The Travis Technique for Actors – July-August 2016

THE TRAVIS TECHNIQUE™ FOR ACTORS

This is Not a Traditional Acting Workshop,

But a Course in New Techniques for Actors

The Travis Technique™ for Actors is a unique 6-week course for professional actors that introduces tools and techniques that will give them greater control, autonomy, authenticity and independence in every role.

Dates and hours:    Sundays from July 10 through August 14. 2pm – 5pm.

Location:    The Travis Story Center, 10322 Mary Bell Avenue, Shadow Hills, California.

Topics covered:

-Script Analysis and Breakdown from the Actor’s POV

-Scene Breakdown from the Character’s POV

-Autobiographical Writing for the Character

-The First Three Steps

-Questioning your Character

-Character Interrogation

-Determining and Recording the Beats of the Scene

-Interrogating your Scene Partner

-Self-Interrogation

-Writing the Journal of the Character, Scene by Scene

-Designing the Internal Journey of the Character

-Play Dates

-Dream Boards

-The Power of the Prop

-Independent Activities

-The Theory of the Continuum

-A Day with your Character

-Letter Writing

-The Scripted Journal

-The Power of Staging

-Macro vs. Micro Staging

-Self-Staging

-The Actor and the Camera

 

All participants will be assigned scenes and scene partners.

NOTE: There will be no traditional ‘scene study’ work other than a first reading of the scenes on Week One and a final presentation of the scenes on Week Six.

There will be no directing of the scenes or characters as this course is intended to give each actor the tools necessary to develop and render his/her character without directorial assistance.

Fee: $300, paid in advance. There are no ‘make-up’ days and no refunds for days missed.

To register: Contact Elsha at elsha@markwtravis.com.

Or simply sign up via PayPal.

Payment Options



Getting Into the Mind of a Child

Matera, Italy

Many books have been written about directing actors and some of these have focused on the challenges of working with child actors. At the moment, I am immersed in the world of coaching child actors in a very challenging feature film in Italy. The Italy part is the easy part. The coaching of children for a film I am not directing is the challenge. And then add to that the fact that these children are on a very strict schedule.

– They can be on camera or in rehearsal only 4 hours a day.

– They’re required to be in school 3 hours a day.

– Every hour they must get a 15-minute break (no filming or

– Then a one-hour lunch.

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Mark with his three favorite actors (Lois, Finn, and Adam) during a break in Rome.

Suddenly the 9½ hours that they can be on location or at the studio has been almost totally eaten up. Somewhere in there I’m supposed to find time to work with these young actors and prepare them for the day’s work on the set. Oh, a let’s not forget that there is wardrobe (this is a period picture) and make-up and parents and guardians hovering. My job is very clear. I am to deliver these actors to the set ready to give a performance. The director’s job is to do the final honing or shaping of that performance and get them on camera as quickly as possible. He literally has no time to do any in-depth work. And we also have to keep in mind the attention span of some of these young actors who are so easily distracted by anything flashy, colorful or electronic.

So, this is more than just a question of how to work with child actors. It’s How do you prepare a child actor for an unrehearsed scene when you have no access to the other actors or to the set? The reason I can’t work with them together is because while I am working with one, the others are in make-up or wardrobe, or school or haven’t arrived yet. And I’m expected to deliver them on the set camera ready and fully capable of making whatever adjustments or delivering whatever results the director may demand.

There are a total of three half-day rehearsals for the entire cast prior to production. These take place in a hotel conference room, less than ideal conditions. And the actors barely had time to meet each other. I watched my three young actors intently and I can see that they are having trouble focusing. They aren’t sure where to focus their energy or attention. When they try to show concern or anger or amazement or sadness their focus goes to their facial expressions and/or body movements. It’s all external – all indicated. All the internal energy is focused on creating a look that they hope will suffice or satisfy. Their intentions are good but the results are problematic and inauthentic. So it becomes clear to me that my first job is to shift their focus from the result to the cause, from the external to the internal.

On the first day of shooting they are doing only one scene. And it’s a scene with just the three children, alone, on a beach. There’s no dialogue. But there is a quick series of extraordinary, miraculous events to which they each have to respond individually. In less than a minute each of them has to go through a wide range of emotional experiences unique to themselves and revealing a lot about their relationships to each other. And it must appear natural, immediate, in the moment, authentic. And it has to be clear that they know each other intimately. After all two of them are two brothers and the girl is a cousin.

This task is difficult even for trained adult actors … but for children, on the first day of shooting, there is a looming danger of indication, pushing, odd facial expressions or inauthentic behavior.

Note: One young actor has just finished many months on a sitcom and his tendency to mug or go for comedy is almost out of control. The other boy, a sullen and contemplative lad, has a tendency to stay in one stoic mindset throughout any scene. And the young girl, 9 years old, has such an effusive personality that any subtleties of emotion are totally lost. And I will have one hour total to work with them, separately, before they go to the set.

At night I break the scene down into beats; emotional shifts and changes that I feel each character will be experiencing. And with this in hand I approach each actor the next morning. This is their first encounter with me as an acting coach, my first time working with any of them. I take them through the steps I have planned.

1. I ask my first question: “What is the scene all about?” And of course each of then tells me what is happening in the scene, very accurately and yet very objectively. (Truthfully, most adult actors and directors struggle with this difficult question. And here I am asking children, ages 9-12, to open their minds to the concept of subtext, inner meaning and intention.) Much to my surprise they are all able to go there. Of course they saw the inner meaning of the scene in their own individual way, which is perfect. That’s what I need. Individuality.

