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Theatrical Reflections: The Understudy Syndrome

Somehow, when yours truly decided to take a three week break from acting after discovering she had burnout... I didn't anticipate getting offered a role in a show. Let alone two. In the same show. So, my mini three week break was going to turn into a working vacation. And I didn't expect that to happen at all. Well, it all started like this: The Friday after deciding that I was taking a three week break starting on a Tuesday, I received a message from a good friend of mine. He was having trouble finding an actor to help be an understudy to cover two roles in a show he was directing, and opening night was fast approaching. He knew the last time I helped him share his post for finding a director worked wonders, and so he asked me once again to help him out. He also added something I didn't anticipate. He asked me to send in my headshot and resume for consideration as well. Well, you can imagine I was incredibly surprised by this, but also still very exhausted mentally, physically, and emotionally. My first impulse was to tell him no thanks, I'm taking a break. But there was something inside me that told me to help him out. "It wouldn't take long to go on social media to help share his post." "Or even send in your headshot and resume. The least that can happen is they say no, and if that happens, you can go on with your break as planned." I knew he was struggling with finding the right actor, and I also knew that I'm always willing to help out in some small way, even if it's just prayers and positive vibes. So, I shared his post about needing an understudy, and I also sent my headshot and resume his way, not thinking much of it. I honestly thought that they wouldn't cast me at all, especially after discovering I was burnt out and I needed some time away from acting for a while to rest, process, and start the long road to recovery. I think the universe had different plans... Because the following Sunday as I was on my way to church to pick up a treat from a friend and be a part of a special prayer service, I get an email from my friend with the subject "Fiveplay Understudy." My curiosity piqued, I opened the message, and to my surprise, my friend spoke with the team and was familiar with my work that he wanted to offer me the understudy roles in Fiveplay. Boy, was I knocked over by this surprise! I would've responded sooner, but I had to go the prayer meeting first to pray for a permanent space for our church... And also secretly give thanks to God for this amazing opportunity! I wasn't expecting this whatsoever, and then it just happened. I told my friend yes, and rehearsals were to start that Tuesday. To make matters better, I was working with a healthy mixture of new and familiar faces in this cast and crew. Well, if you're going on a working vacation, you might as well make it a fun experience! And being an understudy was a fun experience... Especially since it's the first time I got to be an understudy and get guaranteed performances! One thing I've discovered as an understudy prior to this role is how valued we are... But also how undervalued and underutilized we are. Think about it: You have these talented artists who got cast because of somehow matching the same levels of the principal actors cast in the roles, and yet even though they're there in the case of emergencies or planned absences, the understudies are not used on a regular occurrence to showcase their talent for the show they're a part of. They're not even given the same amount of rehearsal time as the principal actors so that they can be well-versed in the show. Some only get just one put-in rehearsal just so the tech and fellow principal actors know about the understudy's timing and presence onstage. You see the stories of how understudies were called in to save the day at the last possible moment during the pandemic when the lead or supporting actors were out sick and the show had to go on. They were revered as heroes and champions for being so hardworking and prepared to go on at a moment's notice. But here's one thing I'm chewing at: Why can't they have the same opportunities as the principal actors, even if it's on a smaller scale? Why can't they be involved in the rehearsal process on a more frequent basis? Why are they only needed for emergencies, but not for more performances that don't involve an emergency or planned absences? Why aren't understudies trusted enough to carry on a show when the principal actors aren't there, especially when the casting team trusted them enough to be cast as understudies in the first place? Look out. I'm about to get on my soapbox... And I might not be able to stop.

