The Spotlight Podcast: What Are Your Transferable Skills as an Actor?

Discovering what your transferable skills are and how to use them to supplement your income. 

In this episode of The Spotlight Podcast, we talk to Sarah Thurstan, a performer and co-founder of Performance Link. She took over the company in 2000 and now runs it herself alongside acting work.

We'll be talking all about transferable skills today and how actors can use the things that they've learned on the job and use them in new and different ways to supplement your acting income.

29 minute listen or the full transcript can be found below.

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Episode Transcript

Christina Carè: Hello and welcome to The Spotlight Podcast. My name is Christina Carè. I'm the content manager at Spotlight. And today, I'm joined by actress and founder of Performance Link, Sarah Thurstan.

Sarah has worked stages and screens for many years, but she has run her own company, Performance Link Limited, since the year 2000, who specialise in taking theatre skills, especially presentation and leadership communication, into business, academia, and the arts. We'll be talking all about transferable skills today and how actors can use the things that they've learned on the job and use them in new and different ways to supplement your acting income. Take a listen.

Sarah, thank you so much for joining us on The Spotlight Podcast.

Sarah Thurstan: Pleasure.

Christina Carè: I want to start by asking you about acting because you trained as an actress, and I want to know what was it that drew you to acting in the first place?

Sarah Thurstan: Yes. I always wanted to be an actor from the age of about 11 and mainly because I wasn't very good at school, but the only thing I was good at, and this is the usual story, is theatre or drama. And I won awards at school, believe or not, for playing male characters in things like Chekhov's Cherry Orchard playing Gayev. Because I'm very tall, I was always cast as the male. So, yes, so from a young age... And I was quite good at it and that my voice helped me, and I loved it. Just loved it. And that's what I always wanted to do.

Christina Carè: That's where the passion came from.

Sarah Thurstan: Yeah. Absolute passion.

Christina Carè: You then trained and-

Sarah Thurstan: Yes. At Webber Douglas.

Christina Carè: Yes, at Webber Douglas.

Sarah Thurstan: Yeah. Sadly is now closed, but it's amalgamated with Central. And I've actually been back with some of my alumni in August to see the Webber Douglas studio, which they have there now.

Christina Carè: Oh, that's lovely.

Sarah Thurstan: Yeah.

Christina Carè: I wanted to ask you, because you obviously have worked for quite some time in the industry now and you turned from acting to creating and working with other performers to create Performance Link. How did that all come about, and why exactly did that come about?

Sarah Thurstan: So, we were a group of actors, and we had a co-operative acting agency in Lancaster in the North, called Target Casting. And there was about, what, 20, 30 of us, a lot of them were Manchester actors, but a lot of Southerners as well, who had actually migrated to Lancaster to work at the Dukes Theatre there, which is a rep theatre. And also to work, there was a woman's theatre company at one time, so three of the women in it were from the woman's theatre company. All jobbing actors who decided we wanted to run our own careers in a way, and it was a very successful co-op.

But about five years into it, I think we all decided we needed to find another way to earn money because, as you know, theatre is not a great earner, and you're not doing it 52 weeks a year. Or TV. So, one of the people in the agency, Steve Tomlin, who happened to win Mastermind-

Christina Carè: Wow.

Sarah Thurstan: Yeah. He was the first actor to win Mastermind. Had become friendly with the producer of Mastermind whose husband was doing in-house training at the BBC. And he needed a group of actors to go in and role play producers for the design department, because all the designers under John Birt, at that time, were actually being made redundant. And what they had to do was interview for each job rather than being on permanent contract. So, these people who'd won BAFTAs, some of them, for things like House of Elliot, and they were costume designers, make-up, set, and special effects. And that a lot of them had won lots of awards, but they'd never interviewed before because they'd just done it, worked at the BBC forever.

So, we went in there and we had written a film, as such, or done the treatment for a film, and we all did films that we knew something about. Because I studied Russian at university and love Russian literature, I actually wrote a film about Sonya Tolstoy, Tolstoy's wife. So, then, they had to come in and interview for the special effects or the make-up or the set on this film I was going to make about Sonya. You see what I mean?

Christina Carè: Yes.