2. Then I ask them, “What happens in this scene for you? For your character? What is your character journey?” And again each of then begins telling me their character journey, objectively, in the third person. This is natural, most adult actors will do this. I immediately shift them to the character, to speaking in the first person. “The character is you, you are the character … say ‘I’ …” One great thing about children, they can do this quickly and usually without any resistance. And in that moment I experience an enormous shift in their energy and focus. And for all three of them it is a shift of delight and wonder. “Now tell me what happens to you in this scene, moment to moment.” And I describe each moment (as I had broken it down) and they tell me, in character, what they are experiencing. Progress. Of course, sometimes I have to prompt them or probe more deeply, but basically they are operating deep inside the character without any focus on ‘acting’.

3. Personal identification. Now we have indentified a specific emotion for each beat of the scene. I ask them when they have ever felt these specific emotions. And, bless their hearts, I start hear stories of wonder and excitement, sadness and loss. We give each story a name or a title and we apply it to the beat of the scene.

4. Then I walk them through the scene. I describe the events of the scene, beat by beat, and I ask the young actor to tell me, as the character, what he/she is feeling and thinking. Occasionally I remind them of the name or the title of a story they told me, but mostly I leave them alone. And we do this again, and again, I read the beats, they tell me what they are feeling and thinking. I can see when each actor is getting tired(getting tired is good, the resistance is low) and as they get tired they are going deeper into the character.

5. Then we do the scene two more times with them being silent, just thinking about what they are feeling and letting those feelings take over. And it’s beautiful, every time. It’s authentic and in the moment.

And then I release the actor to the set, or make-up or wardrobe…. and find another actor. The clock is ticking. On this first day I spent 20 minutes with the young girl, 15 minutes with one of the boys and went through the same steps in only 5 minutes for the other boy because they were all being called to the set. 40 minutes of rehearsal.

It’s a major challenge for any actor to tap into genuine emotions. What’s delightful about working with these children is that each of them feels very free to share personal stories with me. These are stories of pain, joy, sadness, delight, etc. And they allow themselves to tap into these experiences (with my suggestions) and apply them to a moment in the scene. So, sometimes during my prodding as they are vocalizing their internal journey I am reminding them of their cat, their best friend, their mother’s anger – the specific event that will elicit the appropriate emotional response. And through the repetition these images and emotions become linked to the beat in the scene.

This process was so successful on the first day that there was very little rehearsal time needed on the set. All three actors were primed and ready. And when they finally came together to do the scene, for the first time, they immediately began feeding off the reactions of the other two actors. They were all in synch, beat by beat.

Now we plunge into the rest of the film. Now we have scenes with dialogue and lot of adult actors. There will be new challenges, which I hope to write about in future articles.

November Footnote: In future articles we will discuss a new Beat Sheet, the Personal Journals and the Scripted Journals – three new techniques that emerged out of this process.


Guest Post: Bethany Rooney & Mary Lou Belli

Questions Writers Frequently Ask Directors

By Bethany Rooney and Mary Lou Belli

Q: I can “see” the movie in my head as I write it. Why can’t the director see it too?

A: You’ve heard of “the director’s vision”? The director CAN see the film before a single frame is shot, but since he or she is a unique individual, as are you, there is no way that your vision can be the same. We each come to a project with a personal history and a point of view about the world that defines our ethics, our judgments, and our actions…and therefore, our choices. So you have to hope that a wonderful director of vision is hired to direct your script. And if your blue is navy and the director’s is turquoise, you can choose to embrace that divergent choice or resist it. Since it’s a collaborative medium, we always vote for embracing. It makes for a happier set, more creative relationships and a better end product. If navy is crucially important to you, be specific in your script. If the director still picks turquoise, be open to considering whether in fact, that was a better choice. If you can’t embrace it, write a book the next time.

Q: I absolutely love the director of my episode, and I love how it came out. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out exactly what he did to make it good.

A: The job of a writer is fairly (pardon the pun) black and white: there’s a blank sheet of paper, and the writer must fill it with the words that originate the story. The director’s job is far more ephemeral, and unless you were with that director 24/7, it’s difficult to determine what all he did. It helps to remember, though, that the director originated, approved, or impacted every single element within the frame. Every object, every color, every movement, every performance. The director may do something as small as tilt an actress’s hat or as large as casting that actress in the first place. The director may ask for just a hint of a tear in an eye, or require a visual effects flood that destroys a town. He may elect to shoot the climax in one achingly simple close-up or employ a technocrane, a stunt coordinator, special effects, and a thousand extras. The job is one of vision and the leadership necessary to realize the script by sculpting the efforts of the entire cast and crew, while staying on time and budget. It’s extremely complex, but often accomplished in tiny decisions and moments, making it difficult to point to what “exactly” the director did. It’s really the accumulation of a myriad of right decisions that comes together to make a good finished product.

Q: Whenever I give a note on set, the director rolls his eyes when he thinks I’m not looking. I’m infuriated by this. But it’s hard to call him out on something so seemingly minor. What can I do?

A: We can think of a few reasons why this is happening.

  1. The director is insecure, made more so by your notes.
  2. The director is disrespectful of the script, and adjusting it to fit his vision.
  3. Your notes are about your ego, not the script.
  4. You’re overdoing it on set, being obsessive about the actors’ adherence to every comma.

