Non-Fiction November – Be the Expert on Theatre!

This week as part of Non-Fiction November, it is Expert week hosted by Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness.

non fiction

Be the Expert/ Ask the Expert/ Become the Expert: Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good non-fiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic you’d like to read (become the expert)!

It is a fact, little known, that while I have a degree in English Literature, my MA is in Modern Drama which I studied at University College Dublin. My course was a mix of theory and practical work and I wrote a thesis on Cinematic Adaptations of the works of William Shakespeare.

Yes, I really did…

Following my Masters, I was part of the formation of a wonderful, but short lived theatre company – Fourth Wall Productions – and had a wonderful, but even shorter lived stint as an actor!

As a consequence, I still read and attend a lot of theatre and have read a lot of theatre theory, so today I am going to ‘Be the Expert’ and share some of my favourites with you. Most of these books take me back to being an idealistic 20 year old who was convinced that theatre could change the world, and you know what? That’s not such a bad way to be!

 Towards a Poor Theatre by Jerzy Grotowski


Jerzy Grotowski created the Theatre Laboratory in Opole, South-West Poland, in 1959. His work since then, with this small company, became one of the most potent sources of information for modern actors and directors. The book is a record of the ideas that motivated the work of the Theatre Laboratory, and of the company’s methods which aimed to position theatre and the actor as a force within society and to strip back artifice within the work he created and present pure expression rather than stilted artifice.

jerzy quote


Three Uses of the Knife by David Mamet


David Mamet has become quite an odd figure in recent years and his more recent plays haven’t met with the critical acclaim of his earlier work – Glengarry Glenn Ross, Oleanna, American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow. However in this series of essays on drama and its worth in modern society, Mamet is on blistering form. Why does drama matter? What makes good drama? Why do we feel the need, as a society, to create drama? All this and more is covered with a biting wit and encyclopaedic knowledge.


 Put Money in thy Purse: Filming Orson Welles’ Othello by Micháel MacLiammóir


While not strictly theatre theory, Micháel MacLiammóir’s memoir of playing Iago in Orson Welles’ film version of Othello is so incredibly witty and entertaining that I just had to include it. MacLiammóir was a British-born Irish actor, dramatist, impresario, writer, poet and painter who founded the Gate Theatre in Dublin with his partner Hilton Edwards. One of the key figures in 20th century cultural life in Ireland, MacLiammóir was flamboyant, astonishingly talented and had an acerbic wit. He first met Welles in the 1930s and the pair had a turbulent relationship and Put Money in thy Purse chronicles the artistic and financial chaos that dogged the production and the love/ hate relationship between MacLiammóir and Welles. As a side note, if you have never seen this particular version of Othello – it is worth watching to see MacLiammóir steal the entire film!

Micháel MacLiammóir as Iago in Othello


 Light Fantastic: Adventures in Theatre by John Lahr


Light Fantastic by theatre critic and biographer John Lahr contains a series of essays which were originally published in the New Yorker. Lahr’s perceptive theatre criticism is also bolstered by a love of all types of entertainment and a willingness to explore the point of view of the creators of the work, regardless of his own opinions. Lahr’s idea of theatre is a wide and expansive one, and this collection contains essays on an incredibly wide range of theatre makers, from Ingmar Bergman to Barry Humphries, Max Wall to Alan Bennett. His essay on Bill Hicks – ‘The Goat Boy Rises’ is often credited with bringing the comedian to a wider audience and acknowledges that the idea of theatre, or performance is one that is fluid and inclusive.

Voice and the Actor by Cicely Berry

voice 2

Cicely Berry died last month at the age of 92 and was considered the greatest voice coach of her time and her three books – Voice and the Actor, The Actor and the Text and Text in Action are considered bibles for theatrical voice work. “I see my job as intrinsically to do the following,” she wrote in the New Theatre Quarterly in 1997. “Through exercises to open out the voice itself so that the actor finds her/his true potential – after all, do not singers train?” As a pioneer of the idea that the voice is as intrinsically to performance as text of movement, Berry worked as voice director at the RSC for over 20 years and also worked on countless movie productions including Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor.

