Directing Actors Workshop w/ Mark Travis
I’ve postponed writing this summary for a while, trying to figure out how best to describe this intense and enlightening workshop. Just like my previous post on Judith Weston’s workshop, this entry can’t replace the actual experience of working with Mark Travis.
At best, the following is a summary of what I learned and hopefully an invitation for you to find out more about his workshops and teachings.
This weeklong workshop helped us prepare to direct our final shooting scene of the lab. For the first two days, Mark introduced us to his method of directing and preparing with actors. In his opinion, the character an actor is playing is already inside of them – and it is the director’s job to awaken or active that.
A common mistake, myself included, is to try to activate that character by getting into a long discussion with the actor about the script, what it means, themes, etc.
But what Mark proposed was a way to turn off that intellectual brain, to access the character more immediately and directly instead of using the actor’s intellect and opinions as a go-between.
One way of doing that is by literally becoming a voice in the character’s head. Each of us, despite being sane, have several voices in our heads, speaking to us during the day, some of which cheerlead us into believing into ourselves and our plans and other voices that critique and chip away at our self-confidence.
A director can become this ‘committee’ of voices, and speak directly to the character, with full knowledge of the doubts and insecurities that character has.
Maybe I’m making it more esoteric or complex than it actually is. For example, right now, in my head, I have the following soundtrack going on as I try to finish this post:
“Come on, you can write this, you’ve written decent posts before. But . . . is anyone going to read this? Is this all just nonsense. I don’t think anyone is going to read this. No, as long as you make it informative, somebody else will read it. No, no this is a waste of time, I should just get back to – “
This natural back and forth is normal, at least for me, as I try to pursue an objective. And any character with their own objective would have their own set of voices urging them forward, pulling them back.
It does require practice, patience and Mark’s help to find your way of conversing with an another person as if you were a voice in their head.
This practice came in the form of three one-hour rehearsals with local Dutch actors as Mark watched on.
Via the scenes we had chosen, Mark demonstrated many ways of emotionally accessing the character within the actor. Out of these techniques I found myself gravitating towards a technique called ‘The Interrogator’ – essentially being more confrontational, a more extreme case of speaking as a character’s internal committee.
The choice made sense for the content of my scene but then I quickly discovered that my evil side really enjoyed chipping away at the self-confidence of my characters a little too much. I was generating the most distraught state they would be in by the end of my tragic story.
But in the context of an earlier scene, I had to remember to also support them, to build their self-confidence and give them the hope they needed to believe that everything will turn out okay.
Again, this is something that one has to experience to fully appreciate.
It was exhilarating to ‘speak’ directly to the character, and not the actor. When I was able to finally talk with the character, building them, breaking them down, highlighting their weaknesses, their strengths, it was actually very rewarding. The character was able to agree with me, disagree, shout back, etc.
It demonstrated to me Mark’s point, that so much of a character is already in an actor, that an actor is able to quickly extrapolate the internal conflicts and motivations of a character with their own imagination, without getting into a philosophical, intellectual conversation about it.
I wasn’t the only one that enjoyed it, the actors I worked with during the workshop seemed to love the feeling of being so emotionally charged in a genuine way with regards to the actual character and scene. It seemed to give them the raw material they needed to feel as the character in that exact moment.
Another technique that Mark demonstrated for us was how to build an emotionally rich history between two characters who have known each other for years (e.g. husband & wife) between two actors that just met. This can be done by ‘directing’ characters through a series of questions, whose answers aren’t in the script, they’re ‘in’ the character and so the actor must activate their own imagination to fill in the blanks.
They have to invent the answers, imagine the moments as you feed it to them, and together quickly experience shared events – it’s pretty staggering, but one is able to time travel through a marriage or friendship, hitting the high-points and the lows, so that in a few minutes the characters have ‘experienced’ their own backstories that you co-invented with them.
We concluded the workshop by exploring another director’s tool: blocking and staging. Mark reminded us that the moves and parameters you give an actor can be as powerful, maybe even more so, than the lines an actor actually says during the scene. Blocking in relation to camera positions can allow you to share and convey to the audience the private moments of a character’s emotional journey. It can convey subtext and power struggles.
With regards to these movements, every prop in a room is not only a potential element within the frame but also an actual chess piece that a character can ‘manipulate’ in the scene in his/her fight for power.
Dealing with the intricacies of blocking, as if it were a dance, and reflecting upon each movement’s meaning is a reminder that a director must deal with all the other specificities of a scene. The specificity of the space, the characters, their mannerisms, body language, speech patterns, fears, needs, wardrobe – props, temperature of the room, ambient sound. What makes this room unique – how would the scene play out differently in a different place? And how do these specificities change from one scene to the next in your film?
Moving forward post-Binger, as I prepare to work with the actual actors of my project, there are no easy solutions or quick-fixes. I’ve gained from Judith & Mark a very powerful toolbox, one that I need to keep handy instead of regressing into some of my pre-lab methods.
It’ll be easy for me to go back, to read these entries, and refresh my mind on the specifics of these tools and techniques.
But what I have to keep near to me as I move forward with actors is a working philosophy:
I want to activate their own imaginations, allow them opportunities to fill in the spaces, to rely upon their ability as emotional beings, to quickly get them up on their feet, doing, feeling, hoping, fearing, and less thinking. Only then can the actor be an active, vital, real part of the moment – only then will they have room to teach me.