In short, you two are not on the same page. You’re not creative partners. You don’t see eye to eye. (There’s probably more similar clichés here, but we’ll refrain.) You need to have a sit-down and try to work it out. Don’t be accusatory. Start with something like, “I don’t think we’re working together well on set. How can I help?” Remember, while the director knows that it all starts with a good script, he’s on the firing line now, trying to make the best picture he can. It doesn’t help him or the production to have ongoing tension. Try to get your hurt feelings out of the way and take the high road for the sake of your story. If it’s totally the director’s fault (see #1 or 2), you can either walk away or love him/her more. That’s really the only thing that will overcome insecurity and dissolve this passive/aggressive dance you’re both doing.

Q: I had a certain actor/person in mind when I wrote the part. Should I share this with the director?

A: You most certainly should! Whether or not an actor is available to play a part that was written with him in mind, there is a wealth of knowledge that comes to the director from knowing this information. It can also become a jumping off point for a collaborative conversation between you and the director or the person casting the show. The director might want to know if you are looking for the physical characteristics (tall, muscled, handsome) or the essence of the character (formidable, commanding, sexy). These details, and your choice to write the character this way, are the puzzle pieces the director fits together to define the story she’s going to tell. It also informs the director about the history of that character. Characters are like people; they come with baggage, needs, disappointments, accomplishments and dreams. It is the director’s job to find a dynamic, living breathing person for each and every part that appears on the screen.

Q: I wrote that a scene takes place in the kitchen, but the director moved it to the dining room. Why would she do this?

A: A director makes countless decisions that effect a production. She balances the weight of telling the story with the responsibility of bringing in the production on time and budget. If the director chooses to change something, you should know the decision is not arbitrary. She prioritizes where the “money scenes” are and might have to tweak another detail in order to squeeze money out of the budget where it will have the most value for telling the story well. This might not be just a location, it might be a costume or prop you had in mind when writing details into your script. Try to look at the director’s choices with a fresh eye and see if the change matters to the whole.

Q: I want to be on set while filming. Is this a problem?

A: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. And it depends when. The director must first and foremost create a safe environment in which the actors dare to do their work. Actors come in all shapes and sizes, with different skill sets, fears, and ways of working. The director has an enormous job being the facilitator, molder, therapist to each actor individually and to all of them as a whole while at the same time being a storyteller and arbiter of good taste. There are certain people who must be present during a first blocking rehearsal in order to make production go smoothly. These are the AD, DP, prop person, and script supervisor. That’s already 5 people, including the director, who the actor feels judging him at his most vulnerable. The director must ultimately protect this vulnerability from which comes an actor’s unique and often subtle performance. Once the entire crew is present, it again becomes a judgment call. If your presence on set puts any undo pressure on the actors, it is the director’s call how to handle it. The upside is that often actors LOVE having a writer on set, knowing that if an idea comes up that might tweak the scene, the writer is there to make an immediate adjustment. They also love the warmth they feel from another supportive entity such as yourself who likes what they are doing.

 

 

This Q & A was created for the WRITERS STORE and is reprinted with permission from Mary Lou Belli and Bethany Rooney.

 

BETHANY ROONEY began her directing career on the 1980’s iconic television show, St. Elsewhere, where she had served as Associate Producer.  She has directed over one hundred and fifty episodes of prime-time network shows, including Criminal Minds Parenthood, NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Brothers & Sisters, Castle,and Private Practice.  For cable television, she has directed In Plain Sight, Weeds, and  Drop Dead Diva.
MARY LOU BELLI, an Emmy award winner, has directed television for over 20 years including Wizards of Waverly Place, Sister, Sister, Charles in Charge, Girlfriends, and The Game as well as Monk and Hart of Dixie as well as award-winning web series. She is the co-author of three books: “The NEW Sitcom Career Book,” “Acting for Young Actors,” and  “Directors Tell the Story.” She teaches at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

The Micro Mind vs. The Macro Mind

I’m in the middle of production on a short film. It’s been a strenuous and intense preparation and pre-production. The script has gone through significant rewrites always bringing us closer to our truth, to the story we want to tell. We’ve lost actors and some have come back. We’ve had our share of crew challenges but the creative team has always stayed focused. And our guiding light, our lighthouse in every storm has been the story. Always the story. If I’ve learned anything in the past 40 years of directing theater and film it is that you can never go wrong if you consider the story first, last and foremost. What matters most is the story. And I have to keep reminding myself that every story is a compilation of many mini-stories (scenes, events, moments).

Several months ago I was asked to direct a feature film. I heard the pitch over the phone from the producer said, “If the script lives up to the pitch, the answer is ‘yes’.” When I read the script I immediately said ‘yes’ again even though I knew the script needed a lot of work. The story was there and it was strong and compelling.

It’s always been difficult for me to focus deeply on two or more projects at the same time. I know this is part of the business, multi-tasking, but in order for me to do the deep and specific work required on any one project I pretty much have to ignore all the other projects, especially when I am in pre-production or production. And that’s what happened during the past month. I was so focused on my short film, that the compelling feature film drifted to the back burner, getting only lip service. Until now.

As we wrapped production on the short film I could feel the feature script begging for attention, undivided attention. And even though I still needed to focus on the post-production for the short I felt safe letting my mind shift to the feature. In fact, I was looking forward to the opportunity to immerse myself into a new project – a new story.

But what happened next was totally unexpected.

Now I am reading the script, a script I have read several times and by the end of the second page I can feel something is wrong – dreadfully wrong. The script isn’t working. Now it seems to be just a mere suggestion of the story and it is in no way revealing the truth of the story. I keep reading. Scene by scene and event by event I keep seeing massive holes, significant problems, weak choices, poorly defined characters, forced actions and unearned emotions – the gamut. And yet, lurking behind this faltering script, somewhere hiding with great trepidation deep in the shadows is the same powerful story I had first heard many months ago. It hasn’t left. It just doesn’t know how or where to come out.

