Actress Blair Brown remembers the moment she first considered devoting a significant amount of her time and energies to directing.
It was 2003. She was playing "Prospera" in a non-traditional rendering of The Tempest directed by Emily Mann at the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey. "I had been talking to costume designer Jess Goldstein about the color blue and all kinds of things," she recalled, "and he called about an hour later and said, 'I don't really know you that well, but I just want to say, you think like a director.' That was the thing that tripped me over. I thought, I've got the time and enough money in the bank that I can try to make this shift."
Since then, Brown has directed as often as she has acted. This fall, she will have her most high-profile directing gig to date, the world premiere of Sarah Treem's A Feminine Ending at Playwrights Horizons. She is working with playwrights on bringing at least three other projects to the stage.
"I think it keeps me sharper going back and forth," she said. Brown is certainly not the first stage actor to try her hand at directing. Many of today's top theatre directors, including Daniel Sullivan, Jerry Zaks, John Tillinger and Joe Mantello, began their careers as performers. But those men largely made a clean break with their former profession and have been known for many years now solely at helmsmen. Brown, meanwhile, continues to act no matter how many directing credits she racks up. So do such talents as Austin Pendleton, Harris Yulin, John Turturro, Daniel Gerroll, Ethan Hawke and Andrew McCarthy. They are not actors-turned-directors. They are actor-directors.
In almost all of the above cases, the individuals remain better known as performers, even though some of them have been working behind the scenes for decades. Pendleton began directing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the early 1970s. Gerroll first manned a show professionally in 1984. Yulin has directed as long as he has acted — that is, 50 years.
To the average Joe, the idea of an actor who also directs is looked upon as something remarkable. But the practitioners themselves are not nearly as impressed with their own accomplishment. Almost everyone interviewed for this article viewed their involvement on both sides of the footlights as simply a natural occurrence.
"It seemed an interesting thing to do," deadpanned Yulin, who had a critical triumph recently with his Off-Broadway revival of The Trip to Bountiful. "Nothing more than that. I first directed because somebody asked me to. I enjoyed it. I liked the idea of it."
Gerroll — a rarity in that he often acts in the productions he stages — observed that he was only following in the centuries-old footsteps of English actor-managers like David Garrick and Colley Cibber. "The directors of the last hundred years have created this job description that didn't really exist before," he explained. "Previous to that, plays were staged by the person who owned the theatre, the leading actor or the stage manager. You don't hear about directors of Shakespeare's plays."
Empathy for the Players — ?Or Not
The chief virtue an actor brings to the director's chair — or so the conventional wisdom goes — is a built-in empathy for the performer. This trait helps him or her better communicate with the cast and extract better performances.
Well, yes and no, according to some of the people who have occupied that chair. "I think most actors, when they start directing, they think they're going to bring an empathy for the performer and a compassion for the process," opined Gerroll, a regular director as the Bay Street Theatre Festival. "Every actor who's directed that I've ever met has always put up front-and-center that they're actor-friendly. And actors are supposed to love being directed by directors who used to act. Oddly enough, as time goes by, too much of that can weaken your skills as a director, and you have to shift into the less-empathetic mode. Because otherwise, you're simply an acting teacher."
Andrew McCarthy, in fact, thinks too much identification with the performers can get in the way of a solid realization of the script. "One of the downfalls of actor-directors is they don't see the big picture," said McCarthy, who has directed three plays at Ensemble Studio Theatre. "They can fall in love with moments. I always loved the idea of storytelling. That was more interesting to me."
Still, he won't discount the value of being able to see into an actor's head when they are floundering about, looking for the key to a scene or a line. "I certainly understand the avoidances and natural resistances that are part of the process that an actor goes through," said McCarthy. "The manifestation of them can often seem like other things, but really it's just fear and anxiety. I'm able to recognize them in other actors and think, 'Oh, that's what that is,' and ignore it. Other directors don't have that awareness; they're worried about a problem that isn't a problem. It's just an actor going through the process. Leave him alone, and then if it's still happening next week, then we'll talk about it."
"Some directors who are very good directors don't have that much understanding of the acting process," added Yulin. "Every problem somebody is having on stage — I've had it."
Brown sees another advantage an actor can bring to a directing job that is virtually unavailable to full-time directors. "Directors don't get to observe other directors that much," she noted. Performers, of course, work with a different director in every play, and Brown has been guided by some of the best in the business. "I've worked with Trevor Mann and Nicky Martin and Michael Blakemore in a way that no directing assistant could ever experience."
Holding Your Tongue
Gaining confidence as a stage pilot can occasionally lead to hazards when actor-directors return to the stage. The job of the man or woman in charge is no longer a mystery, and his or her missteps can be more easily perceived.
Asked if he has to fight the urge to offer a director his free, unsolicited advice, Yulin responded, "I usually don't fight it," and laughed. "I usually just offer my suggestions, and one can either take them as Joe Papp did, when he said, 'When I want your advice, I'll ask for it,' or perhaps accept them more graciously."
Gerroll, in contrast, has gotten good at keeping his trap shut when he's not at the helm. "As I've matured, I've found I'm really good at stepping back, because I know how hideous it is to have know-it-all actors interfere with rehearsal.
"The real challenge for me," he added, with a chuckle, "is if I'm directing an actor in a role that I know I could act the heck out of and they are not getting it. That's often the most difficult thing to overcome. I have to behave extremely well to fight the impulse to say, 'Oh, get out of the way and let me do it!'"
A New Respect
Actors and directors can often end up antagonists in many productions. The director is the one calling the shots, but it's the actor who ultimately has to risk all in front of a live audience. But most every actor-director eventually evinces a new respect for the person giving the stage notes at the end of each rehearsal. They have now walked several miles in that guy's shoes and know how much his feet ache at the end of the day.
"I have much more empathy with directors now than before I directed," said McCarthy. "You think they're all worried about you. They're worried about putting on a show! You're just a part of that show."
Understanding the weight that sits on a director's shoulders has also caused Brown to better appreciate her lot when she's just a member of the cast. "When I'm an actor, I'm really just an actor," she said. "It's renewed my enjoyment of acting. I just have to act. Directors have so much responsibility."
Gerroll, too, said he can find acting a welcome vacation after enduring the rigors of directing. "As an actor, you're really a child, and should be able to behave like one, and never grow up. As a director, you're really the parent."
(Robert Simonson is Playbill.com's senior correspondent. Write him at email@example.com.)