The Genesis of the Travis Technique
For the past 30 years while I have been studying and directing theater, television and film I have been in constant pursuit of more effective ways of eliciting truly authentic performances from actors.
In the 1960s while reading Stanislavski and Chekhov I explored every experimental technique that came my way. In the 70s while at Yale School of Drama I was exposed to Viola Spolin, Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, The Living Theatre, Jonathan Miller, Bobby Lewis and Stella Adler. Then in New York I immersed myself in the work of Sanford Meisner and had the rare pleasure of studying with Harold Clurman.
And then I came to Los Angeles where there seemed to be a lack of finely-honed and highly trained and experienced teachers of the craft of acting amidst the plethora of acting classes and workshops that were geared specifically toward the audition and casting process. So I joined the Actors’ Studio where I had the opportunity to learn from the likes of Mark Rydell and Martin Landau and enjoyed watching the work of Salome Jens, Christopher Walken, Barbara Bain and Al Pacino. I formed an experimental theatre company dedicated to exploring that delicate relationship between the actor and the character.
While still pursuing and nurturing a directing career in theater, film and television, in the 1990s I began teaching. First it was acting classes and workshops. Then it was directing classes and workshops. And then writing workshops generated by the work I had initiated in the late 1980s developing and directing autobiographical one-person shows. My teaching led to books being written and the books led to teaching internationally. And at the heart of all of these workshops, seminars and books were these questions, “How do we create, on stage or on screen, more authentic characters?” “How can we get past the artifice of acting?” “How do we lead the audience to truly believe in the truth of what they are watching?” “How can I, as a director, guide the actor to genuinely feeling the truth of the character?” These are the questions I had back in the mid-60s when I first entered the world of theatre. And now I was in the 2000s and I still had the same questions.
But what I didn’t know at the time was that all the probing, experimentation, questioning, training, trial and error and writing of books was leading to something rather remarkable. What I didn’t know was that day-by-day, year-by-year, I was laying a foundation upon which a new and obvious edifice was going to be built.
It wasn’t until about eight years ago, after the completion of my second book on directing, “Directing Feature Films” that I became aware that my latest techniques and experimental exercises had actually revealed a profound truth. For years I had been staring at the very core of a new development in an old process and I hadn’t been able to see it. In fact it took multiple comments from students, actors and fellow directors for me to see what I had accomplished.
What I realized is that all these years I had been looking in the wrong direction. I had been trying to open the wrong door. I had been trying to take a path that would never lead me to the answer. I remember reading in Stephen Covey’s inspiring book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” his anecdote that defined the difference between being a leader and a manager.
A Leader is the individual who can take a group of people through a jungle, keep them from harm, stay on the right path, and pursue the goal. The Manager is the one who is sitting high above the jungle and will look down and say, “Good leadership. Wrong jungle.”
Well, I’d been in the wrong jungle for a long time. I had been pursuing the gold at the end of the path that was labeled “How do we direct actors so that they can give more credible, more authentic performances?” For years it seemed like the right path, the right question and I always felt I was getting closer to the goal. But the flaw was in the question itself. “How do we direct actors?”. Direct Actors. I was looking for a way to direct the actors that would lead to authentic characters. Where my real goal was not in the directing of actors, but in the creation and realization of authentic characters with the actors. I was heading toward the wrong goal. Cutting my way through the wrong jungle.
And it was about that time that I first came up with the thought: “Stop directing the actors. Start directing the characters.” Truthfully I knew what I was saying, but I really didn’t know the importance or impact of what I was implying. But now that I was on a new path, in a new jungle I embraced my pursuit with new enthusiasm. My pursuit was almost reckless at times, pushing the edges of every envelope, testing, probing, and challenging this new idea to see how well it could hold up under such an assault. Direct the character. Focus on the character. Leave the actor alone. Let the actor’s mind shut down and drift into the background.
I am the type of teacher who will willingly and eagerly test new ideas in a classroom in front of hundreds of eager film students acting as if I know these theories will hold up, these techniques will work. It’s a bit reckless I know. But what better laboratory for such an experiment? So, in classes, workshops, seminars, and panel discussions around the world I would hear myself saying:
– “You need to shut down the actors brain. It’s an obstacle to the process.”
– “The actor’s biggest obstacle is the script. He knows too much. We have to stop him from thinking.”
– “One of the biggest detriments on the set is and actor with a plan.”
– “Shut down the actor’s brain. Stimulate and cultivate the character’s brain.”
– “Who do you want on the screen, the actor or the character? Then, stop talking to the actor.”
– “The actor’s ability to analyze the script, understand the character, develop the background and history of the character and to comprehend the psychology of the character is all necessary and helpful but only to a point. After that point it is all a detriment and an obstacle to the process.”
– “The biggest problem that most directors have is that they think they can simply ask the actor to become or perform the character according to their (the director’s) specifications. When the only solution is to talk to the character and engage with the character in an intimate way that will propel the character into the scene.”
– “The actor knows that he is in a movie.”
– “The character does not know that he is in a movie. Does not know that he has lines, scenes to play, marks to hit, emotions to display.”
– “The actor is knowledgeable and in control.”
– “The character is naïve and out of control. It is this being naïve and out of control that resembles life.”
And as I would hear these statements come out of me, often wondering where they were really coming from, I would be amazed at the new territory that was being opened up in front of me. I wasn’t carving a path anymore, a path was being placed in front of me and all I had to do was follow it.
And to this day I continue to follow this path. There seems to be less brush to clear away and the path seems to be getting wider. Perhaps this is because this approach has been tested by me so often now that my own questioning and resistance has lessened. Or perhaps it is because I have seen and heard of so many other directors working so successfully with the tools and techniques that I have developed that I am beginning to trust my own instincts more. But, whatever it is, I know that I will continue down this road until I arrive at some fork or crossroad that offers something more intriguing or fascinating.
One final thought at this point. I have often wondered where all of this discovery came from. Decades ago I read Stanislavski and studied with the masters. And I wonder, “have I drifted off the path of traditional art and craft of directing actors, or was all of this somehow stimulated and generated by what I have been learning all these years?” So, out of curiosity I decided to go back to Constantin Stanislavski and read again what had fascinated me so much so many years ago. And as I was reading “An Actor Prepares” a new, or old, revelation hit me. Stanislavski was saying all along, “focus on the character, not on yourself”. Time and again he was saying, “this is not about you, the actor, this is about the character you are attempting to become.” And as I am now in the process of re-reading Stanislavski and Meisner (to begin with) I am comforted by the idea that all I am doing is continuing their work, taking it to the next logical step. We are all aiming at the center of the character, seeking authenticity in every moment. We have all been distracted by other concepts and pursuits but keep coming back to the same notion, the idea that it is possible to achieve authenticity in a character in an art form that by its very nature is totally inauthentic.
Mark W. Travis
Shadow Hills, CA
August 12, 2011