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Two actors on stage about to embrace

Strategies for using understudies

By John D. Newman

The auditorium of our high school was filled with a thousand sixth graders for a matinee performance of our 2003 production of Crazy for You. In the musical number “Shall We Dance?” Bobby swept Polly off her feet as the western town set pieces floated away on cue, leaving the couple gliding about the red-rock landscape. As the music swelled, Polly rose gracefully into the air… and landed painfully on a twisted ankle. Polly crawled off into the wings as Bobby did an impromptu pas de deux with his tuxedo jacket.

In previous years, I had designated understudies, but since we had not had to replace a main actor in many years, I had grown complacent. I had felt somewhat guilty making students prepare for a role that they almost certainly would not perform and since they had never seen an understudy used on stage, many students were unenthused about accepting or fulfilling such assignments. Therefore, when the worst-case scenario happened, we were unprepared.We took an unexpected “stretch break” while I instructed one of the featured dancers to get into Polly’s costume and go on stage with book in hand. By the next morning’s matinee, technical director Paul Cutrer had rigged up an audio cuing system that allowed the new Polly to receive and speak her lines without a script in her hands. By our first public performance, our original Polly was back. With her ankle braced, she made it through the show standing and hopping on one leg and leaning on strategically-located support bars, furniture pieces and cast members, with her last-minute understudy serving as Polly’s “dancing double.”

Assigning understudies

Now that we have had an actual instance in which a principal actor couldn’t perform, I have no trouble convincing my actors of the importance of understudies. Since Crazy for You, we have had some cases in which we’ve needed to replace actors, and we’ve had a full complement of understudies ready to take the stage.

As a director plans an emergency replacement strategy, he or she must decide whether to use actors in supporting roles, which will need to be filled by another actor if that actor is called to play the larger role, or to use ensemble actors or chorus members with few or no lines of their own. To use a sports analogy, sometimes a high school theatre program has a great set of starters but no bench. In such a case, supporting actors may need to cover leading actors and a complete “bump-up” scheme must be devised that will cover all contingencies. This can be especially problematic when two main actors need to be replaced. If members of the ensemble, with few or no lines of their own, are up to the task, it is generally preferable to use them as the understudies. This will generally mean that a cast is supporting one replacement actor at a time rather than several.

However, even a member of the chorus with no individual lines may be missed in key moments and the understudy should think through his or her usual role and alert the director to anything that must be covered by someone else. A choreographer may have to make some quick adjustments to a dance number and a choral director may need to reassign a few chorus members to cover certain harmony lines.

Two students in costume look at themselves in a dressing room mirror.
Students from a production of Bright Star at the 2018 International Thespian Festival

Preparation and motivation

As with so many things in high school theatre, the students’ attitude toward understudying directly reflects the attitude of their teacher. When I  thought of understudying as a burden, my students dreaded it like a burden, but when I presented it as an opportunity, they prized it as an opportunity. Rather than ask actors to understudy as a favor to the cast, I made my actors apply for the positions. I now include the understudies in rehearsals from the beginning and list their names in the program.

In our current production of The Tempest, I have also elevated the status of understudies by backing up the role of Prospero myself. Understudies cannot, in good conscience, tell me they have no time to memorize the entire role when I am memorizing the largest one myself. Also, since I have placed myself in the role of a fellow-learner, my students and I have been able to share memorization strategies and to engage in some friendly competition in our memorization efforts.

While I offer my understudies flexibility in their schedules, I require that they observe at least one run-through, making notes of their characters’ blocking, inflections, and stage business. If a principal actor is unable to attend a rehearsal, the actor is responsible for getting the understudy to rehearsal in his or her place. The main actor must also provide the understudy with his or her own copy of the script so that the understudy can follow the blocking notation. That way the rehearsals can proceed without interruption, the understudies are better prepared, and the main actors are reminded that they can be replaced.

We have also started the tradition of holding a regular understudy rehearsal about a week before the show opens. The cast is also on call for an emergency rehearsal the afternoon before a performance if it appears likely that a replacement will need to be made. The regular understudy rehearsal shows me how well-prepared each replacement actor is, which is often less well than the student has reported. The more diligent understudies will have their lines memorized, but most are familiar with the lines yet still need to carry a script. It can be helpful to have the principal actors present at the understudy rehearsal to coach their counterparts in the details of the stage business and blocking they have rehearsed for so many weeks. The rehearsal also provides a moment for the director to explain to understudies how and when they would be notified if the decision were made to replace the main actor.

