Careers Clinic: How should I prepare as an understudy?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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Over a longish career, I have never quite seen myself in the understudy role, but that’s exactly where I am at the moment.

I have a dear friend in the business and, believe it or not, we are friends even though we are similar types and often end up in the same auditions. She was originally due to do this understudy job on a regional tour. At the last minute, she got a nice TV offer. When she was released from the contract, she suggested I audition. I did and they said ‘yes’ the same day. For my part, it has been a quiet year, so while the job doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm it is a case of ‘needs must’.

There seem to have been quite a few last-minute changes to the cast, which means the two weeks of rehearsal have been pretty full-on as far as the main actors are concerned. As a result, while I am in every day, there is very little I am being asked to do. I am starting to think this may not change much before opening night.

What can I do by myself to make sure I do a good understudy job – if I do get to go on?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE I’ll start by correcting the last line in your query: doing an understudy job well isn’t about “if you go on”. What happens when you go on will be entirely dictated by the work you put in when you are not on.

For obvious reasons, the focus of rehearsals will be very much on the regular cast. However, since they are creating the production that you will have to step into when the call comes, watch those rehearsals very closely. Try to understand the choices the actors playing roles you are covering are making.

As an understudy, you are not expected to clone the other person’s performance exactly. That would be impossible, and possibly quite mechanical even if you could manage it. Nevertheless, your performance needs to be close enough to what the rest of the cast is used to that it still works with what has been rehearsed.

On this point, try to see the show from the front several times during the run as well as in rehearsal in case onstage business or blocking changes and nobody tells you – it has happened before.

Obviously, the more questions you get to ask of the actors and the director about the show, the better, but this often depends very much on the personalities in the company – and also how much time pressure is on the production as press night approaches.

Hopefully, you have already started to learn the lines as you would for any production. Bear in mind that as the run progresses the other actors will get the chance to ‘lock in’ the lines by repeating them every night.

As an understudy you need to run them for yourself throughout the production – you don’t want to have to go on towards the end of the tour with only a vague memory of what you are supposed to be saying.

Establishing the habit of those regular line runs is one of the many things best put in place from the beginning rather than just when they become necessary. In the understudy role, ‘when it becomes necessary’ is usually too late.

Above all else, commit to the job. It may have been one you took on because nothing else was on the horizon, but it’s now your job regardless.

The extent to which you do it well can make a big difference to the next jobs you get offered, not just in terms of your professional reputation but also to the account you give of yourself when you do get on stage.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne