There is an ancient acting lore that has been passed down over the years (as all good lores are) which tells the tale of the infamous understudy in The Mousetrap. She sat in her dressing room for five years, blissfully reading her newspaper, dabbling in Sudoku, until one fateful night when there was a knock at the door. “You’re on!” boomed the stage manager, his shouts echoing round the St Martin’s Theatre. Falteringly, the understudy rose to her feet, looked at the stage manager and said, “I have to go and fetch my makeup”. She was never seen again.
Over the years, I have undertaken two understudy jobs, the first in The Rivals for the Theatre Royal Bath and the second for the winter season at the RSC and I can promise you that when my time came, I did not run for my makeup. Instead, I was stuffed into a corset, said a few Hail Marys and tripped on to stage, literally.
Understudying is a hard task, you are creatively frustrated, exhausted from rehearsing during the day and performing (in small, wenchly roles, admittedly) at night and all of it without the reward of the applause.
However, I like to think of understudies as the unsung super heroes of the acting world, swooping in at the last minute to save the day and the play (yes, I have already designed the costume and it definitely involves a cape).
Yes, we all know you can do the job as well as, if not better than the lead. But that is not your job.
Many actors take understudy jobs to get a foot in the door with a theatre company or because they have an agent who may only receive Spotlight breakdowns for understudies as opposed to leads. Whatever the reason, it is definitely worth it.
Max Stafford-Clark is a shining example; his production of Top Girls in the West End went on tour and did he recast the leads? No. He used his understudies. They worked hard and he rewarded.
The key to being a good understudy is to accept the job for what it is and to learn from those around you. There is nothing worse than an understudy who is too big for his/her boots. Yes, we all know you can do the job as well as, if not better than the lead. But that is not your job. Thinking you are above understudying will not do you any favours, it will only hinder you.
The most important element is to be a good company member, be positive, hard-working, always on hand with a smile and you will be remembered for the right reasons.
My motto for understudying is this: Don’t be bitter, be better. Work hard, play hard and then when your chance comes, ENJOY!