Why vs. How

Q: What was your experience like teaching in Australia recently? Was it any different from teaching your American students?

Thanks so much for your question. As I sit here recovering from jet lag, it seems appropriate that I reflect on my recent experience. The adventure began with a call from Patrick Constantinou of The Melbourne Acting Academy. He had read my book “Fine on Acting” and wanted to bring me to Australia. I really liked what he had to say, and that, coupled with a positive experience teaching Australians here in Los Angeles (plus a desire to see Australia), led me to accept his offer. In preparation, I asked all participants to read my book and choose scenes from the scene list that I use at my Hollywood studio. Patrick scheduled Master Classes in Sydney and Melbourne.

I usually take time off in July so I had some room in my schedule. July is winter there, so why not spend time indoors in a theater? LOL The flight from Los Angeles to Sydney is about 14 hours. In addition, they are 17 hours ahead of Los Angeles. I left on a Friday evening and arrived in Sydney on Sunday morning at 7 AM. After checking into my hotel, a quick shower and some breakfast, I was off to teach my first class.

After some brief opening remarks, the first scene was up and we were underway. The first thing that struck me about the actors was the utter lack of ego and openness to what I was saying. The Australians have a saying, something to the effect of “the tallest poppy is the one to be cut down first and therefore you do not want to stand out in that way”. There is an ingrained cultural habit of humility that I found incredibly refreshing and endearing. I had many working actors in my classes in both Sydney and Melbourne who were as humble as they were talented! The talent level was very high but OMG the technique was just appalling.

If I had to define my approach to the work, it is in the difference between WHY and HOW. In life, we have thoughts and feelings and then we find the words to express those thoughts and feelings. This is why language was invented. We needed words to communicate our desires. In acting, we start with the words. Using technique correctly, the actor should back up and find the thoughts and feelings that produce those words, The WHY. What is the acting mistake? HOW. Instead of getting inside the WHY, the actor focuses on the HOW. They are thinking about how to ‘play’ the moments, how to say the lines. If you supply the WHY, the HOW takes care of itself. Unfortunately, there is good deal of training that focuses on the HOW. Actors who are petrified of making mistakes seek out teachers who promise to show them how to do scenes well. Incorrect technique is nothing more than a road map of the HOW.

This external approach was epidemic in both cities. In addition, some American acting coaches had already been to Australia and used emotional blackmail to arouse feelings in their students. They forced the actors to reveal their deepest secrets for the first time in front of a room full of strangers. This essentially was the teacher playing God with the students’ psyches. Actors: you must know what inner sources you are connecting with, but it is no one else’s business! Acting class is not therapy, and an acting teacher is not qualified to be doing this to you. I can get actors to go to the deepest places by asking them personal questions, but I tell them explicitly, they must not answer out loud.

I found that the actors were barely reading their scripts and coming up with what they thought were clever ideas for their characters. One of the greatest misconceptions about acting is this idea of “playing a character.” Uta Hagen said it the best: “It is not about losing yourself in a role, it is about finding yourself in a role.” The character has no independent life from you! The character is you! How many roles do we play in the course of a day? Who are they? All you! Does that mean that we are the same in every role? Of course not. We find different aspects of ourselves in every character. I was asked the question in Melbourne, about actors who are the same in every role. They wanted to know if the actors were just being themselves. The ironic thing is that actors who are the same in every role are NOT being themselves. They are playing concepts, ideas and images and failing to make authentic and personal connections to the material.

The human soul is deep and complex. Not unlike a piano keyboard, it has a wide range of notes available. One actor who had a huge breakthrough in Sydney told me that he had never used his real voice while acting. He used to come up with a voice he thought suited the character. For the first time in his life, he brought himself to the work and the results were startling. I taught the Australians that THERE IS NO SCENE TO DO RIGHT. There is only a human being lively authentically in the given circumstances of the author.

I got them to stop pre-shaping. In other words, to stop planning the how and to focus on the why. I taught them to use real sources from their own life experiences and also to use their imaginations to explore putting themselves in the shoes of the character. Another actor in Melbourne did explosive work as the father in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Initially, he had planned out everything he was going to do. It came off as stagy and artificial. Once I got him to connect to the fact that he was going to lose the love of his dear son, the only thing that mattered to him, and to use the words to stop his son from hating him, he delivered a powerful, gut wrenching performance.

I impressed upon the actors that the given circumstances of the scripts were not “fun facts” to be ignored. One actress who did a scene from James McClure’s Laundry and Bourbon had not made even a moment of the preceding circumstances real for herself. In the play, her character has just come from an ordeal with her children at a department store. Adding to this, it is hot and humid and she has been frantically buzzing her friend’s door bell which is broken. The re-work after incorporating my notes was amazing. The scene was hysterical because the actress wasn’t trying to be funny. She was in the middle of living in the circumstances.

Once I got the actors to connect to time, place and circumstances, the true talent of the actors was released. I have already scheduled another Master Class for this November in Melbourne and have begun discussions about Howard Fine Acting Studio/Australia. Patrick is coming to Los Angeles to meet with my faculty. We want to bring our entire course program over. Australia is a beautiful country and the people that I met were talented and delightful. I feel newly inspired to share my work with actors here and overseas.