Before we get into the crux of this week's post, let's start at the top. What exactly is an understudy? Webster's dictionary defines this role like this: As a noun, it is a person who learns another's role in order to be able to act as a replacement at short notice. As a verb, it's someone who learns (a role) or the role played by (an actor). So, in essence, it's an actor who learns someone else's role, mostly the lead, to able to be prepared to replace the principal actor should they be unable to perform due to illness or an accident. Here's the operative word of being an understudy (or even a swing or a standby): LEARN. As a principal actor learns his or her part for the show for the entirety of their run, the understudy learns from the principal actor in order to go on in order to keep the show going. There's something about being an actor that many people tend to forget, and that's we always get the chance to learn something new, whether that's a particular acting technique, the industry, or the roles we play, no matter how small they are. The same applies to an understudy: they're always learning and being able to implement the skills and tools into the character they're covering from the principal actor. And if an understudying is learning a major role, there's a lot to remember and implement if they were given the chance to go on should the principal actor not be able to perform that night. While the understudy cannot exactly copy the exact mannerisms, speech, or movement of the principal actor in the same way, they can embody the character that is similar and close to precise to the way that it's being directed in the show. You can never be exactly like the star of the show. That's just not possible! What I mean by that is you can't copy how the actor speaks, moves, or even performs in their role. We're not meant to be carbon copies of the actors that are in the principal roles. We're meant to be our own original selves, while also maintaining the directions and blocking given to us by the director and stage manager, and mannerisms of the characters we're playing as understudies, swings, or standbys. We're not meant to be exactly like the Hugh Jackmans, Laura Benantis, Aaron Tevits, Ariana DeBoses, Kelli O'Haras, Jeremy Jordans, LaChanzes, Patti LuPones, Brian Stokes Mitchells, Bernadette Peters, Jessie Muellers, or any of the biggest Broadway stars of the world (or if you're in the Washington, DC, area, we're not meant to be like the Ro Boddies, Craig Wallaces, Holly Twyfords, Tracy Lynn Oliveras, Calvin McCulloughs, Kate Eastwood Norris', Cody Nickells, Naomi Jacobsons, or any of the biggest stars of the DMV). We can't be them, no matter how hard we try. We can only give our own interpretations and respect to the script by being ourselves, while giving the best performances of our lives as the understudies to these principal actors and allowing ourselves to follow the same directions and blocking as dictated by the director and creative team in order to make the show flow seamlessly and true to the script. I feel like that's the part of being an understudy people, particularly audience members, tend to forget. We're not meant to be exact copies of the biggest stars or the principal actors. But we can sure give a damn good performance because we put in a lot of work and effort into what we do by learning so much from the actor we're understudying, not to mention the director and even the playwright in order to give a powerful performance. And believe me when I say this: Being a swing... Or a standby... Or an understudy...

Is NOT for the faint of heart. Especially if you're learning multiple characters (or tracks, if you're in a Broadway show) at the same time and trying your hardest not to mix them up. In my case, I'm so thankful to have different colored highlighters for my two characters I understudied, as you can see here:

And somehow, even with this, it was very easy to mix up the blocking and lines at any given moment! That's why I had to constantly practice and attend the rehearsals in order to watch my fellow actors in the principal roles, pick out the little details to align similarly to the script, and run lines day in and day out (sometimes dividing it between the two characters for 45 minutes a day) in order to learn and get better leading up to opening night. I wasn't meant to be exactly like my fellow actors I'm understudying. I can't do that. But I was expected to learn and implement the directions and blocking in order to help keep the show as close to what the script and the director wants me to do in order to keep the show going. Being an understudy can take a lot out of you mentally and emotionally...

