After a busy first two years post-graduation, I have been hoping for the breakthrough role that would lift me on to bigger stages and better-paid jobs.
My agent has been working hard to get me seen for those roles but we are not there yet. What has come in unexpectedly is an understudy role covering a well-known TV actor, whom I resemble, in a London run next year. The show is a good one, the wage would easily be my highest so far and the theatre is one that I have wanted on my CV for a long time.
My agent is very keen for me to do it but advice from actor friends and former teachers has been a bit more mixed. Some suggest that if I am as close to breaking through as I think I am, being seen ‘waiting in the wings’ this early could work against me. I am now in two minds. Am I selling myself short or potentially passing up a golden opportunity?
I often think the role of understudy is similar to working in Theatre in Education – when actors in the early stages of their career tell me they would never consider that type of job, their decision is often based on hearsay rather than giving it a go.
Every actor has a right to decide what kind of work they will and won’t do, so it is certainly not for me to try and ‘sell’ this understudy role to you, but when considering any offer it is always wise to make sure the pros and cons are based on practicalities rather than prejudice.
Contrary to popular myth, an understudy role involves a lot more than just ‘waiting in the wings’. For one thing, understudies will almost certainly be fully involved in the rehearsal process and that can be a very worthwhile experience, especially as you mention that you haven’t been involved in shows at this level before. I hope there is an understudy run and that – without wishing ill on the star of the show – you get to perform often.
However, no matter how many audiences you eventually get to perform in front of, you will certainly get to showcase your skills in front of one very important one: the producers and directors of the show you are covering. That is an opportunity well worth considering. For most actors, keeping their skills honed and being instantly ready to perform can be the hardest parts of the day-to-day grind. As an understudy, you not only have a real incentive to maintain that ‘battle ready’ alertness – you get paid for it.
We have all heard stories of ‘unknown’ actors who have famously achieved stardom via a single understudy role when they had to step into the spotlight unexpectedly, but as I have already promised not to create artificial positives or negatives, let’s view that scenario as the exception rather than the rule. Much more relevant to your current decision is the number of actors I know who are now playing featured roles and leads, but who started to build the reputation for strong performance, professionalism and flexibility by understudying.
One thing a cover job absolutely has in common with any regular onstage role is that, as an actor, every opportunity to work is ultimately down to what you make of it. If you do choose to take on this work, then commit to it and give it your all.
You may or may not go out there an unknown and come back a star Hollywood-style, but you will certainly finish the run a better and more experienced actor.
Contact careers adviser John Byrne at email@example.com or @dearjohnbyrne
John Byrne is also a writer, cartoonist, performer and broadcaster. Read his advice columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/john-byrne