Here’s how it’s supposed to work. You’re an actor who fancies trying his hand at directing. You pull in some favours, you assist on a couple of shows, you cut your teeth on some small venues and then you might get a shot at taking on some big shows.
There is no greater proof that Nigel Harman is much more than “just” a soap star than the fact that in a couple of months time he will make his directorial debut, with a show opening in Leeds. Not in a small space, but at Leeds Grand Theatre and not with a little show – but with Shrek The Musical.
“I knew I was going to direct something, but I thought I might start small,” says Harman, laughing at the scale of the project with which he will make his debut. Shrek is not small.
While Harman was best known as playing the dark and brooding son of Dirty Den in EastEnders, there were indications early on that this talented actor would have a life long after he exited Albert Square.
One of his first jobs out of Walford was on the stage of the Sheffield Crucible under the gaze of director Jamie Lloyd, one of the most highly regarded young British directors of the moment in a play that is a modern classic.
Playing the part of Mick in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker was an important moment for Harman. It showed not just that he had the chops when it came to acting on stage, but re-positioned him in the heads of many who had thought EastEnders was his limit.
“I came from theatre, that was what I had always done, but when I came out of EastEnders, that’s what people recognised my name for,” he says. “The first thing I did was a musical, which I don’t think people were expecting (he received impressive reviews for his turn as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls) and then I came to Sheffield to do The Caretaker,” he says.
When he came to Sheffield to play Mick, in a modern classic of British theatre, it was a marker that he could stand on the shoulders of a theatrical giant like Pinter and not wobble. Other shows followed and he returned North a few years later for True West, this time on the stage of the Sheffield Crucible Studio.
It was an underlining of the fact that here was a serious – and very good – actor.
“I was lucky after EastEnders, I didn’t have to choose to do things because of the money. I never decided to do something because it would make me ‘more famous’. That was never a consideration.
“I enjoyed creating a world on stage and telling a story. That was always the big attraction for me.”
Which is all well and good, but choosing interesting parts to play and deciding to direct is a bit of a jump. It is also a significantly onerous job, an actor knows that better than anyone, so to want the job, you need to be a certain sort.
“It’s because I have always been really nosey. I knew how my bit worked, the being on stage part, but I wanted to learn about how it all fit together, how the big picture worked,” he says. “It was actually when I was in Sheffield doing True West that I really started to think about the possibility of directing.”
Before that thought turned into reality, however, came the part he played in the West End that ultimately gave him the opportunity to finally take the reins on a project. He was cast as Lord Farquaad in Shrek The Musical in the West End. Any remaining doubters about this once bad-guy-on-a-soap-opera evaporated when he won an Olivier for his performance.
They don’t hand those out without good reason. He had proved himself over and over, he had earned his chance to direct. The producers offered him the chance to put his mark on the tour of Shrek and he will open it in July at Leeds Grand Theatre, where it will run for just short of a month. “The great thing about opening in Leeds is that the company will really come together. When you do a show in London, people jump on the bus at the end of a show and go home, but when you are in a different city, you spend more time with each other and I think that makes for a better show,” says Harman, already aware that one of his jobs as director is to create harmony in the cast.
Shrek The Musical, July 23-August 17.
Tickets 0844 848 2700: www.leedsgrandtheatre.com