I woke up this morning and did NOT jump out of bed. I lay there, slightly paralysed with apprehension. Today I am performing as an actor in front of an audience as part of the Howard Fine Masterclass.
You might ask why I’d be nervous, knowing that in a past life I worked as a newsreader, presenting a prime-time bulletin ‘live-to-air’ for more than ten years, not to mention the years beforehand as weekend presenter and then after my time at Network Ten, reading an international cable service, AusNet News, for the ABC.
It’s a very different prospect, standing before a live audience as opposed to working with your familiar studio crew and staring down the barrel of a camera. In the closed environment of a studio, there’s a feeling of security and almost an intimacy that’s comforting. You can’t see the hundreds of thousands of people watching, so after a while, it’s easy to forget they’re even there. Nor do you have to worry about forgetting your lines, with the newsreader’s best friend, the ever-faithful auto-cue on hand to provide the words. (apart from the occasional technical glitch…)
The acting bug hit early. I played Nancy in a primary school production of Oliver and then in Year 10, scored the lead role of Johanna in Sweeney Todd the Barber in a combined schools production. That lead to courses at St Martins Youth Theatre and then Showbiz. Ultimately a need for financial independence was greater at the time and I went on to become a journalist. I was well aware of the pitfalls of an acting career – especially for women. At the time, I think the statistic was that eighty per cent of roles in Australia were cast for men and unless you were a great beauty with enormous talent, it was highly unlikely you’d succeed.
Since leaving Ten, I decided to revisit the acting world. Sometimes you can sense there’s unfinished business that needs addressing – a certain urge pulls you in a direction where you’ve previously feared to tread. This has led to some VERY small jobs plus a stint at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, performing in the play Chasing Pegasus, written and directed by Sally McLean. Last year I played the minor role of an arts journalist in the Foxtel series Conspiracy 365. It was only a days work, but I was acting opposite the terrifyingly talented Rob Carlton – remember the guy who played Kerry Packer in Paper Giants? Yep, that raised the bar and while I sensed his initial misgivings at working with an amateur, by the end of the day, we were getting along fine and the scene worked well.
When you sign up to the Howard Fine Masterclass, you are advised to read Fine’s book Fine On Acting – A Vision of the Craft. Then a month before the Masterclass begins, you are assigned a play and a scene partner. You are expected to rehearse in the weeks before starting, to the point where you are word perfect and completely in touch with your character and environment. In discussing your character, you speak in the first person – ‘I am a University Professor in Feminist LIterature.’ (Yep, that’s me!)
So in the weeks leading up to this Masterclass, I have had a wonderful time rehearsing our allocated scene from Christopher Kyle’s The Monogamist, with my acting partner, the highly acclaimed Samuel Johnson.
I had concerns Samuel might be disappointed to be paired with a novice actor as his scene partner, but he has been nothing but positive, enthusiastic, professional and a delight to work with.
Yesterday was DAY ONE. Each acting pair is given one hour of coaching in the first two days. They begin by performing their scene which is to be no longer than five minutes. Then Howard comes up on stage and talks to the actors, asking them what THEY felt worked and what didn’t and why. The actors might then have to re-enact some parts of the scene, or Howard might ask them to do an acting exercise and he provides feedback along the way. As well, (a bonus for this particular Masterclass) Voice Director of the Howard Fine School of Acting in LA, David Coury, is here to teach. All in all, a rare and amazing opportunity for actors to hone their craft.
Acting is a LOT tougher than it looks. If anyone wants to challenge me on this, then I invite them to get up in front of an acting Masterclass and see how they go. Here’s why.
Howard began yesterday by saying he was not one of these ‘mean’ acting teachers that likes to break actors down to the point of a sobbing mess, purely to reach some inner enlightenment. Phew, I thought. I couldn’t cope with that. As the different acting teams performed, I was struck by their talent and versatility. Howard’s advice was insightful, accurate and concise. Witty as well. David Coury also impressed. (particularly his ox-blood patent leather shoes!!) It was all a little overwhelming. So much to take in… Do not ‘pre-judge’ how you will play the scene and say your words; remember to invest emotionally; don’t bend forward to speak and watch to see your line has ‘landed’ with your scene partner.
Then one pair performed and their work was NOT well received. In exploring different ways of expressing their emotions (playing a couple breaking up), the male actor (I won’t name him) began howling into his partner’s lap on a couch. At which point, Howard called out, ‘No! You remind me of someone on a medical show who’s been dying for five months!’ OUCH. I could see the young girl start to pale visibly. They were given some coaching and asked to repeat their performance.
