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The Green Room: What’s your experience of understudying?

Natasha J Barnes covered for Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory and in the West End before playing the role on the show’s UK tour. Photo: Paul Coltas Natasha J Barnes covered for Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory and in the West End before playing the role on the show’s UK tour. Photo: Paul Coltas

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…

Gary Abblett, 38, is a jobbing actor with experience at the National Theatre, RSC, in the West End and on tour

John Pepper is 31 and has worked as an actor in regional theatres, the National Theatre and in radio, television and film.

Rosemary Crackers is 50 and has worked extensively in TV, film and theatre for nearly 30 years

Jenny Talbot, 39, has nearly 20 years of experience in West End and touring musical theatre with occasional forays into TV, film and plays

Ros Clifford, 30, is a deputy stage manager. She has worked extensively in London and regional theatre for nine years

 

John Learn. Your. Lines. No matter how thankless a task it can be. Just learn them.

Gary In terms of best practice, be enthusiastic.

Rosemary I haven’t understudied, but I always make sure I work loads with mine.

JonAs someone who’s done a fair bit of covering, I can say that approach is always very welcome. And when I have a cover myself, I try to do the same.

John I’ve understudied twice – both times at an hour’s notice. Most recently, it was the lead. Luckily we’d had an understudy run two weeks beforehand. It was terrifying and invigorating.

JonI could write an essay about the understudy run. The most important things are that it should be a full company call – covers shouldn’t have to be asking people to turn up as a favour – and it should be compulsory for the director to attend.

Gary You’re quite right. If it’s treated disrespectfully by the rest of the company, it always leaves a sour taste.

JonI know the West End is getting a bit naughty about understudy runs. I’ve heard stories of them not being scheduled or cancelled at the last minute.

Rosemary I don’t understand. When would a director not turn up for an understudy run?

Gary In my experience, they hardly ever turn up. I’ve done more understudy runs without the director there than I have with.

Rosemary I am appalled at that.

Gary That’s why I don’t like understudying any more. My feeling is to say no unless I actually want to do it (though sometimes beggars can’t be choosers). When I was younger, I thought older actors who said no to understudying were a bit up themselves. Now, that’s me.

Jenny I started out understudying a lot. Keep on top of your work, watch quietly, don’t get in the way and just be normal. No one wants an awkward relationship with their understudy.

John What I hate about understudying is the way it’s scheduled. “Great, we’re done for the day – can the understudies stay on for an extra hour and a half for rehearsal?”

Rosemary I was in a big show not so long ago where the understudy actually went on so much that they held the part for a while.

Jenny Someone I worked with was only in the job because she wanted to play a specific role that she covered. She made sure everyone knew it. She made such a pain of herself that the actress who played that role decided she would never go off and sang through an entire week of gastric flu.

JonSinging on a bad tum. Yikes!

John I’ve heard of very pushy understudies, but never encountered it myself.

Ros We had to have an understudy on for a substantial role on one of my first big jobs and because it was so early in the run, they didn’t know it and their scene partner wouldn’t help.

JonWhat happened?

Ros The cover ended up doing four or five shows, seriously cramming in between.

JonThe day I went on as Touchstone in As You Like It at the National Theatre, I was lying in the bath listening to a podcast. Then the phone rang and I idly thought, ‘That’s our company manager calling, I wonder what that can be about?’ before realising, and leaping out of the bath, sending foam flying everywhere.

John I had lots of support from the director and producers when I went on recently. Phone calls, the lot. The guy I covered gave me a bottle of whisky.

JonThere’s no buzz quite like going on – and nothing more boring than keeping a part warm that you know you’ll never get on for.

John I also think it can be good form for a lead to organise with an understudy to let them go on – then they can bring producers, agents and so on.

JonThat might also apply when the cover has family in, too. I like it as a concept, but I can see problems in practice.

Rosemary I know a director who would never forgive you if you did that. I missed a few shows last year when I was hospitalised. The director hasn’t spoken to me since.

John That’s why it has to be kept between the two parties – and hopefully, with 24 hours’ notice given to the rest of the company.

Jenny There is almost a sense of shame about it in the musical theatre world. Casts are told not to say when they’re off and understudies are not allowed to advertise they’re on.

Dear West End Producer: ‘Would you let your understudies tweet when they were appearing?’

JonThat’s ridiculous in musical theatre because the swing system means there isn’t really a fixed cast anyway.

Jenny Also there used to be a rule that two out of three notices (programme slips, poster or announcement) should be used to let the audience know that a member of cast is being covered, but now it’s only one – usually a poster – and it’s often missed.

John An announcement can be pretty horrid. A friend of mine covered a famous person in town who was off fairly frequently. The groan when it was announced over the tannoy was never terribly encouraging.

Jenny That’s happened in a show I’ve done: actual booing. It’s appalling behaviour. And the ‘star’ being booed isn’t there to hear it – it just demoralises the rest of the team. That’s probably why many theatres have stopped these announcements.

JonAudiences can be unpredictable where covers are concerned. Some like to think they’re witnessing a ‘star is born’ moment, others complain like mad. English National Opera’s Sunset Boulevard was a case in point: some people were furious not to see Glenn Close, others were (understandably) thrilled that they got to see Ria Jones.

Jenny As a principal, I have always tried to ensure both my covers go on. I think it’s only fair that they get a chance to perform it after doing all that work – if they want to, that is.

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