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Dear West End Producer: ‘If you are understudying an actor who is never off, how can you go on?’

West End Producer West End Producer. Photo: Matt Crockett
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Poison is possibly your best option. Followed by a hitman. Or, a slightly less extreme approach would be to simply lock said person in their dressing room.

Most actors hate the idea of being off for a show and letting their understudy on. And this is for two reasons: firstly they don’t want to lose any money (some performers get wages docked if they’re not performing); and secondly, they don’t want their understudy to do a better job than them (which is often the case). However, it is usual that in longer runs an actor will have holiday dates, and at these times the understudy will be guaranteed some shows to perform (and pose and pout).

However, in shorter runs no such holiday dates exist, so an understudy doesn’t get the same opportunity. The role of an understudy (or cover) in a company can be a difficult job. Sometimes understudies feel as though they’re not a proper member of the company (of course they are) and it’s a ‘them and us’ situation with the other actors. Understudies also have to work extra hard to feel as though they could go on at any moment and sometimes have to take on most of the responsibility of rehearsing themselves, because the tight timetable doesn’t allow much time with the director, co-director, associate director, or boyfriend of the director.

It sounds like your “friend” is well up for going on and feels prepared to give the performance of their life. So, the best thing for them to do is to have a chat with the actor they’re understudying. They should take them out for a few drinks, get them drunk, and after 10 vodkas get them to sign a document stating: “I will let my understudy go on for me next week.”

I jest, well a little, but the idea of simply asking the actor is the best option. They will understand, because they were probably an understudy in the past – so with a little persuasion, and a few bags of nuts, most people would be only too happy to give them a chance. Sometimes, this is done officially, with the actor telling the company manager, or sometimes “unofficially” – with the actor pulling a sickie.

However, if this doesn’t work, then it may be worth having a chat with the director. Usually in the run of a show there will be an “understudy run”. This isn’t where lots of understudies do a 5km run for a local charity, it’s a performance of the show using all the understudies (and sometimes other members of the cast if required). These are marvellous as they give everyone the opportunity to play their respective parts, and often it’s to an invited audience – which is useful for showing off to agents, casting directors, and Tinder dates.

But, if none of the above works, your final option is bribery: M&S vouchers, a crate of champagne, cash, or Spice Girls tickets will ensure the actor you’re understudying has at least one night off and you have a chance to shine, 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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