Which is why I'm so thankful for acting breaks! Fresh air has been my closest companion since day one. Sometimes, taking a step away from memorizing lines and blocking is good for you. In fact, it helps to step away and rest for 30-60 minutes so that what you've learned from memorizing lines or getting the blocking down percolates in your mind so you can be ready to add more onto what you've already learned the next day. That's what helped me, at least. Everyone else is different on how they learn their lines, blocking, and even character development for their roles, and the same applies to understudies, swings, and standbys. You shouldn't have to go off of what the principal actor is doing for his or her character development. It's okay to create your own character backstory for your own performance, while also maintaining the director's vision and sticking with the script! You can be the best actor in the world as an understudy (or even as the principal), but if you're not willing to collaborate with the director and fellow actors to bring a story to life by following the script and maintaining the blocking and lines when you do have to go on, chances are you might not be working as consistently as you'd like because of your notoriety for being a difficult performer. There's nothing wrong with throwing in your own originality for the part, but be sure to ask the director if it's okay and then communicate with your fellow actors to let them know if you're doing something that's unique to your interpretation of the character so that they're not being taken off guard. I think you're starting to see what I'm getting at here: Being an understudy, swing, or standby is about learning lines and blocking, but it's also being reliable enough to be ready at a moment's notice. And it's even about being reliable enough to follow directions and sticking with the blocking, and also maintaining the director's vision without going so off kilter. Having a willingness to learn the part (and sometimes in a short amount of time) and being reliable to take on the role of covering a principal actor's role are two amazing qualities that can help you on your journey as an understudy. Or a swing. Or a standby. But here's a catch: You may not have all of the rehearsal time in the world to learn your part. A lot of what you have to learn has to be done independently. So, you really have to pay attention in the rehearsals that you do get to go to in order to ask questions, get clarifications for any changes to the script or movement so everyone is comfortable, and come prepared to step in when an actor is unavailable for rehearsal so that you can help everyone in the room continue to block and run the show. Because you may have to do much of the work on your own to be ready when you are called in to help out in rehearsals. And here's something else you might have to take into consideration: You may not get the chance to go on at all. Which is sad, but we'll get to that in a little bit. Sometimes, being an understudy means you have to be ready no matter what happens, even if it means experiencing the disappointment of not going on during the entire run. And that means knowing the show, blocking, and character backwards and forwards so that you don't look like a deer caught in headlights when you do get called up to perform. Yes, you may not be able to rehearse as much as the principal actors, but that doesn't mean you have the right to blow off your own independent rehearsals to get the lines down, not take notes for the blocking, and not pay attention in the rehearsals so when your moment comes you aren't prepared. I think a reputation for not being ready will not look good on you. People may want you to go on - family and friends, especially - but what good would it be in you have your chance and you're not prepared? Or even a performance or two is cancelled because you weren't ready? I get it. Life happens, and things get in the way of you memorizing your lines and reviewing your blocking, or even being focused enough on your task to be an understudy. But the message still stands: Understudies have to LEARN, be RELIABLE, work INDEPENDENTLY, COLLABORATE with others, and be READY no matter what happens. Well, now that we've gotten the basic definitions of being an understudy, or swing, or standby out of the way, let's get to the juicy part of this post. Especially if it means talking about a sad truth about being an understudy, swing, or standby... They're underappreciated... And underutilized.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but there used to be a time when understudies would go on a regular basis... Not for all of the performances, mind you. But there were certain days and times understudies would go on, like matinee performances or even one weeknight performance. The principal actor wasn't sick or anything like that. It was planned so that the understudy got a chance to go on so the principal actor can get some rest after doing several performances in a row. It was normal for understudies to be given the chance to perform on a frequent basis in order to get the exposure, the experience of performing onstage, and even letting their families and friends see them perform. Now that times have changed, I just have one (or several) questions about this: Why aren't understudies being utilized in this way anymore? Why aren't theatre companies and organizations giving them the chance to get the experience of performing onstage when it's not an emergency or a last minute hiccup? Why do you have to constantly push your star actors and principal cast members to keep the show going without any rest, and not give the understudies a chance to perform? Why don't you trust the understudies to carry the show alongside some of the members of the principal cast, when you trusted in them enough to match the energies of the principal actors playing these roles when you cast them in this role? Why, why, WHY???????? I get it - Times are hard for the theatre industry right now, especially after a global pandemic causing the communities across the country to take a huge hit with returning to some sort of normalcy taking a much slower pace than usual. And you have to rely on your star power creative teams, biggest commercial shows, and biggest names to have to carry on a show to be a success (or in layman's terms, consistently using the people you know to make sure the show goes on and brings in the money and rave reviews). But here's the thing about relying on the people you know: It's not healthy to operate in this way. It never has, and it never will be. The fact that you put all of your weight, even pressure, on your star power cast and crew to deliver a knockout show without even trusting the understudies are capable of holding their own and getting their chance to shine says that you don't have the best interests of the community at heart. The fact that you rely on outside talent, particularly from NYC, instead of looking at the cornucopia of talent in your own community says that you only care about prestige and wealth. The fact that there is still a stigma against understudies, swings, and standbys for not being as good as the principal actors (or even not bringing in enough money) from audiences and those at the top of casting and theatre management says you would rather focus on maintaining your image and pride. The fact that you have to rely on commercial shows in order to bring audiences in and not tell the stories that really matter and go against commercial trends says that you're tone deaf and would rather not face the problems and the issues facing our community and nation at hand. Things need to change, and it has to come from within... Within your organization, that is. Look, you've had a global pandemic and two simultaneous strikes to think about the things that matter to the community and the industry, especially if it means treating your artists and creative teams better. What's stopping you from implementing those promises you made during the onset of the pandemic and the strike? Sometimes, you have to go against what the audiences want, or even what those at the top want, in order to be the theatre organization and company you want to be. And you can start with how you treat your actors, especially the understudies, swings, and standbys. You constantly post and share on social media about how the understudies, swings, and standbys are so valued and appreciated for being there to keep the show going, but why not take it a step further and actually use them and their talents to carry a show? You saw something in the actors that would allow them to match the same artistic levels of the principal actors, or even look similar to the principal actors. You trusted these actors and performers when you saw them in the audition room and callbacks. What's stopping you from trusting them further to carry on a show, whether that's with a healthy mix of principal actors or even a full-out understudy show? Is it the subscribers? The donors? The managing team at the theatre? The director? The creative team? Your own fear? I've got news for you: Sometimes, you've got to look fear and the eye and say "screw you!" and do it anyway. I've had the pleasure of being an understudy in at least five shows, and more than half of them didn't have me go on because I had to be ready and available for whatever happens. Which in the case of understudies, swings, and standbys, is almost never. Because of the pressure principal actors face to keep the show going, whether that's for money or for their own fear of letting people down when they're so tired and need a break. It's okay to give principal actors, especially the stars of the show, a break! They can use a night off... or two. But the point is: It's not enough to post and share the names and faces of the understudies, swings, and standbys on social media. It's not enough to say how much you're appreciated by them for keeping the show going. It's not enough by a long shot. There's a whole community of talented actors who would give anything to perform on some of the biggest stages in their theatre communities, whether as a principal actor or understudy/swing/standby, and you being gatekeepers by only allowing certain talented artists to perform and not give the understudies/swings/standbys a chance to shine says a lot about where your priorities lie. And it's not in your community. Or least not everyone in your community. You don't have to look out to see the people who can play those roles well. How about looking within your cornucopia of talented artists who deserve to be on the those stages, especially if they've been working hard in the community and small professional theaters for much of their life to consistently perfect their craft? And that includes the understudies... Swings... And standbys. It's time you redefined what trust means to you when casting these roles, and giving the understudies, swings, and standbys a chance to shine... And not just for emergencies. (Whew! This week's blog post is one of those where I had a lot of thoughts and feelings to share as it relates to a recent experience I had. But here's the thing about this and previous blog posts - these are just my opinons and observations. You are welcome to disagree with me on anything I've said, or even strike up a conversation with me on this topic. But remember - I will not tolerate any offensive language, disrepect, or bullying on any of my readers or users. If you can't do a simple thing like being kind to one another or agreeing to disagree, I will block you.)

