A Day in the Life of the British Broadway Understudy
Chris Neels follows two British understudies currently living the unpredictable understudy life in New York...
Thousands of miles from home, never really knowing if they will be performing from one night to the next, the life of a British understudy on Broadway is unpredictable and, at times, monotonous. But how do you prepare every day for a performance that might not even happen? We sat down with Bryony Corrigan and Matt Cavendish, the understudies of Mischief Theatres’ recently transferred Broadway production of The Play That Goes Wrong to find out what a day in their New York life is really like.
You have to be willing to keep reviewing the lines and the blocking. That’s the only way you will feel comfortable when you go on. But there are days when you are like ‘I can’t possibly hear these lines any more!’ But you have to, because that’s your job.
The Play That Goes Wrong performs eight shows a week (Tuesday – Sunday). Although understudy runs are sometimes scheduled in advance, Bryony and Matt often only know late in the day that they will in fact be performing that evening. This means everyday they must prepare as if they are going to be playing any one of the number of roles that they are first covers for. This preparation starts with lunch…
BC: I’d usually have my main meal at that point of the day, so I’ll either make loads of pasta or make loads of eggs.
BC: Yeah… have like carbs or whatever so that I’m then not that hungry before the show. Then if I thought that there was a chance that I was going on, I’d either get Matt to help me run some lines or just run them myself.
MC: I have this app called Linelearner, where I have the entire script recorded into my phone and I can mute whichever part I am playing or whichever part I want to practice and all the other lines will be read, leaving a gap for the part I want to practice.
BC: It’s really good, takes a bit of time to prep but really good.
MC: Especially when you’re covering five parts. And in a show like this where it’s hard to practice with a script in your hand, because it’s all action - it’s not like a normal play.
BC: I go through my own section, running lines and bits of blocking through my head. That might take half an hour.
MC: Then I’d set the room up so it’s like the set. Fortunately my apartment is laid out pretty close to what the set looks like. There’s a gap for the door and [referring to his couch] there’s the ‘chaise lounge’. Usually it takes me about half an hour to forty-five minutes to go through the lines and blocking one of the parts. At that point it’s usually the afternoon and I’d check in with the stage manager to see if I was going on.
BC: Then it’s just about trying to put that aside for the rest of the day, so that you’re not building up panic before going and doing the show.
MC: I just try and relax really, because the worst thing is to get uptight and angst about going on stage that night.
As part of their contracts for this run, both Matt and Bryony have been provided accommodation ten minutes’ walk from The Lyceum Theatre on 45th street in Manhattan. Both usually walk from their building to the theatre after preparing for the show that afternoon.
MC: Before a show I’d usually eat a salad, they have massive salad bowls here and you can have basically anything you want, which is great because you don’t want something big or you’ll get bloated. So that or maybe a sandwich. We have to get there about an hour and a half before the show starts, so on a weekday that’s 5.30pm.
BC: Once we’re at the theatre, generally we know if we are going on. So, if I am going on, there is a fight call, which is really important for a lot of the parts and the girls have a massive fight, so it’s important to mark some of the main bits of that before going on to make sure it’s safe and that you’re hitting the right points you should be hitting, before you suddenly go in full of adrenaline and injure yourself. It’s really good to run those bits, especially if I haven’t been on for a while. Also if there have been any changes to the script since the last time we were on we would just refresh those with people.
MC: It happens quite a lot.
BC: If anyone changes any words it kind of throws you, if you haven’t done it every day.
MC: And because [Mischief Theatre] have created it as well, they are doing that all the time.
BC: So, it’s different to other plays where you have a script. This script is constantly changing, so you always have to check in.
MC: Then there’s a company warm-up and I’ll do a bit of stuff on my own for fifteen minutes, usually vocal as there is a lot of shouting in the show. Then we will have a company game for ten minutes.
BC: After that our PSM will give us any notes or any information about the show that we might need to know before we go on.
MC: The PSM is the DSM in England - they have a ‘Production Stage Manager’ instead of a ‘Deputy Stage Manager’, he calls the show and he is in charge of noting the show and running understudy rehearsals during the week.
BC: We usually have an understudy rehearsal on a Wednesday or a Thursday each week, which is mainly a walk through the show with the other [American] understudies, so they can learn their characters' tracks, where they go, where they are supposed to be. Matt and I will give them tips, things that will help them physically to remember - like if they’re spitting water, spit out the way, so people don’t slip on it. Little things, not acting things, but practical things. If we know are going on the next day as ‘Max’ or ‘Sandra’ we will fill those roles for that rehearsal. The PSM runs these rehearsals as well, which is different to England, where you might have an assistant director.
MC: Or the company manager might do it.
BC: But here is very much [the PSM’s] job to run those rehearsals and give notes. We would never get notes from our DSM in England, so it’s quite different here.
MC: The rehearsals are usually about three and a half to four hours…
BC: …With a break in the middle.
MC: Which is quite a long shift when there’s only four people. We will do the fight calls then as well. Greg [Tannahill] who is also in the show covers one of the parts and is the fight captain. So, he will take us through the fights and usually you will rehearse the fight from both sides if you are covering both parts.
BC: But again [there’s a] difference here to London. If you’re on set and, say for one bit, there is a flip through the window and there’s a crash mat there, if you want to move that crash mat you can’t move it. You have to stop, ask the stage manager to come over, he will move the crash mat and then you can carry on. In London you could just move it yourself, which means things get can get done a lot quicker.
MC: But I guess this way there is a lot less room for error.
BC: Yeah, here it’s very strict, like if you want to move anything on set you have to say, ‘Can we move this?’ or ‘Can we put these back on the mantelpiece?’ You can’t just pick them up and do it.
