Directing Directors on the ‘Right’ Approach to Coaching Actors (Guest Blog)

Never mind the objective, a veteran mentor says, the key is to activate the character

I have been directing actors for more than 40 years in theater, film and television. And now, ironically, I teach directors all over the world how to direct actors. I use the Travis Technique, a revolutionary technique that I developed over the past 40 years.

And even though I have dedicated a majority of my professional career to the art and craft of directing I have spent very little time actually teaching acting. In fact, I don’t really consider myself an acting coach or teacher — I’m a director. But recently it has become clear to me that I need to learn a lot more about how actors are trained if I am going to be more effective both as a teacher and as a director.

I’m on a quest. I’m searching for that acting teacher that feels compatible with my style of directing. At first I thought this would be easy — that all I would have to do is identify the masters of the craft, sit in on one of their classes and be prepared to be awed. And, of course, I can read their books.

Most of the acting gurus have written books. It seems to be a prerequisite. In fact, the other night we auditors were chastised for not having read this particular guru’s book! Hmmm.

Not unlike the hero on the Hero’s Journey I’ve discovered that I’ve entered a dark forest full of obstacles, pretenders, fantasies and delusions. Shape-shifters flit from tree to tree. It’s a maze that would challenge any self-respecting Minotaur.

Admittedly I am at the beginning of the journey (6 down, several to go) and I know I shouldn’t despair. But there are a few practices that I have run into, consistently, that have me concerned.

In the first few workshops I attended I was stuck by the various ways these teachers handled a certain key moment in the process. The question is: “What do you say to the actors right after they have finished presenting their scene?” Now, I didn’t actually ask these teachers this question, I just watched and took notes.

Here are some of the “first lines” that I heard from these teachers.

“What were you working on?”

“What do you want in this scene?”

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

“What worked? What didn’t? And why?”

For the most part these are good questions. Yet I think we need to step back for a moment and consider the impact and potential effectiveness of these questions.

“What were you working on?”

In one particular workshop (we’ll call it Workshop #1) where this question was asked consistently the responses from the actors were along these lines: “I was working on my character’s anger,” “I was working on creating the environment,” “I wanted to find my character’s fear of abandonment,” and “I was trying to connect to the love” … things like that.

It was clear to me that in Workshop #1 the focus (strongly supported by the teachers) was on the actor’s craft. Creating emotion, feelings, attitudes, etc, connecting with the truth of the character in some way. And it seemed like the assessment of the work was based on how successful the actor had been creating or generating these emotions or attitudes or behavior.

“What do you want in this scene?”

In another workshop (Workshop #2) this question was asked fairly consistently. And I heard responses like “I want to terrify him (scene partner),” “I want to convince her that I can be trusted” or “I want to make this night special for both of us.” So, clearly, this work seemed to be more about the character and what the character wanted to achieve – a major distinction from Workshop #1.

Workshop #1 worries me. And this brings up another question.

What is the goal/objective of the actor in an acting class?

Is the actor’s objective to successfully accomplish all the “acting tasks and goals” in order to deliver a “successful” scene? Or, could an actor’s goal be to allow the character to exist so profoundly and fully that the “acting” techniques actually become invisible – disappear? And if they are invisible, then how can we comment on them?

Workshop #2 was more reassuring simply because I could feel the instructor’s focus was more on the characters and less on the actor.

But, we’re not out of the woods yet. Let’s stay with Workshop #2 where the focus was more on the characters’ wants and needs. As I was watching the actors listen to this simple and clear question I was struck by the slight ripples of tension or anxiety that I saw on their faces.

As auditors, in all of these workshops, we were asked to sit in the first two or three rows so that we could experience the work intimately.

At first I couldn’t understand this apparent apprehension or trepidation. And as the actors articulated their responses the tension and anxiety did not diminish, it became more present. It wasn’t until I heard the teacher’s response that I understood.

Almost 100 percent of the time, throughout the three-hour evening of over six scenes, the teacher’s response was, “No, that’s wrong” which was immediately followed by a one or two-minute monologue about the character, the play, the themes of the play and why the actors’ choices were sadly wrong.

The monologue always ended with a clear description of what the correct choice would have been and then, “take a minute, prepare and start again.”

What concerns me here is not the notion that there is one “right” answer — which we all know there isn’t. My concern is how this approach to teaching is affecting the actor.

To have worked on a scene for hours, or days, or even weeks and then be told in one quick statement that the foundation upon which you based all your choices was “wrong” must be devastating. No wonder the actors were apprehensive about answering that question. It’s a test. And you are going to be either right or wrong. And what has happened to all the work that was just displayed by the actors? It’s been erased.

Wouldn’t it be more effective (and valuable for the actor) to first address the work that was done regardless of the choice of objective? The choice of an objective is only one step in a long and complex process. Choosing an objective is easy, but activating the character within the scene in an attempt to fulfill the objective, that’s where the real challenges lie.

That’s what all actors need to learn, that’s where most actors struggle, and that needs to be the focus of the work.

Wouldn’t it have been more effective (and a moment of learning for the actor) if the teacher had simply said, “I have a different point of view regarding the objective of your character in this scene? But, let’s look at how effective your choice was and how well you were able to allow your choice to empower your character.”

By the way, Workshop #2 is not just one workshop. Not just one teacher. I have heard this approach repeatedly from established teachers and beginning teachers alike. If it was only one teacher I would be less concerned, but it’s prevalent. And one of the beginning teachers learned it from one of the established teachers. So, it’s viral.

An artist creates, to the best of their ability and understanding, and then, in a trembling moment that creation is presented to the public. And in that moment the artist is the most vulnerable, the most open, raw and unprotected — a fetus that has been birthed.

Treat it gently and respectively, because whatever wounds are caused in this moment will cut deep and be everlasting.