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“In This Evening’s Performance, LEAD ROLE will be played by…”

August 22, 2012

I was recently put in the unexpected situation of rehearsing an understudy in less than a week for a lead in a full-length musical.  The contract I was working under didn’t have understudies as part of the original team and when the situation was presented, the understudy chosen had exactly 6 days from reading the play for the first time to performing as the female lead before a sold-out audience.   And guess what?  There was only 2 hours a director was available to observe rehearsal and I only had 3 hours per AEA guidelines to rehearse the understudy with the rest of the cast (and this brush up rehearsal didn’t even have the entire cast present). From learning music, choreography, lines, character work, and blocking to figuring out costumes and working with props and a set she wouldn’t be able to see until 1 hour before curtain of her first performance it was a unique and complex situation that required careful time management, accurate information, and personality management so that actors never became self-conscious of the upcoming performance.

How this was accomplished:

Day 1: Story. The actress was hired as the Understudy in the morning, read the script in the afternoon, and attended a performance of the play with the original lead in the evening, thus hearing the music for the first time.

Day 2: Music. 1 Composer/Producer with the Understudy. The morning was spent at the piano learning lyrics, phrasing, melody, harmonies, and finding emotions to add to the musical numbers.  The actress spent the rest of the day on her own rehearsing and reiterating the large amount of new information and committing it to memory.

Day 3: Blocking.  2 Stage Managers, 1 Composer/Producer, 1 musical director to represent a cast of 13 with the Understudy.

Day 4: Choreography. 2 Stage Managers, 1 Musical Director, 1 Asst. Choreographer, 1 Dance Captain, 2 Lead Actors, 2 Writer/Producers in a room 12’x15′ with some chairs and music stands to represent  a 30’x22′ stage, countless props, and actor-motivated moving scenery.

Day 5: the Put-In Rehearsal. 2 Directors,  3 Stage Managers, 7 Cast Members,  2 Writer/Producers, 1 Musical Director, 1 Bassist, 2 Wardrobe, chairs, and music stands in a rehearsal room to represent the entire production.

Day 6: Re-Opening Night. One hour before the performance as the crew sets up the Understudy sees the props, hears a keyboard instead of a piano, gets mic checked, tours backstage, sees her spikemarks, stagelight, and moves the scenery before house opens a half-hour later.  The near-flawless performance receives a standing ovation and the cast independently highlights the understudy for a second round of applause.

It takes a large team and careful planning to pull off rehearsing an unexpected Understudy in a such a situation.  I’m proud of the teamwork and that my first Understudy process was such a success!  A professional actor should be able to handle this type of schedule & situation with grace, confidence, and commitment.  What do you think would be the hardest part of accepting a role as a Last-Minute Understudy, and would you be up for the challenge?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2012 9:18 am

    Also, what I take away from this is the you obviously had great and very organized script notes to be able to get the understudy up to speed to quickly. Well done!

    I was once a last-minute understudy in a Edinburgh Festival show and while the performance aspect went fine, I found entering into the already-established dynamic of the show the difficult part… sort of like being the new kid at a school… all kinds of things went on before you that you’d never really understand. But in the end it was about the show and that went well.

  2. Tattooed Theatre Student permalink
    August 30, 2013 5:30 pm

    That’s an amazing experience to share and as the Granted Actor said you must have been crazily organised to pull that off with such great success.

    Last years panto had a last minute understudy experience, the King had to pull out of one performance because of his father’s illness so we got in contact with a past actor the day before who got given the script that evening and then was basically pushed on, off and around stage by a mixture of stage crew and cast. It was slightly stressful but at least it was a very stereotypical King role and didn’t involve major blocking!


  1. Sunday Summary — August 26, 2012 « The Green Room

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