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.
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)