The Most Thankless Job in Theatre

Recently I overheard a couple grousing over the fact that the performance that they had paid several hundred dollars to see would feature not one, but two understudies that evening. They were understandably disappointed, but their rancor was unwarranted; they had no idea of the reason for the substitute performers. One presumes that management did not make the replacements lightly. Moreover, this was a touring company, with no real “stars;” while the performers were skilled, none were terribly well-known. Yet the couple somehow felt cheated at seeing performers they didn’t know replace other performers they didn’t know. All this was before the performance, so the relative quality of the performers was completely unknown (and, of course, would remain so).

Those performers, the understudies, have one of the most thankless jobs in the performance industry. Unless an occasional performance is stipulated by contract, a person who is an understudy has to not only know the role s/he may never perform, but he also has to study his/her principal performer so s/he can take the place of that performer with minimum disturbance to the production; in other words, s/he seeks to replicate the performance of his/her principal. At the same time, the economic exigencies of live production often require that the understudy carry another role to help justify his/her salary.

Unlike in the movies, the understudy does not suddenly become the star who eclipses the sidelined actor, s/he does her job, replacing the principal actor, until such time as that actor returns to the stage. This sort of thing happens in all live performing arts, because the mentality of the performing arts is that the show must go on, whether that show is theatre, dance, musical concert, or circus.

Lyn Gardner questions that mentality in her article, Must the show really always go on? In the article Gardner discusses the burdens that are placed on actors by a profession that not only demands that the show go on, but that the actor, unless s/he is incapacitated, be there to insure that that happens. Of course, when the actor is incapacitated, the show is either cancelled (anathema to producers) or the understudy goes on.

Over the last three years, I have had to promote understudies to principals in at least one show a year. In every case, the understudy took over the role and ran with it. This points to the efficacy of choosing capable understudies. However, in the non-professional theatre, it’s a job nobody wants. The understudy has to do all the work, and the likelihood of actually getting to perform is, under normal circumstances, very small. Done correctly, it’s enormous work with little to no payoff. But it’s a necessary job.

And it’s not only necessary from the producer’s point of view. Most who are involved with live production think this way. Despite Gardner’s admonitions, actors themselves think this way. I have seen actors perform with fevers, flu, colds, sore throats, sprained limbs, and personal emotional upheaval. They did this because they, like almost all of us who work in live performance and our audiences really do believe that, one way or another, the show must go on. And the way that often happens is through the craft and artistry of the understudy.

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Date: Sunday, 25. November 2018 22:18
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