My Understudy Experience

This past summer I was a part of a great production called “The Toxic Avenger” at Cain Park. It was a great experience but indeed an interesting one. It was my first time being involved in a production in this capacity. For the first time in my life I was an understudy. I didn’t want to do it, I thought I would hate it, and there were times I did, but I’m so happy I did it.



Let me tell you why.


As with any show, there are five criteria that I examine when decided to whether to do it or not. In no particular order they are as follows


  • The Director

  • The Place

  • The show

  • The cast

  • The money


For this particular show it was a director I never worked with but I really wanted to. He turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever had. He put us in a really great position and prepared us for the pitfalls ahead. So that was great. On top of that I thought he may have heard things about me and I wanted him to get to know me for himself. The place was Cain Park and that was big because it allowed me to become EMC and get some Equity points. The show was one I never heard of, it was weird, but it seemed like it could be fun. The money wasn’t great but two things about that, I always try to remind myself that for anyone to pay me anything to perform is pretty dope, and the other is that everything else was really cool so I wanted to do it when considering everything else. We all have bills, and money is important but ain’t everything. All artists had some broke days. I hadn’t worked with anyone else in the cast before but they turned out to be great. One of them is on Broadway now. Which leads me to my next point.


A lot of us, at least myself, don’t want to be understudies locally for several reasons. We see it in some way as being beneath us. It’s a huge shot to our egos. The last one, and the most professional, is that it’s really hard work. Being an understudy is like being a backup quarterback. You will be asked to do a job just as good without any of the same preparation in the case of an emergency. Not to mention the show is blocked and conceived for the actor who actually has the role, the same as the offense is tailored to the starting quarterback's skill set. You as the understudy, or back-up, don’t have that same luxury. Your job is to do their job. It’s hard work. It’s a lot of practicing by yourself, going over music alone, etc. Not to mention you aren’t building a flow with the other actors. Which was particularly tough in an ensemble driven show like mine was. You can’t do anything about that.


But as far as the other stuff, sometimes it sucks, and hurts, but it’s true. We also need to stop taking it personal when a person gets a role over us and thinking it means they are better. Yes sometimes they are better, and we need to work harder to get better. But most of the time they are just different and fit better with the production. For me, sitting and watching the actor in front of me was a pleasure and a learning experience. He was extremely different than I was and had a completely different approach to the work. One thing it showed me was how much I used my body to convey things because I’m a bigger dude, especially in the theater world. Him, being half my size, had another approach that was equally effective. I also tried my best to support him and the rest of my cast in any way I could. During the process I filled in for so many roles because I was there everyday, I was positive, and I was committed. I tell my students all the time learn everything because you’ll never know when or where you’ll be needed and you don’t want to miss an opportunity because you aren’t prepared. Interestingly enough, I eventually did have to go on. But it wasn’t for the character I was understudying, it was for Melvin/Toxie. Our lead lost his voice before a show and couldn’t go on. So instead of moving two people into brand new places, they just moved me into Toxie which allowed everyone else to look great and for them to support me through it. He went on stage and walked his same track, while I watched from the pit on a monitor and said all his lines and sang the songs, some of which I really like. I eventually used one to book another role lol. They were awesome with it, even though I never rehearsed it and L’d a few times. They were all extremely cool and supportive. Good group of people.


The other thing to note is that you have to balance expectations with reality. I’m 25 years old. A lot of 25 year olds aren’t even performing so being an understudy at an equity house is not the end of the world, it’s actually a good place to be in. Especially considering how many people come to auditions. Being cast in any capacity is a blessing. Don Cheadle said “acting is different in that you can be the best actor in the world and never work” because so many other things go into it.

So I can say, I’ve been an understudy. And to a broadway performer. Overall I’m happy I did the show. It was great experience, I met some great people, and formed some good relationships. And relationships in this business can carry you. Most importantly I got better, and learned a lot.