I had saved this longer entry for a special day...the 6 month anniversary of the launch of Always Off Book. It turns out, I was performing on that very day and had to blog about that. So it is not the exact 6 month anniversary. But within a few days. So congratulations to me!
On this special day, I want to talk about a book that is special to me. A book that I treasure, refer to, and internalize in just about every way shape and form as an actor. A book which for reasons I do not understand has been out of print for years, despite being relevant to any actor today. A book that sums up the actor in me quite well. (The reason I wanted to post this review on the 6 month anniversary of my acting blog.)
If you are an actor and have never read it, buy a copy online and do so soon.
I refer to On Acting by Sir Laurence Olivier.
If I have an "acting bible" to use a terrible cliché, Olivier's treatise on his art would be it.
Why does this out of print and rather forgotten book written by a legend long dead hold such a high place in my consciousness? Let me start by discussing aspects that do NOT place it in such high esteem in my mind.
It is not a dry, analytical exploration of named techniques and theatrical parlance. It is not a manifesto to the actor trying to perfect his craft and attain glory. And it is most certainly not a book which sets down what a person must or must not do, think or say in order to be a true actor. No dogma. No reprimands. No intellectual tyranny. The author issues no demands on the reader.
What Olivier does do is describe his perspectives on many aspects of the acting craft in the most non-pretentious way I have yet found in a book by an actor or director. Character development, script selection, the rehearsal process, costumes, sets, diction, directing, training, and so on are all covered with a "this is how it worked for me" approach. Though here is not the place to present all of Sir Laurence's ideas, the universal themes of his acting approach include respect, enthusiasm for any role, confidence, a focus on the audience and actor-based direction. (Sound familiar, blog readers?)
Indeed I was delighted to learn as I first read the book how often my approach, and that of Sir Laurence Olivier were congruent. I cannot tell you how many arguments I had gotten into with fellow actors over the years about my approaches to said theatrical subjects. Before I found the book someone was always certain that I was not in step with what theatre and acting ought to be. Some theatre major, or self professed "acting specialist" would without fail turn their nose up at my way of doing things. Since finding the book, however, instead of arguing, I will say, "Laurence Olivier did not seem to think so. If it was good enough for him, it is quite good enough for me."
More often than not, this shuts people up in short order.
Yet, On Acting is not merely some technical manual that is easier to read than most. What is most striking about it is the fact that it is a love letter. A love letter written by a brilliant man, exhorting the virtues of his deepest love, acting. It being written near the end of Sir Laurence's life, (which he was well aware of) adds a poignancy to the piece.
It is the author's expressed love for acting that makes the book so powerful. Not just the performance angle, but the overall experience of being an actor. Things fellow theatrical actors cannot help but recognize. The smells of paint and sawdust in the wings of a small theatre. The "twinge in the gut" an actor feels at random intervals during the daytime of a long awaited opening night. All the foibles, fears, and frustrations that go along with being an actor, (particularly in live theatre) are laid out in such a realistic, human way, I almost feel as if it were written about my own experiences.
Indeed, that is what is glorious about On Acting. The most admired professional actor of his or any subsequent age writes about acting with the non-pretentiousness of an amateur community player such as myself. The man who wrote this book sounds like he could, any given night, walk into the Old Opera House itself, and audition for one of our plays. That is how real it is.
The best thread that runs throughout the book, however, is Sir Laurence's insistence that you must believe. In yourself, and in the magic of theatre. That the only way to find that belief is to get out there and do it.
"Begin, whoever you are; do begin. You must, if you believe, and you will not succeed if you do not believe."
Belief is something all actors struggle with. All actors who are serious about what they do, anyway. Fellow actors out there can deny this until they are blue in the face. And they may do a great job of never letting people know it. But there are always moments when we, as actors, just do not believe enough. Olivier himself had such moments, as he describes in the book in a candid manner.
Yet overall, the book, and the man were about belief. Say what you will about his techniques, methods, approaches, script choices, or attitudes. You cannot read the book without knowing that Sir Laurence Olivier believed what he said, and believed in our craft. Believed in always improving, always learning, always acting.
For every show I am in, I have a picture of Laurence Olivier taped to my dressing room mirror, with my favorite quotation from this book printed underneath;
"It's not important to be at the top of the bill. It's important to be the best."
Whatever role I get, no matter how small, I try to take that advice to heart, and be the best. Sir Laurence was without a doubt one of the very best of all time. Open your heart and mind, read this book, and you will understand why it is true.