The Search for an Acting Teacher, Part I

I’ve been directing actors for over 40 years in theater, film and television. And now, ironically, I teach directors

Constantin Stanislavski

all over the world how to direct actors. I teach them the Travis Technique, a revolutionary and cutting-edge technique that I slowly developed during those 40 years. And even though I have dedicated a majority of my professional career to the art and craft of directing I have spent very little time actually teaching acting. In fact, I don’t really consider myself an acting coach or teacher – I’m a director. But recently it has become clear to me that I need to learn a lot more about how actors are trained if I am going to be more effective both as a teacher and as a director.

The Pursuit.

I’m on a quest. I’m searching for that acting teacher who feels compatible with my style of directing. At first I thought this would be easy – that all I would have to do is identify the masters of the craft, audit one of their classes, sit back and be awed. And, of course, I can read their books.

SIDE NOTE: Most of the acting gurus have written books. It seems to be a prerequisite. In fact, the other night I was chastised for not having read this particular guru’s book! Hmmm.

But, not unlike the hero on the Hero’s Journey I’ve discovered that I’ve entered a dark forest full of obstacles, pretenders, fantasies and delusions. Shape-shifters flit from tree to tree. It’s a maze even Theseus would find challenging.

Admittedly I am at the beginning of the journey (6 down, several to go) and I know I shouldn’t despair. But there are a few practices I have consistently run into that have me more than a little concerned. And rather than sit in the confusion, I thought I’d write about it. It’s frequently the best way for me. If I share my thoughts with my friends (you), perhaps someone out there will shed some light on these dark moments. Or maybe one of you will point me in a direction that will send me down a path I haven’t yet noticed, an alternate choice, a path that could lead to the elixir.

All of the workshops I have audited so far have been scene study classes or master classes. The actors present a scene that they have ostensibly been rehearsing and preparing for some time. And now it is finally ready to be seen by the teacher – and, of course, the rest of the class. In the first few workshops I attended I was struck by the various ways these teachers handled a certain key moment in the process. As I sat there, the question on my mind was: “What do you say to the actors right after they have finished presenting their scene?” Now, I didn’t actually ask these teachers this question, I just watched and took notes.

Here are some of the ‘first lines’ that I heard from these teachers.

“What were you working on?”

“What do you want in this scene?”

“How do you think it went and what do you think is missing?”

“What worked? What didn’t? And why?”

For the most part these are good questions. Great questions, actually. Yet I think we need to step back for a moment and consider the impact and potential effectiveness of these questions.

“What were you working on?”

In one particular workshop (we’ll call it Workshop #1) where this question was asked consistently, the

responses from the actors were along these lines: “I was working on my character’s anger”, “I was working on creating the environment”, “I wanted to find my character’s fear of abandonment”, “I was trying to connect to the love” … things like that. It was clear to me that in Workshop #1 the focus (strongly supported by the teachers) was on the actor’s craft. Creating emotion, feelings, attitudes, etc, connecting with the truth of the character in some way. And it seemed like the assessment of the work was based on how successful the actor had been creating or generating these emotions or attitudes or behavior.

“What do you want in this scene?”

In another workshop (Workshop #2) this question was asked fairly consistently. And I heard responses like “I

Lee Strasberg

want to terrify him (scene partner)”, “I want to convince her that I can be trusted”, or “I want to make this night special for both of us.” So, clearly, this work seemed to be more about the character and what the character wanted to achieve – a major distinction from Workshop #1.

Workshop #1 worries me. And this brings up another question.

What is the goal/objective of the actor?

Is the actor’s objective to successfully accomplish all the ‘acting tasks and goals’ in order to deliver a ‘successful’ scene? Or, could actor’s goal be to allow the character to exist so profoundly and fully that the ‘acting’ techniques actually become invisible – disappear? And if they are invisible, then how can we comment on them?

Workshop #2 was more reassuring simply because I could feel the instructor’s focus was more on the characters and less on the actor.

But, we’re not out of the woods yet. Let’s stay with Workshop #2 where the focus was more on the characters’ wants and needs. As I was watching the actors listen to this simple and clear question I was struck by the slight ripples of tension or anxiety that I saw on their faces.

