Not just lights, camera, action

Denise Roberts' acting school teaches students the finer techniques of the craft, writes Christopher Niesche.

Denise Roberts' acting school teaches students the finer techniques of the craft, writes Christopher Niesche.

Faced with selecting new staff, managers can use a multitude of methods - is the candidate suitably qualified, will they fit in, are they reliable, do they perform well in the interview. Drama school boss - and Packed to the Rafters actress - Denise Roberts likes to treat hiring as a casting call.

"When I'm employing people I consider casting them because we've all got to get on really well together and it's got to be a fun place to work, because if they're not looking forward to coming to work then they're not going to be very productive," says the actress who founded Screenwise, the Sydney-based acting school a decade ago.

Roberts employs several actors in the office: Sarah Chadwick from GP and Flying Doctors is the administrator and Di Smith from Puberty Blues is the co-ordinator.

"I surround myself with people that I've worked with in the past, that I know and I can trust - but at the same time, they've all got contracts," says Glasgow-born Roberts.

Roberts is best known for playing nurse-receptionist Julie Winters in ABC medical drama GP and as Bonnie Bright in Packed to the Rafters. She got the idea for Screenwise - which teaches acting specifically for TV and film - when she started appearing on GP in 1989 and struggled to adjust to working on a TV set because she'd come from a stage background.

"It was alien to me because everything's so different. It demands a whole lot of different disciplines and skills and you're not taught that in theatre school," she says. "That was one of the things that really planted the seed for me, because there were no screen schools around that were specifically designed to teach acting for camera."

Roberts, who also teaches at the school, makes a point of hiring working actors as tutors as well as for behind-the-scenes roles, and has employed people such as Colin Friels, Gary Sweet and Lucy Bell.

"It's good, because an actor or a director would rather teach than drive a taxi," she says.

The business has grown steadily, moving three times, each time to larger premises.

"It's about seeing that there's an opening somewhere and being the first to get there, because if you're the first to get there you're always the original, and as you develop and grow hopefully you'll always stay two steps in front of your competitors," says Roberts .

Screenwise teaches a range of courses, with a focus on screen acting, but also covers other skills, such as dialects and how to put together a show reel. Its graduates include Chris Hemsworth and Isobel Lucas.

Now in Surry Hills on the edge of the Sydney CBD, the school has five separate TV studios where the students are put through their paces. The current premises will be big enough for about another year, then the school will likely move again, Roberts says.

When Roberts started Screenwise in 2000, acting schools focused on teaching stage craft, and only provided cursory attention to screen acting, which they looked down on. But appearing in front of three cameras, hitting the right marks, filming out of continuity and saying the same line again and again while keeping it fresh are very different skills to those needed to appear on stage. And with filming budgets and schedules becoming increasingly tight, actors who know what to do on set from the outset are increasingly important.

Roberts set out to make her acting school a government-accredited training organisation and able to award the country's only diploma of screen acting, which she achieved in 2010. Her students are entitled to Austudy and other government support.

"In those five years I had to work so hard because I was trying to build up the business," she says. "I did everything, the marketing, the teaching, so for me the difficult part when I started to expand was doing the delegating and handing over to other people," she said.

Although Screenwise has grown to the point where Roberts employs several staff, it remains very much her business. "I don't have a partner and I don't have any intention of taking one," she said. "I don't believe in silent partners or anything like that because I think that if you've got a great product and you truly believe in it and you're passionate about it, then if you bring other people in purely for the money side of it then it's not going to be the same product."

Denise Roberts’ entrepreneur tips

Strive for continuous improvement, because once you rest on your laurels your competitors just come and take you.

Have passion for your product, because if you don’t believe in it, no one else will.

Act with integrity. People are paying good, hard-earned money for what you have to offer, so you have to give them their money’s worth.

Get in early when you see an opportunity in the market, because being original is always best.

Don’t take on partners. Stay in control because too many cooks spoil the broth.

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