Shaking the Tree

by Lisa Mulcahy

Reflections on Writing My Eighth Book
I remember my first days at Brandeis University, when I entered the school’s wonderful theater arts program as a freshman. It felt magical and special to walk into the vast Spingold Theater and imagine myself performing on its stage (which I started doing soon after, loving every minute of it). As my years at Brandeis happily progressed, I learned EVERYTHING—every aspect of top-notch theater study and practice was available right in front of me. I studied acting with the late, great Ted Kazanoff and playwrighting with the incredible Edward Albee, sang and performed many classic musical theater roles, worked as a production sound designer, studied theater history (which I found fascinating), and completed my honors thesis in directing. I learned the practical skills that made me tough enough to survive as an actress in Boston theater right after graduation, and honed the chutzpah I needed to direct, produce, and teach professionally in Boston and New York, too. 

So in early 2017, when I was trying to decide what the topic of my eighth theater book for Allworth Press/Skyhorse Publishing would be, and it occurred to me that my education at Brandeis had been so comprehensive, I gained every skill I needed to make it as a creative artist in one fell swoop. There should be a book that new students could use that would serve as that kind of ultimate, all-encompassing guide to theater—a full overview in one easy, fun-to-read volume. A book you could learn from if you knew nothing about theater, and a book that you could keep and refer to as a veteran actor, director, playwright, producer, designer, or technician throughout your career. An everything-but-the-kitchen-sink guide, if you will. I then immediately thought, someone’s done this already.

Nope. After scouring the market, I was surprised to find that there was no such all-encompassing guide that could both introduce and sustain thespians in the way I intended. I consulted with my terrific and supportive publisher, Tad Crawford, and we determined together that there was a real need for this project, which was christened The Essentials of Theater. I started researching and writing it in the summer of 2017.

My idea for planning out the book was to make each chapter as hands-on as possible. The book would begin with a section of theatrical history, but not the boring, stuffy take you might dread slogging through as a student—to me, the success of this book would hinge upon how engaging it was. Of course, I would cover formative elements of the genre, like work by the Greeks and Shakespeare, plus Kabuki and commedia dell’arte, but I also wanted to write a really absorbing overview of Meryl Streep’s career, explain to my readers why Joe Mantello is such a compelling contemporary director, and provide an appreciation of Ethel Merman’s stellar talent as well, for example. I wanted to highlight the work of technical geniuses like Jennifer Tipton, Wendall K. Harrington, and Santo Loquasto. I wanted to go into depth about the progression of the crafts of technical work, acting, directing, playwrighting, producing, design, and musical theater. All that information I would impart would be interspersed with chapter check lists, worksheet assignments, and key resources so my readers could delve deeper into learning about whatever aspect of theater interested them. They could stage their first student production with step-by-step instructions; get excited about costume design by drawing a croquis; evaluating a script as a dramaturg does; watch the cast of Curb Your Enthusiasm’s perfect improv technique; or learn to make simple but effective SFX (instant blizzard, anyone)? 

And this became my mantra: keep the book active. Did the bow just fall off your onstage Titanic? Here’s how to fix it. Want to learn how to call cues? Here you go, just follow this protocol. It was about empowering my readers, letting them know, hey, get your hands a little dirty! It’s pretty thrilling, and it teaches you where your talent and preferences lie in terms of theater study, and ultimately, the professional area you might want to focus on. I also interviewed some wonderful working professionals, who shared their philosophy and hard-won experiences. Theater critic Barry M. Willis, stage manager Cherie B. Tay, actor/sound designer Adrian Bridges, actor James Foster, Jr., and playwright Meridith Friedman all generously shared their wisdom and perspective, for which I’m very grateful. 

On a personal note, my biggest life lesson also inspired the book, and very much infuses its pages. My beloved mother, Joan Mulcahy, became terminally ill in the spring of 2017, just as I was completing the planning on the project. She taught me throughout our life together that an adventurous spirit was essential for happiness and success. Because of Mom’s encouragement, I’m a liver of life, a go-for-it girl, inside the theater and out of it. Her unique and memorable advice always was, “Never be afraid to shake the tree!” So, I never was afraid—not to audition for a show, or read someone a script that I wrote, or to learn a difficult tech skill. Mom wanted me to take chances, to say what I feel, to pursue whatever I want to try—all of the qualities that make for a great creative outlook. During one of our last conversations before she passed away, I told her the book was a go. She said, “Good! Tell everyone who reads it to shake the tree! Then they’ll be brave and learn what they love to do.” 

I’d be very honored if you read The Essentials of Theater—and even more honored if it inspires you to shake the tree in the way that works best for you.

Learn more about The Essentials of Theater at