Now I’m on page 30 and I stop reading. I can’t go one. I go for a walk with my dog, Tanner (the best place for me to have conversations with myself), and I ask myself, “What happened? What has changed? I know it’s the same script. Why did it enthrall me before and why do I now think it is so unworkable?” And I keep walking and asking. And Tanner keeps listening and sniffing.

By the time I got back home I had come up with three possible explanations. Tanner thinks they’re good. His favorite is explanation #3.

One: The Sequence of events.

This project was first introduced to me through a powerful and persuasive pitch. (I’m now learning to be a bit suspicious of a great pitch!) And that powerful and persuasive pitch dominated my thinking for a long time. It even allowed me to dismiss the slight flaws and problems I saw in the script at the first reading. But, I don’t think that’s the main problem. So let’s look at #2.

Two: My pitching.

During the process of attracting talent and investors for this project I had to find the best way for me to pitch it. It’s a difficult story to pitch because of the violence and unwarranted brutality, but eventually I found a way that worked really well for me and for the listeners. In fact just the other day I pitched it to my driver, Nash, who was bringing me to the airport. I knew he had this fascination with ‘the bad guys’ so I tested my story and my pitch out on him. It worked like a charm. But here’s the question: have I become so enamored of my pitch, my way of telling the story that I have lost sight of the real story and the strengths and weaknesses of the script? It is possible. And I do think that’s part of the problem. But then there is reason #3, Tanner’s favorite.

Three: Me.

That’s right. I’m the problem. I’m what has changed and altered the balance of the process. For the past few months not only have I been concentrating on another story, but I’ve been deep into production where my focus has been on every story detail and nuance to the point of obsession. Every day I’ve been focusing on the smallest details and possibilities of every moment insuring that they are rendered to the best of my ability so that the story will work. And then, when I am still in that mindset, I sit down and read another script with which I am familiar and suddenly I’m seeing below the surface, I’m seeing details and nuances, possibilities and problems that I hadn’t seen before. And now I can’t see the overall picture the way I used to.

And now I have a new experience, my view of the details (and the devils that are residing therein) is laser, sharp and focused. It’s a gift. Doors and windows have been opened for me. I am allowed to see the magic and mystery that lurks beneath. And I like that.

Talking with the producer and writer of this script and sharing my new insights with them has not been easy. They have not taken well to my laser vision, my myopic pov of every detail. Their minds are still riding on global scan, orbiting, remaining objective. They are far from my internal inquisitive probing, but that’s okay. That’s the creative balance that we need.

As I am writing this, I am involved in a third production (yes, one of those on the multi-tasking list) in Italy. My mind seems to have remained in its happy laser mode (luckily, because that’s what I need) and now I am looking forward to when I will have an opportunity to revisit to the feature script (I’m still stalled at page 30) and continue this new amazing experience. All I need is a day off. It’s coming.


Guest Post: Al Watt

EIGHT THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN WRITING MEMOIRS 

allwattsThe challenge in writing a memoir is that self-examination is not typically meant to be shared. The goal in writing a dynamic memoir lies in offering a transformative experience for our protagonist (our self) by making the personal universal. We all have the story that we tell, either to our self or others, and although the facts may be indisputable, our perception of these facts is subjective. How we interpret the facts determines the meaning we make out of the events, and commonly our idea of our story is never the whole story. Though our ideas are never incorrect, they are often incomplete.
So, how do we write our memoir if we don’t know the whole story? By trusting our subconscious. Our subconscious is the seat of our genius. It is able to make connections and uncover meaning in areas we might never have explored. Our subconscious is not interested in protecting our ego. It wants the truth.

1)  Begin with the end in mind. I’ve heard writers say, ”How can I write my ending when I’m still living my life?” The ending of your memoir is not the end of your life (though it might feel like that.) It is the completion of a theme.
2)  A memoir is not a journal. Material from your journal might find its way into your memoir, however, a memoir is written from a place of understanding while a journal is an attempt to understand. The memoirist is the wise man or woman on the hill recounting the significant moments of their life in order to illuminate this journey toward transformation (a shift in perception).
3)  Don’t think that because your mother still drives you nuts that you have not had a shift in perception. Even though it still annoys you when she tells you how to live your life, this does not disqualify you from writing your memoir. A shift in perception does not mean that we are forever liberated from anxiety and self-doubt. These are human experiences. Our shift in perception simply means that we now understand our situation more clearly, and we know that when we expect our mother to mind her own business, we will be let down. In other words, we have accepted the reality of our situation, and in doing so, our life has become manageable.
4)  Memoir is a search for meaning. When you recount the argument that you had with your spouse about how you wanted a kid but they didn’t, be curious about why you are telling us this. What is the argument really about? What is it that you want? What does having a kid represent? Does it represent security, identity, validation, purpose, power, fulfillment? Always be asking yourself, “What am I trying to express through this scene?”
5)  Context: Don’t assume that your reader understands the context. We’re not interested in what happened, but in what it means to you. Have you ever had someone tell you a story and you still had no idea what they were trying to say. For example, if someone says, “My wife told me she wants a divorce,” we still don’t know what it means. It could be devastating, comical or a relief to the husband. Without context we have no idea what you’re talking about. As storytellers we must be curious not only about the events we are relaying, but the underlying meaning of these events.
6)  Order of events: It is not just the stories that we tell, but the order of events in which they are told, that convey meaning.
7)  Our protagonist must be active. I don’t mean that she does Pilates, but that he or she is always making choices. As writers we tend to be passive observers, and there can be a tendency, particularly in memoir, to have a reactive protagonist – one who merely reacts to each event. You might say, “But that is what happened.” No. That is only what appeared to happen. We are always making choices toward getting what we want. Staying in a lousy marriage is a choice. Remaining silent is a choice. Don’t confuse inertia with passivity. We are interested in your inner life. What is going on? For example: Let’s say I tell a story about my piano teacher who repeatedly told me that I had two left hands, and I remained silent each time he insulted me. The first time I might choose to believe him. The second time I might congratulate myself for my improvement, and the next time I might find a teacher who supports me in learning this new skill. So, although Iappeared passive, the meaning shifted with each insult, which finally led to a new behavior. In other words, our choices indicate our characters’ wants or desires — and that provides our story with meaning.  Make your protagonist active so that we understand what he or she wants.
8)  Feelings: Writing a memoir often brings up feelings of guilt, shame and betrayal. After all, we are opening the closet and exposing the skeletons. It is important to write the first draft for yourself. Do not show it to anyone, at least not while you are writing it. You will often discover that as you write it, you begin to see your story differently. Your perspective widens. The events don’t change, but your relationship to these events shifts. You might fear that if you expose the truth, that you will discover something terrible about yourself. You might. But here’s the thing: The answer is always love. The answer is always freedom. The answer is always forgiveness. In writing a story about freedom, we must show bondage. In writing a story about love, we must show fear. In writing a story about forgiveness, we must show resentment. It is important to hold onto your ending as you march through the middle, otherwise you can become lost in the feelings and they will overpower you.


