When Manchester-born Marion Fine switches on her “American teenage JAP” voice, she shifts seamlessly into a self-involved teenager from this side of the globe, with no trace of her proper British accent remaining.
It’s just one of the many voices and personas that the comic actress can take on with the flip of a switch. After more than three decades of honing her skill, Marion has created a number of satirical characters who provide the humor in her sketches, along with an assortment of “go-to” skits that always get a good laugh from the audience. Yet, with an intercontinental move in mid-life, along with new family dynamics to adapt to, Marion finds that she is constantly gathering hilarious new material to create ever more laugh-producing content.
In the spirit of “Mi shenichnas Adar, marbim b’simcha,” Marion lets us in on the making of a comic actress, along with the rules of making people laugh and what happened when she encountered her worst audience ever.
Setting the Stage
“I grew up in the north of England, in Manchester, where I lived for 18 years,” begins Marion in a clear, polished British accent. “I then went on to live in London for 20 years.”
In the mainstream British Bais Yaakov world in which she was raised, young Marion didn’t have a plethora of opportunities for performing, but an inborn interest in taking the stage led her to grab whatever chances she was given.
“I would imitate the teachers in school shows,” she says. “Nowadays, you would never be allowed to do such a thing – and frankly, as a teacher myself, I dread to think what it would look like if my students were to impersonate me – but in those days, I guess we got away with it. The teachers were all good sports about it. At least, I hope I have no one I need to ask mechilah from!”
She also thrived at the chance to perform in her elocution examinations.
“Elocution classes were quite popular in my day. We were trained to speak clearly, enunciate our words and modulate our voices.”
As part of the course, Marion would have to perform pieces of verse and prose or monologues in front of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art’s examiners, who would grade her abilities. A natural on the stage, she usually received top marks.
“It was a big ego boost for someone who wasn’t a high flier at school.”
It was when she hit her late 20s that Marion found the performance bug biting harder than ever before, and she decided to do something about it: She founded “Showcase,” a variety show for women that Marion calls “a celebration of women’s talents in the community.”
“I was a primary school teacher at the time,” she relates, “and also a drama teacher, but I wanted more opportunities to perform myself, and I wanted to raise the profile of women’s talents.”
So she rented a theater, spread the word, created a roster of talented performers, and waited for tickets to fly off the shelves.
“But nobody seemed to be interested in coming.”
The large theater had 400 seats, and as the big night approached, they had sold a grand total of 60 tickets.
“We were thinking of scrapping the whole thing, but then we decided, ‘Hey, why not do it anyway? Even if we perform just for ourselves!’”
As it turned out, everyone was just waiting for the last minute. On the night of the show, the performance sold out, and Showcase would become an annual London women’s staple for the next eight years.
There was just one thing that Marion forgot when she planned that first year’s Showcase: to include herself as a performer on the roster.
“I was so busy organizing the whole year that I didn’t perform,” she says sheepishly. “So the second year, I made sure I did some of my performing.”
Between preparing her own sketches for the next seven years of Showcase’s run and auditioning aspiring performers to join the roster, Marion found that she gathered plenty of material to make people laugh.
Spotlight’s On You
“There was one woman who auditioned,” Marion says with a wide grin, “a middle-aged lady who wanted to juggle. The problem was, she didn’t juggle very well. She couldn’t catch her items. We told her, as gently as we could, that we didn’t think the show would be a fit for her talents and sent her home.”
Yet, there was a surprise in store for Marion and her fellow producers.
“On the night of the show, one of our acts was to call people up from the audience to ‘spontaneously’ perform. In reality, we had planted several performers in the audience who were fully prepared. But one audience member raised her hand who we had not planned on – the juggler! She pulled her balls out of her bag, ran up to the stage and started juggling again! She must have packed her props with her, just waiting for the chance to perform. In terms of skill, her performance was quite similar to her audition.”
It’s experiences like these that fuel Marion’s own content writing for her skits. But mostly, everyday life gives her plenty of opportunity to poke fun.
“I was single until I was 38,” she says matter-of-factly. “So I spent many years doing skits about being single and the shidduch scene.”
One of her all-time favorites was a comic song she wrote with a friend called “We’re Cloning Men.” The parody features a doctor in a lab coat who is all set to genetically clone men, creating more shidduch options for single girls.
Marion offers a sampling of the lyrics: “Anxiety’s rising; spirits running low. According to the shadchan, supply of men is zero. So tonight, for the first time, at just about half past ten, for the first time in history, we’re gonna start cloning men!
“We’re cloning men; it’s the answer. We’re cloning men, lots of men. We’re cloning men; it’s a mitzvah. We’re cloning men, boruch Hashem.”
“No more need to worry; you can put your fears away. ‘Cuz we got it figured out: all you need is D-N-A!”
At the time, it was not only funny, but also an honest representation of the emotions from the stage of life Marion and her friends were in. Now happily married for eight years, with two children, Marion has easily segued into creating skits that find humor in the challenges of marriage and motherhood.
“My children have given me lots of material,” she says comfortably. “Oh, and of course, marriage. Currently, one of my sketches is about having a husband who snores…”
And then there are American teenagers. After living as a single woman in London for 20 years, Marion was thrilled to find her basherte – and the fact that he was an American living in Boston hardly fazed her in the face of her excitement to get married.
“I didn’t really think about the implications of moving overseas at the time, which was probably a good thing, because I loved London: my family, my friends, my job. After I moved, I knew I had done the right thing, but I was very homesick for a while. Now, boruch Hashem, I love it here. I wouldn’t move back. I love Boston, I love the community…and now I can poke fun at America.”
