Directing from Onstage
I once worked with a drama director at a local church who, during an especially stressful rehearsal period, jokingly grumbled, “Our next show is going to be a one-man production. Starring me.” Of course, some directors would sooner leave town than be caught performing onstage, but many others (myself included) got our start as actors—and for us, the temptation to take the stage can often be a strong one. There are brilliant examples in both theater and film of directors who manage to act in their own productions, but is there a way to know when it’s right, and how to go about it? Here are some tips I’ve learned the hard way:
Check your motives.
Directors tend to be control freaks. Our job requires us to unify a dizzying array of elements of acting, lighting, sound, costumes, sets, props, makeup into a single coherent vision, which means directors are required to see the whole picture, while everyone else is responsible only for their parts. The danger of this unique perspective is that we can quickly become tyrants, taking on more than we should because we don’t trust others to do it “the right way” (by which, of course, we mean our way). If you’re thinking of acting in the show, stop and prayerfully consider if it’s because you’re legitimately the best actor for the role. In fact, a trusted assistant director might be the most objective person to make that call.
Don’t assume it will be easier. No matter how talented an actor you are, performing in a role requires time, concentration and energy; these can be rare commodities for a director. Often a director has already spent so much time with a script prior to auditions that he can practically quote it, but you should still be careful assuming that an acting role will be no sweat.
Don’t go it alone.
This is important! Don’t presume you can tell how the scenes look from onstage. You need another set of eyes. Find an assistant director, and choose wisely: you need someone who can give honest advice, but who will still respect your role as director. It can also be helpful to videotape the scenes in which you will appear, or to have someone physically “stand in” for your character from time to time so that you can see how your scenes play from the audience’s perspective.
Play by the rules.
If you decide to act in the show, you have to accept that the rules that apply to the actors now largely apply to you, too. This means that you have to be off-book the same night they are, get notes and critiques from the assistant director just like they do and do all of the warming up and stretching out that they’re required to do. (As a positive note, I think you'll find this can be a tremendous morale booster. Actors will tend to respect you more if they see you’re willing to serve alongside them and follow the same rules you’ve set for the cast.)
Keep your sense of humor.
Remember to have fun! Acting in your production can be a great opportunity to “lead from the middle,” but bear in mind that some actors may be intimidated by acting opposite their director. Go out of your way to put them at ease: keep the tone light, ask for their thoughts and suggestions and lavish them with positive feedback. In other words, demonstrate the kind of attitude that you’re looking for from the other actors—they’ll likely take their cue from you and do the same.
Is it asking for trouble to act in your own production? Not necessarily. In fact, it can be a time for creative growth in your drama ministry, a refreshing change of pace for you and your actors and a terrific change for an assistant director who’s ready for more responsibility. But regardless of whether you ever decide to perform in one of your own productions, I would strongly encourage every director to act at some point. You’ll be amazed at how quickly your attitude toward actors improves when it’s your heart pounding onstage, waiting for the lights to come up, your mind racing with, “I should have gone to the restroom...Am | sweating off my makeup?...What’s my first line, again…?”