A Healthy approach to acting training
By Sally McLeanSally McLean is a graduate of the Actors Institute, London, has had lead and support roles in many UK and Australian film and television productions, and has twice participated in the Howard Fine Master Class. She shares her thoughts on the Master Class, and a healthy approach to acting training.
Being an actor who works in the Australian industry yet trained overseas, one of the biggest challenges for me has been to find an acting training studio here in Melbourne that shares the philosophy and style of teaching, as well as the ethos and system of training that I had the good fortune to experience in London.
In the time I have been back on Australian shores, I have only found one teacher who came close to this in Melbourne – an Australian TV director, now acting coach (whom I loved working with and now consider a good friend). Maybe I had been very lucky with finding and then studying full time with The Actors’ Institute in the UK and that was something that would be a one-off in my career. That was possible – but I came to realise that it was more about the international flavour of what was being taught to me in London that was missing over here.
In London I was being trained for an international market. We met and worked with a variety of directors, actors, singers, voice coaches and others who taught or worked in the UK, parts of Europe and the USA, who were all still plying their own craft, were expert communicators and teachers and were truly passionate about what they did. These extraordinary people gave us a perspective on craft and the business that went well beyond the four walls of the two-studio complex where we undertook our training five-six days a week In Australia? Well, it doesn’t always work that way. And it can be a very different kind of attitude and level of training as a result.
So, when I heard about the Howard Fine Masterclass in July 2012 and was given the opportunity to audit via an actress friend who was participating, I jumped at the chance to see an international teacher at work whom, from all I had read and seen, was possibly the answer I had been looking for.
Within five minutes of hearing Howard speak, outlining how he approached teaching, what he expected from us as auditors and giving us the basics of his ethos (all consistent with what he’d written in his book), I had confirmation that he was a very strong contender. Within one minute of watching him work with the participants – I KNEW he was the teacher I’d been looking for.
Not only is Howard (and his entire faculty) an expert in his field, he is also a truly gifted teacher. He loves actors. He is genuinely excited to see actors progress, to see us ‘get it’, to see us take what he gives us, implement it and bring the work to a whole new level. He is consistently successful in achieving this with his students – regardless of their level of experience – for (in my opinion) three reasons:
One – he knows what he is talking about and is an absolute expert in the craft of acting;
Two – he teaches with a healthy, generous ego which engenders trust, and from a place of joy and shared discovery; and
Three – he’s an insightful, quality human being in his own right, who respects and knows how to work with other human beings, based on where they are at in their own quest for knowledge and growth.
Oh, and he has a wicked sense of humour.
Don’t get me wrong – if you don’t do the homework or commit to the work or do anything that gets in the way of producing your best work, Howard will let you know about it! As he should. It does none of us any good to have a teacher who mollycoddles us and doesn’t hold us accountable for a lazy work ethic or an arrogant attitude or whatever bad habit we’ve picked up. But even that comes from a place of support. He simply wants us to be better actors – that’s his job and he is one of the best in the world at doing it. But he does it with the appropriate degree of firmness and with an extraordinary depth of knowledge and insight, all of which make up one of the biggest points of difference for me in regards to teachers in general.
One thing the Heads of Department at my drama school had instilled in us as actors was the ability to recognise healthy teaching (and directing) practices and the not-so-healthy, and how to deal with the latter if we ever came across it (which in this biz, sadly we do all too frequently).
Their definition of “not-so-healthy” (read that as “downright wrong and potentially dangerous” – my words) is anyone who manipulates, yells, tries to make you feel less than you are, physically threatens you, asks you to publicly reveal deeply personal information or secrets, tries to publicly psychoanalyse you – essentially any situation where you are potentially being mentally, emotionally or physically compromised.
I had experienced other teachers from Australia and overseas who, sadly, taught using at least one, if not more, of these “not-so-healthy” techniques in their classes. And I had done the obvious thing (to me) when this occurred in a class situation, and left those courses as soon as I realised what was happening. I’d rather risk another’s disapproval and lose money than hand my power (and peace of mind) over to someone else (especially, in the case of attempted public psychoanalysis, when they are not a trained therapist. And even if they were – acting class is not a substitute for therapy!!).
Our ability as actors, as human beings, to empathise and be open and vulnerable is NOT an invitation to be abused.
The irony, in a way, is that as working actors, we lay ourselves on the line and open ourselves up to rejection all the time. Anyone who has worked as an actor in this biz knows the highs and lows we constantly experience in this job and how precarious our sense of self and our inner balance and perspective can sometimes be. We open ourselves up to potential criticism constantly – from how we embody a role, to how we look, to what we say, how we dress, the list goes on. And once we’ve achieved a public profile, it goes to a whole other level. Why would we then put ourselves willingly into a situation where we let someone else recklessly pull us apart, when, in fact, the reverse is required and available? I want a teacher who will help me build my craft to the highest possible level, encourage me to keep striving to be better, who will help celebrate my breakthroughs and work with me in a healthy way to fix what still isn’t working. I also want someone who isn’t interested in getting into my head and rummaging around. I have enough voices in my head already – my inner critic is full of them – I don’t need any more!!
With all that in mind, Howard was like a breath of fresh air for me that cold July morning. Actually, he was more like a powerful lightning bolt coming out of the blue on a glorious summer’s day. I am waxing lyrical, but the revelation that Howard was who he was and taught as he did (the healthy way) and had such a wealth of experience and talent as a teacher AND that we had access to him here in Melbourne was an extraordinary moment for me.
And I have never looked back. I have since worked with Howard as a participant in two Master Classes and two rounds of ongoing Scene Study. I have also worked with HFAS faculty members, Laura Gardner, David Coury (in partnership with Howard in the November 2012 Masterclass), Marilyn McIntyre, Ted Brunetti and coming up in August, Karen Ludwig. In all, I will have trained with the HFAS Faculty for just over five months part-time once I get to the end of this current Scene Study commitment.
And my conclusions? Howard and his faculty are all fantastic people and talented international teachers who challenge me in a healthy way, make me accountable, aware and independent and who I truly enjoy working with. And working with them has made me a better, and more focused, actor. Apart from my own sense of this fact, the work I’m now doing and the opportunities that are opening up for me in the wider industry confirms it. And that’s one of the primary reasons why we keep training isn’t it?
Ultimately, I have found a creative home with HFAS Australia, and in Howard Fine, a teacher and person I love and respect who has re-ignited my love for the craft of acting and helped me discover a renewed passion for, and commitment to my chosen vocation.
And that, in itself, is worth the investment.As well as being an actress, Sally is also a writer, producer and all round lovely lady! You can read more from Sally at her website, www.sallymclean.com, and blog www.eatingthelotus.wordpress.com. http://www.howardfinestudio.com.au