Cinderpost 3: understudies

Sophie in white dress with Peterson and Mary

Sophie in white dress with Peterson and Mary

We’ve had two understudies go on in the last month. Drew Carroll went on twice for our Prince, Peterson Townsend, who was felled by a nasty chest cold which took away his voice, as well as his energy. Then, our Fairy Godmother Kayla had a death in her family and Sophie Kruip stepped in for two shows.

Kayla watches Sopie

Kayla watches Sopie

This post is also a photo gallery of the “put-in” rehearsal we had for Sophie – what it’s called when the stage manager hastily calls an extra rehearsal to put in the understudy. In Sophie’s case, this happened on an evening of a two show day in the midst of Christmas week. Drew did not get a put-in rehearsal, though some of us arrived early for the 10 a.m. show he did first, and walked through a few moments with him.

The Arden is the only theater in town that does understudies right. It is to their great credit that both Drew and Sophie sailed through their performances flawlessly. It is to Drew and Sophie’s credit that they were so prepared. Credit goes too to Sam Tower, our Assistant Director, who among many other tasks, rehearsed all the understudies after our grueling eight hour regular rehearsals. The Arden has the Arden Professional Apprentice program (APA). Young theater artists from all over the country apply for these positions, in which they get a year of hands-on experience in a professional theater doing a variety of tasks, one of which might be understudying. Of our understudies, half are APAs and half are non-Equity actors in it for the experience.

Katie Sink, an Arden apprentice, steering me around in my bed.

Katie Sink, an Arden apprentice, steering me around in my bed.

Having been an understudy myself (not at the Arden) I can attest that it is one of the most challenging assignments in the theater. Essentially, you go through the process of learning a role – lines included – with no guarantee of ever being able to perform it. Many theaters fudge it and have understudies become “familiar” with a role. This means that if you go on, you will likely have script in your hand, or nearby (on a coffee table, say) and act the role that way. I have been rehearsed as an understudy like this, and it sounds like an easy out, but in some ways it’s even more nerve-wracking because you don’t ever really know the role. The idea here is that the audience will be forgiving, as it will be announced that the understudy is going on, script in hand. At the Arden, all we said was that the role of the Prince was being played by Andrew Carroll. And that’s what happened. And again with Sophie.

Angie Coleman, another apprentice, who takes the back end of my bed.

Angie Coleman, another apprentice, who takes the back end of my bed.

The regular cast gets a charge when an understudy goes on.We all rally around him/her, and we offer tips and guidance for small but priceless moments we have grown into with the regular cast member. In my case, a moment of timing with Drew around the King’s entrance into the garden in act 2. In Sophie’s case, how to “peck” me on the bed at just the right time. And the other actors too. It was wonderful watching Miriam and Alex – our stepsisters – take Drew under their wings for the big silly dance/fight in act 2. And Mary our Cinderella, talking Sophie through the perils of disappearing into the chest. When the shows went up, we would cluster around the video monitor in the green room to watch the understudies and jump up and down in excitement as they nailed it.

Having understudies is the most basic form of “performance insurance” a theater can have, and it boggles my mind that the Arden is the only theater in town that takes it seriously (I think the Walnut Street Theater has rehearsed understudies for its main stage shows, but I know from experience there are no understudies for its studio shows). Theaters understandably say, we can’t afford it. I know an artistic director in town who used to have understudies but won’t anymore, because she can’t pay them, not because she doesn’t want them. This is noble position of principal, since there are probably up and coming actors that would understudy there for free, with a stipend paid only if they go on (i.e. how it works at the Arden). But she can’t bring herself to do it, viewing it as a form exploitation.

Alex, Miriam and Mary at Sophie's put-in

Alex, Miriam and Mary at Sophie’s put-in

But the consequences of not having understudies goes beyond the danger of having to cancel a show if an actor gets hit by a bus – a potential loss of many thousands of dollars for a theater, if patrons ask for their money back. It also puts an extraordinary burden on the regular actors in the show, who are aware that the consequence of their not performing is an enormous loss for the theater. My wife is in a show now at another theater in which most of the cast is very sick. Backstages and dressing rooms are legendary breeding grounds for colds, flus and nasty viruses. It is common for someone to get sick, and then for two or three others to be sick in a week or so. This alone is reason enough to make an actor stay home and get well. But there is also the question of having actors perform sick or injured or both. This is routine in Philadelphia theater. My wife should not be performing right now – no way. She has a bronchial cough and has been running fevers at night. But she feels she has no choice, since it’s either that or the theater cancels a show.

Alec, our devastatingly handsome stage manager.

Alec, our devastatingly handsome stage manager.

Actors are troopers. We have all adopted the “show must go on” mind-set: perform at all costs. It’s a point of pride for actors, and there is always a measure of shame which must be overcome if a show is missed for any reason. You feel deeply that you are a part of an amazing event with many inter-locking parts, and one of them is you. Theaters know this about us, and so I don’t feel it is too much of a stretch to say we are taken advantage of a bit: theaters without understudies are banking on our willingness to perform sick or injured out of our pride as much as anything else.

Yes, it is expensive to simply hire understudies, but I have a few thoughts about that:

The clock works of the set by David Gordon.

The clock works of the set by David Gordon.

  • Above a certain annual budget (and I will just say $500,000/year for arguments sake), any theater can afford a simple understudy program. Above a certain level, it’s not about not having the money, it’s about making choices about what to do with the money you have. Small theaters are in a separate category, and can claim poverty legitimately. But at what point can you say: if you didn’t pay for (X scenic element, Y lighting effect, and/or Z flexible budget item), then you could have understudies? It’s insurance for God’s sake.
  • Balanced against the cost of missing shows due to catastrophic events in actors’ lives, how can you not afford it?
  • The Arden makes it work by tying it to a larger goal: the training of young theater artists. They can justify the lack of financial remuneration by pointing to the value of the holistic experience the young actors are getting by participating in the larger program.
Matteo as Mozart

Matteo as Mozart

Here’s an idea: what if there was a region-wide program in which creative young people from our high schools and colleges were trained in a carefully designed and administrated “Philadelphia Theater Apprentice Program” (P-TAP). Young people could be matched with theaters, and established Philadelphia theater artists could be employed as teachers and mentors in this program, in which young people are learning the real-life challenges of making theater, understudying established actors in major roles, and getting trained in a variety of theater arts, from acting, to stage management, to administration, to design. Think of it as the Philadelphia theater “farm team”, a rising population of motivated, trained and connected young people, who emerge from this program ready to take a confident next step in their creative, professional career. I know there are many young people who would leap at such an opportunity, and my wife wouldn’t have to extend her sickness, and potentially spread it through the dressing room, by performing in the throes of a nasty virus.

Sophie’s mom flew to Philly from Seattle to see her daughter perform as the Fairy Godmother. It was big deal for all of us. And as much as the sign of relief we all breathed that there was a prepared understudy we could rely on, there was a shared sense of celebration with both Drew and Sophie. We were participants in two spontaneous debuts. Two young artists took big steps alongside us, and it was a privilege to share the stage with them.

Watching Sopie from backstage.

Watching Sophie from backstage.