Cicely Berry works with actor David Bradley at the RSC


The Empty Space by Peter Brook

The Empty Space

I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage

Adapted from a series of four lectures, Peter Brook’s The Empty Space is an exploration of four aspects of theatre, ‘Deadly, Holy, Rough and Immediate’. In the book, he explores both the traditions of theatre from Method acting to Brecht and discussed his own productions from directing legends like Sir John Gielgud in Shakespeare to impromptu smaller scale productions in unusual venues. Echoing the thoughts of Grotowski in Towards a Poor Theatre, Brook claimed that if ‘a man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged’.

 Joan’s Book by Joan Littlewood


Along with Peter Brook, Joan Littlewood, affectionately termed ‘The Mother of Modern Theatre’, has come to be known as the most galvanising director of mid-twentieth-century Britain, as well as a founder of so many of the practices of contemporary theatre. The best-known work of Littlewood’s company, Theatre Workshop, included the development and premieres of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, Brendan Behan’s The Hostage and The Quare Fellow, and the seminal Oh What A Lovely War.

theatre workshop
Joan Littlewood working with her Theatre Workshop

Her autobiography, from 1994, explores her life and career from illegitimate child in south-east London to one of the most influential directors and practitioners of our times.


Other notable mentions must go to:

What is Theatre? By Eric Bentley – a classic tome from the godfather of dramatic theory

A Director Prepares by Anne Bogart – A fascinating insight into the creative process in seven essays

The Theatre and it’s Double by Antonin Artaud – This series of short manifestos arguing for more creativity in drama is a classic

An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanslavski An Actor Prepares is the most famous acting training book ever to have been written and the work of Stanislavski has inspired generations of actors and directors

Joseph Chaikin & Sam Shepard : Letters & Texts, 1972 – 1984 edited by Barry V Daniels – This collection of letters between one of America’s leading playwrights and one of its leading actors is a wonderful insight into the collaborative process.

I’ve realised that there are very few women writers in my choices, and I would say that is to do with the manner in which University reading lists were put together 25 years ago, with very few women writers on the curriculum, particularly when it comes to criticism. Add to that the fact that I haven’t read an awful lot of theatre theory since then and that would explain the discrepancy.

If anyone know of any books that might redress the balance, I’d be very grateful!

Although some of these books are very theoretical – some, like the Lahr and the MacLiammóir and incredibly entertaining and need no prior knowledge of theatre.

Do any of these appeal?










Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

29 Comments Leave a comment

  1. What a fantastically useful post – many thanks for putting it together! The Mamet definitely appeals to me. I was lucky enough to get tickets to the London production of Glengarry Glenn Ross – the one with Christian Slater and Robert Glenister — earlier this year. As a play, it still holds up very well, 35 years on…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love attending the theatre and have seen all sorts of big and small productions over the years, all around the world. But we haven’t been to any this year thanks to our crazy, hectic year and I miss it. One of the local Sydney based company’s did a version of St Joan this year, which I would have loved to see (I studied it for my HSC way back when)…hopefully it gets a re-run.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, you are an expert Cathy. I’ve heard of a few of those people – like David Mamet and Orson Welles – but while I attend theatre occasionally, I don’t really see enough to spend time reading up on its theory. Which is not to say I’m not interested – that’s the trouble with being a dilettante, you want to know about everything. After reading, my main arts experiences are music and dance, with drama coming in after that. (I am going to see two or three drama productions next year however, including a classic, The miser.)
    And now, I’ve rabbited on enough. Thanks for this insight into another field of endeavour – and your expertise in it!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. These days I’m mostly limited to reading plays, but I did enjoy being able to go to the theatre often during college. In any case these recommendations are all appealing and much appreciated!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well I had no idea you had trod the boards at one time. What a multi talented person you are:)
    Your list has been forwarded onto a friend of mine who has just set up a new theatre company to work on collaborative projects across countries. He did a joint wales/Australia one earlier this year and is now looking to do something similar in Berlin and India.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a terrific collection! I only recognize a few names but I do find the topic of interest. Overall, I guess my main exposure has been via novels, which isn’t surprising, given my predilection!

    Liked by 1 person

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