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Book Report: A Practical Handbook for the Actor

People, it occurs to me to say, are different one to another, and that is what makes the world interesting and fun. The specific instance of this general observation that sparks its repetition is from a green room conversation about acting classes and books. I have never taken a proper acting class—I took Drama in high school for three years, I think, and I took an Intro to Theater course in college that wound up focusing on acting. But none of those were proper acting courses. And I have read a bunch of books about acting, and read in a bunch more, but I can’t say I have adopted any sort of school of either method or technique. Mostly, I make it up as I go along.

In the conversation, though, I did mention that the only book on acting I have ever really liked was A Practical Handbook for the Actor, by a bunch of people associated with David Mamet and the Atlantic Theater Company. The next day, that very book came across my desk (or rather came across the shelving area next to my desk) and so I decided to pick it up and reread it for the first time in years. And I didn’t really like it.

It turns out that the reason I really liked it was that it was incredibly snarky about Method acting. It states that most acting teachers are frauds, and that most acting classes are fraudulent, and most of the people in them are faking it and faking themselves out in an attempt to be what they think an actor should be. When I was a teenager, this was an wonderful affirmation that (a) I was completely right in my opinion of my high school drama teacher, and (2) I was so, so superior to everyone else I had been doing theater with. Reading it all again now, I am suspicious. Yes, I think my high school drama teacher was a fraud, and both mistaken and deeply confused about theater. She did, however, put on great shows. Which is a point.

More important, though, the so-called Practical Handbook presents a formula for analysing a scene that seems utterly without value. I know the book is not supposed to replace actual work with actual teachers, and it seems possible to me that the actual work with actual teachers would be valuable to me, but a third of the book or so is taken up with this formula that I cannot imagine is useful to use from the book. Not very practical or handy. I can only surmise that the book is intended to be a reminder of techniques learned and practiced in person, and that the formula is useful in that context. That isn’t how the book is presented, but I can imagine that the writers would have found it difficult to imagine how it would look to people without that practice, and thought it was useful when it wasn’t.

The other thing that I found completely lacking in the book, which I don’t remember noticing when I read it twenty-odd years ago, was any recognition of the existence of non-naturalistic acting. I don’t think it would be a problem to fit stylized acting into their Practical Aesthetics, if they wanted to, but they don’t seem to have even thought about it. It’s not going to help you, then, with a commedia production, or The National Health, or Aladdin—again, I suspect the authors and their troupe could adapt to the needs of the show, but the Handbook doesn’t give any idea of how. This is a frustration for me with a lot of the stuff I read about theater—while naturalism has thoroughly dominated the American and English theater scene for a couple of generations, it isn’t the only style in the history of the world, and it even the only style that playwrights are currently working in. It certainly isn’t the only style that audiences like. It’s a perfectly good style, don’t get me wrong—although I have begun to think that some familiarity with, some more presentational style is a very helpful tool even in the naturalistic actor’s kit.

Hmph. This has become a very negative note, and I don’t think the book deserves quite such a negative note. I would break it down like this: about one-third of the book is nasty snarking about the Actor’s Studio-derived Method, which is (imao) a well-deserved corrective; about one-third is the useless formula for scene study; and about one-third is useful observation about the theater, with which, of course, one can agree or disagree, but which are in either case useful for anyone interested in theater.

I would definitely encourage any young person who has gone through some half-assed Method training to read this book; I think it helped me, not only in my theater work but in a larger sense. I don’t find it useful anymore, myself. I wonder if the writers still find it useful. I know their school is still going, quite successfully as I understand it, but they haven’t put out a new edition of this book or a replacement in the last twenty years. Either they are happy with this one, or they have given up on the idea of it. I suspect the latter, although of course there could be a million other reasons.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,