Self-confessed control freak Neal Foster shares his tips for writing, directing and performing your own work.

Neal Foster (l) in Barmy Britain

Directing myself is not my preferred way of performing – or directing – but for the past five years I’ve started to write the scripts for our productions and I’ve found I like to be in the directing seat of my own work. As an actor/manager the extra layer of complexity comes when I find myself performing in the show.

This year we’re presenting The Best of Barmy Britain, a compilation of our Barmy Britain shows, which made their debut in the West End five years ago. The show has become the longest running children’s show in West End history, so it seemed fitting to celebrate this new milestone with a production of our favourite scenes.

This time around it’s going to be easier to perform and direct the production as I’ve done all the scenes before. The first time we did the shows I started off as the director and then introduced myself into the second cast when the swap occurred. It was therefore pretty easy to direct myself as I gave myself the same notes I’d given the first actor: Keep it slow at this point; direct that line to the wings; pause before you take off the helmet, etc.

There is a joy in being able to take control of a show and craft it exactly how you imagined

Learn to take criticism

When starting from scratch I’ve never found it hard to take criticism. In fact I pretty much welcome everyone’s input – the sound designer, the front of house manager, the bar tender. I also have a fabulous relationship with my fellow actors and we’re secure enough to take notes from each other. It becomes an incredibly collaborative exercise. 

Make the most of understudies

It is, however, hard work. There is a constant worry that you’re missing something, that you could have thought of something clever at that point. I am always hopping in and out of scene, taking turns with the understudy, so I can see the scene objectively.

When it comes to the technical rehearsal I put the understudy on stage and sit down in the theatre to watch the lighting and sound to get a feel of the show. We choose our understudies carefully to get a true impression of the production.

Listen to the audience

The final ingredient which tells you everything you need to know is the audience. This is true of any play but particularly a comedy. The simple truth is that if the audience doesn’t laugh, you’ve got it wrong.

Once a show opens, the conversation between you and your fellow actors becomes a three-way affair and the audience guides you through the play. It’s simply astonishing how much silent information you can garner from a crowd of strangers who’ve never seen the play before.

Of course, you can’t trust an audience completely. They might respond well to something a little crass or be thrilled when you forget your lines, but on the whole I really don’t know anything for sure until an audience has given its verdict.

Does it work? Can you really achieve something special when you’re on stage directing yourself and those around you? In my experience it can work tremendously well. The collaborative process that gets you to opening night means the cast are working tightly together on stage.

Find joy in the unexpected

I find it interesting when I’m performing that it never feels like my own writing. The two activities are so different they never conflate. The wonderful advantage of being the writer, director and actor is I can change anything I like. There are no hurried conversations in the corner when you’ve cut the writer’s favourite speech. Anything that needs changing can be done so in an instant. Any idea from the floor can be incorporated without debate. It cuts so many corners that we’ve never yet hit a wall.

You could say I’m a control freak. Indeed a radio interviewer in Australia asked if I let the pilot fly the plane over. I can’t deny there is a joy in being able to take control of a show and craft it exactly how you imagined. But the reality never unfolds as you expected and that’s where you find the joy. It’s the surprise, the sudden idea that changes everything that makes theatre so exciting.

I’ve been performing Barmy Britain in different forms for five years. Last week we found a new gag in the medieval plague scene. The audience love it. And that’s why theatre will always trump any art form for me – it’s a living, evolving, constantly surprising experience you share with your friends on stage and those unknown people sitting out there together in the dark.

Neal Foster is Actor/Manager of The Birmingham Stage Company.
Tw: @HHliveonstage

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