What is an Understudy?
In the theater, an understudy is a person who learns the part of a leading performer. The understudy takes over the part if the main actor or actress is unable to perform due to illness, injury, or other unforeseeable circumstances. Typically, an actor or actress is an understudy for a main character while still performing a smaller role within a particular production. In other cases, however, an understudy has no assigned regular part within the performance and simply acts as a standby who can step in when needed. An understudy is sometimes called a "swing" in a musical or a "cover" in an opera.
In many ways, being an understudy is even more difficult than playing the lead role in a theatrical performance. The understudy must learn all of the lines and blocking of the lead character, yet he/she receives minimal compensation and almost no public recognition. If the understudy is called to perform on stage, he/she must be ready with just a moment’s notice. To further complicate matters, it’s not uncommon for an understudy to be expected to learn the lines for three or more parts within one performance. This helps the producers keep a show’s cost down, but it’s a stressful experience for any performer.
For an aspiring actor or actress, working as an understudy is often the first step to a long and possibly prosperous career. Understudies work closely with well-known talent, typically making valuable networking connections in the process of rehearsing and learning a role. An understudy also receives great exposure if he/she is actually allowed to fill in during a performance. In fact, Anthony Hopkins got his first big break filling in for the role of Edgar during August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death when Laurence Olivier came down with appendicitis in the middle of the production run.
While understudies do serve a very useful purpose, it is interesting to note that they are not always part of a performance. The Actors' Equity Association, a labor union representing many actors and stage managers in the United States, does not contractually obligate many shows to hire understudies. Since there is no guarantee an understudy will even be necessary, some producers of smaller shows opt to simply go without understudies in an effort to save money on production costs. In the event a crucial actor or actress is unable to play a part, the show is simply canceled or rescheduled for a later date.
I was in a production of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" that had the same understudy for three different roles. She usually played a minor part as a townswoman for most shows, but then played Katherine the Shrew or her younger sister Bianca at least once a week. The other actresses would either stay home or take the minor role. I was amazed at how well this actress handled both those parts, because there was a lot of physical stage action and long monologues to memorize.
It's been my experience that most theaters don't announce the use of an understudy until literally minutes before the curtain goes up. An announcer will simply say "The role of Velma Kelly will be performed by Lisa Walton tonight", or something to that effect. I've never heard a pre-show announcement to the effect of "Because of illness, Brooke Shields will not be performing tonight. The role of Velma Kelly will be performed by...". If ticket holders are truly disappointed by the absence of a name star, then they can probably work out some sort of refund or whatever at that point. Most understudies are perfectly capable of pulling off acceptable performances, and a lot of them get to perform those roles during matinee or early weekday shows anyway.
I was at one performance of the musical "Buddy!" where one of the understudies had to fill in as Buddy Holly. The original actor wasn't a big name, but he had been in several productions of the show in London and on Broadway. He had a falling out with the production company, so they sent in his understudy, who did an awesome job. I found out later that the show incorporates several different actors who can all play Buddy, so when they're not playing the lead, they sit in as extra guitarists in the Crickets.
The part of an understudy is actually a very important role. Some people look down on these folks, but anyone inside of a theatre knows better – even if they don’t want to admit it.
The fact is that that many understudies have just as much talent as the leads that precede them. There could be any number of reasons why they are the understudy that has nothing to do with ability.
I have seen numerous shows where understudies have taken over only to receive stunning reviews themselves.
Also, as a big fan of Broadway, it is safe to say that nearly every show you go to is going to have an understudy somewhere.
It’s just that no one can sustain the kind of energy it takes to play these parts day in and day out without some time off.
@icecream17 – It is a definite possibility that an understudy could adversely affect sales of a Broadway show, or any show for that matter. I agree with you one hundred percent that many folks just go to some shows to see big names.
I remember the first Broadway show that I went to see that had a very big name star in it – who I was totally unimpressed with. His technique was off, his timing was off and he simply had no spontaneity.
It was almost like he knew that people would pat him on the back regardless of his actual performance. (Naturally, I won’t say his name.)
I, however, was completely unimpressed. But I remember that the entire group of people that I saw the show with was absolutely in awe of the man. They couldn’t quit talking about how wonderful he was.
To be honest, I was totally disgusted with the whole thing.
If an understudy is used to replace the star of a Broadway show would this negatively affect ticket sales?
I ask this because I think that sometimes an audience is attracted to a show because of who the stars are and they buy the tickets in order to see them perform.
For me personally, I would not mind if an understudy replaced a famous star as long as the story line and the performances of the show remained top notch, but I know it is a deal breaker for other people.
It must be so difficult to be an understudy, particularly if you love having recognition for your work. I suppose you have to look at it as a stepping stone and just feel grateful that you are allowed to be a part of a professional performance at all.
I have heard it be called an understudy when someone is kept ready to replace a sports person as well, particularly if they have a specific role, like a goalkeeper.
That makes sense to me, because I think usually the other players wouldn't have the skill base to play every single position in the game.
The understudy is often used in fiction as a dramatic role. Either the understudy will be plotting to get themselves into the spotlight, or else they will simply be accused of it.
Or you might get the story of an understudy who gets catapulted into fame. In that case, the main performer might be the bad guy!
A really good recent example which was excellent in my opinion, was Black Swan, where Mila Kunis played the understudy to Natalie Portman's Swan in Swan Lake.
Since they were both quite good for different aspects of the part, it added a lot of tension to the film.
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