5 Great Books for Theater Majors

Required reading for theater majors goes way beyond scripts. Students should encourage themselves to consider every dimension of their art and pursue a greater understanding of the actor’s purpose. These five easy reads prove that acting is more than going through the motions.

1. Broadway Babies: The People Who Made the American Musical, by Ethan Mordden

This whirlwind tour of American theater is one of the best books for theater majors who want a history lesson as lively as its subject. Mordden employs technical knowledge, sparkling wit, and infectious enthusiasm worthy of his legendary subjects: Liza Minnelli, Angela Lansbury, Stephen Sondheim, and more. He profiles the choreographers, producers, and directors who left their mark on the world of musical theater. It’s important to understand the legacy of the art form, and Broadway Babies takes theater geeks on a comprehensive romp through the decades.

2. Respect for Acting, by Uta Hagen

Renowned actress and teacher Uta Hagen doesn’t mince words. Her 1973 book is slim, but packed with lucidly communicated insights that are as essential now as they were 40 years ago. Unburdened by elitism, Hagen instructs young actors on how to tackle practical problems in acting. How does one effectively communicate with the audience? How does an actor draw on personal experience to inform his/her character? Hagen, who taught Sigourney Weaver, Whoopi Goldberg, Al Pacino, and Judy Garland, lays out the blueprint in fewer than 300 pages.

3. Actions: The Actors’ Thesaurus, by Marina Caldarone and Maggie Lloyd-Williams

When a character “admires,” does he/she honor? Idolize? Venerate? Caldarone and Lloyd-Williams provide hundreds of synonyms for common action words to help actors hone in on the purpose of a scene and express the driving force behind a character. This invaluable thesaurus is one of the greatest books for theater majors who need to physically communicate complex emotions onstage. Useful for rehearsals and auditions, Actions opens up new dimensions of character acting. Actors at any level who feel stumped by that one scene or line will want to keep this one close.

4. The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate, by Peter Brook

Peter Brook is not an actor but a director and cofounder of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He revolutionized avant-garde theater in the ’60s, and spent the ’70s traveling the world, observing performance art from Iran to Native American reservations, according to The New York Times. In this short but stunning tome, he defines four different types of theater. Brook’s prose, which is passionate but not pompous, will shake off the college blues and refresh the theater major’s love for the art. Those with a taste for the unconventional will appreciate his exploration of experimental theater techniques in recent history.

5. Acting Songs, by David Brunetti

Onstage, a song is not just a song. Brunetti, an NYC-based musician and teacher, shows actors how to find the essence of a song and perform it with intention. Musical theater is so much more than vocal chops and quick gestures. This book reveals the key to infusing musical numbers with depth and connecting with the audience while belting out lyrics. Brunetti’s steps are easy to follow. He also includes interviews with prominent directors and casting directors. Acting Songs is among the most helpful books for theater majors specializing in musicals.

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Theater majors can use these books and others to take their skills to the next level. They will be inspired to explore the possibilities of the stage: past, present, and future.