At that time, the understudies should also be reminded about any assistance they might have available, such as an emergency prompter, an   audio cuing system, or a mini-script. Many professional understudies are allowed the option of carrying script under certain circumstances and student understudies should likewise have some options. In an ideal world, every understudy would know every line by heart, but educational theatre is rarely an ideal world.

The replacement actors should also be assured that an announcement would be made prior to their performance. An informed audience can be very understanding and may accept a prompter, earpiece, or script like any other theatrical convention.

Emergency prompter

In previous centuries, when actors were required to keep dozens of roles in their memory and perform them with few or no rehearsals, a prompter was considered a necessary precaution. The prompter, located either in the wings or in a downstage box, would follow the script and offer a line when signaled to do so by an actor. Fines were often levied so as to prevent an actor from becoming too reliant on the prompter.

In a small theatre setting, such an individual would be quite obtrusive, but on a large auditorium stage, on which most of the actors carry portable microphones, a prompter could be easily concealed in the orchestra pit. If there are any “chorus microphones” downstage or overhead, the audio technician may need to make certain adjustments during a prompted performance.

Audio cuing

The “audio cuing” system we used for Crazy for You consisted of a pair of two-way radios, one with a small earpiece for the actor onstage and one with a microphone headset for the prompter in the wings.

The prompter and the understudy should experiment with the system well in advance of the performances. In the case of Crazy for You, we were fortunate to have an effective team that could make the system work. Others would struggle to master the trick of speaking the beginning of the line while simultaneously listening for the end of the line. Our prompter, the student director for the production, often spoke the first few words of the line, which the actor could complete by herself. A prompter must speak clearly and develop a certain intuition as to how much of each line to speak and at what point to be silent. The team must also develop a signaling system to indicate if there are problems with transmission.

The cuing system should be regarded as a secondary aid and not a primary method for feeding lines to an actor unfamiliar with the role. The method may not work for everyone, but for those that can make it work, the illusion of “instant memorization” can be quite convincing.

Using mini-scripts

With permission from the publisher, a script can be easily reduced to 50 percent or less and printed on most standard commercial photocopiers. The process of reducing, trimming, and binding the script can be quite time consuming and should be done well in advance of the performances.

Close up of a script

A quarter-sized script (half the width and half the length) can be held in one hand and can offer the actor a full range of body movement and one arm and hand with which to gesture and handle necessary stage business. The script may also be small enough to be conveniently concealed in a book, diary or other hand prop.

This method is probably the best choice for an understudy who is not as prepared or rehearsed as expected. It is usually the quickest response to an emergency that occurs during the performance itself.

 

Preparing understudy technicians

The show cannot go on without someone in every major actor role, but it will also not go on without a trained person at every major technical post.

Like the director of the show, the technical director must be sure that more than one person could cover each crucial technical role in an emergency. All members of a crew should be trained in basic soundboard and lightboard operation, but the technical director must also assure that more than one crew member is familiar with the configuration of the lightboard for a particular show and the microphone settings for each individual actor. It is easy for skilled technicians to assure crewmates that they have everything in their heads, but everything needs to be on paper as well. Likewise, if the director calls the show, he or she must leave a detailed promptbook in the theatre in case of accident or emergency. The grip crew and rail crew should have heads as well as assistants that know the whole operation. Where feasible, it is also a good idea for assistants and backups to take charge of part of a run-through so that the person is fully ready to take charge if the main technician is missing.

It is also a wise precaution to prepare to reset a lightboard or readjust a soundboard. Most modern light boards allow for floppy disc backups and multiple copies should be made and strategically located. A paper copy of the patch schedule could allow a quick fix, even with a disc drive failure. If the soundboard is located in the audience area, a saboteur could, with a few twisted buttons, wreak havoc with the audio. A visual record of a soundboard could be worth its weight in gold in such a scenario.

In areas where there the technical crew is in constant motion, such as the counterweight rail, have a backup headset available. If the entire audio communication system fails, cues for curtains and drops can be given using flash lights and prearranged hand signals.

Preparing backup props

Attentive directors and stage managers must always ask the magic “what if?” Even if all the actors and crew are in place, what if Puck’s magic flower crumbles? What if Annie gets her gun and it doesn’t fire? What if Romeo arrives in the tomb and finds he has forgotten his poison?