The Ability To Listen

One of the most essential qualities a good actor must possess is the ability to listen. And it’s not good enough to just look like you’re listening, you must be actively involved in the process of listening – as if hearing something for the first time. Many actors agree that authentic listening is one of the most difficult skills to master. Genuine listening, it sounds simple but it is not.

How do you trick your mind into inhabiting the realm of the character, into that naïve and innocent state where you are genuinely hearing something for the first time? And how do you react naively and innocently to what you have just heard? Listening and responding cannot be programmed, they cannot be planned, and they cannot be manufactured. Thunnamedey have to happen in the moment. It’s one of those aspects of acting that require the actor to do less or even nothing in order to obtain a moment of authenticity.

 

Over the past year or so I have been on a mission. I want to connect with some of the best acting teachers and coaches I can find. My goal is very simple: to strengthen and energize the creative relationship between directors and actors.

In my years of teaching directing I have developed a unique and powerful way for directors to engage with actors in the process of developing characters. And now I want to share my thoughts, discoveries, ideas and techniques with acting teachers so that we may begin a dialogue that might lead to better communication between directors and actors.

Over the past two years to have met some extraordinary teachers in Los Angeles, New York and Europe. I have observed workshops, master classes, lectures. I have engaged in fruitful conversations about the actor/director communication. I have had the opportunity to demonstrate my techniques (the Interrogation Process) several times with great results.

Yet, occasionally, my requests to meet have been greeted by a response that is not only unexpected but also disturbing.

Over the past few months, on three different occasions, I have met with a resistance and rejection that appears to be disinterest but that feels more like something more serious.

Three credible and renowned teachers have told me, in so many words, that they are not interested in having a discussion about the communication between directors and actors. Twice I have been denied an opportunity to observe their work (an opportunity they openly offer to potential students). One teacher even told me that it would scare her to have me observe her teaching. Two of them told me that there was no room for me in their curriculum, even though it is clear that I not seeking employment or their consideration of my techniques within their programs. I have extended invitations to all three to attend any of my workshops so that they could become familiar with my work. None have accepted. None have responded to the invitation.

I have been thinking about these odd reactions for some time now and I am struck by a few thoughts. Why are they so resistant? Why so closed off? Why are they not even willing to listen, to hear what I have to say?

And now it seems clear to me that these teachers are afraid. But afraid of what? Could they be afraid of hearing something new? – of their work being exposed? – of being confronted or challenged? I don’t know.

What makes this particularly odd is that these are three individuals who have dedicated their lives to the teaching and training of professional actors. And each of them has gained enormous success and recognition. They train actors to be open, vulnerable, exposed, and honest; to be fearless in the face of obstacles and oppression, and to be courageous in the face of adversity and challenge. And yet, (it seems) when they themselves are faced with similar circumstances their reaction is to hide and take cover. How sad.

All I want to do is open up a conversation. I want to strengthen and clarify the communication and collaboration between directors and actors. And I would think that other teachers of acting and directing would be interested in joining in this conversation. True, many are. But apparently there are several who are not.

In one master class I posed a simple question to the teacher during a scheduled Q & A. “In all of your training and coaching of actors how do you prepare them for the challenging process of working with directors, especially knowing that many directors don’t communicate well with actors?” Sadly, I could see that my question threw him. He did manage a response that detailed the many challenges of directing and how dealing with the actors was simply one of these challenges. And it quickly became clear to me that his teaching and coaching programs possibly did not address this issue specifically.

When I was at the Yale School of Drama I was privileged to study acting with such gifted artists as Stella Adler, Bobby Lewis and Jeremy Geidt. And I remember in one class Bobby Lewis told us, “unnamedListening is not just hearing the words. Anyone can do that. Listening is hearing what is behind and underneath the words. Listening is allowing your subconscious to connect to the subconscious of another. Listening is vulnerability, openness, and acceptance of not only what you hear but also of what you feel. True listening is allowing yourself to receive and embrace the truth of another. And by ‘accept’ and ‘embrace’ I don’t mean that you have to agree or approve, but you do need to let it in, unfiltered, unmonitored, uncensored.” Bobby Lewis was one of my mentors who continually encouraged me to explore and expand my imagination. I miss him.