Sarah Thurstan: And there was an observer in the room, and it was filmed. And that's how we started. We did a lot of those. And then, that grew. Then we started doing workshops at universities just for academics to loosen up and speak to the students and engage and make eye contact. And from there, I took off in the corporate world in the late '90s, working at companies, blue chip companies like KPMG, Clifford Chance, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and just doing, how can I say, confidence building, presentation skills, public speaking. That kind of thing.

Christina Carè: So, those are all the kinds of skills that you teach as part of Performance Link.

Sarah Thurstan: Absolutely.

Christina Carè: And it's really interesting to me because I should mention that this podcast obviously comes off the back of you having held a session with us at Spotlight, which was all about transferable skills and teaching actors that, actually, you've got those skills. You may not realise, but when you're trained, or even if you're not trained but you work as an actor, those are the kinds of things that you build on and they're not necessarily present in a corporate environment. No one teaches you, necessarily, how to present, or if they did, who's better to teach you than an actor? Is that where you decided that should come from... Is it really from the drama training, or was it really something that you developed according to your audience, according to which corporate people you went and spoke to? Did that vary according to academics or-

Sarah Thurstan: Interesting question. Yes, it varies hugely, but actors are flexible. That's their great plus. We have to go into different environments all the time, whether it's film, TV, radio, theatre. Every environment, every project, every piece, show is different, so actors are very good at that. And in fact, I use actors all the time to assist me on these courses.

So, yes, I use my acting skills in the sense that all the things to do with relaxation, voice, vocal projection, feeling good about yourself, posture, Alexander technique, I use all those with the corporates, and they've never come across it before, on the whole. They've never thought about how to stand properly and feel good about themselves and look good. They don't often think enough about the audience, which we as actors have to do. If you give an audience too much information, they can't assimilate it. Can they? So, all their presentations over complex and dense. Whereas, we as actors know that the audience has got to feel it and pick it up and react and engage with it personally. So, I use that, as well as the technical things like I give them voice exercises, which none of them have ever come across that before.

So, if somebody within the corporate sector is doing what I do, so in other words, they're doing presentation skills and they've got an in-house person they will just stand at the front and tell them what they need to say and give them structure. It won't be experiential, which is what I do. Everybody gets up, tries it out, tells a little story, stands on their feet, gets filmed, gets reviewed, but also, I prepare them for that so they're not absolutely terrified. Because I'm going to tell you now, they are terrified, and as Jerry Seinfeld said, there are two things that people hate most in life. The first is death and the second is public speaking, and most people would rather be dead than give a presentation.

Christina Carè: Absolutely.

Sarah Thurstan: So, it is true. And even the very senior people always say, "I just need something to help me with my stage fright, with my nerves, give myself confidence," and a lot of that's physical. And then, there's some of it that's mind over matter about reframing things and being excited rather than nervous, the things that actors all feel. I said, if you go to the backstage of a theatre, most actors will be doing vocal warmups before they go on, not necessarily going through their lines. There'll be actually preparing their voice and their body and cleaning their minds so that they're fresh to go on stage.

Christina Carè: That's such a good point because I do think that when I've seen people give presentations in a more corporate setting before, it is very much about, "Oh, here are my notes. I've got to remember my notes," but maybe not thinking about the voice or the stance or that sort of thing. A lot of these skills have to do with communication, ultimately. They boil down to good communication. How did you start to break down what good communication looks like in order to teach it?

Sarah Thurstan: So, first of all, I am a trained teacher. I was a TEFL teacher, teacher of English as a foreign language, so you get a very good idea... I did that for the British Council after I went to university, before I trained as an actor. So, you get a very good idea as a teacher what's good communication when people pick up what you've taught them. A lot of that is eye contact, feeling, engaging the room. A lot of those skills that actors use, poor teachers don't do that, and poor presenters don't either. They just have their piece of paper, as you so rightly said, and they don't engage with the audience. So, things like eye contact and actually taking it slowly, pausing so people can digest what you've said, looking into the eyes, that's what is good communication.

And on the whole, most actors understand that. I've just taken it one step further by watching presentation and seeing when it's good and when it isn't good. And some of it is intuition because actors are intuitive, as well. And I love working with people. And I think if you really love working with people and you're curious and interested in them, you will really encourage them to be at their best and to deliver who they are, the authentic person that they are and not some pretend person reading off a script like they did at school or something. Yeah.

