- Letters to a Young Actor: A Universal Guide to Performance
Robert Brustein's new book is a gem. Unlike his earlier works, such as The Theatre of Revolt, Seasons of Discontent, The Third Theatre, Cultural Calisthenics, and Revolution as Theatre, which are immense and sometimes unwieldy, Letters to a Young Actor is concise, heartfelt, and beautifully written. Richly studded with anecdotes from the theatre world, Brustein's new offering has the potential to galvanize the thousands of unemployed young actors who wait tables and walk the streets into never giving up on their dreams to have successful careers in the theatre. The book will serve as an invaluable tonic for the members of a beleaguered profession. In fact, by the time you get to the end of the book, Brustein reminds the perceptive reader of an aged, armored tank clearing the battlefield so that the young troops can pour in and finish the battle. Brustein draws from his extensive professional experience and offers a battle plan for survival—something sorely needed for an embattled profession whose cultural relevance is daily assailed by television, cinema, sports, football, the Internet, and even pornography.
Letters is divided into four sections: "Starting Out," "Getting There," "Being There," and "Working There." It features extremely short chapters (as brief as three pages) on subjects such as "The Pleasures of Imitation," "Looking for Work," and "Ephemeris, Ephemeris." Brustein manages to expertly conflate exciting scandals, gossip, and scenes from the history of Western professional theatre with incisive advice on how young actors can wing their way through this maze of a profession. Indeed, Letters is invaluable to the current generation of young actors who, driven by what Frederic Jameson calls the ontology of the present, desire to become superstars overnight. Brustein cautions that the American theatre needs educated actors; the more the actor can buttress his performing activities with humanistic knowledge, the more fulfilling his life will be. "You'll probably want to major in theatre if your college or university offers such a concentration," Brunstein suggests, "but, that's not essential" (28). Brustein goes on to argue that exposure to great Western dramatic literature helps put the actor in a position to grasp the subtleties of newly-encountered roles. Significantly, the author stresses that "you will need some background in literature, philosophy, economics, history, politics, the natural sciences, and the social sciences, the basic foundation of a liberal arts education" (28).
In the rest of the book, particularly in the fourth section, "Working There," Brustein gives the actor first-hand initiatory advice on how the theatre industry works and how the actor can successfully navigate her way through management, audiences, directors, playwrights, coaches, and the indefatigable critics who can maim or mangle your career with a single devastating stroke of the pen. Overall, the strength of Letters stems from Brustein's entrancing theatre anecdotes, his knowledge of Western theatre history, and his devastating critiques of the industry. For example, sizing up Method Acting, he argues that as long as Method actors are playing characters close to themselves—generally working-class Americans with explosive personalities—they can impress us with their power and believability. But the moment they step into the shoes of heroic characters, especially those from other epochs, they are likely to stumble and fall.
Commenting on his disagreements with the late August Wilson on the issues of race and representation in American theatre, Brustein states that Wilson had proclaimed that black actors should perform only in plays written by black playwrights. Wilson rejected "color-blind" or "nontraditional casting" as "the same kind of assimilation that black Americans have been rejecting for the past 380 years" (28). Brustein argues that this was a melancholy thing to hear at a time when black actors in American resident theatre were getting the chance to play not only Othello and Aaron the Moor, but also Mark Antony and Hamlet. This new separatist movement, Brustein concludes, is unacceptable.
But after this political insight, Brustein's arguments on theatre scholarship...