We are artists in a highly collaborative medium and much of the time we are not listening to each other. We are filtering, monitoring, censoring. How can we learn how to take in what irritates us or scares us? How can we learn to be patient and how can we genuinely listen to the long-winded and pompous, the shy and the faint of heart? How can we listen to the braggart and the boring alike?

I know that I am often afraid to listen and let those conflicting and confusing voices and thoughts in. Perhaps my fear of listening is telling me something. Something I need to hear. Maybe I should just stop and listen to my fear.


Behind The Table

June 2014

I’m in pre-production on a pilot for a new web-series. And this means that I am in the middle of the Casting Process. We have a great project; a strong script and already have a wonderful team. And now it is my job to support the project and the team with the best cast possible.

This article is about some of my observations from ‘behind the table’. You know the table, the one that the producers, writers, casting director and others hover behind while eager and dedicated actors display their talents.

I love the casting process. It’s like speed dating. We have just a few minutes to make a quick impression (the actor) or assessment (the director) and then it’s over. But the casting process is also the beginning of new relationships. So we all need to be on our toes. And I know that I am looking for something special way beyond each actor’s ability to interpret a role, read dialogue, or bring emotion to the scene. I’m looking for the characters, in the raw.

The Entrance

audition 1It’s interesting to observe how actors enter a room. Some actors come gliding in with confidence and a sense of purpose. Others come in fumbling with their picture and resume and the sides as if they were caught totally off guard. And others arrive almost apologetically as if they aren’t sure they are supposed to be there. And then there are those who come in arrogantly, doing us a favor, taking time out of their busy day.

I make notes of these entrances and quickly begin to see that the entrance often predicts the quality of the audition. Not always, but often. And I also noticed that I am immediately making an assessment of the actor just by how he/she enters the room.

The Questions.

Asking an actor whether or not he/she has any questions before the reading seems to be pretty standard procedure. And there were a variety of responses from, “No, I’m fine” (I like that one) to the occasional long rambling monologue that seems to contain all the research and preparation the actor has done, which will eventually lead to a question (Not my favorite by a long shot). About 50% had no questions and the questions we did hear were mostly about facts or details of the character that were not clear in the scene. No questions about how I would want them to play the scene (my least favorite question).

The Reading.

This is why we are here and I know it is best if we can get to it as quickly as possible. One of our producers reads with the actors (she’s very good) and as I’m watching I can tell within moments if the actor has training, experience or is a novice. I can feel the confidence, or the uncertainty, or even insecurity. It is not something that they can hide. And now I am focused on the choices they made looking for something unexpected, new, fresh, or original.

After the Reading.

This is where my techniques depart radically from most directors. Most directors, as I have learned from actors and other directors, will make a comment about the reading and will ask for an adjustment in the performance. They may even give a result they are seeking and ask the actors to deliver that particular performance.

For some reason, in the over 40 years that I have been directing, I have never been comfortable with that approach. First, because, quite honestly, I’m not sure what I want. Or at least I am not sure enough to be able to state it that specifically. And, second, I have always been aware of how ineffective ‘result direcitng’ is and what a huge burden it puts on the actor. And even if the actor does give me the result I’ve requested, I know it’s not going to be authentic, genuine, or organic, from deep in the soul of the character. It’s just not possible under these conditions. So I choose to not talk to the actor at all. There’s no comment on the first reading and no special requests for the second. What I do is immediately connect with the character.

Let’s say that an actor is reading for the role of William. Right after the first reading is over I’ll say something like, “William, that didn’t go very well, did it?” Now, understand, I’m not referring to the audition, because quite frankly – William is not in an audition. William is in a moment in his life, in a scene with his wife. William just ended a moment with his wife (the scene) where he wasn’t able to explain himself sufficiently to her satisfaction. So when I say, “That didn’t go well” I am referring to William’s failed attempt to appease his wife.

A Key Moment.

audition 2This moment is one of the most critical moments in the audition. First of all, the actor is usually caught off guard. And as I continue to question William about the trouble he is in with his wife – discussing his motives, attitude, expectations, etc. – I am watching the actor closely to see how willing or able he is to ‘drop into the character’. This moment is often a more profound revelation of the abilities and range of the actor than the reading itself.

Regardless of experience and training some actors actually resist the opportunity to ‘stay in the character’. I find that ironic because I genuinely believe that all actors want to become the character. But now I am witnessing some actors (only a few, but still significant) fighting to get back to either being the actor or to ‘acting’ and they are pulling away from ‘being’.

One well-known, highly-trained actress with tons of experience began fighting me almost immediately. She kept saying, “Mark, I don’t know why you are asking me all of these questions. Let’s get back to discussing the character.” I was thrilled when I first learned that this esteemed actress was interested in this project and this particular role. But at this moment in the audition I knew that it wouldn’t work. I knew that no matter how ‘right’ she was for the part that I couldn’t work with her because all I would get form her would be a performance, not an authentic, organic character.

The Second Reading.

audition 3At the end of my interrogation of the character I say something along the lines of, “You’re going to get another chance (at the scene) to confront your wife and I suggest you use another tactic if you want it to turn out better than the last time.” Now, this ‘new tactic’ is usually based on something I have just discussed with William such as his wife’s fear of his anger, or maybe how convincing her with kindness has worked in the past, or how (very important) a display of vulnerability is either an asset or a detriment. Now the character (not the actor) has a new intention, a new focus, a new approach and we go immediately into the scene again. There is no result directing, there is only an adjustment from deep within the character.

