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How a robbery forced me to become a better communicator

Friday, 11 January 2013 | By Michelle Hammond

my-best-mistake-denise-robertsDenise Roberts’ passion for acting is unwavering, and it was for this reason she decided to set up Screenwise, an Australian film and television school for actors, established in 2000.


But an inability to clearly communicate to her staff almost cost Roberts her business.


“I used to teach film and TV at the Ensemble Theatre (in Sydney) for six years,” she says.


“There were plenty of theatre schools but no one devoting enough time to film and TV, which is an actor’s bread and butter.”


“Being in front of a camera is an extremely different experience than being on stage. The acting tools are the same but, depending on what medium you’re in, they’re applied in a different way.”


“I started off in a church studio and then invested in a three-bedroom house with two bathrooms, and used all the different rooms as different sets. Then I thought; I need to commit myself here.”


“The big thing for me was making the commitment… It was important to create an acting establishment where people would know if they signed up, they would be looked after.”


Roberts established Screenwise with no financial backing, which meant she took on all the risk. It was for this reason, she says, that she found it difficult to trust people and to delegate.


“I tried to do it all on my own and it became extremely stressful,” she says.


“I have had to learn to delegate and have had to learn to trust, but trust has a double-edge sword. Once I did learn, what’s even more important is communication and that’s where I fell down.


“As things were becoming really hectic, that’s when you tend to lose touch with your team… I didn’t communicate enough to make sure the things I needed done did get done. It was one of the hardest lessons I ever learnt.”


When Screenwise moved into new premises in Surry Hills, Roberts asked someone to transfer all of the insurance over. Unfortunately, he didn’t do it.


“I was only in there for two weeks when I was robbed. Everything was taken, and I had trusted this person to do all the backups as well and the backups hadn’t been done. I had to start from scratch,” she says.


“Luckily for me, I had a computer IT guy who saw the problem and eventually set me up with a whole bunch of computers, and found ways of trying to restore my databases.


“It was a hard lesson for me to learn but a good lesson for me to learn. No matter where I am in the world, I still communicate and stay in touch.”


Screenwise has since nurtured some of Australia’s best homegrown talent including Isabel Lucas, Chris Hemsworth, Todd Lasance and Christian Clark.


But Roberts never gets too far ahead of herself.


“I am the CEO – it is my business – but I’m taking all the risk and paying all the bills, so it’s important to stay in touch with the people who are working for me,” she says.


“I have a better business because of it.


“I have a great team and trust them completely. I have 10 tutors and an administrator, a marketing person, a coordinator and general manager and a registrar.


“Nothing goes by me without my communication, so everyone knows what they’re doing. It’s all about trust, delegation and communication.”