SHELF LIFE: Lee Strasberg, Delia Ephron, Gypsy Rose Lee, Children's Theatre and More

SHELF LIFE: Lee Strasberg, Delia Ephron, Gypsy Rose Lee, Children's Theatre and More In this month's column about current theatre-related books, we launch a recurring feature — a glimpse at what's on the nightstands of your favorite stars. Who's reading what? Check it out.

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The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner
Edited by Laurence Senelick
Published by: The Library of America
Publication Date: April 15, 2010
List price: $40 hardcover; 912 pages


In his Foreword to editor Laurence Senelick's impressive collection of essays about the American theatre, actor John Lithgow writes, "there is no greater evidence of the important role theatre has played in our national story than this list of men and women who have written so expansively about it." The list he is referring to includes a wide spectrum of writers — from critics to novelists to poets, playwrights and parodists. To drop just a few names of the 78 writers included in this hefty compilation, there are musings about the 19th-century stage from the likes of Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, reviews of provincial productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Antony and Cleopatra by Willa Cather, reflections on New York's Yiddish theatres at the turn of the century by Hutchins Hapgood, Ezra Pound's views on theatrical modernism, S. J. Perelman's ribbing of Clifford Odets, Edmund Wilson's appreciation of Minsky's Burlesque, Harold Clurman's dissection of Stanislavski's Method, Gore Vidal on Eugene O'Neill, Tony Kushner on Arthur Miller, and many, many more. As the publisher notes, these pieces were written by artists who had a talent "to distill both the immediate experience and the recollected impression, to draw the reader into the charmed circle and conjure up what has already vanished." Through their words the living American theatre in all its forms — highbrow or low, mainstream or experimental — is brought vividly to life.

The Lee Strasberg Notes
Edited by Lola Cohen
Published by: Routledge
Publication Date: March 15, 2010
List price: $24.95 paperback (also available in hardcover); 232 pages
The late Lee Strasberg, co-founder of The Group Theatre in the '30s, director of the Actors Studio and this country's leading proponent of "Method" acting, was — and remains — a major force in theatre in America. His teaching revolutionized the way in which actors could train, resulting in some of the profession's most remarkable practitioners, such as James Dean, Kim Hunter, Geraldine Page, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Marilyn Monroe, Julie Harris, Dustin Hoffman, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson. The list goes on and on. Strasberg's teaching legacy lives on at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, and now for the first time notes of his original teachings have been compiled and edited in a book by Lola Cohen, an acting teacher at both the Institute and at NYU's Tisch School of the Art's Acting Program. According to publisher notes, "the book is based on unpublished transcripts of Strasberg's own classes on acting, directing and Shakespeare. It recreates his theoretical approach, as well as the practical exercises used by his students." Featured in this volume are Strasberg's teachings on training and exercises, characters and scenes, directing and the Method, and Shakespeare and Stanislavski. The book, which also includes a Preface by Anna Strasberg and Foreword by Martin Sheen, is both a valuable resource for the serious student of acting and directing as well as a fascinating look at the art for the curious civilian.

Children's Theater: A Paradigm, Primer, and Resource
By Kelly Eggers and Walter Eggers
Published by: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Publication Date: March 28, 2010
List price: $50 cloth; 296 pages, illustrated
The enriching, enlightening and entertaining world of children's theatre is introduced in a new book by two of its champions, Kelly and Walter Eggers. Kelly Eggers is a teacher and director who founded and sustains New Hampshire's Oyster River Players and her husband Walter is a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. The couple draws the reader into this world by using their small theatre company as a model, exploring the specific dynamics of the company, and ultimately they expand their exploration to include children's theatre in different cultural settings, stressing its inestimable educational value. "Through forays into philosophy and history," notes the publisher, "as well as personal testimonies, the authors present a coherent argument for the need for children's theatres in nearly every community." The book is also a practical resource, listing over 600 U.S. children's companies and agencies and another 400 worldwide.

Shakespeare and the American Musical
By Irene G. Dash
Published by: Indiana University Press
Publication Date: February 26, 2010
List price: $24.95 paperback; 248 pages; 21 b&w illustrations
In her ongoing exploration of Shakespeare's work, Irene G. Dash — whose previous books include "Women's Worlds in Shakespeare's Plays" and "Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays" — turns her attention to the Bard on Broadway, illustrating the alliance between Shakespeare and the American musical by focusing on five important shows produced from 1938 through 1971. The plays discussed are The Boys from Syracuse (The Comedy of Errors); Kiss Me, Kate (The Taming of the Shrew); West Side Story ( Romeo and Juliet); Your Own Thing (Twelfth Night); and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Dash puts forth the argument that the Shakespearean works were not only the springboard for these musicals but that his plays were "pivotal in the refashioning of the musical theater formula from the stock plots and song forms of the 1930s musical comedy to the more organic 'integrated musical,' where songs and dance sequences were used to advance the plot rather than break the action."

