On being an understudy.

  • User Deleted

    This profile has been archived

    I have an audition tomorrow for understudy to a long established actor in a new play by a very succesfull writer. It's the lead role and another very well known actress will be playing the female lead.

    The play will go on tour for six weeks and then it is planned to end up in the West End.

    So you see it's high profile stuff!

    Now then, what thoughts do people have on being an understudy?

    It's a long play and the character is on stage all the time with some very long speeches. A lot of lines to learn and lots of hard work involved just to spend most of the time waiting in the wings!

    What do you think? Should I go for it?

    I'm a late starter at this game but I am being offered some decent work.

    • 24th Nov 2009
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  • Claire Dodin

    Actor

    If you like the role, go for it! You'll will get to play it even if it is not very often, and you'll be the first in line when they re-cast.

    It's a great opportunity, you will meet great people and I'm sure you'll learn lots and it'll be a lot of fun.

    good luck with it!

    • 23rd Nov 2009
    • 1
  • David Corden

    Actor

    Claire's right - if you like it do it. Remember it is WORK.

    Also, having done this kind of thing myself I know it can be really good for keeping you sharp and on top of your game and/ or drive you mad, if like me you were learning multiple roles.

    Then there are the networking potentials that may come your way when working with higher profile actors. But do consider that if it is a high profile cast, the likelihood of your taking over the role long term is unlikely. You will usually need to go on in an emergency capacity (ie. injury, incapacity or death) for a few performances, but even in extreme circumstances the production company will generally evaluate the situation and rehearse another 'name' in as soon as possible should there be a long term problem with their originally cast 'name'.

    There is nothing demeaning or belittling about understudy work, it's a difficult, valuable and potentially rewarding role and as long as you have a good stage manager and/ or company manager to rehearse you in to YOUR satisfaction, then you'll be fine.

    Best of luck - I hope you get it, I hope you do it and I hope you enjoy it.

    • 23rd Nov 2009
    • 2
  • Nathan Masterson

    Actor

    I admire understudies. They do all the work of the featured cast in terms of prep, but might not have the opportunity to explore the role on stage, though I think (and I'm more than happy to be proved wrong) that understudies get at least 1 performance during the run written in their contract.

    I wish I had the opportunity!

    Good luck!

    • 23rd Nov 2009
    • 3
  • David Corden

    Actor

    Depends on your agent's negotiating skills and the willingness of the production company involved.

    The actor you are understudying may often support your going on, but certainly some producers are vehemently against it.

    Other , apparently more considerate producers may have the understudy go on once or even twice a week usually on matinees - but that will be more likely due to the 'name's agent negotiating him/her out of matinee performances as a contract rider.

    As far as I can remember, there has never been a performance guarantee for any understudy - and definitely not since the end of the closed-shop.

    • 23rd Nov 2009
    • 4
  • User Deleted

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    Thanks for your thoughts and thanks for your encouragement!

    I shall give it my all at the audition tomorrow! As you have said, it's would be great experience and a great networking opportunity.

    I haven't got it yet but here's hoping!

    • 23rd Nov 2009
    • 5
  • User Deleted

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    A, it's work - which is never to be sneezed at! But also, B, and never to get anyone's hopes up, I happen to know two actors who have understudied in the West End and who through illness and a Hollywood (one understudied Matt Damon) have ended up going on and since then have had more work! Plus even to watch an established star in a slick production could teach you so much...i'd go for it...hope you have.

    • 23rd Nov 2009
    • 6
  • Lee Ravitz

    Actor

    Go for you, Des! Go for it!

    I have never understudied myself, but I believe that most of the positive benefits that have already been mentioned will come to you by taking on an understudy position - being decently paid for the work you are doing, being involved with others who are at the top of their professional game, potentially having the chance to network with significant individuals and to (potentially) be offered the chance (once or twice at least) to appear in your own right, if your agent can negotiate this for you/circumstances demand it. At a time especially of sparse work and poor funding, I don't see how you can lose if you are lucky enough to land this understudying contract.

    With that said, of course, there are difficulties with understudying that you'd need to be prepared for if you take the thing on. Firstly, there is the sense in which an understudy is chosen precisely because it is felt they can approximate strongly to the performance that they are covering - the nearer you come to doing West End understudying, the more pronounced this tendency is. The directorial team are not interested in you giving your own interpretation of a character - they are interested in you giving your interpretation of someone else's interpretation of a character - and that, I think, is challenging for most actors, who are used to channeling a performance from within themselves, not simulating someone else's. This makes understudying simutaneously both very hard, and somehow easier to write off as 'inauthentic' performance. I agree with Nathan that, actually, the understudies are often the real unsung heroes of any performance, but you must be prepared to roll with these preconceptions.

    Another interesting issue is the particular way in which the production team deals with its understudies. I know that many, especially those with large casts and touring schedules, come up with what I personally feel to be a decent compromise - they give the understudies small parts in the production (which will not inhbit the amount of time they can allot to understudying, which is considered more important) so that the understudies get used to the intricacies of the show on a day to day basis, should they have to step in. On the other hand, there *are* alternative models in place: I know also that some shows hold separate understudy rehearsals delegated to the AD (armed with a full set of directorial diktats) throughout the time of performance. All the understudies work together, and are frequently in effect unknown to either the director or the main cast. This is not only a little ostracising, but can result in some very nerve wracking performances when the poor understudy is thrown onto stage in the midst of other performers whom he/she has never actually played against, who are often 'names', and who sometimes barely know who the understudy is. Then, you really have to rely on all your wits and hard work being in place!

