“You’re a doctor, why on earth are you doing this?”
A locum doctor and professional theatre director
Alison Convey graduated in medicine in 2007 from Oxford University and completed her foundation training in the Oxford Deanery. At Oxford she developed an interest in theatre directing, which she has continued to pursue. Since 2009, she has been balancing her career between working on theatre productions and acting as a locum senior house officer in London. Alison’s theatre credits as a director range from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Oxford Playhouse), Amadeus (the North Wall), to Sweet Engineering of the Lucid Mind (Old Red Lion Theatre), for which she won the Best Director Award at the Off Cut Festival 2010. She is currently the assistant director for a production of The Madness of George III, which is running at the Apollo Theatre until 31 March.
You’re currently working as an assistant director, what has that position involved?
Research was a big part of it, particularly research on George III’s illness, and then being involved in every aspect of the rehearsals. Once the show’s running, my job is to get it in and out of all the different venues because not all of the theatres are the same shape and size. My other big role is to rehearse the understudies because they have to be ready to go on at a moment’s notice. There are a lot of practical people skills involved in directing which is why I like it; it’s creative but hands-on as well.
How did you make the transition to working in theatre?
I’d always loved the theatre, but I knew I wasn’t an actress. I started directing at university in Oxford where there are lots of theatres you can work in when you’re a student. I directed for the six years I was there and loved it, but I also wanted to carry on with medicine so I did my foundation years and early training, and then decided to come out of medical training for a while and give directing a go professionally. I’ve done quite a lot of assisting and directing in the past couple of years, but have been keeping my hand in with medicine by doing locum work.
What do you think are the main challenges in directing?
The main difficulty is communication. It’s [about] knowing how you want the play to look in your head but still trying to make it a collaborative work. I think it’s important that the actors are giving as much input as you are and everyone feels valued.
Do you think that your medical background is ever a hindrance to how people view you in the theatre industry?
The response is varied. Either people are like, “You’re a doctor, how interesting,” or “You’re a doctor, why on earth are you doing this?” I think in certain interviews and with certain people I got taken less seriously—as if I was dabbling in a hobby rather than trying to take this seriously as a career, but that’s quite rare. Most of the time people don’t care what background you come from as long as you’re passionate about directing. I always try to play the experience [medicine] as something that can only help.
You’ve worked on a few plays that have touched upon the subjects of health and medicine. What do you think are the difficulties in interpreting an illness for an audience?
The main difficulty is probably that everybody’s experience of illness is different, so in a way you’re generalising, and you’re trying to fit a diagnosis against what the playwright has written. I think it’s important to bring as much realism to it as you can. For example, I directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and there’s a manic patient in that, but what was useful was to be able to use certain characteristics to make it seem as real as possible. At the same time, knowing that you’re telling a story, you can never say this is a definitive way of showing bipolar disorder on the stage, and even if they’ve got an illness, the character is still an individual. It’s getting the balance between telling the story and adding that element of observation to it.
Do you think your medical background shaped your style as a director?
I imagine from my medical background, I’m able to be quite reasonable and get across what I mean easily. Once you’ve had to have difficult conversations with patients then dealing with a difficult actress, for example, doesn’t seem quite as challenging.
Have you had any negative experiences in theatre?
There are lots of negatives and they’re the things that medicine is [better] at: stability, a full time job, having enough money. It’s kind of the reverse in theatre; you have times when you’re in between projects and you don’t have anything on. I’m in an extremely fortunate position that I can then go and do medicine. I’m still in the process of establishing myself in theatre and because there’s no fixed career path, people can spend a long time doing so. A lot is up to chance, which can be frustrating, but also exciting because you never know what’s going to happen next; that’s the flip side of the unpredictability.
What advice would you give to others hoping to get involved in theatre directing?
To other doctors considering it, think carefully about when you do it. I’d taken two years out and got offered two training jobs last year. People say the way medical careers work at the moment you can’t possibly take any time out but, so long as you’re sensible and carry on making sure that your medical CV is up to date, you can.
To anyone who in general wants to be a theatre director, I think it would be do as much as you can; even if it’s a couple of actors in a backroom, just start directing because that’s the only way you’re going to know if you enjoy it.Kelly Brendel, editorial intern, BMJ
Correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2012;20:e822