Each season, selected students from the Acting Conservatory are invited to be understudies on productions at Studio Theatre, logging in many hours and learning important aspects of how professional theatre works. We spoke with two students who recently understudied to get their perspective.
Nick: I had just finished Character & Emotion when I was asked to understudy M in Big Meal, Shakespeare 1 when I was asked to understudy coach in Red Speedo, in Greek Tragedy when I understudied Uncle Benjamin in both Apple Family Plays and in between classes when I understudied F in Cock.
Anderson: I had just finished Character & Emotion and was preparing for Shakespeare 1 when I was asked to understudy Alioune in Belleville.
Nick: Most of the requirements sound pretty simple on the surface, but learning lines, blocking and business without regular rehearsals is a real job. You have to rely on your training and observational skills developed in class. Some of the shows had so much business, like the Apple Family dining and drinking scenes, it took weeks to get it down. You have to be ready to go on with half an hour’s notice, check in every day of the run, and practice every day to keep it fresh. You need to memorize the timing and cadence of the actor you’re understudying so the other actors aren’t thrown off. The time commitment was about an hour a day from rehearsal start to end of the run to memorize or run the show and walk the blocking. Understudies also have to attend the show at least once a week.
Anderson: There were a few rehearsals I was required to attend as an observer such as 1st rehearsal and design run. I was also called to five rehearsals where all of the understudies ran the play to learn blocking and to better understand character choices. Once the show opened, I was required to check in a half-hour before each performance and I had to see the show once a week. The latter felt like more of a privilege than a requirement.
Nick: All of the skills learned in the class helped with an understanding of what the actor was doing and why, but the observation of every other student in class, seeing what they did and why, what worked and what didn’t really helped with dissecting the work of the actor you were responsible to understudy.
Anderson: Studio Theatre’s plays are hugely based in realism just like the classes offered in the Acting Conservatory. Being an understudy means you have less time working on the character with the director so you have to fill in the blanks. Focusing on aspects such as given circumstances, physicality, and subtext truly helps to create a base from which to grow. Once we got our chance to rehearse on stage, these skills made it much easier to step into the world.
Nick: The whole process from start to finish was interesting, but watching the characters develop and change week to week was incredibly interesting.
Anderson: It was fascinating to see the choices made by the actor I was understudying. There were subtle differences here and there that were neither good nor bad but simply different. The way he would react to alarming news or the intensity with which he made physical contact with the other actors always seemed interesting to me and sometimes helped informed my choices and gave me different things to try.
Nick: Well, becoming an EMC and getting Equity points didn’t hurt, but watching and learning from actors like Harry Winter, Rick Foucheux, and Ted van Griethuysen was an incredible opportunity. They were all very gracious and giving of their time and expertise.
Anderson: Being an understudy immediately earned me my first Equity Membership Candidacy points and there is a small stipend that comes with it as well. The great thing about understudying a show at Studio while taking classes is that you can directly put your skills into practice and see how your knowledge translates to an actual stage. And, of course, it’s nice to have that credit on your resume.
Nick: First, it’s terrifying/exhilarating when you think you could be asked to go on for the first time 30 minutes before the show. Once you’ve done the understudy rehearsals that fear dies down, but it’s still there. Second, you have to learn the whole show without rehearsal, blocking, lines, business just by observing. That is a challenge.
Anderson: The character I understudied was French-Senegalese. I am terrible at putting on a French accent and even worse at speaking French. Without having the time to sit down with a vocal coach and work on the dialect, I was most worried about that aspect. However, I was provided with recordings from rehearsal to practice with and seeing the show routinely also helped to refine the sounds.
Anderson: Absolutely. It’s a fantastic experience that allows you to practice your skills without having to put your life on hold.
Nick: Do it. It’s a blast and you’ll learn so much. Ted Van Griethuysen told me that many famous artists learned their craft from going into the Louvre and copying the Masters before developing their own style. It’s a wonderfully rewarding experience.
Anderson: Attend as many rehearsals as you can. It’s the closest thing you can have to actually rehearsing and will make you that much more prepared if you ever have to go on.
Interviews and conversations with members of the Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory community.