Theatre and Academia Series: How the Library Enhances Your Performing Arts Education

by Helena MacCormack

As someone who has studied performing arts for years, I understand the unique journey that drama students embark upon. Theatre is a vibrant, living art form where practice and creativity take centre stage. However, there is a misconception that theatre students exist in opposition to academia due to the practical nature of their degrees. While practical work is at the core of theatre studies, academic research plays a crucial role in shaping your perspective as a theatre practitioner. This post marks the first of a series which will detail 5 ways in which the Library’s resources can provide academic grounding to your theatre studies, with plenty of recommendations.

1. Technique: The Craftsmanship of Theatre

Honing your craft is essential. Whether you’re an aspiring actor, director, or designer, the Library offers a plethora of resources to enhance your technical skills. Peruse the PN section of the Library to discover how tried and tested methods can elevate your artistry. Here are some of my top recommendations.

For those who perform:

Freeing the natural voice: imagery and art in the practice of voice and language by Kristin Linklater (2006)
Library shelfmark: PN 4162 LIN

Originally published in 1976, Linklater’s manual on vocal technique was revolutionary in its unification of theory and practice. It draws heavily upon the almost meditative use of imagery and imagination, extolling both psychological and physiological wisdom in order to best support the voice. Linklater’s techniques continue to be studied today by a variety of performing artists wanting to connect with their voice. The exercises are best completed with oral instruction – working with a voice teacher if possible, even better in a group where discussion can take place – but are also effective when used in solo study.

The Actor Training Reader, ed. by Mark Evans (2015)
Library shelfmark: PN 2061 ACT

This reader provides an overview of foundational ideologies in actor training, collecting writings from some key 20th-century theatre practitioners including Konstantin Stanislavski, Bertolt Brecht, and Michael Chekhov.

The Six Questions: Acting Technique For Dance Performance by Daniel Nagrin (1997)
Online access via JSTOR

Nagrin borrows from Stanislavskian acting techniques in order to explore ‘the internal life of a dance performance’, which he argues is as important as the physical. Split into two parts, ‘The Theory’ and ‘The Workbook’, Six Questions is a thorough yet succinct text for dancers wanting to strengthen their outward performance through inward enquiry.

Three silhouettes in poses behind a red theatre curtain.
Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash

For those who create:

The Playwright’s Guidebook: An insightful primer on the art of dramatic writing by Stuart Spencer (2002)
Library shelfmark: PN 1661 SPE

Whether it’s your first try or your fiftieth try, it’s always good to go back to basics. This book covers the foundational aspects of writing a play, starting right at the beginning with the matter of structure. With participatory exercises and gems of advice scattered through, this makes for an extensive yet approachable read for those wanting to write like the greats.

Devising Theatre: A Practical and Theoretical Handbook by Alison Oddey (1994)
Library shelfmark: PN 2071.I5 ODD

If you’re less interested in ‘writing a play’ and more keen on ‘devising a piece of theatre from scratch’ – or you’re uncertain of the difference and curious to find out – this book is a brilliant starting point. Although it may appear wordy at first for a book about devising, it’s surprisingly succinct, articulately fusing theory with practical advice. The final chapter, ‘Learning to Devise: Practical ideas and suggestions’, provides a useful array of creative prompts for the rehearsal room.

The Richard Rogers marquee, showing advertising for the musical Hamilton
Photo by Sudan Ouyang on Unsplash

For those who shape:

The Director’s Craft: A Handbook for the Theatre by Katie Mitchell (2009)
Library shelfmark: PN 2053 MIT

Author Katie Mitchell is one of Britain’s most influential directors, having directed at some of the UK’s most recognised institutions including the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Royal National Theatre, The Royal Court, The Young Vic, and The Donmar Warehouse. (Sussex’s own Ben Fowler has written a book about her work.) In this text, Mitchell shares the key elements of her approach – a gem for anyone interested in directing.

How to Read A Play by Ronald Hayman (1977)
Library shelfmark: PN 1701 HAY

This text does exactly what it says it will do – advises the reader on how to effectively visualise a play in order to lift it off the page. Directors and performers may find this useful when contemplating how to best interpret the text at hand.

Dramaturgy and performance by Cathy Turner and Synne K. Behrndt (2007)
Library shelfmark: PN 1661 TUR

If you’re interested in dramaturgy – or curious to learn about what it even is in the first place – this book is a great place to start. From the history and development of dramaturgy as a practice to the various types of dramaturgy in the modern day, Turner and Behrndt provide an introduction to a transmutable role in 21st-century theatre.

A group of people sitting on chairs in a loose line, holding scripts. They are watching something off to the right of the frame.
Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels

For those who design:

Costume by Ali MacLaurin & Aoife Monks (2015)
Library shelfmark: PN 2067 MAC

Combining theoretical writing with practitioner interviews, this book explores the role and effect of costume in theatre.

The Handbook of Set Design by Colin Winslow (2006)
Library shelfmark: PN 2091.28 WIN

Combining historical context, practical advice, and visual examples, this book is an excellent overview of the art of set design. The section on ‘computer techniques’ is a little outdated, but this is still overall a well-rounded text.

Creative and successful set designs: how to make imaginative stage sets with limited Resources by Todd Muffatti (2018)
Online access via ProQuest

A basic, instructional text which places focus on getting the job done creatively when working with restrictions. It is directed towards high school teachers staging productions with students (hence ‘limited resources’) but the advice holds strong for any student of set design. My favourite quote: ‘Remember that plays have been staged in far worse circumstances than yours and survived.’

The cast of the musical Rent posing on tables
Joan Marcus, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For those who operate:

Stage Lighting Design: A Practical Guide by Neil Fraser, 2nd edn (2018)
Library shelfmark: PN 2091.E4 FRA

Fraser’s guide covers equipment, technique, and methods, including lots of examples and exercises for the reader to explore. With a foreword from Richard Attenborough, after whom the campus’ Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts is named, this is a comprehensive guide for anyone wanting to learn all about the craft of theatre lighting.

Sound and Music for the Theatre: The Art and Technique of Design by Deena Kaye and James LeBrecht, 4th edn (2015)
Online access via ProQuest

A foundational and in-depth handbook to sound design in theatre. Once you get past all the prefaces and introductions, Kaye and LeBrecht walk the reader through the evolution and foundations of sound design, the process of researching, developing, and executing a concept, and the collaborative art of working as one part of a production team. Towards the end, attention is also paid to the breadth of possible roles in sound and the diversity of experiences of industry professionals.

Spotlights shining from the back of the stage
Photo by Wesley Pribadi on Unsplash

One of the best ways to hone your craft as a theatre practitioner is to consume a variety of creative works by other practitioners. The next post in this series will focus on the Library’s access to a wealth of material by classic and contemporary theatremakers.

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