TONY Cownie seems the master of understatement when he glides over his upcoming roles in Travels With My Aunt.
“I’m playing Henry 2, and lots of characters, lots of women and a collection of people he encounters along the way on his journey,” says Tony, smiling.
It is in fact a mammoth task. Travels With My Aunt is the story of mild-mannered bank manager Henry Pulling.
Henry’s very quiet life suddenly becomes chaotic when his eccentric septuagenarian Aunt Augusta suddenly appears and persuades Henry to abandon his suburban life.
And so the pair embark upon an international adventure through Brighton, Paris, Istanbul and Paraguay.
All of this takes place on stage of course. And features over 20 characters.
“It’s a challenge,” says Tony of playing several actors. “And that’s what motivates you.”
Tony Cownie is one of the key figures in Scottish theatre. As an actor he has revealed a deft touch - and true comedy bones - in productions such as The Libertine.
And his performance in Mark Thomson’s A Madman Sings To The Moon was described as “astonishing, at turns lucid, funny, deranged, perceptive and heartbreaking.”
But no sooner has he reminded audiences he is an accomplished performer than he steps away from the spotlight to take control.
So what does he see himself as; director or actor?
“A man of the theatre is the best way to describe me, I guess,” he says, grinning.
“But I like to go back to acting. It’s good for a director to remember what it’s like to be up there.”
He adds, grinning; “It’s two or three years since I’ve been on stage and it was getting to that point where I thought I’d better get back on before I forget how to do it.
“But it’s great to see things from both angles. You have to see life on the other side.”
Tony Cownie’s desire not to be attached to a single theatre profession stems from his initial attraction with the world.
“I was brought up in Edinburgh and was really interested in history,” he recalls.
“I remember when I was thirteen I wanted to see this play, an amateur production set in the 1750s and we were taken to the Churchill Theatre, and I thought, ‘My God, this is it!’
“I realised this was history happening right in front of me. I was bitten by theatre and totally fascinated from that point on.”
However, Tony didn’t go to drama college until he was 22.
The director/actor made his professional debut in 1990 the late Tom McGrath’s play The Flitting.
“I had a bit of life experience before that. I worked as a chef, and in a pizza place.
“But meantime I went to a theatre workshop and did classes there and someone suggested I go to drama college.”
Tony had no overall game plan.
“I was just happy to be involved in the world. And at college at that time you were told you may struggle but you had to work hard.”
Tony landed his Equity Card while working at the Lyceum in a children’s show as an understudy to Merlin the Magnificent in The Adventures of Arthur.
He switched to directing in 1995.
“I was in Dundee with Liz Lochhead’s Shanghaied,” he remembers.
“I had been in the play years before with Borderline and suggested since the actors are playing children, the set would consist of giant furniture.
“We went to the Arts Council and got enough to put it on and Kenny Ireland staged it at the Lyceum.
“He then commissioned Liz to write a follow up which became Britannia Rules.”
Suddenly, Tony was now an actor and director. But the transition wasn’t entirely smooth.
“I was known as an actor and then suddenly I was directing people I had been working with. But I worked with great people.
“And Kenny Ireland was so supportive of me. Had it not been for Kenny I don’t know if I would have gotten into directing in such a big way.”
Indeed Tony went on to become associate director at the Royal Lyceum and later Artistic Director at Cumbernauld Theatre.
Does being recognised as a director mean he is often bypassed for roles?
“Maybe, at times, you think so but you just keep going. And I get to keep learning.
“As a director I learn from actors, I see what can be possible. And you realise theatre is a collaborative process.
“You need everyone working together and that’s what makes theatre special. It’s about creating the right environment.”
Tony certainly has a leaning towards comedy.
“I seem to have done a lot of comedy in the past and I really enjoy it. And it’s great to get a reaction from the audience.”
He says it’s great to be able to work with great actors with comedy bones.
“Yes, I loved working with Gerard Kelly,” he says whom he worked with in a series of pantos. “And there are other greats out there such as Grant O’Rourke, Jimmy Chisholm and Nicola Roy.”
Meantime, he’s an actor again, starring alongside Ian Redford, Joshua Richards and Ewan Somers.
“I’m happy to keep going as I am. I haven’t done too much television so theatre in Scotland is everything for me.”
He defines success as being about continuing to work with very good people, in very good productions.”
“This is all I’ve ever wanted, “ he says with a pleased smile.
“I’ve got it all.”
• Travels With My Aunt, The Citizens’ Theatre, May 3 - May 20.
IN 1989, the Citizens’ Theatre became one of the most talked about independent theatres in the UK thanks to a new production.
Artistic director Giles Havergal had taken Graeme Green’s novel Travels With My Aunt and turned it into a play.
It went on to with the Best Entertainment Olivier award in 1993 in London and has been staged off-Broadway and in San Francisco.