Sadly, there were a few actors so trapped in either their inexperience or fear that they reverted to a performance identical to the first. But for the most part the results were revealing – truly revealing. Gone was the actor’s plan. Present was the character in full force.

Now the selection process shifts from “who is the best actor?” to “which William do we want?” Each William (as with every character) was drastically different, not just in performance, but in personality, persona.

As I am still in the throes of the casting process I am now facing a delightful dilemma. I have four or five (or more) marvelous choices for each character and I get to build the family that I want.

I’ll be sharing more about this project as we go deeper into pre-production (and the wonderful rehearsal process) and eventually into production.

Cheers,

Mark

 


Writing Without a Map

One of my favorite pastimes when I am visiting a foreign city is to go for a walk, alone, and purposely allow myself to get lost. Of course I do all those things most tourist do: notice landmarks, key on certain street names, check the skylines for prominent high rise buildings or mountain ranges. But mostly I allow myself to follow my instincts, my impulses, my curiosities. I plunge into interesting side streets, follow the strains of distant music and once I even followed a stray cat. And the thrill comes when I realize that I am totally lost, that I have no idea where I am. And there is also another guilty pleasure: I realize that not only am I lost, but nobody else in the entire world knows where I am.

There are two things I like most about getting lost. First: I know that I am going to stumble upon or discover elements of the city that will surprise me, intrigue me or maybe even frighten me. Witnessing a police raid in the back streets of Tokyo was amazing and frightening and dangerous. And, Second: I know that the challenge of finding my way home (hopefully without using a map or asking directions) will be a new adventure all in itself. It will be an adventure that will tell me more about where I am going than if I had never got lost. writer in the abyssThat’s the most important benefit of getting lost. When you get lost you might find a way home that holds up a mirror, let’s you see who you really are, let’s you see your journey and even your destination in a whole new light. I once heard of a book entitled: The Blue Line. I never found it or read it but I did know what it was all about. It was a cross-country journey and the author had decided to traverse this continent by traveling only on the minor roads, the roads on the map that were the ‘blue lines’, the undeveloped and often untraveled roads. I was always intrigued with this notion. I searched for the book, couldn’t find it. But the concept stayed with me. And I’m still intrigued.

That’s the way I like to travel and that’s the way I like to write. I like to follow the blue lines, or even better, write without a map. I am often intrigued in my writing with the fact that I am not sure where I am going. Sometimes I think I write in order to get lost. Maybe I will keep a few signposts in mind – maybe not. When I write I look forward to those moments when I literally have no idea how I am going to get myself out of the mess I have created – out of the dead end street I have wandered down. One of the most powerful experiences in writing is finding a way out of the rabbit hole you have not only dug but have thrown yourself into. Finding your way out of the abyss is far more interesting and revealing than following a map that has been created for you, by someone else.

When I am writing I like to stay in the chaos and avoid swimming for shore.

-Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter: Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the   Spotless Mind

I know there are so many great books out there written masters of screenwriting and storytelling. Many of them are my friends: Syd Field, Blake Snyder, Chris Vogler, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, John Truby, etc. These books will give you guidelines, structure, 22 steps, 6 parts, the 3-act structure, turning points or beat sheets to guide you through the process. They are maps. They are guides. They are the “Hop On, Hop Off” buses in every city that will take you to predetermined locations, letting you stay there as long as you like, then you hop on again, check your map, and decided whether or not to get off at the next stop.

As much as I admire (and depend on) the insights and guidance of these masters, I am keenly aware of how limiting and even dangerous it can be if I follow one of their maps as I write. But on the other hand, one of the most beneficial aspects of these books is to pull out one of the maps after I have completed my journey – after my first draft is done. After I have been lost and dug my way out of the rabbit hole it’s enlightening to see ‘the map I created’ in contrast to a map that would have guided me.

When I can look back and see where I have been, why I got lost and maybe how my getting lost actually helped me find my way, then I’ve struck gold. When I can “stay in the chaos” and “refuse to swim for shore” there is a greater likelihood that I will tap into insights, characters, situations, resolutions and epiphanies way beyond my imagination.

Can you imagine, someday someone is going to invent a GPS system for writers. Just type in your desired destination and the device will guide you there, safely, and you won’t get lost.


5 Key Questions Directors Forget to Ask

TRAVIS TECHNIQUE TIDBIT #1:

5 Key Questions Directors Forget to Ask

Director B&WDirectors are expected to have all the answers. After all, it’s their film; the director is the captain, the leader, and the guide through the chaos. So we expect answers from them, clear and simple. And when we get their answers we can do our job.
But way too often there are five key questions that many directors seem to ignore, dismiss or they simply make the assumption that the answers areobvious. And also, chances are that nobody is asking them these questions:

 

1. What is the story really all about?

This is the most crucial and difficult question to answer. And it is the most important question because every decision, every choice every day rides on the director being clear about the power, message and meaning of the story.

2. What is this scene really all about?

Every single scene has its own story, its own arc, and its own underlying point, message or impact. You can’t direct a scene if you don’t know how you want this scene to impact the rest of the story, and how you want it to impact the audience.

3. Why is this scene in the movie?

If there is no strong, compelling reason for a scene to be in the movie then perhaps it doesn’t belong. Every scene is a piece of a larger puzzle and it connects with many other pieces. You can’t effectively create this piece of the puzzle without knowing why you need it and how it connects to other pieces.

4. What are the objectives, obstacles, risks and expectations for every character within each scene?

Many directors overlook or bypass this question because they feel this is the actor’s job. The answer really needs to come out of the collaboration with the actors (and the characters) and with the director keeping in mind the first three crucial questions.

