The Search for an Acting Teacher, Part II

Last month I talked about my search for an acting coach whose approach to teaching acting is compatible with my technique of directing actors. I’m still on this quest with the belief that if I find such an individual I’ll be able to expand and deepen my own understanding of this delicate and mysterious director/actor relationship.
In the last article, I discussed how various teachers address the actors right after a scene has been presented. And, what seemed clear to me in the first workshop I attended (Workshop #1, where the teacher’s question was “What were you working on?”) was that while the focus was on the actor, the acting process, the actor’s techniques and the assessment was on how successfully the actor was applying all of the above to the scene, there was rarely any discussion of the character’s objectives and challenges, or even of the scene itself. Workshop #2 was a little better in that when the teacher asked “What do you want in this scene?” it was clear s/he was talking about the character’s objectives. However, the focus quickly shifted to the “correct” interpretation of the scene as defined by the teacher. Again, the actor’s view of the character and the scene were relegated to a secondary or even tertiary position of focus.

Those of you who know my work and have experienced the Travis Technique know that my focus is primarily on the character – almost to the exclusion of both the director and the actor. My ultimate goal is character authenticity – and I don’t know how to achieve that without putting the character front and center.

Now let’s look at the other two responses that I have heard from teachers following the presentation of a scene.

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

“What worked? What didn’t? And why?”

I’m going to call this Workshop #3 (simply because these two responses are very similar even though I heard them in separate workshops).

Again I am watching the actors intently as the question is asked. In Workshop #3 I am not seeing the apprehension or anxiety that I witnessed in Workshop #2. Instead, I am seeing highly focused concentration. These actors know that the question is coming and I can see that they want to give an honest, informed and insightful answer. They want to please.

But, again, let’s stop for a moment and consider what these questions do to the actors. First, they require that the actors pay attention to their performance as it is happening, so that they can be prepared to give an informed response. I would like to acknowledge at this point that it is nearly impossible for an actor to not be aware of his/her performance. And, admittedly, that awareness is key to the development of the actor and the development of the character. But (and this is a big ‘but’) if the goal of the actor is to disappear and allow the character to emerge fully formed, then why are we (teachers, directors, coaches, etc.) asking the actors to give us an assessment of their work immediately after they finish a scene? Wouldn’t it be more interesting (and perhaps more to the point and more productive) if the actor were to ask the teacher, “What did you see? What did you experience?”

The ultimate goal of our work (as directors, writers and actors) is to impact the audience. Otherwise there is no sane reason to do all of this work. And the acting workshop is the perfect time and place for an actor to test the effectiveness of his/her work. It would be much more valuable for everyone in the room to hear how the scene impacted the viewers then to hear the actors’ self-critique.

I know that I am the last person you should ask about the effectiveness of my work. I have to listen to others, to the audience to know how I’m doing. I need them to tell me how it’s working. I have been proven wrong in my self-assessment so many times that I am now finally learning to give up the notion that I can predict anything. Talk to just about any artist, and they will tell you the same thing.

Okay, an important side note here. I was sharing this article and its contents with a dear colleague of mine. This individual knows me and my work and my teaching better than perhaps than anyone else. And for years I have been sharing all my new ideas, dreams, frustrations and discoveries with her. And when I told her about my response to these two questions …

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

“What worked? What didn’t? And why?”

… her response was:

“But Mark, that’s what you do. You ask questions like that all the time.”

And I sat there, floored. Not because I thought she was wrong, but because I could feel that she was most likely right. Then she gave me a few examples, which only made it clearer how right she was. It’s true, I often ask the actors for their assessment immediately following the scene. In the days since that conversation I have been thinking about this revelation, and I have vowed that I will become much more aware of my ‘first lines’ after a scene has been presented.  One thing I do know. Often I will ask an actor, “How did that feel?” or “How do you feel?” And I intend this question to be for the character, not the actor. This is in line with the Travis Technique where we direct the character, not the actor.

I love this process. The more I dig into the work of others attempting to discover tools and techniques that can make me a better director and teacher, the more I learn about myself. Some of it’s not pretty. Some realizations are hard to swallow. But I am convinced that each step takes me that much closer to my intended goal.

