For some theatregoers, the words ‘At this performance, the role of…’ are enough to induce tears, rage, stomping, frothing at the mouth and an instant demand for a refund. Seeing this type of response to understudies, standbys, swings and alternates whips up a fury in me so strong that it makes their behaviour look like the height of etiquette by comparison so I’d like to try to convince you just how crucial they are.
I’d like to start off by stating the obvious – understudies are highly trained, competent performers. When they are covering a so called ‘big name’, they may even be more qualified to be playing the part than the principal actor. I find most theatre perfectly enjoyable but I’m notoriously hard to wow and I happily admit to having been blown away by understudies just as often as by principals. An actor’s interpretation of a role is a very subjective thing – one person’s heaven is another person’s hell, after all – and it is only logical that sometimes the regular actor in a role will not be the one that perfectly captures it for you. For diehard theatre fans, understudies are the equivalent of unsigned bands for music lovers – you want to see them and bask in their brilliance before it has become common knowledge.
West End actress Sabrina Carter witnessed understudy abuse firsthand when her co-lead in Jekyll and Hyde did not perform:
“Marti [Pellow] was off and when the announcement was made that the understudy was on the crowd really loudly booed. It was utterly disgusting and enraged the cast not to mention upset the understudy who then had to lead the show!”
In a story which beautifully illustrates just how demanding the life of an understudy can be, she told me about being given just two songs notice the first time that she was required to go on in Wicked:
My first Elphaba show was just before ‘One Short Day’! I was told after the Ozdust ballroom scene and over two songs had an army of people re-miking me, painting me green, changing my costume, tights etc. whilst having to retune my voice to sing the mountain that is Wicked! It’s twice as difficult for the understudy as they do not do it all the time so it’s nerves coupled with expectation and remembering your words… Hard!!!
Smaller shows, heavily specialised pieces or shows that simply haven’t put enough understudies in place are permanently in danger. As I write this, The National Theatre has just had to cancel two performances of its celebrated play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time due to its lead actor suffering a knee injury. Although terrible, this is a minor inconvenience – if an actor without an understudy were to break their leg, an entire tour could be cancelled, an entire show put on ice.
No one has the right to see a particular actor at the theatre. On every show website I have ever been on, there is a declaration that the cast is subject to change and we have to realise that actors are not super-human. Whilst I totally understand people being disheartened when their favourite isn’t on, no-one will regret it more than the actor laid in bed with flu, feeling like crap and worrying about the fact that they’ve let their fans down. Productions have to take some of the blame here – selling tickets on a name is a nasty (but very lucrative) habit which I would like to see disappear. Ultimately, if you want certainty of seeing a particular performer, you’re better off at a concert or book-signing than you are seeing live theatre.
If seeing a particular person is of grave importance to you, you can maximise your chances by checking a website like West End Understudies that lists performers’ holiday dates and who will be covering them but there’s no magic guarantee. Incidentally, this website is just as good if you’ve seen a show before and want to see someone other than the principal performing a role – something I do all the time! It never fails to make me smile when shows list performers’ holidays on their own websites, a responsible decision which seems to be becoming ever more popular.
Sabrina Carter calls understudies ‘the unsung heroes of the West End’ and personally I couldn’t agree more. Even if you are disappointed next time an actor isn’t on, I beg you to keep an open mind and consider yourself lucky that an understudy is waiting in the wings to take over. It’s better than a train home with no show and you never know… they might just surprise you.
Sabrina Carter is the current standby for the roles of Annabella, Pamela and Margaret in The 39 Steps and a former understudy for the role of Elphaba in Wicked.