Christina Carè: Right. So, you mentioned this experiential quality of how you teach, is that the way in that you think is best? Because that does obviously come from drama school, as opposed to, I don't know, reading an article that says good communication is eye contact. How do you actually physically teach that to somebody?

Sarah Thurstan: Interesting. So, yes, must be experiential. It's trial and error. So, you ask somebody just to tell a simple story, shall we say? So, that's part of the story telling idea that I have, as well. And as they tell their story, you see how the recipients, the other delegates in the room are receiving it. So, are they using eye contact? Have they got their chair in a particular place so that they can see everybody easily? Are they using “umm” and “uhh” too much? Are they pausing relevant points? Are they making gestures, or are they very still? Are they engaging everybody? So, we just get feedback, so you do it through feedback.

So, you get to say, "So, did you get the eye contact? Were they relating to you? Could you understand what they said? Were they clear? Did they speak too quickly?" Just those are the basic questions. Obviously, you can get more sophisticated than that with texture, but just those basic things sometimes people forget. They look at the carpet, they look at the ceiling, they look at their notes, they mumble, they speak too quickly because they get nervous. And so, with the trial and the feedback, that's how they learn, so that's why it has to be experiential.

Christina Carè: Absolutely. And you mentioned, actually, putting people on film, as well, and showing them themselves. That's something that I think most non-actors really wouldn't encounter day-to-day. That must be quite confronting for them.

Sarah Thurstan: It is. So, again, so you have to... It's a really good question, Christina, because you have to calm them before you start filming them. So, my method is that I never film them until later in the day. You don't allow them to walk in and say, "I'm going to film you," and you hide the camera. Because when they see the camera, they get all jittery. So, you start off by doing breathing exercises, warmups, voice exercises, having some fun, a few drama things maybe. Asking them questions, allowing them to talk in the group openly. Then maybe they tell a little story. This is all not on film. And then you do the filming later when they've got more used to the environment and you have to create a risk-free environment in the room and build trust.

So, trust is a really, really important part of it. And I think, I hope, that's one of my strengths is that people feel that they're in a trustworthy environment and that they are allowed to disclose and open themselves. Because it's quite scary to expose yourself like that, and so I make sure that when they do expose themselves, it's okay and they're not actually letting themselves down or failing. It's all fine.

Christina Carè: Yeah, for sure. I think it's really interesting that I think a lot of our actors come in and their concerns are often that because acting is such an unstable career... As you said before, you're not going to be on stage 52 weeks in the year necessarily. There's no guarantee of that. A lot of people struggle with the idea of using their skills in a businessy way because acting as artistic, and there's that contrast that's often mentioned. What would you say to that in terms of treating your skills as a businessy... having business qualities, I suppose?

Sarah Thurstan: Again, good question. Now, you can transfer your theatre skills into non-business, as well. I do careers advice in schools, so I sometimes encourage them. It's great to do a theatre degree or performing arts degree or go to drama school if you can get in. And how can you use it afterwards? You can be a speech therapist. You can be a psychotherapist. You can be a drama teacher. There's lots of other ways that you can use your qualification. But if you want to remain an actor, a practitioner, as they say, they call you a practitioner, and work in the corporate world or the academic world, you can choose. If you don't like the idea of corporate... Now, I probably am quite lucky that the corporates accept me because I've got a loud voice and I'm tall and a little bit domineering. They think, "Oh yes, she's got gravitas," or whatever.

So, if you feel that's not for you, there's so many other ways. You can run workshops in your local art centre, which is how I started. I used to do drama for adults. I did drama for kids. Then I ran a BTech in performing arts and built a little studio in a small town in Cumbria, Kendal. So, lots of other ways. And they employed me at Kendal College because I was a practitioner, and that's what's happened these days, is that they want practitioners. So, you can go and, shall we say, direct even in drama schools, when you get on in your career. Couple of my acting friends do that now. They teach a bit, but they still work as actors.

So, the workshops in the university for academics, because academics don't realise that they're too complex and that the students can't understand, so some of those workshops are much simpler, like speaking more slowly, keeping your ideas clear and simple, a few drama games. So, maybe people who don't want to go into the corporate world are happier working in tertiary education, with academics or with people who teach students. Yeah? Teachers.

Christina Carè: Yeah. It can go many ways.

Sarah Thurstan: Absolutely. And you can always do... I know other people who are voice coaches now. There are lots of ways that you can transfer your skills.

