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Dear West End Producer: ‘Should the press attend understudy runs – just to celebrate understudies?’

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What a brilliant idea. I’ve seen thousands of understudy runs over the years and they are marvellous affairs. Often the understudies do a better job than the actual actors. The atmosphere is always electric, as there is usually only one understudy run – so nerves are heightened and the pressure is on. It really is theatrical showgasm-land, dear.

The reason for understudy runs is to allow the actors to get a chance to play the role, and invite friends, agents, and casting directors (and Grindr dates, of course – it’s the best possible way to show off). The sad truth is that the auditorium is often only half full. I can never understand why tickets aren’t made available to the public (for a small fee), making it far more of an event for the understudy. But the idea of inviting critics is marvellous.

Without understudies, shows would be cancelled, actors would strain their throats and producers would lose money

Understudies are the theatre world’s fourth emergency service. Without them, shows would be cancelled, actors would strain their throats and producers would lose money. They are so important to the running of a production, and to validate them by inviting reviewers would be an important step forward. Of course, the reviewer would clearly state that it was an understudy run – and take this into consideration – but the fact that they were being reviewed might help understudies’ careers. As you say, it’s more about celebrating the role of the understudy and all they do for the show, but having them reviewed would help alleviate the snobbery that some people have about them.

Richard Jordan: It’s time to show understudies respect – they might be tomorrow’s stars

I know actors who have had an awful time understudying productions in which they didn’t really feel involved in the company. They felt it was a ‘them and us’ situation with the cast, as sometimes they weren’t invited to rehearsals or asked not to speak to the director – only the assistant who would be directing them. Obviously, this is awful, and I’m assured that it’s not usually the case.

I find it peculiar when understudies aren’t listed in theatre programmes. I noticed a case of this last year and enquired why. Apparently it was because the understudies were only auditioned during the final week of rehearsals, when the programmes had already gone to print. This is unacceptable. Understudies should be given the same amount of time as other actors. They have a job to do, and could actually find themselves on stage on opening night (they are contractually obliged to be ready by then). It’s a hard job, and they must feel prepared. This is one reason why in the past the idea of being an understudy was frowned upon.

But I hope that times are changing. Being an understudy is a wonderful job, and can be a brilliant opportunity for actors to move forward in their careers by working with brilliant companies. As an industry, we have to support them and be more vocal about understudy runs – and we must not ban understudies from promoting their shows on social media (but that’s a whole other article, dear). So let’s celebrate, review, promote and applaud them. Bravo to the understudies, dear!

Send questions to your dear agony aunt via Twitter @westendproducer. Read more of West End Producer’s weekly advice columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/westendproducer

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