The Travis Technique, part 1

THE TRAVIS TECHNIQUE (Part One)

At the heart of every story are characters, individuals who capture our hearts and souls as they battle their way through obstacles and adversities in pursuit of a richer more fulfilling life. All of our stories are full of characters and as we tell out stories, we become those characters to the best of our ability. As we write our stories we hope that they will jump off the page fully formed. And as we present our stories on the screen we rely heavily on the skills of actors to bring our characters to life. The more complex the delivery system, the great the challenge.

Those of us who work in film and theater rely on the artistry of actors to bring our characters to life. The ability to work with actors, to collaborate in the creation of characters is, arguably the most difficult part of the directing process. It is, without argument, the most important. This task has become the central focus of my work over the past 40 years, not only in my directing, but also in my writing, my teaching and my consulting. I have even developed (discovered?) a revolutionary process of working with actors (the Travis Technique) that has at the core a fascinating concept. “Stop directing the actors, start directing the characters.”

We’ll be talking about The Travis Technique in future posts but for the moment I want to share with you a simple concept, from my new book “The Film Director’s Bag of Tricks”.  This book is full of ‘tricks’ (tools and techniques) that many directors employ when working with writers and actors.

This is from the chapter on “Rehearsal” and we’re talking about the first rehearsal and most significantly how the director is forming a working relationship with the actor.

TRICK: GRATITUDE AND PRAISE

This is a powerful one that you will be using on a daily basis. And this is so powerful that you can even tell the actors (or anyone else) exactly what you are doing (expose the trick for what it is) and it will still work.

After they finish the reading say to all the actors: “Thank you. Very good.” And mean it!

Remember: actors will always do the best they can with the information they have. No actor intentionally gives a poor reading or performance. So, after every reading, every performance, every take … throughout the entire process of making this film … always say: “Thank you, very good.” Even if you do not like what you just saw or heard. Say it. “Thank you, very good” and mean it!

Thank them for their work, their effort. Acknowledge them. Validate them.

No Criticism

Your job is to keep the actors open and emotionally available at all times. And in order to do this you must create a ‘safe space’, an environment that allows them to be free and expressive. And this safe space is a world without criticism. That’s right. No Criticism.

“But,” you are thinking, “what do I say to an actor when I don’t like what they are doing? How do I get them to do what I want if I can’t criticize them?

You can get the actors to do amazing things and give you stunning performances without ever criticizing them. We’ll get to this process later in this chapter.

Think for a moment about what criticism does. Forget the actors for a moment.  Think of yourself.

Remember the last time someone criticized you for something you had done or not done. Maybe it was a choice you made or an action you took. Maybe it was because you forgot something or simply chose to ignore something. Whatever.  You received criticism. Now, recall what happened inside you at that moment.  Most likely, if you are like the rest of the human race, your heart seized for a moment, tightened, maybe even skipped a beat. Inside you could feel yourself putting up little protective walls. These walls of defense may have taken the form of rationalization, justification or explanation. Or maybe they were walls of denial, disconnection or rejection. Whatever they were – they were walls. And these walls were put into place because in that moment the world did not feel quite as safe as it had previously.

The Actor’s Job

Now think of the world of the actor and the job of the actor. The actor’s job is more difficult and dangerous than most people realize. The challenge is to mold a believable character from bits and pieces of information mixed with a personal emotion system and range of life experiences. The danger lies in the fact that an actor is tapping into his own emotional network while taking on the persona, problems and passions of a character. He is exposing his own inner life through this character. This creates a high level of vulnerability within the actor.  Consequently the actor needs the safest of environments within which to work.

It is your job to create this environment.

One essential aspect of this environment is that there is no criticism. Not from you and not from anyone else on the set or from anyone involved in the production. You need to protect your actors from yourself and everyone else … even from the other actors. No criticism. In fact, in an ideal world, no comments or discussions regarding the actors’ work from anyone … except you. You, the director, should be the only person who is allowed to talk to the actors about their work. That’s ideal and that should be your goal.

Creating this ‘safe environment’ begins with “Thank you, very good” but goes way beyond that. This aspect of working with actors is crucial and you must not ignore it. Like a mother hen and her chicks, you must be willing to stand at the edge of the rushing traffic, protect your brood, and then guide them safely to the other side.

“Thank you. Very good.”

(The Film Director’s Bag of Tricks by Mark W. Travis, copyright, 2011)

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22 Responses to The Travis Technique, part 1

  1. Really glad you’re blogging now Mark, will follow with interest. Hope you’ll make it back to Dublin sometime.

  2. Mark, it’s great reading this, it reminded me of the “safe environment” you create in the Autobiographical workshops at Alice Anne’s. I have found I try to emulate this idea in my writers group. We all listen and give feedback, but the feedback is always about what works and how to make it better, not what is “wrong” with the piece.

    • markwtravis says:

      Thanks, Rachel … for the comment. Yes, the ‘safe environment’ is so crucial and so easily obtained if you think about it. Sadly too many artists are too focussed on the content of what they have to say to another artist and not thinking of the quality of the relationship. Hope your writers group is going well.

