Why Do You Hate Scene Study Classes?

An email exchange with writer/actor Tamara Branch where I get to sound off about Scene Study classes.

Tamara Branch, Sep 3. 2019, 5:37 PM

Mark,

I have a quick question. I remember you said you hated scene study classes. I forgot why. Why? Just wondering. I know there was a good reason.

I caught myself thinking about taking a scene study class but I have never liked acting class until I took your class. Anyway, why do you hate scene study classes?

Tamara

Mark W. Travis, Sep 3. 2019, 10:36 PM

Tamara,

I think the answer to your question is actually contained in something you said, “I have never liked acting class until I took your class.” You need to look at the difference between other acting classes and my Actor’s Gym, which you attended. My approach to teaching or training actors is radically different. I’ll explain.

I have had the opportunity to participate in and observe many scene study classes which are designed to help actors learn and hone their skills in the art of acting. The structure follows a familiar pattern.

  1. The teacher imparts some basic skills, exercises, techniques or philosophy of acting with the intention of giving the students tools and approaches and techniques to apply when they work on their scenes.
  2. The teacher assigns scenes and the students are required to work on or rehearse these scenes.
  3. Later the actors bring the rehearsed scenes back for the teacher and class to observe.

By this point they are locked into a specific approach and, depending on the instructor, several different things can happen. 

Some instructors will focus on “what’s working in the scene, what’s not working and what needs to be fixed.” They will give the actors notes in how to ‘fix’ the scene and either send them off to another room to work on the scene so they can present it later the same day. Or they will request that the actors bring the scene back at a later date.

Some instructors will fire questions at the actors such as, “What were you working on? What was your substitution? What was your ‘as if’?”

Other teachers will be more Stanislavski, “What are your character objectives, obstacles, needs and desires?”

Other will be more Method, “What affective memory were you using? What were you doing to create the environment, feel the room?”

Others will be more Meisner, “What do you want from the other character? How is he/she affecting your pursuit of your goal?”

And some will push the actor into self-analysis, “Where do you feel the scene went off? When do you feel you were being most successful in capturing the character.”

And, finally, some teachers will actually ‘fix’ the scene by directing it themselves and having the actors run the scene again.

My problem with the approaches above is that no one is addressing the most important part of the process – the rehearsals that the actors did on their own.

All of the approaches above are focusing on the result, which has been presented in one performance under a lot of pressure with the teacher and other students watching. The classroom becomes a jury. The teacher becomes the judge. In some classes, other students are invited to give their opinions of the work as well.

But, what about the process that brought them to this point? Is anyone interested in that? No one observed that process other than the actors in the scene.

That process, the rehearsal, the world of trial and error – that is what is most important to me.

You may have noticed, Tamara, in our workshops we are always in the rehearsal process. We are constantly in the world of trial and error and we are all playing in the sandbox together, knowing that eventually, we will find solutions to the challenges we are facing.

That’s what you experienced in the Actor’s Gym. It’s called a ‘gym’ because you come there to work out, not to perform. The goal of a good acting class or workshop should be that the actors (students) learn and experience skills and techniques that will guide them toward a more confident and assured working process (rehearsal process). The focus should not be on the final performance. Too many scene study classes are centered on performance, not process.

When I was studying directing in college and graduate school I took many directing classes and workshops and the structure was pretty much the same. As student directors, we had to select a scene (or it was assigned), cast the scene from student actors, rehearse the scene on our own and then bring it to class. That’s when I began thinking, “How can you judge the scene you’re seeing when you have no idea what transpired during the rehearsals to bring the scene to this point? Maybe it wasn’t the director’s work. Maybe it was the actors. Or maybe the director was working with a difficult actor and what you are watching is a minor miracle. You don’t know.”

Okay, Tamara. I hope this feels like the beginning of an answer. I’m stopping here because I want to hear your thoughts, your responses, and your ideas.

All the best,

Mark

Tamara Branch, Sep 4, 2019, 12:06 PM

Hey Mark,

My response to your response: I have always hated scene study class. It always felt like layers were missing. Group connection was missing. Collaboration was missing. It always seemed like memorizing lines, doing whatever prep based on the guidelines given by the teacher, and then being critiqued until the teacher is satisfied, was not enough for me to have a fulfilling experience as a creative person in the role of an actor. Being told what to do is very different from being inspired through the process. That’s why I can honestly say; I have never been inspired in a scene study class.

I was inspired for the first time in the ‘workout space’ in your Actor’s Gym and consequently in your Director’s Workshop. Scene study classes have become more of an opportunity for teachers to practice being Directors, in my experience…and not the ‘let’s bring out the brilliance of everyone in the room’ type of director but more the ‘do this, do that, be more this, be more that’ type. You hit it right on the nose with the many approaches teachers use to get the result they want.

You know I’m a Mark Travis fan and that is not just because. I’m a fan because your technique makes sense. It’s organic, it’s real, and it’s creative and collaborative. It speaks to me, which is why I know I will be consulting with you in the future.

I see how things are done in the traditional landscape of Hollywood. The more I am drawn to true artistic expression without hierarchy, the more I know the Travis Technique is one I would love everyone to get on board with – teacher, director, writer, and actor. The interrogation technique to build rich characters – it works – it’s in the moment – it builds layers and helps the actor to express authentically.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Always insightful.

Tamara

(At this point, Tamara was still considering whether or not to attend the scene study program that she applied for and was accepted into.)

Tamara Branch, Fri, Sep 6, 5:00 AM

Hey Mark,

I went to a different scene study class orientation recently and the surface approach surfaced once more. The teacher in this class explained scenes are given out, you and scene partner prepare scenes for class, we shoot the scenes on camera, and class watches it, and we determine what worked and what didn’t, so you can tweak performance in the direction of what reads to the audience. Again no process to authenticity.

