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Bring on the understudy

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Understudies have long discarded the second-best tag and are now regarded as key players in any production, tasked with the demands of delivering the best performance, often with little or no notice - and some, like Andrew Alexander in The 39 Steps, have even broken the mould to be elevated to the lead role, Jennifer Reischel finds

Sitting backstage, I hear the cue for Act I, Scene III entrance. The set shifts back, the audience responds to the punchline, and my character goes on to deliver her first line of the evening. While I remain backstage silently mouthing along the script, someone else enters stage left to give the actual performance.

Such is the role of the understudy, that quintessential double-edged sword of theatrical employment.

As a one-time understudy/assistant stage manager on tour, I am well acquainted with the recurring waiting in the wings routine. And I never did get to go on.

But is it always a case of studying with little chance to strut your stuff? Does an actor have a future as an understudy? And is it realistic to hope that you will ever be promoted to principal status?

Over a drink in Soho's Groucho Club, I hear from Andrew Alexander, an understudy, who broke the mould and was promoted to the lead role of Richard Hannay in the current West End production of The 39 Steps.

Graduating with a degree in history, Alexander admits to spending most of his university days "larking about doing shows like The Boyfriend" instead of focusing on Napoleon and Churchill.

It was inevitable that he then spent a year afterwards at drama school, in his case the Royal Academy of Music postgraduate musical theatre course, entering the business in 2005. With a Hungarian father, his original surname (de Perlaky) was considered too foreign by his first agent and subsequently he adopted his stage name.

Spending his time between acting in Hot Mikado at the Watermill, various pantos, working as a waiter at Rules and selling advertising space, Alexander ended up being signed by Sony BMG as part of Teatro. The four-part male vocal group's debut album sold one million copies worldwide and went gold within three weeks of its release.

Singing across the globe on the same bill as Kiri Te Kanawa and Tony Bennett, Alexander then bravely left Royal Variety Performances behind - to understudy at the Criterion for 18 months.

"I want a varied and wide-ranging career and I know that learning the ropes properly is what will carry me through in the long run," he says in explanation.

Understudying as we know is seen as the foot in the door move for many young actors starting out. Many professionals assert this should be part of an actor's general education as it is a safe way to be able to play a part without the full pressure and responsibility. After all, the expectation will be for you to get through the show rather than give an award-winning performance - though the profession is full of stories where understudies rose to star status.

The drawbacks to understudying are obvious. To put it bluntly, you are not first choice. Not quite given the same attention as the 'real' cast, you may never fully get comfortable with or truly do justice to a part that you are rarely called on to play. And unless you are also in the ensemble or contractually assigned definite performance opportunities, you could wait for months to perform until your principal finally takes a holiday or falls ill.

As understudy for Boq in Wicked, Thomas Sutcliffe says: "Sometimes any artistic enjoyment is lost because the emphasis is shifted towards getting it right."

Equally, the factor of unpredictability demands a fully switched on actor, not afraid to make mistakes. Katy Treharne relates her experience going on halfway through a show for Gina Beck as Christine in Phantom: "You have to imagine you've already done the first few scenes and it's difficult for your thought process."

Rehearsal time for covers and swings varies enormously. While some enjoy the attention of the assistant director or even director, most have to make do with the company manager calling the understudy run every few months or so. Occasionally, practising in any form is non-existent before your moment in the limelight. Kaisa Hammarlund went on for Anna-Jane Casey in Sunday in the Park with George and for Anna Maxwell-Martin in Rufus Norris' production of Cabaret during previews - without a single rehearsal. Given a mere few hours to race through a music and placement call with the rather nerve-racked production team, Hammarlund decided to rise to the challenge rather than have the show cancelled.

The loyal fans and their merciless sites and forums are another challenge. Hammarlund remembers going on last minute for Connie Fisher at the Menier's They're Playing Our Song and dealing with audible discontent from the audience pre-empting her first entrance. On the other hand, bagging an understudy job straight out of Mountview as cover for the Mamma Mia! tour, she managed to make her mark, going on for a continual three months after the original lead suffered an accident at the beginning of the run.

If theatregoers can prove difficult to please, fellow professionals who understand the pressures can be generous. During his understudy run in The 39 Steps, Alexander received a letter from Prunella Scales stating how pleasantly surprising her experience had been of watching him cover. Now framed in his dressing room, this praise provided a morale boost before Alexander secured the actual role in October 2011.

A question for many a young actor remains - are you harming your chances of being considered for an actual role if you are a continual understudy?

"In the end, it's a personal choice," Hammarlund says. "If you are good at it and enjoy it, continue doing it."

Indeed, a good understudy who has nerves of steel, is extremely organised, calm and able to deal with the continual pressure, is always in demand. Others, including Alexander, believe that at some point it is necessary to aim only for principal roles and that, ultimately, one will need to take the risk of turning down an understudy job in order to be "taken seriously".

The fringe has proven how a production can topple if there are no understudies in place, the alternative being cast members risk permanent vocal damage, dragging themselves on stage with less than healthy tonsils.

Far from being second-rate replacements, understudies are an essential part of their production, who face the daily challenge of having to produce the goods to the highest possible standard with often the shortest notice.

* Jennifer Reischel is the author of So You Want to Tread the Boards - The Everything You Need To Know, Insider's Guide to a Career in the Performing Arts. Introduction by Leslie Bricusse, ISBN: 1906217025

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