A Field Guide to Actor Training
Laura Wayth (Applause 2014, Trade Paperback) 242 pages, $24.99 cover price
Well at long bloody last someone has finally written an overview of stage acting techniques that is actually worth both the purchase price and the time spent reading. In looking back over 2014, a year rapidly coming to its close, I figure that I have to have read a good dozen or so books on acting methods, styles, hints, systems, tips and general sorts of Thespian for Dummies (That last one doesn't exist – A. Nervous Attorney, Esq.). However, if you look back at the reviews under my signature either here or at my bythbookreviews.com archive, you won't see many of them listed. Why? I don't like to waste people's time in reading reviews of books that aren't worth reading.
A bit harsh perhaps? Yes darling, but just as your mother said when she was shoving a spoonful of sticky medicine down your throat, trust me it's for your own good. I suppose it's true enough that all books on acting have some good in them, as their authors almost always quote someone who actually knows what in hell the job's all about.
A Tip: Unless that acting guide you're thinking of purchasing was written by one of the gods (Stanislavsky, Meisner, Hagen, there are a handful of others), flip straight to the bibliography. If there are not at least ten sources listed, run. Run now, and run fast, never looking back. What you have held in your hands, however briefly, is a work of ego and not one of applied scholarship.
The highest praise I can give to Laura Wayth's A Field Guide to Actor Training is this: I wish I'd had this book years ago, when I was running my own repertory theatre company and training novice or lightly experienced actors. I was a good director and teacher, as I'm sure any of my former casts or students will attest, but Wayth's book has made me realize how much better I could have been.
You see, we all tend to repeat what we already know from what we were taught and what worked for us. That's not just an observation about stage; it applies to every endeavour in life from parenting to football coaching to office management. We dance to the same song that played the first time we didn't stomp on our partner's toes. But you know, there are possibilities beyond You've Lost That Loving Feeling, including some that might suit you even better.
Wayth (as I suppose we really should discuss her book at some point) has compiled an overview of all the major acting, movement and vocal training methods, as well as a very handy and realistic assessment of the best of the BFA, MFA and private acting schools in the U.S. She has studied and taught acting at prestigious institutions in both America and Europe and she speaks well of her personal experience in her first-hand study of the majority of the methods she describes. What I especially love about A Field Guide to Actor Training is that Wayth recognizes that what is cream for one actor, raises lactose intolerance in another. We are all wired slightly differently, and god knows anyone who intends to enter a profession where success is measured by how well you convince a room of observers that you are anyone other than who you actually are ... well, we're delving into some truly complicated wiring there.
And that is the value of Wayth's book. At university, I was trained and taught largely in what I'd call Actors Studio Lite method. Yes, it was Strasberg and affective memory, but no one was reduced to tears and went stumbling over chairs in a race to the door. Along the way, I came to admire much of what Sandy Meisner taught and brought his exercises and theories into my own toolbox. For physical movement, there was Laban Movement Analysis; while in terms of voice, I assembled a whole series of exercises and warm-ups like a yard sale junkie. I kept what worked and tossed out what didn't, and I quoted Stanislavsky the way pastors quote scripture. It all seemed to work out well enough.
However, thanks to Laura Wayth, I can strongly advise all actors, directors and teachers of actors and directors to keep studying. For whatever reason, I had not encountered the system of the Stanislavsky-taught Michael Chekhov before. I had heard of his name but never studied his practices. I rather wish I had, and now I will. In reading the chapter on Chekhov in A Field Guide to Actor Training, I immediately thought of three actors who had appeared in past productions under my direction. Each would have grasped the technique of the Psychological Gesture almost immediately and so found a more direct path to the eventual characterization of their parts. So I thank you kindly, Professor Wayth. You have managed to teach new tricks to an old dog.
An absolutely essential book.
Be seeing you.