I just remembered the program I mentioned in the last email, the one I got into, stated on the application, something like ‘students must be ok with taking harsh or direct criticism as instructors are simply trying to get the best out of them and help them create better performances.’

There is a lack of understanding of how to help actors thrive in the work and truly make it an immersive experience where creativity, support and true character building is a part of it all…and I mean character building for the scenes and for those people in the sand box, as you say, playing in the creative space.

Tamara

Mark W. Travis, Sep 7, 2019, 12:23 AM

Tamara,

I’ll respond in your letter.

Hey Mark,

I went to a different scene study class orientation recently and the surface approach surfaced once more. The teacher in this class explained scenes are given out, you and scene partner prepare scenes for class, we shoot the scenes on camera and class watches it and we determine what worked and what didn’t so you can tweak performance in the direction of what reads to the audience. Again no process to authenticity.

 

Okay, as I see it here is their sequence:

1. Scenes are given out to the students?

Based on what? What do these teachers even know about these actors before they cast them in these scenes? And, what training or instructions or approaches to acting have they shared with these students before the students begin working on the scenes?

2. The two actors in the scene prepare the scenes for class.

I guess these actors, without direction from a teacher or a director, are going to have to do their best in an unguided rehearsal situation. There are a lot of problems here, but the biggest question is why? Why force two actors to rehearse on their own without guidance? The only place this happens in the world of theatre and film is in acting classes! So I guess you’re being dumped in the deep end of the acting-class pool so that you will eventually learn how to be better in acting classes. This has nothing to do with the real world of film, theater and television.

3. Then, once the two actors have their scene prepared they bring it back to class where they are suddenly going to be on camera?

Why? And if anyone says they do it this way because it replicates the real situation that actors are in where they get cast, have to prepare on their own, and then come to the set being prepared to be on camera, I would say, that’s right. That is the reality. And it’s awful. It’s abusive and it is counter-productive. So why keep repeating it in class? It’s like being in a class about domestic abuse and you spend all your time abusing each other so that you become accustomed to being abused.

4. Now in this step, if I understand you right, Tamara, the class will watch the scene ‘on camera’ (on monitors, I assume) and based on what they see on camera they will critique the work of the actors. Has anyone taken any time to even begin to teach these actors how to work on camera? Working on camera is a huge leap from rehearsing a scene to be viewed on stage or in a room. Judging the work ‘on camera’ means that students and teachers will (probably unconsciously) be judging the camera work. I know that they will say that they are not but it’s impossible not to. It is the cameras (and the monitors) that are delivering the performance to the viewer. If you really want to see the quality of the work, get rid of the cameras; watch the actors in the room, and preferably not by sitting in the audience but by being up on stage with the actors. That’s where you can see the work that they are doing.

5. This “what worked and what didn’t” is an odd step to take now.

First of all, based on what? Does anyone know what the actors were trying to achieve? Is anyone interested in what the characters in the scene are trying to achieve? And whose opinion of “what worked and what didn’t” are the students trying to satisfy? Were there expectations stated or goals set prior to handing out this particular scene to these actors? Were they rehearsing with these goals in mind?

6. Next step: “tweak the performance in the direction of what reads to the audience.”

So now the audience is the arbiter of what works and what doesn’t? And if the actors are supposed to fulfill the needs and desires of the audience, how are they to know what these requirements are prior to rehearsing the scene, or performing the scene (not to mention being on camera)?

I just remembered the program I mentioned in last email, the one I got into, stated on the application, something like ‘students must be ok w taking harsh or direct criticism as instructors are simply trying to get the best out of them and help them create better performances.’

This is a serious problem, Tamara. Why would any self-respecting teacher or coach feel they need to warn their students in advance (and make it a part of their verbal contract) that they, the teacher, may abuse the student? This is not a military boot camp where the goal of the drill instructors is to harden the soldiers to the point of turning each soldier into an incredible machine so there is less likelihood that he’ll fail, emotionally break down, or even be killed in battle. When you know you are literally going to be fighting for your life and the life of your comrades, you expect and even want your drill instructors to be tough on you. If you can’t handle it, you’ll probably end up with a desk job; and you will be alive.

But this is acting. In some ways I see acting as polar opposite to the military. In the military, emotions are or can be the enemy. In acting, emotions are all you’ve got and they have to be treated with respect, otherwise you cannot do your job honestly, authentically.

In this scenario my concern is not about the actors. They will be fine. They will survive. And if it’s too much for any of them, they can quit. No problem. No dishonorable discharge. My concern is about the teachers. I worry that they think they have to take these tactics in order to get credible performances from the actors. I worry because they obviously don’t have the skills or experience to lead actors to powerful performances without these tactics. And finally, I worry about them because they see the necessity to state up front that they might be abusive which saves them from having to explain this behavior at a later date. A pre-emptive strike.

There is a lack of understanding of how to help actors thrive in the work and truly make it an immersive experience where creativity, support and true character building is a part of it all…and I mean character building for the scenes and for those people in the sand box, as you say, playing in the creative space of creating.

You are right. And now, Tamara, what are you going to do? None of us can do anything about the conditions we’ve talked about here. But we can chose how we want to proceed, the kind of work we want to do, the people we want to work with, the projects we want to be a part of, etc. That’s where our power lies.

Mark

POST SCRIPT:

On August 12, 2019, I presented a 1-day master class on “The Travis Technique for Actors” at the request of the Actor’s Equity Foundation in Auckland, New Zealand. The master class was recorded and is available for streaming at our Travis International Film Institute (TIFI) on Teachable: https://tifi.teachable.com/

Mark W. Travis

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