Gypsy: The Art of the Tease
By Rachel Shteir
Published by: Yale University Press
Publication Date: February 23, 2010
List price: $15 paperback; 248 pages, illustrated
As Mazeppa, Tessie Tura and Electra declare with show-stopping finesse in Gypsy, the Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical version of the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, it helps if a stripper's gotta gimmick. The real Gypsy Rose Lee had one of the best, as explored in the first book about the famed ecdysiast's life and career not written by a family member. Her stock in trade was to inject her act with a touch of class and knowing wit — she would claim she loved to listen to classical music or read great books while taking her clothes off on stage, for example — promising much but delivering only erotic glimpses. In the process she introduced the "art of the tease" to mainstream life on Broadway and in Hollywood. As the publisher notes, this distinct style made her "the first — and only — stripper to become a household name, write novels, and win the adulation of intellectuals, bankers, socialites and ordinary Americans." The author recounts Rose Louise Hovick's story "from her arrival in New York in 1931 to her sojourns in Hollywood and her friendships and rivalries with writers and artists." It also examines 1960 iconic Broadway musical story of her life as well a new television movie currently in the making and according to the publisher, "reveals [Gypsy's] deep impact on the social and cultural transformations taking shape during her life."

The Girl with the Mermaid Hair
By Delia Ephron
Published by: HarperTeen
Publication Date: January 5, 2010
List price: $16.99 hardcover; 320 pages; for Ages 12 and up
From Delia Ephron, who with her sister Nora is the author of Off-Broadway's Love, Loss and What I Wore, the alternately hilarious and poignant collection of stories about women — their clothing, accessories and the memories they evoke — comes a new novel aimed at readers aged 12 and up that further examines notions of beauty and self-worth. "The Girl with the Mermaid Hair," notes the publisher, "explores what happens when a teenage girl's vanity and insecurity collide with her mother's hysteria about aging." Young Sukie Jamieson is thrilled when her mother presents her with a mirror that once belonged to her grandmother. Sukie already spends an inordinate amount of time taking photos of herself — "selfies" — with her phone and checking her image in every store window she passes, so the mirror offers yet another opportunity to exercise her youthful vanity. But it also comes with a warning from Mom: "This mirror will be your best friend and worst enemy." Slowly, Sukie learns the truth of those words, as her life begins to mimic the mirror's cracks "and she is forced to confront the truths about herself and her family that lie beneath perfection."

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WHAT'S ON MY NIGHTSTAND
This month's "Shelf Life" inaugurates a feature that asks theatre folks, "What book is on your nightstand?" Our first respondents are creators of characters both celebrated and just a little spooky. Here's what they're reading:

  • VALERIE HARPER
    Harper, who set out to capture our hearts on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" as Mary Richards' friend, the beloved bohemian Rhoda Morgenstern, and then sealed the deal in her own spin-off sitcom, "Rhoda," is currently taking a bite out of another outrageous woman, starring on Broadway as the legendary Tallulah Bankhead in Matthew Lombardo's Looped (Lyceum Theatre). What she's reading: "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett
    "I recently read a wonderful book that I truly couldn't put down, 'The Help' by Kathryn Stockett. A dear friend of mine, Charlotte Brown, former executive producer and head writer of 'Rhoda,' recommended the book, and then as dear friends do, bought it for me. She kept telling me over and over to read it. One day we were going to the movies and she marched me into Barnes & Noble, bought it and handed it to me. What a gift. It's set in the South in the early 1960s, and is about the relationship between the black women and the white women they worked for. It is powerful, funny, touching and engaging — and will make a great movie or play."

  • ANTHONY MACKIE
    Mackie, who stars as Toby in the world premiere of Martin McDonagh's dark comedy A Behanding in Spokane (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre), has appeared on Broadway in Drowning Crow and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. His Off-Broadway credits include The Bacchae, The Good Negro, A Soldier's Play and Talk, for which he received an Obie Award. Television audiences recently saw him on the Kodak Theatre stage at the 2010 Academy Awards, celebrating with his "Hurt Locker" cast mates as their film took home the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. What he's reading: La Bête and Wrong Mountain, two plays by David Hirson
    "I love David's style of writing and I'm trying to figure out when these two great plays will end up on Broadway again . . ." [As it turns out, La Bête is returning in 2010-11.]

  • KEVIN CHAMBERLIN
    Chamberlin, whose credits include a Mae West-obsessed fan in Dirty Blonde and Horton the Elephant in Seussical—and who received Tony Award and Drama Desk nominations for both—adds another oddly lovable character to his resume with The Addams Family's Uncle Fester (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre). What he's reading: "The Hunger Games Trilogy" by Suzanne Collins
    "Suzanne is an old acquaintance of mine and she has hit it big with this trilogy — which has just been sold to Hollywood. It's a post-apocalyptic adventure that's as much an homage to 'Lord of the Flies' as it is to 'Survivor' and the reality show genre. Even though it's in the teen fiction category, there's something in these stories for everyone to enjoy."

  • CAROLEE CARMELLO
    Carmello joins Chamberlin in The Addams Family, starring as Alice Beineke. Her soaring voice has graced such musicals as Mamma Mia!, Lestat (Tony, Drama Desk, Drama League nominations) and Parade (Tony nomination, Drama Desk Award). What she's reading: "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett
    "This book is making its way around backstage at The Addams Family. I am about to start it and can't wait! All the "girls" here are loving it." [Maybe Carmello and Valerie Harper should form a book club.]

    Judy Samelson gathers information on theatre-related books, including published plays, for Playbill.com's monthly Shelf Life column. Write her at jsamelson@playbill.com.

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