Introduction to Theater
October 7, 2017 1:26 PM   Subscribe

Can you recommend some good books/articles to help develop an appreciation of theater as an audience member?

I've been going to a lot more plays & musicals the past few years, but have never taken even an intro to theater class. I'm interested in stuff I can read that's engaging (please nothing too dry) that might help me have a more sophisticated or deeper understanding of what I see. And also help me understand and articulate why something does or doesn't work for me. Basically, I am interested in "everyone in theater has read this" and Theater 101 but interesting enough to read for fun.
posted by Mavri to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This isn't as explanatory as you might like, but William Goldman wrote a book called The Season that basically covers one full season on Broadway (I think the year was 1967/8). He talks about every play that opened that season, how it came to be, how it did, with an assessment of why it did that well. It might be a bit more "behind the scenes" rather than "how it works" than you're looking for, but his analysis of why the hits hit and why the flops flop is very good.
posted by gideonfrog at 4:00 PM on October 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For musicals, The Secret Life of the American Musical is very readable and interesting.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 4:22 PM on October 7, 2017

Best answer: You might like Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Stanislavski’s system to American theater. If you’ve heard of Method acting, that’s the American version (Stanislavski was Russian). The book is very readable. I first read it in an introduction to acting class I took in college. I would guess that most serious actors have read it.
posted by FencingGal at 4:34 PM on October 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My wife and I were talking about this question; she's a theater teacher, so she recommended the following books:

David Ball, Backwards and Forwards
James Thomas, Script Analysis: For actors, directors, and designers
William Ball, a sense of direction

As well as the Stanislavski book recommended above.

She also recommended that you see theater at all skill levels; sometimes flaws in more amateur productions are more obvious and you'll realize why something didn't work for you. Additionally, you could read theater critics.
posted by Comrade_robot at 4:57 PM on October 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding Backwards and Forwards.

Michael Bloom's Thinking Like a Director, while geared toward practitioners rather than audience members, might also help explain why certain things work or don't work for you.

Also, Peter Brook's The Empty Space.
posted by come_back_breathing at 5:37 PM on October 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Michael Shurtleff's Audition is a classic, excellent, and highly readable book on acting, written for actors but completely accessible to anyone, actor or not, as long as they're over the age of about 14. I read it at 16, and adored it; I still re-read it every few years.

It's set out in kind of a Q&A format, using scenes from plays (and it's still accessible if you've never heard of the plays he's discussing) and examples of teaching conversations from his acting classes. Shurtleff was a major Broadway casting director in the 1960s and 1970s. He helped kickstart the careers of Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman, among many others.

His principles are pretty universal- if an actor nails them all, it would be pretty much impossible for the role not to work- so reading the book will help you articulate what you like in a specific performance, and what's probably missing in the performances that don't resonate with you.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:37 PM on October 7, 2017

Best answer: It's not a technical read but I just finished Moss Hart's Act One - a autobiography of a young, poor playwright creating a broadway hit. It's SO entertaining, you won't be able to put it down, and while much has changed in the theatre since the 20s and 30s, what he says about company spirit and the animal instincts of an audience...all that is exactly the same and he describes it perfectly (I work in the theatre fwiw).

Another great theatre autobiography is Ellen Terry's 'The Story of My Life' (REALLY great blog post about that: here - lots of other great theatre posts on that blog).

The other suggestions you've received here are excellent, also.

More recent stuff: The American Theatre Reader, Sarah Ruhl's 100 Essays I Don't Have Time To Write
posted by stray at 9:13 PM on October 7, 2017

Oh, I just started Notes on Directing by Frank Hauser and Russell Reich. Not overly dense, smart, pithy observations on directing.
posted by stray at 10:04 PM on October 7, 2017

I can't speak directly to who you should look up in the US, but urge you to look for theatre bloggers as well as 101 textbook type stuff. I learned a huge amount about contemporary UK theatre from bloggers. The good bloggers/critics don't just write "This was good, I liked the songs, buy a ticket" - they give you a real sense of the wider context of the new writing you're seeing in the theatre, and are really artists themselves in the way they capture their emotional and intellectual responses to theatre. Half of theatre, after all, is the audience.

For me it was people like Andrew Haydon, Meg Vaughan (currently on hiatus but the old stuff is all still up there), and more conventional but thoughtful critics like Lyn Gardner. Don't try and read every post (if you go to AH's blog right now you could quickly be put off by his dense review of a Lithuanian Three Sisters, for example!) but if you can find someone similar in the US and read them writing about something you've seen or read, it's so much more interesting than reading a textbook full of theory.

If you're lucky, you can also sometimes find original reviews of older plays now posted online, which gives you an "as it unfolded" view on theatre culture. So, for example, when I read Sarah Kane's 'Blasted' for the first time, I was then able to go away and read the original reviews, the first-hand furore it caused; followed by the "I was wrong, she was a genius and ahead of the rest of us, we should now reevaluate her place in the canon" articles; and then thoughtful long-form blogs on the relationship between [thing I'd just seen at the theatre], Sarah Kane, and the way they linked to the European theatrical tradition rather than the British. If that sounds highfalutin', it didn't feel like it at the time, it was just like following a breadcrumb trail of one interesting article after another, until I looked up and thought "Oh! Wow! Whole world I didn't know existed!" But based on theatre I'd experienced myself, rather than just theory.
posted by penguin pie at 7:40 AM on October 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, also: How could I forget? Exeunt. Either for you as a starting point of what you could be looking for over there, or for other folk who might come this way and are based in the UK.
posted by penguin pie at 8:52 AM on October 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh! Oh! Oh! Exeunt reviews in NY! Devour it! (Sorry, last post, I promise...)
posted by penguin pie at 8:53 AM on October 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

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