Actors in adult learning; a reflection

Actors in adult learning
By Tenille Halliday, Principal Consultant at Be Learning.

There are parents everywhere, I am sure, who dread hearing the words ‘Mum and Dad, I am going to be an actor’. The perceived instability; low employment rates; the transient nature of a career; and potential rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle all pose a very real threat to the financial security and career progression of their precious offspring.

Then there is the ‘types’ that are attracted to the profession. Of course, this is a narrow view of the profession, and one not exclusive to performers. I have encountered bankers, lawyers, and engineers who are just as volatile as the most eccentric actors and just a clueless about the path they are on – it’s just that they usually have a major asset by age 25!

But in the last couple of decades, a world has emerged in which actors are playing in the corporate space more and more (and I am not talking about late night entertainment at the annual conference where they drag the CEO up on stage to do a drunken version of “I will Survive’!)

These new corpora rate actors wear suits, and carry laptops, and have an expense account. Like me, they have found their way in to the world of adult learning, cultural change and leadership development. This is a space where actors are making a difference to the quality of human interaction that occurs in our major organisations, with the people that set the direction of this country and whose decisions impact us all.

As a 16 year old girl, determined to be an actor, I was full of hope. A self-proclaimed cynic and oft accused pessimist in my adult life, it seems silly now to think about how idealistic I was. I had an unwavering belief that I could change people’s views though story; challenge social injustice through theatre; inspire people to change through characters; and celebrate humanity through entertainment. I made a firm decision. I had to be public and I had to be a storyteller. When I raised these goals with my high school career counsellor, he looked at me blankly and said;

“Ok, but what’s your back up?”

“My back up?” I said, quizzically.

“Yes Tenille. Your grades are excellent: you are a smart girl who can do whatever you want at university. Perhaps you might want to consider something more stable?”

Clearly he did not hear well, so I repeated my well-considered aspirational monologue about changing the world. He stared back at me, smiled at my youthful stubbornness, and helped me figure out my pathway. I have not once stepped off that path, although it took a turn I never could have anticipated and which has enriched me more than I could have imagined: into the heartland of corporate Australia.

Actors have been coaching corporate participants in Presentation Skills, Pitching and Selling, Influencing Skills and the likes for some time now; using the requisite performance skills to help people perform their roles more effectively – be more convincing, be more inspiring, more confident, or adapt more easily to different personalities.  It works because great actors are not  ‘pretending’, they are in fact being truthful in every moment, connecting to every thought and feeling, saying words they have uttered a thousand times, as though it was the very first, and have an audience compelled to believe them. Actors spend the better part of their formal training observing human behaviour, analysing the impact it has on others, and adjusting their behaviour to get different outcomes, so of course they are well equipped to coach people on how to persuade or influence truthfully. These development areas are common now, thanks to industry pioneers like Maura Fay, and those she mentored like Be Learning’s co-directors Johanna Kerrigan and Miriam Tassone.

This legacy has deepened and actors are skills are being utilised more diversely. As Principle Creative consultant at Be Learning, more and more I am finding that our clients are responding to, and ready for, a more holistic approach. Much like we have seen western medicine integrate more alternative therapies, we are also seeing the same trend in a corporate Australia’s approach to adult learning. Increasingly, corporate Australia is seeking the assistance of actors and performers to help develop skills in presence, connection, empathy and courage. The great Patsy Rodenberg sums it up beautifully in this wonderful articulation of what actors and performers can offer to the business world and indeed anyone who operates within it (which is all of us).

Almost twenty years after the conversation with my career counsellor, I find myself living my ideals, although not as I expected when I was freckle faced and defiant. In my role as Principal Consultant at Be Learning, I design creative learning experiences for corporate Australia. Yes corporate! The Bolshie uni student that the freckle faced girl became would roll her eyes, but little does she know that I am achieving all the things we dreamed of, and on a grand scale. I am storytelling to inspire change where it can have a broad and real impact, in the heart of our organisations.  I am not preaching to the converted in a small theatre, I am having fierce conversations with people who make critical decisions every day, than impact our economy, our political landscape – and the price of our electricity. I am honoured to be coaching leader s in empathy, curiosity and presence. It feels like important work.

I have just come completed my latest project as Creative Director on this country’s largest and most significant cultural change program. I have been face to face with hundreds of leaders, in one Australia’s biggest and most influential companies. I was entrusted with the important role of creating the characters – through film, theatre and stories – that were to bring the learning to life. The actors bravely represented the culture as I saw it: full of complexity and conflicting objectives, some people doing the best they can and trying to thrive, and some slipping through the cracks. Confusion, resentment, fear, ambition, all brought in to the room by actors, so we could talk about the real issues. We explored the human side of cultural change. Just like a wonderful film, or a challenging play, a piece of performance art or a symphony, we tapped in to the hearts and minds of these leaders – in their workplace!

Actors can help people sit with uncertainty, express emotion, admit fear and ultimately inspire them to try something new, commit to an objective and go after it, with truth. I am so surprised by where my profession has taken me; but in the best possible way.