Christina Carè: Absolutely. I think that's definitely one of the things that comes up, particularly with our younger performers who are considering whether or not it's worth going to drama school, because I do think that that's something that isn't said, is that you can still use these skills in lots and lots of different ways, which I think was so valuable in your session that you held.

Sarah Thurstan: Well, just to add to that, I would say that anybody who's done a theatre or a drama degree, perhaps rather than going to theatre school, but maybe theatre school as well, say you've done a degree at Bristol or Manchester or Queen Margaret's, whatever, you've actually... I would employ you in advertising, for example. So, I know some people who work in advertising, and they like to employ people who've done a degree like that. Why? Because they're confident usually, they're good communicators, they're good at talking to clients. Yeah? They're good at being flexible, turning on a sixpence. So, some of the skills that you use as an actor are very useful across the board. Journalism. Journalism and any kind of media. I've worked for the Audience Agency, which is about actually helping both theatres, museums, galleries to get grants and to, how can I say, to flourish. Now, a lot of those are trained as actors, but they're actually working in an admin job. See what I mean?

Christina Carè: Yes, absolutely.

Sarah Thurstan: I think it's always a useful qualification, if you can't think of what else to do, I think it's a great qualification.

Christina Carè: I feel like I'm in one of your career advice sessions just now.

Sarah Thurstan: Yeah. Yeah. Good.

Christina Carè: Yeah. The kind of thing that you might say to someone interested. I want to ask you, then, I think a big part of thinking about yourself in a more business way, if you are an actor, is it obviously has some benefits in terms of navigating the down times, when you're not working. So, just from a confidence and mental health perspective, do you have any comment on that, in terms of keeping yourself busy and the value of that?

Sarah Thurstan: Yes. I mean my Performance Link earns me good money, really good money, and I'm able to command quite high prices now because I've been doing it for so long. And I feel very at home with it. Now, if I didn't have that, if I'd been a single mother, for example, if I hadn't had that, I don't know what I would've done. I mean, there was about 10 years when I earned okay doing TV, but it still wasn't great. And that was in the '90s. And what it really does is every time I do a TV or a film, it actually adds to my corporate work. Yeah, because they love it. They love to see you on telly, whatever it is, they really like it, A and B, one feeds the other. So, my corporate work, which makes me feel confident, actually feeds my confidence for my acting.

So, I told you on Tuesday, I had to do a self-tape, turn it around in one day to play an American sitcom comedy, Hard Bitten Woman. Now, I did it in quite a short period of time, at the end of the day when I'd finished with my corporate clients, but I don't think I would have had the confidence to do that had I not been doing this corporate work. So, one lends itself to the other and you learn a lot from both.

And I would hate to have to give up my acting, but you have to be very clever about balancing both. So, I always tell my agent, when I've got corporate absolutely locked in days. Some days don't need to be so locked in because it's one-to-one. But say I'm working at the university and I've got all the MBAs, Masters of Business Administration, that's locked in. Or if I'm doing a particular course with senior management and they blocked out two days to work with me... You see what I mean?

Christina Carè: Yes, absolutely.

Sarah Thurstan: And then I tell my agent-

Christina Carè: So, that relationship is quite key with the agent in terms of navigating that balance?

Sarah Thurstan: Absolutely. And you must be. And initially, I wasn't very good at it, and then I'd have an audition on a day I was locked in and, obviously, she was not happy. So, I’m now very careful about telling her, and you have to navigate both. And sometimes it means that I've done a corporate day and I finished at 7pm, and then I have to catch a train to Glasgow or something, because I've got an audition or filming or something the next day. So, you got to keep your energy up as well and always be on your phone, unfortunately. You got to be on top of it, especially as I run the business on my own. I do have actress assistants who work with me on the course, but they're just one-off. And I have a bookkeeper who isn't an actress. I used to have one that was when I was living in London. And I have a PA who comes maybe once a week.

Christina Carè: Right. So, you've got a small team, but it's mostly you keeping on top of things.

Sarah Thurstan: Yeah. It's mainly me. Yeah.

Christina Carè: Right. So, you mentioned, so far, the relationship with the agent and being very organised and diligent with your responses to things. What about marketing yourself? That seems to be quite a difficult quality, even for actors who obviously are going into audition rooms and trying to sell themselves, but when it comes to marketing themselves outside of that setting, definitely I think struggle. What would you say to that?