As a dedicated teacher, it’s clear that Marion greatly enjoys her job educating seventh and eighth grade girls in the local day school, and is incredibly fond of her students. But that doesn’t stop her from being able to appreciate a ripe opportunity for imitation.
“One of my most popular sketches – one that almost always gets the most laughs – is a valedictorian speech that I do, inspired by a graduation ceremony that I went to here in America,” she describes.
She clears her throat and begins, in her spot-on American teenager impression.
“It is such an honor to be here tonight. I am truly humbled. Me, a little ant, in the company of elephants.”
Switching back to her regular accent, Marion sums up, “The sketch gets a lot of laughs because it really resonates with the audience.” Then, with a shrug she adds, “And I love it because I get to hold a paper with the words while I perform it.”
It’s clear that life as a comic actress allows Marion to find the humor in everyday situations, even the challenging ones. How does she convert these experiences into material for a performance?
“I often have good ideas, but it’s translating those ideas into genuinely funny material that’s hard,” she says. “When I prepare a sketch, I’ll write, and then I’ll revisit it now and then to see if it’s working. Once I think I have something, I show it to two friends of mine who are very funny and good at providing constructive critique. It’s so crucial to have their input because I need to know that my idea is objectively funny and not just funny in my mind.”
She’ll continue to improve her sketches even after she has already performed them.
“Sometimes, I’ll perform it once or twice and I’ll say, ‘Oh my gosh, this would be so much funnier if my timing was a drop different or I did this hand motion with it.’”
Audience feedback is always the best indicator of whether the sketch has ultimately worked out or not.
“The best audience is one who laughs,” Marion states unequivocally. “If they smile, that’s not good enough; I feel like I failed. I want them to really, really laugh.
“I’m a very critical audience myself,” she notes. “It’s hard to make me laugh. I might smile sometimes or think, ‘That was clever,’ but it’s rare that I’ll laugh. For my audiences, I need to do better than that.”
Most of the time, Marion is thankful that she succeeds, although she admits that there have been two or three performances that simply “bombed.” There was one memorable audience, however, who was neither laughing nor unimpressed. They were completely out to lunch.
“Years ago, I did a show for a hotel in upstate New York and the ladies just did not know how to be an audience. They were shmoozing with their friends, feeding their babies, and walking in and out. It was almost as if I wasn’t there, live, in person. Before I even left, I heard them asking each other what they thought about my show and if they knew a shidduch for me. They just did not know. When you’re an audience, your job is to sit and watch.”
Fortunately, that experience was just one of the many shows that Marion has performed. Her one-woman comedy shows have taken her to Israel, Belgium, England, all over the United States – and to all types of different crowds, as well.
“Recently, I did something that was out of my comfort zone,” she says. “Someone asked me to perform for a group of secular Jewish girls at a kiruv gathering. I thought, ‘Oh boy, let’s see if I can make secular millennials laugh.’ Obviously, I couldn’t use my regular material about marriage, motherhood and running a household…”
But she did have a full reservoir of funny dating experiences.
“I also told them my own story about getting married late, and then my impressions of a British citizen coming to America.”
Overall, it was a positive experience.
“As I’ve gotten older,” Marion reflects, “I gained confidence. I used to have stage fright that affected my performance, but now I’m able to take more risks. It’s also important to keep evolving. You can’t get stale. You have to find fresh material and keep yourself challenged.”
How to Be Funny
Are there rules to making people laugh? How does she do it?
“I think it’s a hard thing to answer. There’s often a fine line between very unfunny and funny. I do think that humor lies in what’s totally unexpected. Things that are ironic are often funny because it’s so utterly unexpected: A fire hydrant on fire. That’s absurd!”
She continues with another example. “Did you know that the first man to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel died after slipping on an orange peel?”
There’s also a trick to the timing and delivery of the jokes.
“It’s 100 percent about the way you say it. You can have the best joke and it’s not funny if it’s said wrong.”
For the advanced, there are additional skills, such as changing your voice, that can add to a performance.
For Marion, while she loves to draw humor from her current life experiences, there’s sometimes nothing like slipping back into her true British self.
“I love to do sketches from this book called ‘George, Don’t Do That!’ It was written by a brilliant British comic writer in the 1930s and it contains a series of monologues written from a nursery teacher’s perspective. George is constantly doing things that he shouldn’t, but the reader never knows exactly what that ‘something’ is. It is so witty and clever. I’ve acted out a number of them often. They’re very, very British and it’s a role I love slipping into.”
Marion also appreciates the opportunity to act out an old, beloved skit to a fresh audience.
“Anything I’ve done in the past that gets a great laugh is a big joy to be able to perform because I have the confidence that this is something that has been well-received. I’m very blessed to be able to do this.”
It doesn’t get past this comic actress that she has a job that brings people happiness.
“People tell me, ‘You’re going to get such a cheilek in Olam Haba because you bring smiles to people’s faces.’ I understand what they’re saying and there is a mekor, but I just think I’m the one who has the biggest brocha. It brings me joy to bring other people joy.”
Marion also believes that most people, in the spotlight or out, are doing their part to earn a wonderful Olam Haba.
“I think overall, frum women are amazing. I meet so many absolutely incredible people who aren’t up on a stage, but are doing and giving and working hard for their families and husbands.”
But if you do think the stage is for you, this experienced performer encourages you to give it a try.
“If it’s something you enjoy, give yourself the time to explore it and enjoy it. Offer free shows. Call places up and say, ‘I’ll perform for free.’ That’s how you get your name out there. If it brings you joy, do something to give yourself that avenue. It will make you happier, and everyone around you will benefit.”
They may even give a laugh or two.