Character vs. Performance: What is Your Focus as a Director?
If you're a director, you're responsible for so much that goes on (or should be going on) on and off set, but your one primary role is to connect with, lead, and direct actors. There are many different ways to do this, but Mark W. Travis, considered one of the world's leading authorities on film directing, has shared some thoughts on the difference between directing with a focus on character versus performance, and weighs in on his opinion on the "right" approach to coaching actors -- one that will encourage and guide them toward performing to their full potential.
Travis has done quite a bit throughout his 40-year directorial career. He has served as the creative consultant on many independent films, and has written books on directing, including L.A. Times #1 bestseller The Director's Journey. As a project, Travis has been sitting in on several acting teachers' classes to observe their teaching styles, and has learned that actors who don't perform well because of anxiety or tension all have a common thread -- their director. He shares his findings in an article for The Wrap.
He says that the directors most common "first lines" after an actors performance are usually:
- “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?”
Travis says that these are good questions to ask an actor, but also points out that some may not be as effective as others. He mentions being at a workshop where the director consistently asked the actors "What were you working on?" Travis says that this question turns the focus on the "success" of the actor's performance -- how well they created emotions, attitudes, and behaviors. Actors' responses to the question were along the lines of, "I was working on my character’s anger."
Alternately, at a different workshop, the director consistently asked the actors, "What do you want in this scene?" According to Travis, this shifts the focus away from the actor's performance and toward the character itself, allowing the actor to discover the character more, evident in responses like, "I want to convince her that I can be trusted."
The two responses from actors reveal from where the actors were operating and/or focusing on: their performance ("I was working on my character's anger,") or the character ("I want to convince her that I can be trusted.") Travis brings up a great point about what an actor's objective should be:
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?
Travis also brings up a very important point that should be pretty obvious to most -- direct with positive reinforcement instead of negativity. He talks about going to a workshop where he felt a strange anxiety and tension in the air. He realized that it was coming from the actors' nervousness to perform, because 100% of the time after an actor would perform a scene, the director would go on about how they performed the scene "wrong."
There isn't really a right or wrong way to perform a scene. Actors work hard to understand, get to know, and become a character; it's not just memorizing lines. Travis shares this poignant observation:
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.
There are many different styles of directing that produce successful results and happy collaboration, but I think it's safe to say that having a positive attitude and a collaborative mindset helps the actors, the characters, and the overall film (not to mention the experience.)
Check out the whole article here. There's a lot more that Travis shares that can help learn more about directing actors.
What's your directorial approach? Do you agree with Travis' observations, that focusing on character rather than performance is a better method? Any actors want to weigh in?