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The Folger Spotlight

Understanding Understudying (or The Show Must Go On)

Brian Dykstra as Lord Capulet in Folger's Romeo and Juliet.

Brian Dykstra as Lord Capulet in Folger’s Romeo and Juliet.

Dykstra Blog: Understanding Understudying
or The Show Must Go On!

Her Name? Stephanie LaVardera.

Her Role? Understudying Juliet.

Her Job? Saving The Day.

Job Complete!

Look, there’s lots of times you’ve heard “The Show Must Go On!”

Mostly, it’s a producer thing.

If the show doesn’t go on, everybody who bought tickets, gets a refund.

There’s even a (possibly apocryphal) story about the phrase, “Make Your Nut.” We use it in the theatre to discuss whether a show is breaking even. “Are they even making their nut?” we might ask. In other words, are ticket sales covering expenses?

Stephanie LaVardera

Stephanie LaVardera

As the story goes, travelling commedia troupes would come to town and promise to rent out the town square in exchange for the right to do some shows for a couple days of charging the townsfolk to come see them. Now, being travelling commedia troupes, they might announce a four day engagement and then slip out of town in the middle of the night after the third performance, thereby saving on rental of the theatre space.

Apparently, they ran that scam enough that the townsfolk got wise and when the show wagons pulled into town, the local constabulary would confiscate the large “Nut” holding wheel to the axel. This was insurance against the troupe sneaking off. So…if it was raining a lot, or the show sucked and someone in the troupe was worried, they might ask the manager, “Are we going to make our nut?” Meaning, “Are we going to sell enough tickets to buy our nut back and be able to travel to the next town?” And the phrase stuck.

But we actors, we’ve heard that the show must go on so many times, we actually believe it. And it’s on us to make sure the show goes on.

I just understudied for a guy who missed one show in six months. He confided that it was the second performance he’d missed in Sixty Years!

I have never missed a performance. And that’s not bragging. I’m guessing that most of the cast hasn’t either. We’ve all performed through head colds, vocal strain, the flu, food poisoning, strained knees, sore backs, plantar fasciitis, bumps, bruises, cuts and certainly hangovers…heck, most of us acted through hangovers…This Week.

When I hear an actor question, “Well, why MUST the show go on?” the first thing I do is stop considering them an actor. They have become, to my mind, something other.

I know a guy who found out his father died. He did the show that night, drank some Irish whisky, sang “Danny Boy,” took off the next morning to the funeral, missed that performance, and was back by curtain time the next day. Of course no one would have begrudged him a few more days – we had understudies – but, neither were we surprised to have him back.

This is completely different from the time I was doing a show and a guy twisted his knee. The doctor told him to stay off it for 24 hours. He called in. Now, fine…I guess…But I mean, what’s a doctor going to say? I mean, we later found out the actor didn’t even tell the doctor he was in a show…What? And all that might have been acceptable, except the guy showed up and watched the play from the audience! Yeah, you might think there’s nothing wrong with that…but there is.

Because if you can come to the theatre, you can damn sure do the show. Or, if you’re going to be there, your job is not to sit and watch, it’s to follow your understudy around and ask if there’s Anything you can do for him, or if there’s any way you can help.

Now, we have understudies here for Romeo and Juliet. Not always the case. Lot’s of regional theatres save those salaries and gamble that nothing unworkable happens.

Our understudies are Vince Eisenson, Sarah Holt (who is going to go on for a few performances due to a scheduling issue), Jennifer Hopkins, Jeff Keogh, Zack Powell, William Vaughan, Ron Ward, and the afore mentioned Stephanie LaVardera. They are covering 13 actors and 17 roles.

And our Juliet got a concussion. Like, bad enough she was nauseous, head-pounding with blurred vision and speech. I suppose she would have seemed Juliet…only kinda’ drunk.

And, we play a little rough in this production. There’s some throwing her around. And she climbs part of the set. And there’s all manner of energetic exertion which her doctor warned against. She simply couldn’t do it. And that’s why we have understudies. So…

…On the first performance after opening night – sans any understudy rehearsal – Ms. LaVardera got together with the rest of the cast to do a quick 90 minutes of what we call a “put in” rehearsal, before an 11:30am student matinee.

Ms. LaVardera backstage as Juliet in her wedding dress.

Ms. LaVardera backstage as Juliet in her wedding dress.

Then she went out there and tore it up!

Now, I’m guessing those of you who aren’t actors can’t really appreciate this. So let me try to explain how awesome that is.

First of all, understudies don’t really expect to go on. They have to play a little game to convince themselves that they really DO have to learn the part.

Secondly, no one expects to go on early in a run, and certainly not before the understudy rehearsals even begin. There hadn’t been any, because we were rehearsing the regular cast up until the day before opening.

Thirdly, learning lines by yourself, at home, is one thing. We all do it. But when you step into rehearsal and there’s another living, breathing, human being speaking back to you, and there’s something actually going on. And they look you in the eyes. And they’re Romeo who’s about to kiss you, or your Nurse, who loves you like her own daughter… well, a lot of times, your lines go out the window. The moment swamps our ability to remember the next thing we’re supposed to say, so we call out, “Line,” and a stage manager feeds us the next line.

But that’s in Rehearsal.

To walk out, in front of a house full of people, and speak the speech, and act the moments, and be available to what other actors are trying to do to you while you’re actively trying to effect them…and to get through it this coolly, this Professionally recommends her highly.

Headshot of Stephanie LaVardera

Headshot of Stephanie LaVardera

Although, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. When I went to her website to see what I could pull for this blog post, I found under her pictures a quote from Measure For Measure that she must like a lot.

Our doubts are traitors
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By failing to attempt.”

We all get nervous. But bravery allows us to attempt. And, by attempting, the opportunity to succeed.

Wonderful work, Ms. LaVardera.


And Brava!

And it isn’t JUST Ms. LaVardera. Some performances later, we lost Lady Capulet for a minute or two and Jennifer Hopkins jumped up like the pro that she is and knocked those two performances out of the park, as well.

Jennifer Hopkins prepares for her 1st performance while having to put up with me getting pics for this blog

Jennifer Hopkins prepares for her 1st performance while having to put up with me getting pics for this blog

Which has a special meaning for me…because she’s playing Lady Capulet, my wife. And she was all up and through there.

Like all bomb.

Rock on, Jennifer.

And lo and behold even as I write this I get called to a THIRD understudy put-in. We’ve lost an actor through the weekend.

This is strange, indeed…I mean, maybe there is something to not having 13 actors in a show. Bad luck and all… the last time I heard about 13 people getting together for a meal, one of them ended up getting crucified soon after.

If that’s not bad luck, what is?

Vince Eisenson backstage, before stepping in.

Vince Eisenson backstage, before stepping in.

So, this evening Vince Eisenson stepped in for the first of a handful of performances.

And HE did himself proud!

Rock on, Vince!
Rock on, understudies!
You guys rock the entire house!