Bard of Directors

I've already written a post about great musical theatre books, but this is a list of books that aren't specifically about musical theatre but are really inspiring and eye-opening for any theatre artist. As musical theatre artists, we have to be careful that we don't study only musical theatre, because if we do, we will miss a lot that's important. Here are some books and videos that I've found really helpful in my own work.

Training of the American Actor – This is a wonderful book, a survey of all the various American acting methods, each chapter taking on a different teacher and method, and written by disciples of these teachers, covering the work of Stanislavsky, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Michael Chekhov, and Uta Hagen. There's even a chapter on Viewpoints. It's a terrific artistic battery re-charger, and a good reminder that everyone takes a different path to get to our destination.

The Empty Space – This is a book every theatre artist should read. It's a powerful, clear statement about what theatre is, can be, and should be. Director Peter Brook lays out for us four kinds of theatre: the Deadly or Conventional commercial theatre; the Holy Theatre based on sacred ritual; the Rough Theatre, of the people in the street; and the Immediate Theatre, the kind of powerful, transformative theatre Brook himself was working toward. For anyone who sees theatre as just a commercial enterprise rooted in New York's commercial theatre district, reading this book will be an eye-opening, revelatory, probably mind-blowing experience.

Connecting Flights – This may be the coolest, most inspiring book I've ever read about the theatre, written by Canadian playwright, actor, film director, and stage director Robert Lepage. I guess if I had to label this book, I'd call it a philosophical treatise, but it's so much more and it's so much fun to read. Whatever it is, it will leave you energized, inspired, and thrilled once again by the endless possibilities of the stage.

A Sense of Direction – William Ball has written the best book on directing theatre I've ever read (and I've read a lot), both philosophical and practical. He talks about nuts-and-bolts issues, but also talks about the director's role in freeing and inspiring his actors. This book is a perfect mix of real-world advice and high-minded philosophy, and it reminds us that good theatre must be both.

Tips for Directors / Tips for Actors – Director Jon Jory has written these wonderful books that are really useful and really fun to read. In both these books, each page is a separate topic, some only a few sentences, some a full page, ranging from things you learned in Drama 101 but may forget from time to time, to ideas that may never have occurred to you before. The truly fun part of these books is to just open them at random and see what you find. We interviewed Jory on our radio show a while back, and he said these books are meant to be browsed through during a rehearsal break, or while waiting for a bus, or when you're decompressing at the end of the night. You never know what you'll find, and it'll always be useful...

A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre – This is my favorite book by the amazing director Anne Bogart. Like these other books, this one has some things that we all need to be reminded of, and also things most of us have never even considered. Plus, Bogart talks a lot about her actual process of directing, and it's so reassuring to know she gets lost and insecure, too! But reading about how she handles that is really inspiring and has helped me a lot in my own work.

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales – This is not a book about theatre, but every theatre artist should read it. This is the great child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim's magnum opus, and the book that inspired Stephen Sondheim and Jim Lapine to write Into the Woods. First of all, this book will blow your mind, and you'll see fairy tales (and all other stories) like you've never seen them before. And though this book is specifically about fairy tales, it's really about all human storytelling. I've read this book twice (the first time when New Line did Woods) and I learn so much from it each time. I can't recommend this enough.

Get The Guests: Psychoanalysis, Modern American Drama, And The Audience – One of my favorite books, Walter A. Davis' psychoanalysis of The Iceman Cometh, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It's one of the most interesting books I've read, and it gave me some valuable tools in understanding characters and their motivations.

I'll also throw in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, which isn't really about theatre, but it's a must-read for anyone in the storytelling business.

And here are some videos that I think every musical theatre artists should see...

The Power of Myth – This is one of my favorite things ever. The legendary Joseph Campbell and PBS' Bill Moyers sit down at Skywalker Ranch to talk for six hours about human myths and religion, and it's the most inspiring thing I've ever seen. It will change the way you see religion, myths, storytelling, and pretty much everything else. Once you're tuned in to the Hero Myth, you'll realize it's everywhere. This six-part series will make you a better theatre artist, whether you're an actor, director, designer, or writer. I think every acting student and every directing student should have to watch at least the first episode. It's almost like Campbell gives us the secret code that unlocks every story ever told...

In Search of Shakespeare – This is another of my favorite things, partly because I really love Shakespeare, but also because it's an extended look at how a theatre artist's life intersects with his work. Historian Michael Wood takes us on a four-part journey through Will's life, literally from birth to death, and actually visiting all the locations that figured in his life, looking at court records, family bibles, etc. With the help of the Royal Shakespeare Company's touring company, Wood takes us to places Shakespeare actually played and gives us glimpses of these plays in their original cultural and physical contexts. He even does a pretty great job of piecing together Shakespeare's "lost years," with a mix of historical evidence and informed conjecture. I've watched this whole four-part series four times, and I never get sick of it. It's another artistic battery re-charger.

Another great series that serves as a terrific companion piece is the 3-episode Shakespeare: The King's Man, exploring in great depth the politics and culture that informed and reacted to Shakespeare's work.

Looking for Richard – This is one of my favorite films ever. It's really just Al Pacino working at dissecting and understanding Richard III, with the help of artists like Vanessa Redgrave, Kevin Kline, John Gielgud, etc. And he assembles a group of his friends, including Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder, and others to work through some of the scenes, even performing some of them in an actual castle, to talk about how Americans approach Shakespeare, to think about how to reach an audience... so many topics. This film inspired me more than any other single thing.

Shakespeare Uncovered and Playing Shakespeare – Both these series are really smart, really interesting explorations of the creative process. Shakespeare Uncovered is a series in which each episode is hosted by a famous actor (Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, Trevor Nunn, Joely Richardson, David Tennant) exploring one Shakespeare play in depth. And every episode is outstanding. In Playing Shakespeare, director John Barton essentially holds master classes with young (in 1982) actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company, including Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, and others. I really love this series.

I remember, about ten years ago, when I realized that there wasn't much left for me to learn about the old musicals and writers – I'd been at it since I was a kid, after all. And also that there was almost no one writing about the new musicals and writers except me. It might have been just out of boredom that I decided I should re-read some of the (non-musical-) theatre books I'd read in college. I started with The Empty Space and it was so creatively energizing that I kept going, re-reading some of the classic texts but also new books, including the ones I list above.

And it made me a better director. After thirty-two years of directing musicals (can I really be that old?), I know about staging, pacing, tone, style, all that stuff; and though that's where a lot of musical theatre directors end their work, that's just the beginning for us. My work stands on the shoulders of George Abbott, Bob Fosse, Tommy Tune, and Hal Prince, but also Peter Brook, Joan Littlewood, Tom O'Horgan, Anne Bogart, and Bertolt Brecht.

As I remind us all from time to time – theatre is the noun; musical is just an adjective. The act is storytelling. Music is just the language of that storytelling.

Give these books and videos a try. I really think you'll love them.

Long Live the Musical Theatre!