SIDE BAR: As auditors, in all of these workshops, we were asked to sit in the first two or three rows so that we could experience the work intimately.

At first I couldn’t understand this apparent apprehension or trepidation. And as the actors articulated their responses the tension and anxiety did not diminish, it became more present. It wasn’t until I heard the teacher’s response that I understood. Almost 100% of the time, throughout the three-hour evening of over six scenes the teacher’s response was, “No, that’s wrong”, which was immediately followed by a one or two-minute monologue about the character, the play, the themes of the play and why the actors’ choices were, sadly, wrong. The monologue always ended with a clear description of what the correct choice would have been and then, “Take a minute, prepare and start again.”

What concerns me here is not the notion that there is one ‘right’ answer (which we all know there isn’t). My concern is how this approach to teaching is affecting the actor. To have worked on a scene for hours, or days, or even weeks and then be told in one quick statement that the foundation upon which you based all your choices was “wrong” must be devastating. No wonder the actors were apprehensive about answering that question. It’s a test. And you are going to be either right or wrong. And what has happened to all the work that was just displayed by the actors? It’s been erased. Wouldn’t it be more effective (and valuable for the actor) to first address the work that was done regardless of the choice of objective? The choice of an objective is only one step in a long and complex process. Choosing an objective is easy (easy also if it is assigned to you), but activating the character within the scene in an attempt to fulfill the objective, that’s where the real challenges lie. That’s what all actors need to learn, that’s where most actors struggle, and that needs to be the focus of the work. Wouldn’t it have been more effective (and a moment of learning for the actor) if the teacher had simply said, “I have a different point of view regarding the objective of your character in this scene. But, let’s look at how effective your choice was and how well you were able to allow your choice to empower your character?”

By the way, Workshop #2 is not just one workshop. Not just one teacher. I have heard this approach repeatedly from established teachers and beginning teachers alike. If it was only one teacher I would be less concerned, but it’s prevalent. And one of the beginning teachers learned it from one of the established teachers. So, it’s viral.

Stella Adler

I think it’s interesting how, unconsciously, my search for a compatible acting teacher has led me to a laser-like focus on one simple moment in the process. But this moment is so crucial in our process … in any artistic endeavor. An artist creates, to the best of their ability and understanding, and then, in a trembling moment that creation is presented to the public. And in that moment the artist is the most vulnerable, the most open, raw and unprotected. A fetus that has just been birthed. Treat it gently and respectively, because whatever wounds are caused in this moment will cut deep and be everlasting.

 

 

In my article next month I will address the other two responses.

“How do you think it went and what do you think is missing?”

“What worked? What didn’t? And why?”

Yes, they are very similar. And yet they both deserve a closer look. Until then, I would love to hear your comments, thoughts, and insights. And I really want to hear not just from directors and actors. I want to hear from you writers, producers and especially from my readers who don’t fit into any of those categories.

Until next month ….

19 responses to “The Search for an Acting Teacher, Part I”

  1. Joanna Folino

    I worked for the last few months with Australian Paul Barry and I learned how to focus, be more aware of the energy of the other actor and be more connected to the present which was not easy for me. He is very patient and uses his own technique he developed after many years. He is also a very fine actor himself and this inspired me to work harder. The bible for him and now me is called The Actor and The Target. It has been very helpful in my learning the art and craft of acting.

  2. melanie chartoff

    Sorry to differ, Mark.

    I studied with Stella and Uta in NYC, but Harry Mastrogeorge of LA is the only truly pure teacher who strives to help humans rather than actors embody a story. All the questions above take a student into analysis (a director’s task) and not into ‘how deeply was I moved by this experience?” If you are humanly moved, the audience is moved. If you aren’t, they are seeing a reading or intellectual interpretation with pyrotechnics.

    1. markwtravis

      Melanie, Thanks so much for your thorough and prompt response. Much appreciated. And thank you for the Harry Mastrogeorge referral. I will check him out. It sounds very much like what I a looking for. Cheers, Mark

  3. ROBERT F. lyons

    Wishing you good luck on your journey – most actors coming to me from other classes are confused – looking at this, I see what they did not understand about the technique,ideas and actions they were “taught.” I straighten this out and show them the basic of really how to study a script – get their attention off themselves and to be sure they DO understand what they have been instructed. Too much attention given to them on what is WRONG (something you want to stay away from) with them can ball them up even more. Being critical rather than instructing and fixing that is a better approach.

