Interview With Mark Travis - King Of The Solo Shows
Feature by Mavis Manus

Mark Travis is the most unusual theatre director in Los Angeles. It's not simply that he has mounted some of the most highly regarded productions in recent years ("Equus," "The Coming of Stork," "Wings"), or that he has also directed tv and films, or that he has lectured and given workshops on directing, or even that he as written a book on the subject. What makes Travis unique is the singular contribution he has made to the development of a new theatrical art form, that of the solo autobiographical show.

It was Travis who collaborated with Paul Linke a decade ago in "Time Flies When You're Alive," which not only turned performance art inside out but moved audiences so powerfully that the show became a national and international hit. What was remarkable about the piece was the way it attacked the ultra-sensitive issue of cancer and death. Linke, an actor known heretofore only for his role in a silly but successful tv series, came forward and talked about his wife's doomed struggle with breast cancer in such a subjective, revealing way that audiences were taken to a new level of emotional connection and empathy. At the same time, the monologue was spoken and staged so brilliantly that it came off as compelling theatre as well.

Travis, who worked with Linke for two years in developing "Time Flies," followed up with such other outstanding one-man shows as "No Place Like Home" and "A Bronx Tale," prompting the L.A. Times to credit him with having "carved a mini-genre staging one-man, real-life theatre pieces."

"A Bronx Tale" went on to achieve the biggest success of any of Travis' projects, making the transition from 10-minute workshop speech by actor Chazz Palminteri to Equity-waiver production as a full-length play to Hollywood feature starring the same actor. Ironically, Travis, who spent several years working with Palminteri on "A Bronx Tale," was aced out by the latter when he sold his story to Hollywood. Travis not only was not invited to direct the film (as per their original agreement), but was denied both credit and money.

The case is now in the courts and Travis declined to comment further during the course of our interview, except to say that the thing he feels saddest about is that "a great collaboration between me and Chazz was ruined. We had an understanding and a camaraderie that was terrific, and a lot of other work could have come out of it. But with the success of 'A Bronx Tale,' Chazz opted to break with those who helped him develop it. This spoiled his relations with many people who had been supportive of him."

Travis' book, "The Director's Journey" (to be published in February '97 by Michael Wiese Productions; $26.95; 800-833-5738), focuses on the all-important area of creative collaboration. It came out of a lecture Travis was asked to give two years ago at the Showbiz Expo on how to direct actors in a film. "I was hired because of my background in theatre," explained Travis. "I delivered a marathon lecture which was aimed at working film directors who know everything--from camera angles to editing to budgeting--except how to get performances out of actors. It was exhausting and when I was done, I thought, whew, thank God I'll never have to do that again, but then an offer to do a book came out of it. I ended up putting every bit of my spare time into the writing, a two-year labor of love."

The book starts with the three key people involved in any theatrical or film project: the writer, director and actors. "They have to agree on how the story is to be told; everyone else--lights, camera, costumes, whatever--is there to serve the process. The director's vision comes out of the script; it shouldn't be imposed on it. His only job--it's relatively easy, too-- is just to talk. The tool is communication. Every discipline involved in a film has its own language; the director needs to be able to communicate with each of them," Travis stated.

"What I also do is teach how to make the crew a performing crew. On one film I consulted on, I showed the director how to give the crew acting exercises and theatre games. They all rose to the occasion. It was a million-dollar movie on a 20-day schedule, with very complicated things to do. Yet everyone worked with dedication and the film was brought in on time and went on to be successful," he recalled proudly.

Travis teaches these skills to film directors in an ongoing series of workshops sponsored by the Directors Guild of America. "I have a pool of 150-200 actors who volunteer for these workshops," he said. "I demonstrate my techniques with them for the edification of the film directors in the audience. It's just basic stuff like how to approach the rehearsal process, how to break down the script and so on. After one workshop, I had a young director come up to me and say, 'I spent a hundred thousand dollars to go to film school at USC, but nobody ever showed me what I've learned here--which is how to tell a story."

Travis' main energies at his "Travis Group Training Center" (a full acting school) are concentrated on his Solo Workshop. "I love this class because I love to work on new things, things that haven't been done before. It's a challenge to take someone who doesn't think he or she has a story to tell, and to find that story with the person. I've yet to find someone who didn't have a story to tell. That doesn't mean they can always write it or that it will always be successful, but the material that comes out of these people is mind-boggling.

"Another part of it is that I find the autobiographical storytelling process fascinating. I'm not interested in the ordinary one-person show where an actor impersonates a famous character. What turns me on is storytelling theatre, theatre that takes me inside someone and dramatizes the experiences and events they've gone through. The only other equivalent is the novel, where you can get deeply inside a character. It's not so much what the story is, but what the individual feels while going through the action that moves you.

"Also, on the commercial level, I find there is a huge appetite for this kind of thing," Travis commented. " 'Bronx Tale' bcame a feature and 'Time Flies' has just been sold to HBO, for example."

Travis himself has signed with PBS to do a six-hour tv series featuring actors from his solo workshop. "Each hour will have a theme," he stated, "such as 'Losing It' (your virginity, that is) or 'Scenes From a Marriage,' or 'Death and Dying.' Four or five performers will be highlighted, each doing short monologues of varying lengths. There's an educational potential in this too. I can see a teacher somewhere using these tapes as a vehicle to open up conversations with her students. The bottom line is that it's ok to talk about these personal things, it's ok to be honest and open with each other."

Theatre people in New York and Europe have asked Travis to come and demonstrate his system, but he feels it might not prove to be successful. "I can't go in for a short time and demonstrate all this, it just doesn't work. I've also tried to train people, so that they can carry the message elsehwere, but that doesn't work either. You have to have a certain personality to work with an actor on an autobiographical piece, to keep asking them to dig deep into themselves, share everything with you. It becomes like a little marriage. Hell, I often spend more time with a student than I do with my own wife!"

Travis is still interested in directing full-cast plays in future, but there's no question that the kind of theatre closest to his heart is the one which offers a solo peformer baring his or her heart in the most intimate and personal way imaginable.