Understudies: The Clark Kents of Theatre
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
by Lauren Spencer
The phone rang at 5 pm. Fontana Butterfield picked up to find Shotgun Player’s Artistic Director, Patrick Dooley, on the other end. The actor she was understudying in their production of This World in a Woman’s Hands had fallen ill and she would need to go on that evening, a mere three hours later.
“I was so very nervous” Butterfield says, “I had seen the show the night before and it was so moving and important,” Butterfield explains. “I did not want to let anyone down. My heart was pumping out of my chest. The beauty of the experience was that I was truly there to support the actors. Margo Hall led us in a prayer circle and held us all in this loving embrace of holding each other up... The next night I went on again, this time not so incredibly nervous and was able to be more present in my own experience.”
Fontana Butterfield. Photo courtesy Ms. Butterfield.
Such is the life of the understudy, a role that might be aptly described as the Clark Kent of theatre: an unobtrusive, mostly unrecognized figure who, when an an emergency occurs, swoops in to save the day—or the show as it were.
One recent example is when Brit Frazier, an understudy for Father Comes Home from the Wars: Parts 1, 2 and 3 at American Conservatory Theatre, had to step in unexpectedly on press night. “That was an unbelievable amount of pressure,” says Janet Foster, A.C.T.’s casting director, “And Brit did wonderfully.”
“Being mentally ready to go at the drop of a hat is pretty challenging—in an exciting way,” says Michael J. Asberry who is also understudying Father. Asberry is no stranger to the job however, having understudied such roles as Troy in Fences at Marin Theatre Company and Gil Scott Heron in Grandeur at Magic Theatre.
However, going on for an actor does not always happen in such dramatic fashion. Frequently understudies are contracted to cover a planned absence. Another A.C.T. understudy, Christine Jamlig, knew at the start of Vietgone rehearsals that she would cover any potential extension performances to allow cast actor Janelle Chu to attend her brother’s wedding.
Michael J. Asberry. Photo by Pak Han.
Whether planned or unexpected, Foster acknowledges that it’s not an easy gig. “Understudying is an art form. You have to know someone’s work intimately and still bring your own flavor. [When casting understudies] I look for how facile an actor is when jumping between roles. There’s not a huge pool of actors who can do that.”
Foster explains that understudies are integral to preventing the cancellation of performances and preserving the integrity of the production. She stress that, “[An understudy’s] work is just as important as the person who is cast. People pay a lot to go to the theater and every audience deserves as good of a show as possible no matter who is on stage. That’s part of the responsibility.”
That sense of responsibility can be daunting, especially when understudies must learn a role and be ready to step into the shoes of the character with little to no rehearsal, depending when they are hired. In the case of Father, the understudies were only able to observe the show’s brief tech and one dress rehearsal prior to public performances since the play, a co-production with Yale Repertory Theater, had already had its full rehearsal process on the east coast.
The undertaking can be particularly daunting when an understudy covers multiple roles--a frequent practice. Asberry covers four roles in Father. “ [They] all are very distinct and detailed, with a rhythm, movement and perspective that is unique to each character,” he says, “Father is an epic production. It's three hours long and it's beautifully written, which leads to the job being an epically challenging task.” David Everett Moore whose extensive understudy experience includes a production of King Lear that required him to learn seventeen roles explains, “You're doing your best to stick to the vision that the director/actor have created...but you haven't had the chance to interact with the other actors, to build that rapport that becomes an essential part of every character in a play.”
Sarah Benjamin. Photo by Delgado.
The majority of an understudy’s preparation happens outside of the rehearsal room. Both Asberry and Sarah Benjamin, who is covering the role of Harper in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Angels in America, say that memorizing the hefty amounts of text in isolation is its own hurdle. “Don't ever go anywhere without the script for the duration of the gig.” Asberry says, laughing. "I walk the show while running my lines at least 3 times a day and, in the case of Father, I try to work each character's track separately.” Benjamin relies on the Line Learner App. “I try to utilize the free time I have wisely,” she says, “Running lines during my lunch break, sitting in traffic, waiting for BART, etc."
Each of the actors speak about the need to respect the process of the cast actors, especially when observing rehearsal. “In my experience, I feel that I need to be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible” Butterfield says, “The rarified air of the rehearsal room is so precious and the process so vulnerable for the actors that we need to be soaking it all in and not rock the boat.” They also share that a process is far more enjoyable when the actors they are covering actively welcome them into the space. It has influenced how many of them treat their own understudies.
“I always treat my understudies like an equal part of the family,” Moore says. “After we run a scene, I'll go to my understudy and ask if they have any questions about that scene: about the script, about the relationships in that scene, about the blocking. And of course, I always encourage the understudy to call me, text me, email me with any questions they have.”
David Everett Moore. Photo courtesy Aurora Theatre Company.
Butterfield developed a strong bond with her understudy for Berkeley Rep’s One Man, Two Guvnors. “Being a parent, for every show I'm always so concerned with the ‘what if.’ I loved talking her through the process and was so grateful to have that insurance. Having been an understudy before, it was important for me to help her feel at ease in this strange process.”
Part of the strangeness is due to what Butterfield describe as “acting in a vacuum with no guarantee of a release in performance.”
Paul Jennings recently completed a season with New Zealand’s Pop Up Globe Theatre where four understudies covered forty actors performing 5 different shows. He points out that keeping a healthy relationship to understudying requires “fighting the faulty self-perception that somehow being an understudy is ‘less than’ being the cast actor... The bottom line is that it's what you choose to make of it—if you view it as doing the work because you love the work, then you've already removed a lot of the ego trap.”
Foster also points out that while audiences may not see an understudy perform, it is still a useful way for actors to forge relationships with theatres where they want to work. “It’s how you get to know them as actors and you start to try and find opportunities for them, Foster says. “That’s how I got to know Cindy Im and James Seol.” Im performed in A.C.T.’s productions of Vietgone and Stuck Elevator. Seol was cast in Vietgone after Foster grew to know his work when he understudied and went on for B.D. Wong in the theatre’s 2014 production of Orphan of Zhao.
William J. Brown credits his work understudying Lysander and Demetrius in San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s 2007 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with helping him to land other roles. Once a week Brown and his fellow understudy would run everything on stage before the show. Ken Kelleher, the show’s director, took note and asked Brown to audition at Pacific Repertory Theater where Kelleher served as artistic director. “[That audition] turned into eight shows there, and two shows at San Jose Stage,” Brown says.
Benjamin says understudying is also about skill building. “Regardless of whether or not I go on, the opportunity to rehearse and learn this role is pushing me as an actor....The mental challenge and discipline of understudying, always being prepared to go on ... I'll bring that same focus to future projects.”
For Asberry, it’s about a kind of apprenticeship. “I got to [understudy] Steven Anthony Jones in both Fences and Father, and Steven has already done everything that I am trying to do in my career. I can only benefit from watching and working under his lead. I look at it as paid training.”
This type of training can also prepare you for future opportunities, Asberry points out. “After having understudied Fences at MTC, I auditioned for a production of that same show three years later with Pacific Conservatory Theatre, booked it and had an absolutely fantastic run. The previous understudy experience served me extremely well in that case.”
Lauren Spencer is an actor, activist, and teaching artist based in San Francisco.