MC: Once speaking to the PSM, I will then head back up to the dressing room. I share my dressing room with another understudy, the American understudy. That’s very helpful because if I want to run any lines I can usually do it with him.
BC: For me, if I was going on then I’d have to go and get my hair done, which again is very different to England, where you would just do it yourself. Here they have the money for a hair person and they will either plait my hair for Annie or pin it up for Sandra. This will usually take about fifteen to twenty minutes. Whilst that’s happening I’ll run through lines or go through my script, check what Annie has to do in the pre-show if I’m playing her as she is out there twenty minutes before the show starts interacting with the audience, whereas with Sandra, I have a lot more time to kill.
Staying creative, it’s difficult, but so important. I am trying to read plays and learn monologues, just to keep my practice up. Otherwise I might just slip into the trap of just doing nothing, which isn’t healthy for an actor
Once the curtain goes up on The Play That Goes Wrong, Matt and Bryony must wait, just in case they are called upon to fill anyone’s shoes at short notice. For the next two hours they must be constantly prepared and at the same time relaxed and focused for what may or may not happen.
MC: Unfortunately the understudy’s job is to kill the time. So you just play games, or watch stuff on TV, or if people are writing things you can try to use the time [but always] be prepared just to go on.
BC: If we don’t get on, we are in a bit of a limbo. Often we will do puzzles, play cards, that sort of thing. Our green room has been referred to as ‘the retirement village’ because it’s filled with board games and colouring books to fill the time. But we do have to be ready, we can get called on at any moment.
MC: You should really warm up every day, just in case you go on. The two of us have both been on mid-show, so it does happen.
BC: Matt actually made his debut on Broadway really early in the run because he had to come on at half time.
MC: I came on to cover Chris Bean, who is played by Henry Shields.
BC: Who ironically hurt his neck after getting hit in the face with a shield!
MC: One of the things about being an understudy is that you need time on the stage to feel comfortable, so that not everything feels brand new, and it’s not a completely different world when you’re thrown on. That’s why it’s so important we have those three hours of rehearsal during the week.
BC: Those rehearsals really help keep it fresh in your mind.
MC: For me the hardest aspect about being an understudy is dealing with lifestyle extremes. You go from really bored and killing time to being really stressed as you might suddenly have to do a part that you haven’t rehearsed for ages, so it’s dealing with those extremes. It’s tricky to have any sort of continuity in your life.
BC: Yeah, also, just feeling like you’ve made choices in what you’re doing. Because you are being taught a track that is being done by people already, I find the hard thing is finding the freedom to make it your own but also obviously stick to what these people who know it so well are doing and trust that they’ve made the right choices as well. That’s quite hard, especially when you don’t have a lot of rehearsal and often you don’t have the people who are going to be on stage with you there. Just being confident that what you do in that moment when you are on is the right thing, and knowing that you’ve taken what you like from the performance of the actor who you’re covering. You’ve not plagiarised it or done everything that they’ve done, but you’ve taken what you like and you’ve changed and owned the bits you want to change and that’s ok.
MC: Also just having the dogged determination to keep reviewing stuff, because you’re not in the routine of constantly doing the part, it’s never second nature, even when you think you know it really well. So you have to be willing to keep reviewing the lines and the blocking. That’s the only way you will feel comfortable when you go on. But there are days when you are like ‘I can’t possibly hear these lines any more!’ But you have to, because that’s your job.
BC: Your job is to know it and feel so comfortable on stage when you go on, so that everybody else feels comfortable.
MC: One of the hardest things about being an understudy on Broadway, and this is going sound a little spoilt, but it’s knowing what to do with your time. There’s so much time when we are not being stimulated. Also we aren’t at home, so we don’t have our friends or family to help occupy ourselves during the day. We are also separated from any projects that we are doing at home, so we can’t really do that. It’s avoiding procrastination. Which is a tough thing, because you’re not really in your environment.
BC: Staying creative, it’s difficult, but so important. I am trying to read plays and learn monologues, just to keep my practice up. Otherwise I might just slip into the trap of just doing nothing, which isn’t healthy for an actor.
The role of the understudy on Broadway is very different to that of their West End equivalents. Once the curtain comes down in New York, Bryony and Matt are finished for the day, which was not necessarily the case whilst Matt was understudying back in London.
MC: Being an understudy on this job has been easier than on the West End, mainly because in America, partly because of the union and the union rules (they have a much more powerful union), everyone has their job and you’re only allowed to do what is in the remit of your job. So, the actors are only acting, the understudies are only understudies, whereas a lot of jobs in England, you will be an assistant stage manager/understudy or you will have other duties aside from just learning the part. When I understudied on the West End, part of the job was that I had a lot of backstage cues to do, which is on one hand nice that you’re involved, but cleaning the set up after the show - putting it back and doing presets and stuff - is not particularly what you go in to acting for. But here I am not allowed to do any of that because there are particular people whose job it is to do that, so I can come and literally concentrate on knowing the five parts I am covering.
BC: In many ways it’s great just to have the freedom to focus on one thing.
MC: Once the shows finished, I will probably nip out and get some more food, just because you don’t eat much before the show, so you end up sort of having a split dinner, because you don’t want to have loads before the show.
BC: So you eat loads really late…
MC: It’s not particularly healthy, but again it won’t be a massive thing. After that we would just go home to our accommodation and go to bed. Oh, maybe a swim! We have a pool in our corporate accommodation! Sometimes we get back for the last half hour of it being open and go for a swim. It’s quite a refreshing way to end the day.
With the show finished Matt and Bryony return home to rest and prepare for another unpredictable day on Broadway…
Chris Neels is a writer and director based in London. Originally from New Zealand, Chris is a founding member and Co-Artistic Director of Fledgling Theatre Company.