Understudies are the bad asses of the theatre world. That’s the truth.
Of course there’s more to this than simply being a bad ass. Understudies deserve more credit than many actually give them. They work tirelessly from day one to memorize the main track they are covering. They get off-book at the same time as the lead, are consistently at each and every rehearsal no matter how late. Sometimes, in college or community theatre productions, the understudies are also in the ensemble or working on the production team and have another job on top of covering for the lead.
Then why are understudies so often dismissed?
The job of the understudy is often dismissed as an “easy job”. There are some out there in the community who, unfortunately, think of understudies as lazy and “second best”. There are even experiences of understudies who are shamed for going onstage and audience members requesting money back. A recent example of this was when Laura Benanti expertly shut down a Twitter user who was “furious” that she was out of She Loves Me and her understudy was on. The user scolded her and told her that being in the show was her “obligation” and that he didn’t pay to see an understudy go on instead. Shame on him because Laura Shoop was fantastic as Benanti’s understudy.
Of course, you have a right to be disappointed if a lead is out. Especially if it is someone you have been waiting to see perform for ages. But give the understudy a chance. They will surprise you greatly. Some of the best performers have started out as understudies. Laura Benanti is an excellent example and Taye Diggs also rose from understudy in Carousel to lead in Rent.
An understudy is never a waste of your money. They may give you a performance of a lifetime as well as show you a story and teach you a lesson that you may not have thought you needed to learn before. Then consider how hard they work. Consider the other track (or tracks) they may cover. Read their biography in the Playbill and see how far they have come.
A different point of view comes with the position of understudy as well. In many cases, a director does not want you to be a carbon copy of the person you are covering. You have the ability to create a new life and a new story
The director chose them for a reason. This individual has the skill and ability to carry a show or to carry an ensemble track. Whichever the role it should not matter. Understudies work long, hard hours to ensure they are prepared for the moment where they are called upon to step in. Sometimes that moment may never come. There is a deep level of uncertainty that comes with being cast as an understudy but it is ultimately a rewarding experience.
So when you’re cast as an understudy, don’t throw a fit. Be honored. Take advantage of the rehearsal process and delve into this character in your own way. When you go to a show, professional or not, and see that an understudy is on, take the time to read their bio and to prepare yourself for a brand new experience that may delight you in ways you didn’t consider before.
And to all the understudies out there: Thank you. Thank you for your diligence, patience, and effort. We’re sure you’ll blow us all away.
Amanda Thomas is a Connecticut native who is currently attending a university New Jersey for Theatre Arts with a concentration in Musical Theatre. In addition to school she regularly takes voice lessons in New York and frequently participates in theatre in CT. Favorite roles include Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” and Lily in “The Secret Garden”. Her dream is to be able to work in London’s West End and perform in Shakespeare’s Globe, a dream she realized after recently spending a semester in the UK and Europe. You can follow her on Twitter at @AmandaThomas_ as she navigates life, theatre, and the pursuit of petting every dog she sees.