    Check the actor’s personal DRIVE, are they self inspiring? What are their goals and teach them how to get to those – you’d be surprised how their personal goals are so different from actor to actor.

    Start them out easy, show or demonstrate how to do or use a tool of acting – get them to have wins in accomplishing the first steps – and increase the tech based on the individual actor in front of you – not one “SIZE” fits all.

    I check their personal environment – supportive or not – big issue here – you can be doing all sorts of great things for that actor who then goes away and talks to others that do mostly “put downs” to that actor and he loses all the gains he may have made in your class. Too many “experts” that love to be critical, rather helpful and in fact does know how to TEACH and instruct the actor in front of them without putting them down. Too much authority in the “BIZ,” and you are trying to get them to be their own authority and in command of themselves

    If you’d like to talk on some of these principles you can contact me at the above email address – I’d be happy to communicate to you about teaching acting – there is so much one could say.

    You can check me out on IMDB as an actor

    Sincerely, Robert F. (Bobby) Lyons

  4. Marilyn Marchetti

    Hi Mark:

    Hope your travel’s are going well.

    I don’t know if you know Mhairi Steenbock or not (right under you nose n LA), but I think she is an acting teacher that would complement your directing style. Her email is

    mhairisteenbock@gmail.com

    Mhairi’s post —
    http://losangelesmimerevolutionary.wordpress.com

    Good Luck!
    Marilyn

  5. Kim Delgado

    As a working actor who teaches I find a lot of the teaching methods taught now are with out the benefit of solid foundation and technique. Students need to have some sort of foundation before they begin scene study. Weather it is Method, Misner, Shurteleff Techniques or Darwin Naturalism they need to have a foundation before they try and decipher character work. I have studied acting with many insightful mentors who had an almost physic ability to find and erase weak spots in a performance and bring out organic work from the student they were mentoring. They all had real life experience doing the work in a professional industry setting. Acting class is not a “one size fits all” teaching style and I believe that it is essential that teachers work in the trenches on TV, FEATURE and STAGE in order to give the proper perspective to students. It’s one thing to do the work in class it is altogether different to do that same work on a set or in an audition. The environment impacts performance and the artist must be willing to make changes and adapt for each new situation. Learning to modify your work to a directors requests is just as important as bringing well fleshed out characters to your audition or job. Real life experience is part of what a quality acting teacher brings to the classroom and keeps the work real and ready to use in a working industry setting.

  6. Peter Rasmussen

    How exciting you are going on such an exciting journey of discovery.
    Having observed an excellent teacher of Directing, I have rigorously adopted to approach to confirm the validity of the actors first choice and their efforts in creating it. I think it is so important as a teacher to assist an individual actors process, in their honest desire to create work they would love to watch and not impose a doctrine on them.

    Good luck and hopefully see you in Australia soon.

  7. Nick Baker-Monteys

    Hi Mark,
    Fantastic that with all the experience you have, you have decided to further your knowledge and become a student so to speak. I guess this is what makes some people truly great at what they do, having the desire to keep learning, regardless of age!
    As a director (I attended one of your seminars last year in Munich) I found your analysis on Workshop 2 spot on. I don’t believe you should ever “destroy” what an actor has done, especially when they’re starting out, regardless how “bad”, “wrong” it turned out.
    As you say, there is no right or wrong. Above all, I believe you are absolutely right when you say that the better approach would be, in effect, to demonstrate by doing, how an objective/ starting point may have been false and that there is another, potentially better way. No lecturing, just lead them down another path and, if it’s a better one, the actor will get it.
    Keep up the great work!
    Take care,
    Nick

  8. Clare Kilner

    Hi Mark,
    Check out Anthony Meindl – his approach is refreshing and inspiring!

  9. Paige

    Hi Mark:

    I think you’d really like Tim Phillips. His work is VERY specific, and very clear – like yours! He teaches how to ‘Sherlock Holmes’ a script and also specific techniques for auditioning and working that really take the mystery out of acting.

    Enjoy the journey!
    Paige

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