Okay, I have one more point about Workshop #3 and the self-analytical questions. Not only are these questions impeding the actor’s ability to lose him/herself into the character, but they are clearly (to me) a delaying tactic on the teacher’s part (maybe this is what I have been doing). Unlike the teachers in Workshop #2 who have a very clear idea of precisely how the scene should be played, the teachers in Workshop #3, it seems, are not quiet sure what to say to the actors. So they thrust the burden onto the actor which gives them time to form their thoughts. I know this technique. I’ve done it hundreds of times when I’m directing or teaching. We all do it. But that doesn’t make it valuable or effective.

The Future.

As I stated above, the quest goes on. I must admit I’m finding this journey to be fascinating, challenging, baffling and most often enlightening. The most enlightening part has been that in every moment, in every class my own preferences, desires and agendas have been tested, and become a bit clearer to me. I am seeing my techniques in sharp contrast to others. And, in every moment I learn something.

I’m not sure what will happen if and when I run into the teacher that I seek. But I look forward to that day … and I’ll let you know how it turns out.

14 responses to “The Search for an Acting Teacher, Part II”

  1. John Timmons

    Hey, Mark. Haven’t seen you in a long time. I thought I might as well add my own characteristics to your collective. ( I’m beginning to sound like The Borg) I suppose my approach is more of a non-approach but it’s actually a “rainbow” approach ,perhaps, that combines all the colors of the spectrum to produce white… a clear approach because it’s one’s own. I know that sounds like “banana oil” LOL but it is what has worked for me…all these years….. If you’ll permit me, I was blessed with a lot of natural acting ability. It afforded me the opportunity to experiment with a lot of techniques. A focus on simplicity worked well for me. I think Meisner, indeed, had the best definition of acting…”Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” I hope you are well, Mark. Feel free to check out my website if you wish……John

  2. Amy Lyndon

    Hi Mark.

    How are you? You are more than welcome to sit in on my booking classes any time. My classes are geared to the writer’s perspective – all your “choices” are already given to you by the writer. I would also love to send you my handbook. You might find it fascinating. Why are you looking??? We share so many people in common Terry Porter, Ken Mader, etc. I will always remember meeting you downstairs from Melissa Skoff’s class many moons ago. You are a true inspiration.

    Cheers.
    Amy Lyndon

  3. Judy Baldwin

    Best teacher in Los Angeles for film–especially film close-ups is Jeremiah Comey. Styles of acting change with the times.
    Master Workshop Tuesday Nights
    Studio City
    323-469-5302

  4. Jeanne Hartman

    Mark, Just read your second installment of “Search for an Acting Teacher”. The first one came right after I got back from teaching in Hong Kong and Singapore. I had SOOOOOOO many things to say but my brain was still jetlag fuzzy so I decided to wait until you return.

    And now I have even more thoughts having read your second installment. Hope we can get together when you return ahd a good “ole” discussion!
    Just one there here : I can’t imagine saying the same thing every time to each actor. There are so many variables – the actors, the scene and what just happened in their performance/work. Of course there are questions we use often but it is all about creating believable characters.
    So much to talk about in hopefully the near future.

  5. David Worth

    Mark,

    We met through my colleague Gil Bettman when I was teaching at Chapman University way back in 2007/2008. Since then I’ve moved on to teaching undergraduate & graduate Cinematography, Directing & Creative Producing at Chapman’s new facility in Singapore, USC, UCLA and presently at The Academy of Art University in the most beautiful city in America, San Francisco…

    That’s where I’m coming from… My Reply to you regarding “Searching for an Acting Teacher” is: Mark, To me that’s like the Dali Lama looking for a Spiritual Adviser… You are the Zen Master of Directing Actors, just keep on keeping on…

    Warmest Regards,

    DW

    1. markwtravis

      Thanks so much for the kind words, David. Yes, I may be a Master at Directing Actors … but the teaching of acting is a totally different beast. And I am finding that this search is much more difficult than I thought.

      I’m impressed with all the work you’ve done. Would love to meet someday.

      Cheers,
      Mark

  6. Kate McGregor-Stewart

    Fascinating article, and strong testament to your commitment to serve your artists. Commendable, and familiar to me. Take a look at my website and see if you think my approach might mesh well with yours. I have been teaching for 35 years, and still act professionally.
    Best Regards,

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