Preparing for performance emergencies may include understudies for objects as well as actors and technicians. A taped-off prop table, with a place for everything and everything in its place, will allow a stage manager to see at a glance if anything is missing. Getting the props onstage with a forgetful actor may be another matter. It might not hurt to plant a backup prop in an actor’s pocket and it is always prudent to provide a replacement for any prop that could potentially break during the performance. A pre-set synthesizer in the orchestra pit may provide a backup sound effect in case a stage weapon misfires or another live effect miscues.

The designated troubleshooter

The stage manager traditionally serves as the even-tempered troubleshooter who has already anticipated everything that could happen and has a plan to deal with it if and when it does. In some school settings, the director doubles as stage manager and the role of troubleshooter sometimes gets neglected. A student director or crew member may fill the role of gadfly. The role of “designated troubleshooter” may be filled in a number of ways, but it must not be neglected.

All’s well that ends well

After learning our lesson the hard way with Crazy for You, we were prepared with understudies for one of our next productions, a new children’s play called Tua’s Dreams by Alisa Faye Weinstein. With less than two days notice, we had to replace the title character. The understudy was mostly prepared but needed audio prompting for the first performance. By the final performance, she needed no prompting. When we took the play to our regional festival, the understudy received an acting award for her performance.

With such experiences in recent memory, we are now diligent about preparing understudies for cast, crew, and even objects. The challenge is to remain on our guard and plan for the unexpected when we work with future students who have not yet encountered such last-minute performance surprises.

An understudy performance

During our recent production of The Tempest, my students and I decided to present an “understudy performance” for an invited audience one afternoon during the regular run. We squeezed in a second understudy rehearsal before we performed and, in retrospect, we would have liked another run-through or two. The seven understudies (including myself) who had completed their memorization by the first understudy rehearsal (two weeks prior to opening night) were allowed to perform the roles they had prepared while the main actors, whose understudies were not fully memorized, played their regular parts.  The actor playing Ferdinand had only memorized his lines in Act I and so he performed the first act and was then replaced by the main actor for the remainder of the play. For the presentation, we cut three large group scenes, which would have required too many substitutions and adjustments to work effectively.

We used a prompter during the understudy performance, who was utilized several times in some scenes and not at all in most. As an understudy, I found that while I had my individual lines down cold, I struggled to respond to cues and to associate lines with blocking and movement. Miranda’s understudy had no such struggles and attributed her success to listening to all the lines in her scenes (not just her own) on tape and walking through the blocking as she rehearsed at home. Another discovery we made in the process was that the prompter needed to call “stop” rather than prompting a stuck actor who called “line” because the understudies had less sense than did the principal actors of when they were off-track.

Allowing the understudies to perform prepared the actors, most of them younger and less experienced than their counterparts, for the stress of playing the larger roles that they are likely to do in years to come. The opportunity also rewarded the “unsung heroes” of the cast who assure that even in crisis, the show will go on.
—J. N.

John D. Newman teaches theatre at Highland High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. He currently serves as president of the Utah Speech Arts Association. In 2003, he received the American Alliance for Theatre and Education John C. Barner Teacher of the Year Award.

Audio Cuing

By Paul Cutrer and Russell Felt

The audio cuing system we used in Crazy for You consisted of two FRS (Family Radio Service) radios, one that would only receive and one that would only transmit. The VOX feature (short for “voice operated switch”) offered on some radios does not work well for this purpose. If your radio has this feature, disable it or get a different radio.

Any two-way radio system could be used, but make sure that you are not violating any federal licensing regulations. We used the FRS system because of radio licensing, use regulations, and requirements. (See http://wireless.fcc.gov/services/personal/family/.)

close up of a sound board

Some FRS radios have features that make them better for our purpose than others. Being able to plug in an individual earpiece so it is not obvious that it is being used is important. Earpieces with  1/8″ phone jacks are easy to find but they do not fit most new radios in use today. You can, however, get adapters at electronics stores, such as     Radio Shack, at a very small cost. Check before you buy.

The CTCSS feature, sometimes called privacy codes, makes it so your actor receiving the prompting will not hear outside radio transmissions. A headset is needed for the prompter and is necessary to ensure that the microphone is always the same distance from the prompter’s mouth, assuring a consistent volume level in the prompting.

Choose a clear channel on which to transmit. On FRS radios, use any channel two through fourteen, skipping channel one, which is commonly used in children’s toys. Find a place where the prompter can see the actor, read the script, not disrupt the performance and backstage operation by talking, and not be interrupted by offstage actors. A little practice and you’re ready to go.

Paul Cutrer has served as technical director at Highland High School since 1987. Russell Felt served on the Highland stage crew  and has served as the assistant technical director since graduation.

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