    It is generally felt, in the US, that being an understudy is a good way to get further doors opened for you - and this *does* appear to be the case the vast majority of the time. The position of a UK understudy is generally less exalted, and it seems to be rare that, say, the director of the production will become so enamored of the understudy's work that they begin to employ the understudy as full time performer. As I've said, in some cases, the understudy and the director are unlikely to even meet - except glancingly, and at the initial audition. That's not to say that the fact you are involved in a great production, being directed (at whatever remove) by a name director can't be used as a selling point by you personally. If you are actually offered the chance to get on the stage and perform, then even better!! And there are always exceptions - some understudies *do* get to do astonishing things (one of my drama school tutors was so good as an understudy that he was ultimately promoted to performing an extensive run as the lead role!).

    • 23rd Nov 2009
    • 7
  • Lee Ravitz

    Actor

    My one other (sadly negative) point was that the unfortunate truth about understudying today is that, 9 times out of 10, the actors who are performing the understudy role are perfectly brilliant (as you soon realise when they are allowed to go on stage and perform - I've watched a number of friends perform in specific 'understudy' performances), but the production is being sold on the fact that there are 'names' involved. This, of course, includes the very real phenomenon of the 'lead' having been cast on the basis of their 'name' not being half the actor that their understudy is - which I suspect would have been a claim unlikely to have held water 40 years ago! All this tends to mean is that very talented available actors are reduced to understudying in order that less talented, but more 'saleable', 'money' can take precedence. But this isn't really the thread for a rant, so I'll stop now, and wish you all the best of luck again, Des!

    • 23rd Nov 2009
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  • David Laurence

    Actor

    Its all good,There are no down sides.You get to watch other people work.You see the ins and outs of productions.You might even come away witrh a nice credit.Plus the other big bonus is,you get to take away a few good audition pieces.Which can also be used for future castings and showreels.Win win all round mate

    • 24th Nov 2009
    • 9
  • User Deleted

    This profile has been archived

    Thank you, Lee, I was hoping you would give me the benefit of your wisdom!

    It was fun working with you on that last little movie we did together.

    See you at the screening.

    In this play, the actor whom I might be understudying (if I pass the audition!) is bloody good!

    I actually look very much like him with the same build. We are exactly the same age and we are both from the same town and have similar accents so I'm hoping all those points will go in my favour.

    All the best, Des.

    • 24th Nov 2009
    • 10
  • Peter McCrohon

    Actor

    A firend of mine was an understudy in the Mousetrap and one of the actors he was understudying burst his appendix, so my friend went on for 50 performances as Major Metcalf- he was chuffed.

    • 24th Nov 2009
    • 11
  • Lee Ravitz

    Actor

    Thanks for the thanks, Des! Without wishing to cast any aspersions on your brilliance (which I have seen at first hand!), the fact that you are so similar to the person you are understudying is very much of the essence - because the directors/producers have invested so much in crafting the production on the specific type of performance offered by 'actor x', they are very keen to make sure that the understudy, should the understudy go on, approximate as closely as possible to the actor being replaced - for one thing, so that the audience don't feel they are being 'shortchanged' should the actor they may have paid to see not be available! I suspect it is also beneficial to the rest of the cast (who may, as I say, barely have worked with you) that if you step in sounding familiarish and doing moves that are pretty much as expected, then they are less likely to be caught off guard by the change in circumstance. The person who probably has to work hardest is you, because all this also means that you have to spend a lot of time working through/studying or being instructed in the behaviour of the actor you are stepping in for. But then, that, I supppose, is why they call it 'UnderSTUDYING'.

    There are definite benefits to it as everyone has said, and perhaps especially so if you can find ways of making the prospect work for you. There is now a not uncommon practice in place (at least in the West End) whereby there are specific 'understudy' performances actually written into the contract. As opposed to simply going on when the main actor unexpectedly falls ill, these are designed to work around issues like the main actor needing to depart for a couple of days shooting or the like. They are placed on specified dates, and the theatre box office can advertise with these specifically in mind, selling the performance (generally) at cheaper rates for that evening on the proviso that one or more of the parts is to be taken by an understudy. So, these are guaranteed performances for you and well worth trying to negotiate.

    It should also be said, for all my critique of 'name' casting, that a particularly good scenario can open up if the contract for the run has been extended, but the actor you are understudying does not wish to extend their own contract. At that point, the production team are presented with the option of recasting another 'star' or of taking the option of allowing you (who, after all, by now know all the scripting and moves, and will cost them less money to retain) to graduate from being an understudy to fulfilling the part for the rest of the run. Stranger things have happened.

    With all that said, I know lots of actors who after about six months worth of being an understudy have enough of it, and do not renegotiate contracts - because, in the worst scenario, you are not getting to appear, you are nonetheless always 'on call', just in case, and this, in itself, is limiting your opportunity to win other more visible work for yourself etc. I would certainly jump at the chance to be involved initially, and then reassess after you've been several months in the job if the contract is liable to be ongoing. If it's limited, anyway, then this is a non-issue.

    • 24th Nov 2009
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  • Blake J Askew

    Actor

    Some theatres have understudy runs where you can invite casting directors etc. You can get exposure but use the run to get contacts and find ot what is happening and where... meet as many people and get their numbers and adresses as possible. Work begets work.

    • 24th Nov 2009
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