[We pestered our contributors to offer one essential theatre book and explain why it is essential. Here are two more essays.]
by Caitlin Murphy, senior contributor, Montreal
Elia Kazan's dual career in theatre and film was remarkable; he directed premieres of such important plays as A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, as well as such brilliant films as On the Waterfront and Baby Doll. Along the way, he worked with the greatest artists of his time. At 800-plus pages, A Life is likely not for the mildly interested, but this autobiography is one of the most engaging and satisfying reads of my life. I was in such awe and appreciation of Kazan's crazy ability to soak life up, and his seemingly endless energy for writing it down. Beyond this, his comfort with human nature as complex and contradictory is admirable; he is a truly fascinating figure and a pleasure to spend time with.
by Joel Fishbane, columnist and senior contributor, Toronto
Others may find it difficult to list the essential books on theatre that all artists should read, but the answer comes so readily to me that I feared it might be a trick question. One could list the ten best plays or some tomb that discusses the history of theatre; but the truth is that if you’re an artist, there’s only one book you should read: David Mamet’s True and False, Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor.
Don’t let the title fool you: although directed at the actor, this book is relevant to all artists, regardless of their discipline. In his usual terse, no-nonensense style, Mamet discusses the common beliefs and practices of the modern artist, based on his experiences as a playwright, director and performer. He is harsh at times– he calls Stanislavsky an amateur, states that the promise of theatre schools is "a comforting lie" and informs us that most of the work actors do on a script will make no difference. He warns that most teachers are charlatans and that it is not the actor’s job to be “interesting”; he just wants them to say the words the playwright has given.
This is autopsy as literature, a careful dissection of everything that makes the artist's life tick. Yet, even as Mamet tears down the myths, he builds new ones, resulting in a book that is both provocative and idealistic. "Art is the stuff of the soul," writes Mamet. "It is the counterbalance to the reasonable view of the world; and, so, it is likely to be despised. To cherish, rather than despise it - that's the job of the artist."
Personally, I agree with much of what Mamet writes in the book but whether you agree with him isn’t the point. True and False is so provocative that it forces all artists to consider the reasons behind the traditions of their industry. Mamet has taken time to consider many of the myths and common practices of the artistic profession; his book demands that you do the same.