Understudying is one of those jobs that looks easy when it’s done right, but in reality, is far more challenging than anyone anticipates. You’re often left in charge of your own process, and called upon to hop in on short notice. Especially after COVID, understudies are being utilized more and more often. But how to do it and do it well? Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re taking over for another actor.
1. Remember your primary function.
As tempting as it is to put your own spin on everything, remember that your primary function is to preserve the structure of what the actor you are understudying brought to the table. This is not to say you should mimic their performance, naturally there will be differences in characterization. But as far as the nuts and bolts: blocking, major character arcs, bits with other actors, intentions discussed with the director—those should all be consistent. The rest of the cast should not have to adjust around a reimagined performance. Ideally, you hop in and seamlessly slot into place without disturbing the waters.
2. The more prep, the better.
One of the challenges of this job is that you will likely not get much actual rehearsal time. Especially in a non-Equity production (and many times even in an Equity house), you will get little to no real stage time before hopping in. If you’re lucky, you might get a put in rehearsal with the cast, but it’s not guaranteed. This means it’s up to you to prepare yourself. Take extensive notes. Note everything. Write down every nuance of blocking (yours and that of anyone you interact with), and record any notes the director gives the actor you are understudying. If you are able to video record any choreography, do so. Watch as many rehearsals as you possibly can. Thoroughly digest any dramaturgy information given.
3. Rehearse on your feet.
Whether at home with a friend, or on the sidelines of the rehearsal space, find a way to get blocking and choreo in your body. If possible, you want to build muscle memory before you’re ever put in for rehearsal or performance. Especially when learning things like fight choreo, I try to mark it through physically on the sidelines as the choreographer is teaching the actor I’m understudying. Your body will remember when your mind is overloaded.
4. Keep a good attitude.
Understudying can be very stressful, especially if the call comes last minute. It’s easy to let the intensity of the situation overwhelm you. But the calmer, more positive, and more professional you are, the more impressive it is, and the more likely you are to get hired in the future. Remember the rest of the cast may be nervous about a new element being thrown in the mix as well. A confident, positive attitude as the new person really stands out. Furthermore, it will help you keep your head when you go on. This is truly one of those times I would recommend faking it till you make it.
5. Deliver the goods.
Do not. I repeat, do not, accept an understudy gig if you cannot fulfill all of the duties. Remember that you need to be available on short notice for any performance in the run. If you know you are not a quick memorizer, perhaps reconsider accepting the lead role understudy gig with the short process. Nothing looks worse than calling in emergency backup that can’t back it up because they haven’t actually done the work. That’s a quick way to get fired, or at least not re-hired.
6. Advocate for yourself.
The needs of understudies often go overlooked, so it is important to develop the ability to be your own advocate. Know your contract front to back. Know your strengths and weaknesses. If you need extra time to learn music or choreo, ask for recordings as soon as possible. If you were promised works you aren’t getting, politely remind someone. Being communicative of your needs is not being whiny or demanding. It is helping to make sure the transfer goes as smoothly as possible.
Understudying can be a great way to get seen in spaces unfamiliar with your work. Everyone loves a competent understudy. If you can keep your focus on supporting the existing cast, while still bringing nuanced and genuine work to the table, understudying can be fulfilling, exciting, and a great way to expand your experience and career.