An Interview with Actor William Sutton: The Power of the Travis Technique

William and I have been working together for the past 7 years. We first met when I was teaching at the Binger Filmlab in Amsterdam. William was one of the professional actors called in to work with the directors. In this interview, William shares his experiences and insights into my unique way of working with actors: The Travis Technique.
The Travis Technique is based on the philosophy: ‘Stop directing the actors; start directing the characters.’ In the Travis Technique, the director takes on the role of the Interrogator, a directorial persona that interrogates the character using a Socratic approach to building the character from within by using only questions. These questions stimulate and ignite the inner world of the character and in the process of answering those questions, the character emerges.
Mark Travis: William, thank you so much for taking time away from your family and your busy schedule to do this interview. I want to talk about your experience with the Travis Technique. As you know, this technique establishes a profoundly different relationship between the director and the actor. For my own edification, and for the benefit of other actors and directors, I would appreciate if you could share your experiences with us.
William Sutton: My pleasure.
MT: I am keenly aware that when I am directing you, when I am accessing the character through my interrogation process (an essential aspect of the Travis Technique), that you are experiencing profound changes within you. I can see it and feel it. But what I am not really aware of is what, exactly, you are experiencing during this process.
WS: Great question. Difficult to answer. For me, it’s an incredible shortcut to the realm of the character. What happens is that I shut off William’s set of questions and I turn to the character’s set of questions. I lose the mental clutter of my own questions, of perceptions of myself. That all disappears and a space opens up for the character. And then I allow myself to be loaded up. The Interrogation Technique loads me and then the scene starts. And then I’m into the scene. And what happens is not repeatable. And I think to be repeatable is not the desire.

MT: Do you mean it’s not a repeatable performance or it’s not a repeatable experience?

WS: It’s not a repeatable process. You’re not just replaying the scene because you the actor know how to ‘act’ that scene. You re-experience the scene each time, and with something slightly different each time. As the character. The actor isn’t there.

MT: I’ve always felt that the richness of this process is that the character is totally naïve; he doesn’t know what he is going to experience in the scene.

WS: Exactly. And that’s what keeps it from getting boring in any way, shape or form; you never know exactly what is going to happen. You see, the problem is that actor’s brains are programmed to go ,“Oh, well, that’s neat, I’ll do that trick.” But the people who have seen enough acting go, “Oh, yeah, I know, you’re just following that basic actor’s instinct”. And what the Travis Technique seems to do is just brush all of that away. That actor’s process can’t take place because it is not the actor who is sitting there. It’s the character sitting there. And the character needs to interact.

Very early on you were directing me and Misha (I think this was one of the first times we ever worked together) and you said, “Look, as soon as you’re saying the words of the character, you are the character. There is no acting necessary. You are that character.” And that was like a thunderbolt to me. And I’ve applied that idea ever since to all my characters. I mean it just saves me so much hassle as an actor. I used to think I’m this because of this and this.  But I’m not, I just am that person.

MT: Once the interrogation is done and once the character is ‘loaded’ as you say, what is the experience as you go into the scene?

WS: What I experience is kind of a curiosity. I’m intrigued by the thought, ‘What is this guy (the character) going to do? How is he going to react?’ There is always some kind of watcher or observer; it’s not me the actor, but just me, William, the curious me. I’m somewhere between acting as the character and observing the character and not knowing which way the character is going to go. That’s the bit I like about it. There’s a freedom there. It’s like, ‘Which path do I want to take?’ and then it happens and then I’m onto another moment. And there’s this unfolding matrix of reasons why.

I read a DeNiro interview where he said he creates a web of obstacles for himself. And some of them are contradictory to getting to the goal. And that’s what this method seems to do for me, personally. It introduces this web of contradictions and then I’m set loose into the scene. And then of course there are the other actors, the other characters, who are making their demands on me. The response (of my character) seems to come off as much more realistic. That’s what happens. And then, later, it feels like it’s a shame that we’re only doing this one scene because the scene is only a small part of where we are going. And I want to go on the whole journey.

MT: Sorry about that. It’s a workshop.

WS: I know. And that’s one thing that I’ve always noticed about your workshops is that I get this emotional charge. And since catharsis is a part of our business, if you only do one scene you don’t get a chance to release. And at the end of the day that can be very draining because you’re left with all of that character lurking inside you wanting to get out.

MT: During the interrogation process how do you perceive the person who is doing the interrogation? As just a voice? As an individual you know? You know you can’t perceive this person as a director because your character doesn’t have a director.

WS: To me the experience of being interrogated is … well, I forget the person who is interrogating me, unless they don’t interrogate me well. If they are not leading me into the open spaces or taking me down blind alleyways, that’s when I get pissed off at them. But when they are leading me into those spaces and down those alleyways, I don’t care who they are. I really don’t. I mean, the rest disappears and it just becomes a voice. It’s a voice that’s poking my character. It could just be that internal committee that’s allowed to say just about anything. One thing I know, they have to stay on the character’s path and not go down the actor’s path. And I want this voice to keep taking me to the final question or to find out if there is a final question. Find out what it is that tips the character over.

You’ve talked many times about filling the character up. And that’s what this process does. And then the character is left with needing to get rid of or resolve something internally rather than the actor needing to show what the character is thinking or feeling.

MT: So, there’s no room for the actor anymore?

WS: Right. The actor says, “I’m out of here. You (the character) take care of this. I’ll just watch. I’ll give you the lines you need, remind you of staging, but other than that don’t come to me.”

MT: What would you like to say to any director who is considering learning and using these techniques.

WS: Do it! Do it! Learn it. Apply it. It is shorthand to the character. It’s a short cut, cutting the actor out, a short cut to the characters. And actors will love you for it. You’ll have an actor on your side when you’re talking to the character, and then you’ve got a short cut into your character. If you give result oriented directing, then that’s what you’re going to get. You’re going to get a cardboard cutout of what your result is rather than a fully fleshed out character and a fleshed out result. I believe that.

MT: And what would you like to say to actors?

WS: Learn it! Learn it. Learn it. Learn it. Absolutely. You need to 100% turn off your actor brain and get into your character brain.

Over the years, I’ve been looking at the process of acting from many sides and I enrolled myself into the Method type of acting from the beginning and now I’m going towards Mamet, towards simplicity, cleanliness. Just cut out all the bullshit. When you say the words of Hamlet, you are Hamlet. You don’t need to act Hamlet. Hamlet has to act through you. And that’s what I think this technique brings. We’re at a crossroads. Now we’re at a place where you can just drop into being the character. Of course you need to study your circumstances, you need to be intelligent and aware of what you’re doing, but you can do without a lot of that ‘actors’ stuff. “Just say your lines and don’t bump into the furniture” is already pretty good advice. I like Mamet’s On Acting and this technique is Mametian in its usage. The fact is now you cut through the shit and create shorthand, a shortcut. It works. It works. Try it. It’s beautiful.


2 responses to “An Interview with Actor William Sutton: The Power of the Travis Technique”

  1. Karen Aschenbach

    Very informative, Mark. Loved the interview with William. As you know I’m Judith Weston trained, so not a result director, for sure, but it’s great to hear the perspective from the actor’s point of view one more time, particularly as I start back up with Wendy Hammers again for the next fuller version of Ripe going up next fall at the Greenway! Thanks. Karen

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