Then David Coury got up shaking his head and said to the actress, ‘Oh God, what’s written on the page is so much better than what’s coming out of your mouth.’ Oh dear… Tears started falling down her cheeks. I wanted to rush up on stage and give her a hug. Her acting partner reached out to comfort her and David said, ‘No, don’t help her through this!’ He looked at the girl. ‘Use that! Do it again and be stronger.’ To her credit she ploughed on, choking on her words. Not surprisingly, she didn’t return after the next break. I spoke with the male actor later and he said he was fine. Being older and experienced, he said he actually enjoyed the process and really learnt from it.
While this was the harshest treatment any of the actors received on the day, it left me terrified. I have to get up on stage today. Could I cope with that? I’m trying to put that to the back of my mind and focus on the positive lessons I absorbed.
Some of the notes I made from Howard’s teachings include:
‘Check with the other actor that the line has landed.’
‘A strong choice is an authentic connection.’
‘What you are saying is NOT how you feel.’
‘Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – it’s all a beautiful process of discovery.’
‘Find for you, what you feel absolutely certain about.’
‘It takes a lot of work to be free.’
And that’s only a drop in the ocean, but I’m now running late for Day Two so I’ll wrap up. What I learned yesterday gave me a much deeper understanding of how actors connect with each other, and with their words and emotions. It’s also about breathing, the vocals, the physical, your environment and being in the moment and trying to get all these factors right at the same time. God knows I’m praying my brain absorbs half of what I heard and I’m able to put it all into action. More than anything, I’m praying I remember my lines.
But if everything falls in a heap and I make a complete fool of myself, all will not have been in vain. For THREE reasons:
(1) The experience, even just in the first day, of seeing both Howard Fine and David Coury at work. Learning from these master teachers is such an incredible privilege. I must also pay tribute to the actors who have already performed and set such a high standard.
(2) I have thoroughly enjoyed the rehearsals and everything I’ve learned in the process of working with Samuel Johnson. I could not have wished for a better scene partner. From the bottom of my heart, I thank him for his patience, enormous heart, endless talent, sense of humour and willingness to deal with a relative novice.
(3) And then, a surprise bonus from the experience came about last night. Whether I go on to win an Oscar or not, I think I might just have stumbled across the right career choice for our son, Tom.
Because I want to be a ‘good student’ and give the Masterclass one hundred per cent, I’ve declined all social invitations for evening events this week and during the course. It’s something I’d definitely advise anyone thinking of taking the course to do as well. Prior to the course, it’s essential for preparation and then during the Masterclass, the days are so intense, (from 9.30am – 6.30pm) in the evening, you need time to re-group, complete any necessary homework and extra rehearsals – after which you’ll just want to collapse into bed!
So last night, with Fletch being out, I asked Tom to read through my lines with me. This he did willingly and with interest, gently pointing out any omitted or incorrect words. When we were done, I talked about being nervous about today and this is where the conversation became interesting. (keep in mind, Tom has just turned 15)
‘Mum,’ he said sternly, hands on hips and towering over me at a now lofty six foot tall. ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’
‘I’ll make a complete fool of myself and people will say, “Who does she think she is, this faded newsreader trying to be an actor?”‘
‘Do you really think so?’ he said, mouth twitching with the hint of a smile. ‘Do you really think that’s what people want to do? People in this world are a lot nicer than we often expect them to be.’ (Ah, the innocence of youth…. so sweet.)
It was then that I realised this was a pivotal moment in our mother-son relationship. For the first time, our roles had reversed and he was standing there as the comforter and adviser instead of the other way around. He continued, his voice wise and now (having recently broken) strangely deep. ‘When I go to a cricket clinic,’ he said. ‘If I hit a crap ball, I don’t think “Oh no, everyone’s laughing at me!” because I know we’re all there to learn. No one cares as long as you give it your best shot. Isn’t a Masterclass like that?’
I guess he’s right. I have to get over my paranoia and grab this learning experience with both hands and give it everything I’ve got. Damn it, I will! Even if I end up in tears.
At least I now know I have a counsellor to come home to. Yep, I think my son might just be a psychologist in the making. Career sorted. (Unless he’s batting for Australia!)
(To find out more about classes at Melbourne’s Howard Fine Acting Studio, go to http://howardfinestudio.com.au )