Tuesday, November 27, 2007

ACTORS ON ACTING by Toby Cole and Helen Krich Chinoy

The Book: Toby Cole and Helen Krich Chinoy, editors; ACTORS ON ACTING: The Theories, Techniques, and Practices of the World's Great Actors, Told in Their Own Words. Crown trade paperback, seventh printing, 1970. Very good condition; some age-related browning to pages. Owner's signature ("Ellen Clair Lamb") on front flyleaf.
First read: 1982
Owned since: 1982

Since I started with plays yesterday, all of this week's posts will be theater-related. This book was Norfolk Academy's Drama Award, given to me at my high school graduation in June 1982. I won a lot of awards at my high school graduation -- which is a little ironic because I was always something of an underachiever, except in the subjects that interested me.

It was also surprising to win this award because the woman who ran the school's drama program had never much liked me, and told me once that she wouldn't cast me in a major role because I was hard to understand. No one had ever told me I had a lateral lisp, and she didn't explain it in any way that would have helped me do something about it. Many years later, I worked with a speech therapist to minimize it, but I still slur the "sh" and "ch" sounds.

She did me a favor, though, by discouraging my acting ambitions early. Theater remains a passion (I am slated to be President of Gaslight Theater next year), but I think it works best in the context of a bigger life. Acting should be an exercise of imagination and empathy, but neither of those is any use unless you can find ways to apply the lessons of acting in one's everyday life. I've known quite a few professional actors for whom the opposite seems to happen -- they become (or maybe always were) incapable of real emotion except when they're performing.

Actors on Acting is a textbook, a history of the profession through primary source materials. I say I read it in 1982, but the truth is that I'm not sure I've read the whole thing even now; it's not that kind of book. It's a reference book to be consulted in small doses, starting with the Greek "Artists of Dionysus" and ending with several essays on the Stanislavsky method. It's always fascinating to me to see how styles of acting have changed over time (watch a 1940s movie and a 1970s one, you'll see), and the book ends with a piece by Joseph Chaikin on "The Context of Performance," which illuminates this.

Too many people think that theater is something for the over-educated or the wealthy. Instead, it's the most democratic of art forms, after a singalong; anyone who wants to can put on a play, and it doesn't have to cost anything at all. All primates imitate each other. It's only by pretending to be other people that we really get to the heart of the question, "How are things with you?"

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