What it means to be an understudy and whether this role is right for you.
Everybody’s saying it: this is one heck of a time to be an understudy! Even as Covid rates subside, understudies and their counterparts are busier than ever and are finally being heralded as the unsung heroes of theatre – a title they most certainly deserve.
Understudying could be the secret to a better work-life balance for performers, yet the ins and outs of this important role are a mystery to many of us. For nine months, I was part of the understudy team for the West End production of The Ocean at the End of the Lane and I hope by sharing my experience I can help shed light on the understudy process and empower you to decide if this unique role is right for you.
Understudying is a craft, and requires a specific skill set and mindset that goes far beyond learning lines or playing a part well
Roles within the ‘understudy’ umbrella
- An understudy covers a specific character. In long-term productions, there’s often more than one understudy per character, in which case they’re ranked 1st, 2nd, etc. Some contracts allow performers to take holiday, which means the 1st understudy is guaranteed performances when the principal is away. This is something you can confirm (with the help of your agent, if you have one) when signing contracts.
- Onstage understudies perform their own role in the show. Make sure you’re clear about the size and scope of your track. If all goes to plan, this is the role you’ll be performing most of the time so it’s important that you’re happy in it.
- Offstage understudies (sometimes called a standby) don’t perform in the show unless they’re required to cover. Sometimes offstage understudies work as a dresser or assistant stage manager when they’re not performing and this should be made clear when you audition. Shows with demanding lead roles may have an alternate – who is guaranteed at least one performance each week – in order to give the principal an opportunity to rest.
- Swings are on hand to cover any role left unfilled, usually in the ensemble. Swings learn multiple tracks and are sometimes required to perform a combination of several tracks at once – this is known as split tracking.
Understudy processes vary from show to show, particularly when it comes to rehearsals so when you’re auditioning don’t be afraid to ask questions about the daily realities of the job. Find out how much time you have on stage each week, whether there is a public understudy run, and whether the understudies are integrated with the rest of the cast. This will have a huge impact on your experience.
Is the role of an understudy right for you?
Understudying has its challenges. Whilst your ability to inhabit a character will be assessed at the audition, your compatibility with the understudy job and lifestyle is something you need to consider for yourself.
Understudying is a craft, and requires a specific skill set and mindset that goes far beyond learning lines or playing a part well so you should ask yourself:
Am I self-motivated?
Whatever the rehearsal process, you need to be motivated to learn lines and physical tracks independently. You need to be precise and diligent enough to maintain and update your knowledge for the duration of your contract.
Can I keep myself occupied?
In some understudy jobs, there’ll be time to twiddle your thumbs in the dressing room so it’s important that you can keep yourself occupied and creatively fulfilled. If you’re self-disciplined, understudying might be the perfect opportunity for you to develop a new skill or hobby. After all, how often do we find ourselves in regular work, with a regular payslip and time on our hands?!
Can I hold my nerve?
Picture the scene: it’s 5pm and you get a call from the stage manager saying “You’re on!” How would you handle the pressure? The most useful thing you can do in an emergency cover situation is to stay calm, stay in the present moment, and trust your gut. If you’re considering an understudy role, consider how you react in high-pressure situations and whether you could maintain a healthy mindset when being asked to cover unexpectedly.
Am I ok living with the unknown?
Every day is an unknown for the understudy, and as a consequence understudies can feel as though they’re always in fight-or-flight mode. Even once the curtain goes up, it’s possible that you could be called upon to cover a track mid-show. If you take on an understudy role, you’ll need to find a way to manage this uncertainty, learn to embrace it, and maybe even find it exciting.
Do I have a strong sense of self-esteem?
Understudies are as skilled and talented as the people they cover yet it’s easy to feel second best. Hopefully, you will be surrounded by a supportive company, but ultimately you’ll need to believe in yourself and stay positive, even if you never get to perform your cover role. You have to be prepared to reach the end of your contract having never gone on stage and that is perhaps the hardest challenge of all.
There is a unique thrill of being part of a team who saves the show time and time again
Some performers thrive as understudies and enjoy the unique challenges it brings. Some even make a career out of it. Understudying presents an opportunity to develop your craft under less pressure, to explore roles beyond the boundaries of your casting and there is a unique thrill of being part of a team who saves the show time and time again.
But if all this sounds like your idea of hell, then perhaps it’s not the right step for you – and that’s ok! Only you can judge if understudying is the right choice for you and your career.
Whatever you decide, let the decision be an informed one, and let it be yours.
Ruby Ablett is a graduate of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and has worked across the country as an actor, singer, and musician. Credits include Threepenny Opera and Christmas Carol at the Bolton Octagon, Wind in the Willows at Derby Theatre and Why is the Sky Blue? at the Southwark Playhouse. Most recently, Ruby was in the West End cast of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a National Theatre production which tours the UK later this year. Ruby is a Union Activist, and is passionate about changing the Arts Industry for the better.
Headshot by Samuel Black. Main image by RoterPanther.