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When understudies step into the limelight…

Ruthie Henshall and Elliott Hanna in the London production of Billy Elliot – with a rotating cast of child actors and multiple understudies, you never see the same show twice. Photo: Adam Sorenson
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When Melissa Bayern put herself forward to understudy the role of the Witch in Into the Woods at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, the story fulfilled a theatrical fairytale. It’s the 42nd Street myth of going out a youngster but coming back a star. Bayern had spent three years training, and had – significantly – played the role of the Witch at drama school, which allowed her to step in with only five hours of rehearsal.

We’ve all been in the audience for the announcement “due to the indisposition of [insert star’s name here] the role of… will be played by…” and we’ve all witnessed the collective groan of the audience. To be an understudy can sometimes feel like a thankless task: the theatrical equivalent of ‘always the bridesmaid never the bride’, of having to be ready to go on at a moment’s notice, but potentially never going on. It can be a job where you are employed not to do what you are trained to do and can be a dispiriting experience. Many understudies have their own projects on the go.

Take David Nicholls, who during a stint understudying for the National Theatre started to take on freelance script-reading, as well as writing his own scripts, the first of which was optioned by the BBC. Nicholls’ experience no doubt fed into his novel The Understudy.

To be an understudy can sometimes feel like a thankless task: the theatrical equivalent of always being the bridesmaid

For more than a decade I worked as an associate director, taking productions on tour and into the West End. For an associate and for the company manager, one of the biggest challenges is getting understudies ready to go on, ensuring they can fit into the production without disrupting it (which they could do by giving a dramatically different interpretation from the lead actor) but at the same time allowing the actor understudying to have some creative input. You’d never want them simply to mimic the principal actor. You also have to get them ready in a very short amount of time. Equity states that an understudy isn’t obliged to go on unless they’ve had adequate rehearsal, but what “adequate rehearsal” means will depend on the production in question.

How well looked after you are – and how much rehearsal time you are given – can vary massively. An experienced understudy tells me: “We had two to three weeks at the National, which is fairly standard there.” Comparing this with a previous understudy job in which he had to learn all the male roles for a Chekhov production in one week, and only 12 hours’ rehearsal in total over the course of the run, you can see that companies such as the NT and the Royal Shakespeare Company are much more supportive of their understudies than some commercial producers of straight plays.

“I felt totally supported at the National,” he explains. “But because I’m a member of the principal company, I’m in the show already, so we were all mates. It’s different for understudies who have to sit in the dressing room every night – for ‘walking understudies’.”

Understudies are the preserve of the West End and commercial tours as well as the NT and the RSC. In other theatres, the runs are shorter, meaning that the chances of needing an understudy outweigh the large additional costs, so most regional theatres do without them.

Musicals are probably the biggest employers of understudies. Unlike most straight plays with a limited run, many musicals sign their casts up to year-long contracts – and performers may stay on over several contracts. The cast will require holiday, and in musicals there is an increased risk of injury (especially dance-heavy shows). To understudy in a musical is considerably less dispiriting than on a straight play because you’ll almost certainly find yourself going on, sometimes fairly regularly.

Simon Pollard, resident director of Billy Elliot in London and associate director of the Billy Elliot tour explains: “On the London production of Billy Elliot the Musical, there are two covers for each principal role, as well as three male swings and two female swings, who cover all the ensemble roles.”

Swings on a musical have a particularly demanding role to play. It requires an extraordinary memory to retain that much information, as Pollard points out “in the case of the male swings, this means they cover 11 different tracks”. They may well be required to jump in at very short notice.

Michaela Bennison and Maimuna Memon in the Manchester Royal Exchange production of Into the Woods. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
Michaela Bennison and Maimuna Memon in the Manchester Royal Exchange production of Into the Woods. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

Shows such as Billy Elliot are well-oiled machines and a fantastic resident team is there to make sure the production maintains its quality year on year. But things can still go wrong. I remember a matinee of Chicago many years ago just after a big cast change. The new cast had been on for only a week and so many of the understudies were not yet ready. On this particular day a bug was going around and gradually over the morning more and more of the cast phoned in sick. Under normal circumstances this would have been fine, but there simply weren’t enough covers in place after the cast change to deal with such a large amount of actors off.

The general manager started to phone around former members of the cast to find someone who knew the roles. They’d managed to get most of it covered with the surviving members of the company, but they were still down a Velma Kelly. Anna Jane Casey, who had previously played the role, agreed to come back for one day only. The only problem was that she was in rehearsal for Wild Wild Woman at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, and had a run-through that morning. As soon as the rehearsal was over she jumped on a train to the West End, rushing into the building at the beginners’ call. Five minutes later she was on stage without any of the audience knowing about the drama that had occurred backstage.

This is an extreme example of what can happen, but incidents like these can be a source of fun and excitement. If you went to watch the same musical again and again (as some committed members of the audience do) you’d see numerous versions of the production. “The great thing about Billy Elliot,” says Pollard, “is that due to the nature of the principal children rotating the lead roles, you never see the same show twice, and adding covers, alternates and swings to the mix adds to that.”

The hope, when you’re understudying, is that the producers might promote you when the part becomes available, or will consider you for future lead roles if you’re understudying for companies such as the NT and the RSC. Pollard says: “Last year, the great Ann Emery – who had played the role of Grandma for nine years – decided to retire, and the creative team were unanimous in our decision to offer the role to our brilliant alternate Grandma Gillian Elisa, who had covered the role for several years.”

There are plenty of other instances where coming on as an understudy has furthered an actor’s career. Edward Bennett (recently seen in Photograph 51 in the West End) arguably had a career boost when he covered David Tennant in Hamlet. And Anthony Hopkins came to prominence when going on for Laurence Olivier in the 1960s. In musical theatre, the various understudies covering the role of Eliza Doolittle in the 2001 NT production of My Fair Lady have all gone on to more interesting work than the actor they were covering.

Such promotions, while heartwarming, aren’t guaranteed. The reality is that the job can be a slog for many, and requires great skill and a great memory. With little rehearsal, understudies have to jump in at a moment’s notice and keep big shows running. So the next time a principal actor is off, try not to groan, and spare a thought for the understudy.

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