WhatsOnStage Logo

Guest Blog: Oliver Cotton on the 'two hat conundrum' of acting and writing

As his play Daytona receives its world premiere at the Park Theatre, actor Oliver Cotton, who is currently appearing in Passion Play, reflects on the tricky task of swapping hats

WhatsOnStage logo
Oliver Cotton
© Dan Wooller
A lot of actors write. Also I imagine some writers act - I can't think of any at the moment but I know they must exist - and it confuses people. Do you see yourself as an actor or a writer? Writer or actor? Come on, cough up! Which? And is there a transition from one to the other? Acting to writing? Writing to acting? Answer, you two-hatted swine!

The truth is there's no transition. The two sit in different places, different bits of the brain, and I just do both – or try to. Does writing make me a better actor? No. Does acting help my writing? No. I once took part in the public reading of a play I had written - a two-hander performed at a fairly swish venue, under the baton of an eminent director who insisted on a couple of day's rehearsal - a rare bonus.

We set to work and, for the first and possibly last time, I found myself acting my own words. Obviously I knew the script backwards; hadn't I sweated over its creation, spent months fussing over its refinement and wasn't I reasonably pleased with the result? But now here I was squinting through a different prism, asking different questions, acting questions - given circumstances, motive, objectives, character, timing - and the director was giving me notes. Notes! Apparently I was acting it wrong! Sorry? Wrong? How could I be acting it wrong? For God's sake I wrote it!

And there it is. On a plate. There's the moment of truth. You may have written it but that won't help you act it. You must now approach your own text with the same quizzical humility you would any other script. This may sound crashingly obvious – but when you're wearing two hats, or, come to that, wearing two anything, it's a moment of realisation. It's also possibly why I have never written a good role for myself. I just write what I write and discover later if there's a role for me. To date there's been nothing.

Maureen Lipman in Oliver Cotton's Daytona
An actor/writer friend of mine once described the difference in the two disciplines as a breathing thing. Writing's like breathing in. Acting's like breathing out. One's the effort and the other's the action – ultimately inter-dependent but different in their process – something that only matters if you do both. And that comes true in spades on that strangest of days when you actually attend the first rehearsal of your own play!

As an actor I've often asked, "who's that man - the embarrassed/angry/mad one in the corner"? That's the writer you idiot! And now that's me. I'm the man in the corner. There's a pile of scripts on a table all bearing my name, there's coffee and croissants and chatting and we've looked at the model - but basically it ends there. From now on I'm expendable. Apart from supplying the odd rewrite I'm in the way and frankly it might be better if I left. Nobody says it but it's in the air - sort of. See you at the tech.

I'm exaggerating but it's kind of true. It's also kind of blue because, after a lifetime of exploring other people's scripts, sharing thoughts, being daily in rehearsal, roaming the set and making it live, every instinct demands I stay, that I stay in the room and contribute. But that's now the director's job and there can only be one. So, in the world of two hats I am now bare headed. It's off to the pub or back to my day job - acting in someone else's play.

My play Daytona opens at The Park Theatre, Finsbury this week. It stars Maureen Lipman, Harry Shearer and John Bowe and is directed by David Grindley. They're all brilliant. Go!

Daytona premieres at the Park Theatre tonight (17 July 2013) and continues until 18 August