There is no end to the number of books than can be of help to an actor. Books on auditioning, books about acting technique, books about the psychology of acting, books about acting classes. And, of course there are the plays. Chekov, O’Neill, Beckett, Shakespeare, Williams, Stoppard, Pinter, the list of master playwrights is very, very long and most actors continue to do their due diligence in studying these plays. However, it seems that many actors miss the boat when it comes to great English literature, which is often a mistake.
Great English literature has engrossing characters, beautifully orchestrated plot points and most important, the English language in all its glory. Lilting phrases, gorgeous vocabulary and dialogue, each book presenting a unique rhythm and view of the world. Master works of literature are spell binding tales, spun in such as way as to mesmerize readers for decades, sometimes centuries. This power the writer had to take simple words on a page and arrange them in such a fashion that the work has lived on, influenced our culture forever, is incredible. This is an art form worth absorbing for any actor.
Let us also carefully define “reading.” It is one thing to read and put into memory the things that happen in a beautifully written book. It is quite another to exercise your intellect and truly wrestle with the material. That means a deep analysis of what is happening in the story and to whom. How they are reacting (or not reacting), how they speak and how it reflects their character, how they are being forced to change, the deeper meaning behind what they say and do. A great actor is someone who can take a story and take it apart. Writing a mental essay on the material, they analyze the elements of the story and try to understand the psychology behind it. Acting classes will help with this skill but, there isn’t an acting class in the world that can teach you to think deeply. You have to learn how to do it for yourself, and incorporate what you learn about human nature into your deep pool, you “emotional library.”
Imagine then, taking on a part that calls for a particular experience along with a multi layered, complex emotional response. If you have taken the time to read lots of great literature, chances are there is a character than can inform the role. If you spent time with that character, immersed yourself mentally in their journey you will have a lot of deep material to draw from.
Another good reason to be well read as an actor? Many actors, because they are artists, have made English literature masterpieces part of their experience and certainly many teachers, directors and producers have. So, if a reference to a specific character comes up during preparation in acting classes, for example, or for a specific performance or audition, how much better will you feel if you are familiar with the character? Of course, plays come first but, great literature is not far behind in terms of importance. A well read actor is a more well rounded actor. Reading great literature could be your secret weapon.