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Careers clinic: How can I balance directing and acting?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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A friend of mine recently directed a play while also playing the lead. I did my best to support him publicly despite the generally poor reviews, but privately I have to admit that they were all fairly accurate. He now admits that himself, and with the benefit of hindsight, feels he focused too much on directing the other actors without leaving time to work on his own performance.

Friendship aside, the reason this concerns me is that I’m just about to take on a similar task. In my case, it’s not by choice – the director of a play I’m acting in as well as co-producing has pulled out the week before rehearsals. As I have directed a few one-person and two-hander shows in a non-actor capacity in the past, the other producer and the cast have taken a vote and decided I am the best option to save the day. The director side of me wants to give it a go, but the actor part of me definitely doesn’t want to end up in the same mess my friend did.

John Byrne’s advice

When things go well for one of our contemporaries, it can be a very human response, to ask: ‘why them and not me?’ Similarly, when things don’t go well for somebody else, our own insecurities can lead us to distance ourselves from the unfortunate individual.

Well done for not being that type of ‘friend’. As a writer observed to me after their own high-profile sitcom was cancelled: “In this business, people think failure is an infectious disease and they shun you in case they catch it.” Smart business people think differently, realising that in both the successes and failures of others are lessons we can apply to our own career journey. Your friend’s experience is one such lesson, and one that a lot of actor/directors have learned the hard way.

It seems an obvious point that acting and directing are two different jobs, both of which require a different type of focus at different times. I doubt anybody takes on both roles without understanding this in their heads. The problem usually arises as the production takes shape in the real world. By their nature, rehearsals never run smoothly (that’s why we have them in the first place) and individual acting and directing issues that arise never do so in a neat, easy to separate way. For that reason, it is crucial not only to work out in your own head which ‘mode’ you are operating in at which time, but for the rest of the company to be clear on that too.

‘Both the successes and failures of others are lessons we can apply to our own career journey’

As director, you will often need to problem-solve. It is best if cast and crew bring you those problems when you are in the directing mindset and not when you are considering your own acting choices. Speaking of acting choices, if you have only directed small shows before, you may not have worked with an assistant director. If a play is a one or two-hander and you are not acting in it, it’s usually possible to get the full picture of all that is going on. If you are in your own cast, even in a small show, an AD or somebody who can play that role is essential.

Obviously that second pair of eyes needs to belong to somebody whose opinion you trust implicitly both in their understanding of what you are trying to achieve, and their ability to give you honest and constructive feedback when you are yet to reach that goal. With a trusted AD on your side to free up your acting brain, the twin role is still a challenging one, but not impossible. Whatever happens, it will teach you a lot of valuable lessons both as an actor and as a director whether or not you ever combine the two roles again.

John Byrne is careers adviser for The Stage and is also a writer, cartoonist, performer and broadcaster. Read his advice columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/john-byrne

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