Sarah Thurstan: So, it's difficult one because I've never done cold calling. I'm always used on referral. And I think you need a clear website, a good website so people can look at you and it's easy to navigate. I've got a Squarespace one now, which has got a template. I used to have a very complicated one which cost me huge amounts of money, and now I've got this Squarespace one. And it's just simple with quite a few photographs of me and me working. I think that's the first thing. You probably should join LinkedIn. I don't do Facebook, for various reasons because you get too much dross. You do. And I already get probably 40 emails per day that are just rubbish, that I have to get rid of, because I'm a company, Performance Link.

What else? A good website. I have very nice cards. If you ever go to events, just give out your cards. Always talk to people about what you do. So, if you go to any events, you can chat people up, say it's what you do, be quite confident about saying, "I'm very happy to come and do a workshop for you." Yeah. Cold calling would be good if you can do it, but I've never done it because it's not my thing.

Christina Carè: Yeah. It's a bit tough.

Sarah Thurstan: It's too tough. And also, there are hundreds of people out there doing what I do. I'm going to warn you about that. And some of them are actors, and some of them are non-actors. So, shall we say a company like Heathrow, the airport people, they have in-house people who do what I do. Even though I worked for them as an external provider for some time, it's cheaper to use an internal provider. I don't think they're as good as me, but there we are.

Christina Carè: But there we are. Yeah. If they're a sizable company, they may have an internal-

Sarah Thurstan: Yes. And they all have... Yeah.

Christina Carè: So, good networking, then, isn't just about the impression that you make in person and the confidence, but potentially also about doing your research initially, as well as getting that online presence and the card and all those other details.

Sarah Thurstan: Yeah. Good to do your research, you're right, Christina. So, find out about the company, and before you have the phone call, make sure you've looked at their website and who they are, because a law company is going to be very different from a trending company or something like that. Yeah. Do your research.

And when you go and meet them, listen. Listen and listen again. Let them talk more than you. Don't be all eager to tell them how marvellous you are. Just listen and smile and nod and ask good questions. Just like you're doing now.

Christina Carè: I'm doing my best. Thank you, Sarah. Well, I think we've covered a lot of the ways that those skills can come in handy. I want to finish up by asking you, as you mentioned, you did a self-tape just this week, so you're still very much working... With acting, I think the glorious thing is that you can do it regardless of age or circumstance. There's so many ways you can do acting. I want to ask you, then, just to wrap up, if you could tell your younger self one thing about the industry that you've learned in these years of doing both of those things, having a company and working as an actress, what would you tell yourself?

Sarah Thurstan: Well, firstly, I wish that I had been more confident when I was younger because I had a few opportunities when I left drama school, good opportunities like BBC Play for Today and things, and I wasn't quite confident enough. And I was quite good-looking so I could have used that. I wish I'd been more confident, but I wasn't. So, I wish I could tell myself that now. And the other thing is sometimes you have to be a little bit ruthless. I'm actually quite a kind person, even though I sound like an ogre.

Christina Carè: No, you don't.

Sarah Thurstan: Well, a lot of people find me a bit scary, and I tend to get scary roles. I've often played judges and magistrates on TV.

Christina Carè: Oh, I see. Yes.

Sarah Thurstan: But I wish I had been perhaps sometimes a little bit more ruthless in getting auditions and getting myself out to the front there and pushing myself forward. And if you can do that easily, then that's great. That's what I would tell myself. Probably also working harder to get to know casting directors and directors. I thought I worked hard, but when I think about it now, it wasn't enough. Go to theatres, meet the directors, just say hello. Yeah.

Christina Carè: Yeah. Networking.

Sarah Thurstan: Yeah. Networking, more networking. Absolutely. Yeah.

Christina Carè: Thank you so much, Sarah. That's amazing advice.

Sarah Thurstan: Thank you very much, Christina. And thank you for giving me the opportunity.

Christina Carè: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Spotlight Podcast. That's all for now from the home of casting. If you've got a question you'd like us to answer in an upcoming episode of the podcast, you can drop us an email at [email protected], or hit us up on Twitter @SpotlightUK.

If you have a topic or question you'd like us to cover in a future podcast episode then please email your ideas to [email protected] or send us a Tweet @spotlightuk

Published in March 2019.