ACTING UP – Day Three of the Howard Fine Masterclass


When I left the Howard Fine Masterclass Theatre in Footscray on Saturday evening, I was zinging. My feet didn’t touch the ground as I walked to the car, my head was in the clouds and I got lost twice driving home.

Performing live when the stakes are towering is a massive adrenalin rush. I would grab this feeling and bottle it if I could. To take a risk, put yourself ‘out there’ and come away feeling you’ve achieved a breakthrough is a phenomenal high. Very few major life experiences come close.

That morning I had blogged about my fear and trepidation about performing and how my 15-year-old son Tom, had given me a ‘talking to’ about making the most of a wonderful learning experience, instead of worrying so much.

He was right.

But I think my previous blog was a little misleading on another level, in that I probably spent too much time talking about one pair of actors who copped some criticism. I know now why I focused on that. I was projecting my own fear about my own performance. That stood out for me because that was what I dreaded the most.

But I’ve heard a lot more in the past few days from both Howard Fine and David Coury which better explains why they use tough love. As Howard said, ‘We’re going to kick your ass and we’re not going to let you get away with any bullshit but we’ll do it with love.’ As he also pointed out, ‘You can’t help someone without being critical.’ True.

From David came, ‘By my applying pressure, you know that I care.’ And it was through the pressure and encouragement of both teachers that we saw changes in performances that were inspiring.

Voice Coach David Coury with actors Chris and Mark

Voice Coach David Coury with actors Chris and Mark

One such moment arrived when David urged a young actor, Chris, to REALLY express the words ‘I’m in love!’ in a scene with his friend in Central Park at 2am. After several attempts, David got Chris to sing aloud various lines from the scene and to find the feeling in the words. Then he stopped him mid-song and said, ‘NOW say it to us.’ Chris instantly turned to the audience, arms spread wide, face shining and burst forth with ‘I AM IN LOOOVE!’ so convincingly that I’m sure there wasn’t a dry eye left in the auditorium.

Another moment was a hilarious scene performed by Sarah and Cat where two bridesmaids are talking over a bottle of champagne in their hotel-room, after their best friend’s wedding.

Cat and Sarah take notes from Howard Fine

Cat and Sarah take notes from Howard Fine

Yep, their dresses are a bridesmaid’s worst nightmare, but that works well with the comedy played out on stage. I thought both girls were brilliant. Then Howard chatted with them about creating from ‘joy’ and embracing new ways of trying things. He talked through a few crucial points in the scene and the girls gave it another run. He had given them permission to make mistakes and have fun. The end result was amazing. Even funnier and sharper than their first performance – and I’d thought their first go was good.

There’s also an incredible feeling of support from the audience at the Masterclass. A lot of the crowd are fellow students with whom you form a camaraderie and connection. Each of you is processing one heck of a lot of emotional baggage – from yourself and the connections you make with your character. Many of the actors end up in tears, but not because they’re distressed – because they’ve pushed themselves to the point where they’ve made a wonderful discovery that has opened up something new, deep inside.

Then, after six pairs of actors had done their thing, it was our turn. Lucky last… As I mentioned on Saturday, I’ve been fortunate enough to be paired with the very talented actor, Samuel Johnson. We were both nervous and I tried to remember Howard’s advice. ‘Creativity creates terror. You must give up control. Don’t use technique over spontaneity.’

Easier said than done. As we began the scene, I took a seat at the table of an ‘outdoor cafe’, waiting for my estranged husband, Dennis. I picked up my cup to take a sip and my hand shook so much that coffee spilled over the side. Arghhh…. not a good start.

We were performing Scene Five from Christopher Kyle’s The Monogamist. I’m a University Professor who has been with poet and academic, Dennis, for fifteen years, but only married for the last six months, during which time our relationship has hit the skids. Dennis has found me in bed with a student three days earlier. We are having coffee so that I can try and win him back. It doesn’t go well… especially when Dennis admits to sleeping with a young woman two days ago.

Sam was brilliant and while I was a million miles from fabulous, I think I was passable. I didn’t forget my lines and I didn’t faint from terror.

Samuel Johnson and myself learning about our performance from Howard Fine

Samuel Johnson and myself learning about our performance from Howard Fine

When we finished, I saw David Coury sitting in the front row, nodding his head and smiling encouragingly. Phew, that had to be a good sign? Then Howard joined us on stage, and talked through stuff about my character, Susan, and every note rang true. I had played the beginning of the scene being very anxious and sad when meeting Dennis, because of the guilt I was carrying about my infidelity. In a kind voice, Howard talked through how I needed to ‘open my heart’ and ‘choose to care’, about  the situation. For instance, wouldn’t I be looking as if I were happy to see Dennis? Isn’t he the love of my love? Wouldn’t I greet him warmly? Yep, that made sense. Most people do try to cover their discomfort and mistakes.

Then we talked about my reaction to learning of Dennis’ infidelity. Howard suggested I was a little non-plussed on hearing the news. I interupted to say, ‘Oh, you mean be a bit more like…’ At which point he interrupted me. ‘Ah, no, no, no, no! We’re not telling you how to play a role – be this, be that. We’re looking at the human condition – what is it about and where does that live inside of me? If you make him (Dennis) the love of your life, the thought of him with another woman takes care of itself.’

‘Fighting for control is interesting. Being in control is not. Make yourself vulnerable. And then be okay. There’s a Grand Canyon between being okay and trying to be okay.’

There was a lot more than that, and I am not doing justice to Howard’s incredible ability to communicate and his turn of phrase, but that will have to do in summing up. And it really did make sense. None of the feedback was upsetting or directly critical. It was accurate and only served to make me want to give the scene another shot, taking on board Howard’s words.

Then David Coury joined us on stage. He’d clocked that nerves had been an issue so gave both Sam and I a much-needed lesson on breathing deeply from the diaphragm.

David Coury coaching Sam and myself

David Coury coaching Sam and myself

Then he called on us to vocalise emotion by yelling a scene at each other. I thought I’d practically burst both lungs, but when we were done, David smiled at Sam but turned to me and asked, ‘Did you think you were yeling at full volume?’ ‘Yes, absolutely,’ I said, fully confident.

‘You didn’t,’ he said firmly. ‘What if you were calling out to a loved one or a friend who was about to be hit by a truck? Think of someone and call that out. NOW!’ Without thinking, I imagined my baby (of course he’s not now – he’s a big strapping 15-year-old) being hit by a truck and screamed ‘TOMMY!!!’ with all my heart. That worked. I think people clapped. David was happy. It felt good. (I’d saved my son from a fatal accident, after all!)

We did our scene again and it was better. But there’s still room for improvement. Especially from me. We’ve been rehearsing as much as we can and now we get one last shot today – our last day of the Howard Fine Masterclass. Wish me luck. I’ll let you know how it went. But the best thing – this time I’m actually looking forward to it.



Taking the Howard Fine Masterclass


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.

Howard Fine teaching actors at yesterday's Masterclass

Howard Fine teaching actors at yesterday’s 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!)

Me and Sam on Day One of the Howard Fine Masterclass

Me and Sam on Day One of the Howard Fine Masterclass


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.

Voice coach David Coury works with actors on Day One

Voice coach David Coury works with actors on Day One

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 )