I'm proud to have been an understudy, especially lately. The whole experience of learning a role and being prepared to go on at any given moment always excites me, and it allows me to learn from my fellow actors on how I can best be ready to go with all of the blocking and notes to allow me to give the best performance of my life, should I need to go on. I'm eternally grateful for the director of Fiveplay and the theatre company giving us understudies a chance to perform for two days with rotating members of the principal cast. This was a goal I've had for a long time, and to have it actually happen to me... Especially after not performing onstage after a year... Is one I will never forget and continue to glow about it for weeks on end. Being back onstage again has brought me so much joy, and I can't wait to see what the next opportunity is for me to be back onstage again. Here's the thing about being an understudy, swing, or standby: We truly are the backbone of a show. We're there for rehearsals, tech week, previews, and opening night, alert and prepared to go on at a moment's notice. We are willing to be there (if possible) when there's a problem or an illness. And we have to do our own independent work in order to have our moment to shine should something happen. Perhaps it's time for a change. Maybe we shouldn't have to rely on the understudies, swings, and standbys for just emergencies. Maybe it's time to let them shine on a regular basis. Maybe let them perform for matinees and one weeknight performance so that the principal actors can have a night or two off. Maybe allowing them the chance to be onstage for their friends and family to see all of the hard work they've put into being an understudy, swing, or standby. Maybe it's time to trust the understudy, swing, and standby to give the best performance they can when casting trusted them in the audition room and rehearsal spaces. And if things don't work out, just do what fitness instructor Leslie Sansone says: "You don't give the program over one move you can't do. Never! You just keep walking." In other words... If you can't do one move or one idea doesn't work out, you don't give up. You keep going and find a way to make it work, even if it's not what you expected it to be. Or what the audience or the industry expects it to be. If one understudy, swing, or standby hasn't been prepared enough to be there when the performance needs them, you either give them a chance to play catch up, or you don't hire the actor again. But don't give up on understudies, swings, and standbys because of the fear they won't be ready... Or even won't bring in the money for the show. You saw something in these actors when they auditioned for played off the principal actors in the audition room or even in rehearsals. Why not trust them to carry a show? If you really want to celebrate the backbone of a show... Let the understudies, swings, and standbys have their moement to shine. Let them perform! Now that I've understudied for five shows - one of which had me do the blocking and lines for an actor who was sick for much of the rehearsals, two of which had me learning the lines and rehearsals for a project, one of which had me perform twice and learn my lines and blocking for three weeks, and one where I had to be an on-book understudy with guaranteed performances - I'm looking forward to my next adventure... Being in a show as a principal role! And continuing to advocate for understudies, swings, and standbys. You can't do a show without us. Why not do the right thing and allow them to perform? You can trust us. It's okay. We may not be the stars of the show... But we can be sure we can still put on a damn great performance in our own unique way while sticking with the script and blocking. Things need to change... And they need to change NOW. Photo credits: Valerie Mikles

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