book she introduces her famous Theatre Games exercises which help the actor connect with their unique creativity and use it to act freely in each moment of a scene.
Improv troupes all over the world use Spolin’s techniques as the basis of their work. Don’t let the title fool you, these lessons and exercises are not just for theater actors, investing time in mastering the skill of improvisation will have a profound impact on any film, television and commercial actor’s work.
THE RIGHT TO SPEAK: WORKING WITH THE VOICE and THE WOMEN’S VOICE
By: Patsy Rodenburg
These books explore the often neglected, but vital subject of voice work. Proper voice teachers can be hard to find and it’s an investment that even some full-time actors aren’t able to make, but these great books by Patsy Rodenburg help make voice work accessible.
Rodenburg explains how voice is the foundation for connecting with your audience, whether in the theater or across a screen. She describes how trauma affects our bodies and voices, how to find the “second circle” - Rodenburg’s term for the state between the first circle (introversion and self-doubt) and the third circle (aggression and narcissism) and how voice work can help not only with projection and clarity, but with audition nerves, freedom of movement, confidence, access to emotion and most importantly, maintaining the health of an actors’ instrument: your body and voice!
By: Michael Shurtleff
Written by famous casting director Michael Shurtleff in 1978, the lessons in this book are still incredibly valuable today. Sturtleff talks about relationships, conflict, “the moment before”, humor, discoveries and so much more. He includes guidelines for audition success, inspiring anecdotes and many other tips on being a successful working actor.
Although this book focuses on crafting a great audition, the questions Shurtleff asks can shape any performance into one with strong choices, depth and vibrant character.
HOW TO AUDITION ON CAMERA: A HOLLYWOOD INSIDER'S GUIDE FOR ACTORS
By: Sharon Bialy
Award winning casting director Sharon Bialy gifts actors with this incredible book full of tips, advice and tough love that will help keep any aspiring actor on a successful path. Accessible and easy to read, Bialy’s warmth and personality comes through the text and leaves you feeling as though you’re getting one-on-one advice. If you’re looking to understand anything and everything about the audition process, look no further.
The chapter on casting director pet peeves is especially enlightening!
"I wish I’d had this advice when I started out." Bryan Cranston
By: Viola Davis
This is a raw, heartbreaking and deeply inspiring book by one of the most esteemed actors working today. Davis chronicles her early life and discovery of acting, her time at Juilliard, her transition to full-time acting and the breakout roles that made her a star. Most importantly, however, she talks about discovering herself.
Through these chapters she recounts the impacts that racism, poverty and domestic abuse had on her life and how her love for acting remained her guiding star. Davis writes in the final section of the book, “success pales in comparison to healing” and if you’re an actor looking for inspiration during hard times, then this book is for you!
JUST AS I AM
By: Cicely Tyson
"In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only succeeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of history." -President Barack Obama, 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony.
In this beautiful autobiography, Cicely Tyson chronicles her incredible journey as an actor, activist, and lecturer from her humble beginnings to winning the Emmy, Tony and Oscar. This book is a must read for any aspiring actor.
"Just as I Am is my truth. It is me, plain and unvarnished, with the glitter and garland set aside. In these pages, I am indeed Cicely, the actress who has been blessed to grace the stage and screen for six decades. Yet I am also the church girl who once rarely spoke a word. I am the teenager who sought solace in the verses of the old hymn for which this book is named. I am a daughter and a mother, a sister and a friend. I am an observer of human nature and the dreamer of audacious dreams. I am a woman who has hurt as immeasurably as I have loved, a child of God divinely guided by his hand. And here in my ninth decade, I am a woman who, at long last, has something meaningful to say." -Cicely Tyson
A LIFE IN PARTS
By: Brian Cranston
This thoroughly engrossing, enjoyable read takes you through Brian Cranston's lifelong love of performing. From when his father cast him in a commercial at 7 years old all the way through to his iconic role on “Breaking Bad”, any actor will take away many lessons from his enlightening experience.
“An illuminating window into the actor’s psyche” (People) Cranston reveals much wisdom on what it means to have talent and creativity while exploring how to devote oneself to the craft of acting - challenges and all.
What’s better? Brian Cranston voices the audiobook! Listening to him tell his own story is particularly moving.
AN ACTOR’S TAKE ON MOVIE MAKING
By: Michael Caine
The book is a short, but helpful manual for actors who work on camera. It’s highly entertaining and contains a plethora of tips on becoming the type of actor people enjoy working with (which we at the LMM can’t stress enough)!
Caine assembled this book from a series of workshop lectures and it provides you with tangible strategies on how to prepare your character, work with directors, hit your mark and be a professional on set!
SAVE THE CAT
By: Blake Snyder
Being a professional working actor for film, television and commercials means being the storyteller of your characters’ experience as a part of a bigger story being told by other storytellers - the writers, directors and producers. This famous storytelling guide by Blake Snyder dissects every story into individual beats and teaches the reader how to turn any story idea into a film, tv series or even a novel.
Investing time learning about story structure is a great way to speed up your acting process. When you understand why a scene is in the story, you unlock how you can play that scene in actions and reactions.
THE METHOD: HOW THE TWENTIETH CENTURY LEARNED TO ACT
By: Isaac Butler
Today’s modern style of realism acting can be traced back to a single source - Russian actor and teacher Konstantin Stainislavski. He created a system of questions and exercises that pushed actors to understand their characters, their stories and themselves to allow the scripts they embodied to flow freely and authentically through them. This system became “the Method” that forever transformed theater, film and television acting.
In this book, theater director and critic Isaac Butler chronicles the history of Stainislavski’s method in a fascinating and enjoyable narrative that traces its evolution over decades; from its roots in Russian theater, to its prevalence in Hollywood today.
Understanding where and how modern acting began is an essential part of finding your path as an actor.
“The main thing to know about the Method is that it means different things to different people. Just like real people do.” - San Francisco Chronicle
“The best and most important book about acting I’ve ever read.”- Nathan Lane
HISTORY OF THE THEATRE
By: Oscar Gross Brockett and Franklin J. Hildy
For the actor looking to dive deep into history, look no further than Brockett and Hildy’s masterful book, History of the Theatre. This complete, widely respected text is often referred to as “The Bible of Theatre History” for the English speaking world.
Hundreds of photos, timelines and maps give the reader everything they need to get a clear picture of the history of theater all over the world.
“Most people involved with teaching theater history know that this text is unequaled in the field. No other survey text gives this kind of detail, is revised as often to keep pace with research and historical developments, is as qualified or clear in what the state of knowledge and debate are on particular topics, covers as many areas of world theater, has as thorough an index, is as rich in images, or has as useful a bibliography.” - Dennis C. Beck, James Madison University
ACTIONS: THE ACTOR’S THESAURUS
By: Marina Caldarone and Maggie Lloyd-Williams
If you’re truly committed to becoming a full time actor, this book by Marina Caldarone and Maggie Lloyd-Williams is an absolute must. Actors need actions. You can’t act lines, you can’t act feelings, you can’t act ideas, you can only act actions, and this comprehensive and thoroughly compiled thesaurus of active verbs helps the actor prepare their work to ensure that every word they speak is supported with an action that moves the story of their scene forward.
“A good actor talks about actions like a builder-decorator talks about the color of paint. Actions can lead an actor from confusion to clarity, from muddle to magnificence, from the clichéd to the complex. If you want to act, or act better, actions will take you a long way on the journey to excellence” - Terry Johnson