Words of wisdom by the leading Idiot

Actress turned director Hayley Carmichael tells Brian Logan why no confidence is good
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The Independent Culture

After seven years at work with your own acclaimed company and beyond, you're now recognised as among the country's most distinctive acting talents. What do you do? If you're Hayley Carmichael, you give up acting - albeit temporarily. It's the measure of a woman whose interest in creating theatre far exceeds her instinct for self-promotion. For Carmichael is retreating from the stage to the director's chair, which she's sharing with Paul Hunter on a new show for Told By An Idiot, the company they've elevated to eminence since graduating from Middlesex Poly in 1993.

After seven years at work with your own acclaimed company and beyond, you're now recognised as among the country's most distinctive acting talents. What do you do? If you're Hayley Carmichael, you give up acting - albeit temporarily. It's the measure of a woman whose interest in creating theatre far exceeds her instinct for self-promotion. For Carmichael is retreating from the stage to the director's chair, which she's sharing with Paul Hunter on a new show for Told By An Idiot, the company they've elevated to eminence since graduating from Middlesex Poly in 1993.

Ill-at-ease with the glare of publicity that attends her since a recent series of performances away from Told By an Idiot - including spellbinding turns in Brecht's Mr Puntila and in the RSC's revival of Marivaux's La Dispute - Carmichael insists that Hunter, an experienced director in his own right, share credit for the company's new show. Of her directorial debut, she says, "I wouldn't have done it on my own". It's to her credit that, given her success and Told By an Idiot's continuing penury, she's doing it at all.

But what's thrilling about Carmichael's achievement is that it's come, not via the usual channels - agents, auditions, spear-carrying behind the stars - but through making work she believes in. "What we wanted to do", she recalls of Idiot's inception, "was make shows and be in theatre. So we did. It's not in our personalities to sit and wait. The poetic tragi-comic fables that followed - from their first, One Hundred Years of Solitude-inspired hit, On the Verge of Exploding, to last year's Biyi Bandele-scripted Happy Birthday Mr Deka D - are etched on the imaginations of those who saw them. To her, the company seeks to "take people somewhere else, as opposed to 'let's watch TV that's all about people like us doing things exactly like us'."

The company's latest offering, Shoot Me in the Heart, is adapted from an Argentinian story about a man wrestling with his passion for a woman who stopped growing when she was seven. Perhaps because they first encountered the tale as a film, its new directors "immediately imagined ourselves outside of it". The result will be the first Idiots' show to star, not Carmichael and Hunter, but a cast of eight under their charge. To Carmichael, the story is about "not accepting things about yourself, or trying to be like you remember yourself being, and people around you not liking change". It's a subject that reverberates with her own switch from performing to directing.

On the one hand, directing is a natural progression for a performer who's used to "sitting there, when I'm not in a scene, pitching in ideas". Part of her new challenge is impressing upon her less-experienced cast "how horrible" devising theatre from scratch can be. Horrible? Describing the creation of 1995 hit I'm So Big - freely adapted from Emir Kusturica's film Time of the Gypsies - Carmichael remembers that "we would work four scenes, then not know where to go, and we kept getting to dead ends and buggering off to the pub, thinking, 'what do we do now?'"

As if that wasn't tough enough, Carmichael, withdrawn from performance, finds herself stricken with strange impulses. "I find myself physically twitching. If I go to the loo, I sprint along the corridor and sprint back and throw my arms about and then come back in the room." But the biggest difference between Carmichael's new and old roles strikes to the core of her success as an actress. From her captive prostitute in I'm So Big to her beautiful, mute Kattrin in Mother Courage in the West End, she brings to each role a heartbreaking vulnerability, a dangerous capacity for trust. According to the actress, who in real life is "a bit more mouthy and harder than that", that persona stems from her company's belief "that acting isn't to do with covering up what you feel, it's about being yourself. The actor in rehearsal doesn't have a clue, and that finds its way into our work. As an actor, you're exposed and have to allow yourself to feel that embarrassment".

Carmichael has discovered that a director, too, can learn to love her inadequacies. "On my first day I wanted to say things that were intelligent and would make me sound like a good director. All the embarrassment and blushing didn't seem appropriate anymore. But then I thought, they should be. It's OK to stand in a room as a director and say, 'I haven't got a bloody clue'."

'Shoot Me in the Heart': The Gate, W11 (020 7229 5387), Tuesday to 14 October

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