The subject of understudies seems to be particularly potent at the moment. As producers rely more heavily on star vehicles to sell tickets, press attention is heightened when their understudy goes on. Take the recent case of Sheridan Smith who took a few performances off from her leading role in Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Many seats were empty as theatregoers exchanged their tickets for a future performance at the Savoy, even though her understudy, Natasha J Barnes, is an established actress in her own right and was more than capable of giving a brilliant performance (which is exactly what she did, according to the folk who did see her in the role).
I’ve often heard audience members groan or tut upon hearing the announcement that an understudy will be on – why do they think the performance will be second rate? Personally, I love to see a cover onstage, as the performance is often that bit more focussed and energised. It forces the rest of the cast to be on the balls of their feet and as a result, I find it much more exciting to watch.
I am currently understudying in the UK tour of The 39 Steps. Being an understudy is a strange thing. You’re an actor with an acting job, but you’re not acting. It’s my first experience of being an offstage or ‘walking’ understudy. Before now I have enjoyed playing lead/supporting characters or been an onstage swing (and even then I played one of the supporting roles for six weeks).
At first, I found my position within the company really demoralising – I felt part of the collective excitement and yet not, simultaneously. However, now I’m more settled into the run and I’m much more relaxed about the job and what it entails. Now, you may ask… what does it entail? Every production is different, so I can only tell you what happens on this particular job. The understudies are called each day at the same time as the main company, to join them for warm up. Then one of the three understudies will don their blacks and a head torch to take the role of ASM for that show (a track that we alternate each performance). If I’m not being an ASM, I will be in my dressing room, the green room or watching the show (something I tend to do once a week). I’m typically reading a book, watching a film, doing my admin or trying to learn Italian! In some venues we have exciting things like a pool table! There’s only one rule – that we must be backstage during the show, unless we’re watching. We can only leave at curtain down, but at least that means we’re in the pub five to ten minutes earlier than the rest of the company!
We learnt the nuts and bolts of the job, i.e. the acting bit(!) on tour! We had no rehearsals beforehand, just four afternoons with the director in our first venue. Thank goodness I’d had the foresight to learn my lines before we started. Something I strongly recommend you do! We also have one afternoon per week to do a run through led by the Company Stage Manager. The process of covering a role is a lot less creative, in that you must do exactly the same blocking as the actor who normally plays the role. There’s a very fine line between where you can and cannot ‘make it your own’ as you don’t want to throw the other actors off by being wildly different and yet, you’re not a robot, so…!
The whole point of being an understudy is that you are an insurance policy and will only go on if the actor you cover is ill or hurts themselves during the performance. We have been very fortunate, as the producers of this show gave all of the understudies two performances each to be taken at various points throughout the tour. Mine were a couple of weeks ago at the Birmingham REP – a theatre that means a lot to me, as I grew up nearby and have seen countless productions there over the years. I was suitably nervous the first time I went on, but more than anything… really really excited! I got such a buzz from doing the show and it all happened very quickly, but it definitely made the job worthwhile. We did a Q&A after the show and when someone mentioned it was my first performance, the audience gave me a round of applause. It was very heartwarming.
I’ve gradually floated back down to earth after all the euphoria of those performances and am back to chilling in my dressing room. At the end of the day, I’d rather be walking through a stage door every day than that of an office. I’m effectively being paid to see the country, hang out with some really lovely people and occasionally do the job I love more than anything in the world. Not bad, eh?
The 39 Steps tours the UK until July 2016.
Image credit: Jeffrey Smith from Flickr C.C.