5. What must be achieved with each scene in order to insure that it supports the movie?

This is the puzzle again. It has to hang together. Once you are clear on the answers to the first four questions you are ready to tackle this one. And this is mainly because the answer to this question resides in the compilation of the answers to the first four questions.
And if you have thoroughly answered these five questions for every scene, by the time you are heading into production you can feel assured that your film will become a cohesive whole.
Take a look at your next project (whether you are writer, actor or director) and try answering these questions. You will see that they open up new portals through which you can view the story and your role in bringing that story to life. If you want more support you can start with my books or DVDs hereOr simply contact me.

Elephant in the Room

We’ve all been there. In the room. Any room. And we’re keenly aware of the elephant … in the corner … on the couch … behind the desk … wherever. We know we don’t want to talk about it (otherwise the elephant wouldn’t be there) and we’re hoping nobody else does either. Or perhaps we’re hoping that someone else will bring it up to get us off the hook. That way we won’t be blamed for mentioning it, or so we can claim we had no idea it was even there.

elephantBut most likely we’re praying that nobody else will even notice the elephant and that the elephant (seemingly all on his own) won’t find a way to sneak into the conversation. You know he wants to. That’s his job. But he’s not allowed to. There are some unwritten rules somewhere that forbid the elephant from making himself known. Seems like that would totally destroy the purpose of the elephant. But sometimes he finds a way of surreptitiously stumbling in the corner and then he is suddenly noticed … and it’s all over.

Curious thing about these elephants – they have this amazing way of fitting into any environment. Whether it’s a room, car, bed, closet, elevator … it’s magical. No matter where I go, my elephant fits in fine. Even when I’m out for a walk he’s lumbering behind … a paciderm on cat’s paws.

And since there seems to be an elephant in every crucial (and sometimes not so crucial) moment in my life I’m thinking that there must be an elephant in almost every scene in every story, every movie or play. Only problem is that we can’t see them. They are not written.

Yet what these elephants contain is perhaps potent and potentially explosive information. It is what the scene is all about, or trying to be about. The elephant is not the subtext. That is too simple. The elephant is what stimulates or creates the subtext. It is the trigger, the ignition, the fuel all rolled into one.

 The elephant is quite clearly that topic or issue that is hanging in the air, unspoken, unaddressed, unacknowledged. It’s the thing you don’t want to bring up. And you are hoping no one else will. You know it’s there, and in fact it’s in the room because you brought it. And you know that the more you ignore or deny it, the bigger it gets. And you know that other people in the room know that it’s there. They can feel it. And most of them are not going to talk about it either. That’s the deal. That’s what keeps the elephant alive and thriving. In fact, I think that every relationship has an elephant or two or more. Did you know that a herd of elephants is called a parade? Perfect. That’s what it feels like sometimes – a parade of elephants. It’s hard to ignore a parade.

It is quite clear that the only reason we don’t bring up our elephants is because of fear. Fear keeps them hidden. And these fears trigger the subtext. The subtext is simply what we would like to say or do but we can’t because we feat that the consequences would be disastrous. Sound familiar?

That’s the chaos we all live in.

That’s the chaos that all of our characters live in.

That’s the chaos that drives every scene.

 Lately I’ve been asking writers, directors and actors who are in the process of either developing stories or presenting scenes, a simple question: “What’s the elephant in the room.” And the reactions I have been getting are fascinating. Very often I am hearing, “Wow, I don’t know, let me think.” And I’m beginning to realize that the reason they don’t know is because they haven’t really thought about it. And why is that?

Whenever we’re in a moment of crisis it’s much easier to focus on the events that are happening around us. We don’t want to look beneath the surface. We do our best to keep the subtext hidden and totally ignore the parade of elephants. The same behavior occurs when we (writers, directors and actors) look at our dramatic material with the clear intention of understanding what is really going on. We focus on the obvious. We look for easy answers and make judgments based on text, behavior, actions, and consequences. Yet, what we need to do is mine the subtext and identify the elephants.

 I was consulting on a feature project a few years ago and the writer patiently explained to me that her script was very special because it was all “driven by the subtext”. And in fact she felt she required special actors who knew how to play subtext in order for the film to be successful. I avoided a deeper discussion of subtext (which every good story contains) or her idea of ‘special’ actors until I read the script. The script appears to me to be vague and unspecific in terms of character motivation and intention. So I asked her, “What is your story really all about? What is the subtext?” Her response was a very patient and thoughtful definition of subtext, as if this concept was new to me. And when I pressed further and asked her about the subtext in a specific scene she seemed a bit baffled and could only reply with, “Can’t you feel it?” Further into the consultation it became clear to me that she could definitely feel the ‘subtext’ within her characters but was totally incapable of identifying or characterizing that subtext.

This experience made me more keenly aware of how we are all engaged in this awkward dance with subtext and the elephants. We know they are there. We know our scenes and our stories rely heavily on powerful subtext and stubborn elephants. And we also know we can’t write this explicitly in a screenplay (then it would become a novel). And too often we are hoping our viewers will just “get it”. Especially if we don’t get it – if we can only ‘feel’ it.

Sometimes I think that we are almost as afraid of the subtext and the elephants in our stories as our characters are. Perhaps we’re afraid of discovering what they really are. Or perhaps we’re not capable of digging that deep. I know that there are many directors and writers and actors who are afraid that a deeper truth will be revealed – that they do not know their story and characters as well as expect them to. And this is another elephant – a new fear generating new subtext, within us. And we press forward hoping no one will notice.

One elephant in the room is our fear of the elephant in the room.