  3. Rizo says:

    Hi Mark,
    After doing just one of your workshops, I became more aware of my motivations and the way I react to what goes on around me. You’re a gifted soul. I’m glad you use your talents for good.
    You’d be dangerous out there, on the shadow side 😉

  4. Cathy says:

    Funny and helpful blog. I’m writing so I’m reading this from the writer’s perspective, which just opened wider thanks to your blog. This is great! Thanks for putting it out there Mark!

    Cathy S.

  5. Jery Rowan says:

    Hey Mark,

    Just came across you quite by accident. The good kind of accident that results in one of those “ah-hah” moments.

    As a writer/director of documentaries and now wading into my first feature film, your words on creating a safe environment, while obviously the right approach in hindsight, should be required “reminder” reading in foresight. How simplistic and perfect they are. Something I hope I’ve been doing all along, just not consciously.

    Good words to live by before the first frame of film begins its journey through the camera.

  6. Mary Ann Skweres says:

    Taking your Directing for Camera workshop, hearing you speak on the Travis technique at the Irish Film Festival, and now the blog…I remain impressed by your work and insights. Thank you Mark.

    Mary Ann

  7. Larry Kostroff says:

    Mark,old friend,
    You and I have known each other for many years. We acknowledge those years, of course–senility has not caught up with me yet–but perhaps from this vantage point, my remarks may be interesting to those contemplating the opportunity to attend one or more of your sessions.
    I’ve seized every opportunity to attend your seminars and have been impressed each time with the wisdom and presentation you so generously offered. I’ve also witnessed the incredible fresh growth of the techniques you present to the people who really benefit from them. You might say that I’ve gone from being “whelmed”, to overwhelmed. Finally, being somewhat aware of the vast number of those who teach the subjects, I feel I’m somewhat qualified to make this judgement; Mark Travis, you are indeed unique. You own the room.
    Larry Kostroff

    • markwtravis says:

      Thanks, Larry, for those kind words. And thanks for joining my blog. I hope you will be a regular visitor and will be inspired to add some of your wisdom from your vast experiences. If we are going to do anything to elevated the quality and integrity of films being made we have to keep talking together, sharing ideas, techniques, insights and experience. Mr. Kostroff, you are a wealth of experience (and I should know, I learned everything I know about producing from you). Thanks for coming along for the ride, Larry.

  8. Mark, this is an eye-opener. I cringed reading this thinking how much better the environment on the set might have been for the film I shot last year. Judging from the response of cast and crew afterwards, it was a pleasant experience, but it would have been completely enjoyable using this technique…with crew as well!

    • markwtravis says:

      Sowande, you are so right. Everyone on the set has to be treated with the utmost respect, not just the actors. This is a lot of what I talk about, write about and teach. Have you read my book: “Directing Feature Films”? The subtitle is “The Creative Collaboration between Writers, Directors and Actors”. I think you would like it.

    • markwtravis says:

      Thanks Sowande. I am trying to change the world of directors, one director at a time. And with the help of actors like you… it is possible. Keep in touch, watch this blog, there will be news of seminars and workshops for writers, actors and directors that are invaluable.

  9. Hello Mark
    I’m a sort of old friend of Alice-Anne’s (I even stayed with her once in Hawaii!). I’ve always wanted to do one of your workshops, because she tells me they are so good, and it’s just my kind of thing, but they are always so far away, and at the moment, a bit beyond my paltry budget. So when are you next coming to England? I am currently preparing myself for my first one woman show at the Edinburgh Fringe this August. I trained as a fool with Jonathan Kay, a brilliant theatre teacher (see nomadic academy of fools website for more info), hence the one-woman show thing. Normally I’m trying to sing. Anyway, was a boost to read this idea about no criticism (sounds very good) this morning with my cup of tea in London and find out a bit more about it, and look forward to your next UK workshop! Or France?
    Well I have a huge inner critic, so am going to try and silence it today a little as have a drama school audition (think it may be going backwards to go forwards but at least it keeps me on my toes).

    • markwtravis says:

      Well, we came very close to offering the Solo Workshop (now called Write Your Life Workshop) in London about two years ago. But other complications arose and we had to cancel. But now you have me intrigued to try to do it again. The workshop has been offered in Munich (twice) and Berlin (once) and we are considering it in Amsterdam in the future. So “to be a woman” (since it seems you have no other name yet) would you be interested in helping make it happen in London or some other location in England or the UK (maybe Dublin?). Let me know. Meanwhile, best of luck with the Fringe Festival and please stay in touch.

  10. Miranda says:

    Mark, I must say, you painted the truth like it really is. People do always put up walls when criticized. Believe it or not, this is a teaching not just for film-directing, but in dealing with the people around us in other situations of life as well, if the objective is a positive outcome. You definitely got me on that one because it’s something I learned recently too.

    Miranda

  11. Rebekah says:

    Aloha Mark. I agree with Miranda. Your tips on this post have universal applications beyond film directing. We can all remember to start at home. Very good. Thank you!

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