Drama alumna Alyson Connolly authors latest in self-help series

Alyson Connolly leverages her Arts degrees to help people find their voice with Public Speaking for Dummies.

Erik Einsiedel - 04 October 2019

This year, the Department of Drama's Studio Theatre celebrates its 70th anniversary, launching its 2019-20 season with Shakespeare's Richard III opening on October 11. For 70 years, Studio Theatre has produced a long list of talented alumni who have parlayed their training into varied and interesting careers, many of which lie beyond the stage and in unexpected fields.

One such alumna is Alyson Connolly ('84 BFA, '14 MFA) who graduated the BFA Acting program in 1984. She returned to the U of A 28 years later in 2012 to pursue an MFA in Theatre Voice Pedagogy. Today, as a voice and public speaking coach, Alyson authored Public Speaking for Dummies, a recent addition to one of the most well-known series of self-learning resources in the world.

We caught up with Alyson to find out how she leveraged her Faculty of Arts training to professionally help people find their voice, and the joy of speaking in front of others.

Alyson's memories of her BFA Acting program:

Alyson Connolly BFA Acting
Alyson with her BFA Acting class (1984).

"We performed our Studio Theatre season at Corbett Hall. The dressing rooms were in the basement, and in order to get up on stage you had to walk up a steel flight of stairs. If your character was entering when there was a scene on stage, you had to walk up the stairs very quietly. During our last show of the season and of BFA, this proved to be difficult because I was in stilettos! The play was Jean Anhouilh's Thieves Carnival directed by guest director, Bernard Hopkins."

On returning to school 28 years later:

"28 years after receiving my BFA, I went back to the Drama Department for my MFA in Theatre Voice Pedagogy. Going back to school was a huge adjustment since I wasn't very proficient on the computer and hadn't written an essay since 1984! I was grateful to have the grad office as a place where you could cry alone, commiserate with a buddy or celebrate your success. That is where I met actor/director Valerie Planche who was taking her MFA in Theatre Practice. We are still friends and continue to support each other in our careers."

How Alyson's Arts degree influenced her career path:

"During my MFA, when it was time to declare my thesis, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to help people in businesses.

"One day, our son Jack, who was a fine trumpet player, was asked to play the Last Post at the Remembrance Day service at his school. On the day of the performance he had a panic attack. 'Mom, I can't do this,' he exclaimed! I asked him to take some slow, deep breaths, explained that this was a great honour that he was asked, and to think of it as an opportunity. He went to school feeling better and had a great experience.

"Meanwhile, I Googled 'anxiety in performers.' That's where my thesis was born: alleviating performance anxiety in public presenters. Today, I am a voice and public speaking coach working with clients who are good speakers but want to improve, people whose accent impedes their clarity and those who would rather die than speak in public."

The day Alyson found out she was chosen to author Public Speaking for Dummies:

"I was actually in the hospital Emergency Room when I received the email. I had been having chest pains and thought I might be suffering a heart attack, so I made my husband drive me. I was hyperventilating and oxygen wasn't reaching my brain, so when I read the email I thought I might be hallucinating! By the way, the heart attack turned out to be an esophogeal spasm -- the bread I ate for lunch went down the wrong way.

"Later, I asked Tracey Bloggier (the acquisitions editor for the Wiley corporation who produce the For Dummies series), 'Of all the people doing what I do, why me?' She liked my website, what I did, and thought I'd be a perfect fit. But I'm not really a writer -- I'd only written my thesis and a couple of blogs by that point. Luckily, our son Patrick, who took Creative Writing and English in University, helped me out. It is a tad humbling when your 25-year old tells you that what you thought was funny, isn't!"

Alyson Connolly

Words of wisdom for anyone considering an Arts degree:

"Go into the arts with an open mind. It is easy for me to say that now, but when I went into the BFA, I thought I'd be an actor forever! But everything I have done in my life -- acting, directing and teaching -- has led me to where I am today. I still apply what I've learned in university every day.

"Also, find a friend who is in your program. Someone that you can talk to who really understands what you're going through. And hang on to the joy, otherwise what's the point?"