The first understudying gig I had was for a fabulous professional production of The Cherry Orchard. I understudied Varya, a role I'd love to play for real. I played a servant in the show otherwise. It was my first experience wearing a real corset, and let me tell you, now I truly understand why those ladies were passing out all the time. You cannot breathe when you are bound up in one of those horrible things!
Here I am with the very nice actress who got to play the part. And the dog. And Keir Dullea, of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame, who played Lopakhin. I cut it out of this picture, but on the table in front of us was a box of donuts, which reminded me that our cast rule was that if you were late for a calltime, the next day you had to bring the whole cast donuts (one time the gal playing Dunyasha was so late for a call time - her flight was delayed- that we thought her understudy might have to go on. The next day she brought donuts for everyone and wine for her understudy.)
It's a hard and thankless job, understudying. I take the responsibility very seriously, and work hard to know all the lines and all the blocking (stage movement) should I ever get the opportunity to go on. But I don't get the benefit of rehearsing. I have to be ready to do mybest replica of someone else's character, without discovering any of it for myself. Still, I certainly don't ever want to be in the position of saying "oh, I'm not ready."
When I understudied the role of Sally Bowles in Cabaret there were two times I thought I might have to go on. After the first weekend of performances the director called me and told me the actress might not be able to finish the run of the show. We scheduled a tentative rehearsal for me and the actor playing Cliff, and I started feverishly going over the lines (again. Honestly, I did know them, but nothing like a little nerves to make you work some more!) He called back and told me not to worry. But then the following weekend she was very late for a call, which was highly unusual, and the stage manager came in and asked if I could go on if necessary. "Of course," I said. She stopped dead in her tracks. "Really?" "Yes, that's my job. I'll probably fake half the choreography and Cliff might have to cover up a few of my line flubs, but I know the show." She gaped at me for a minute. "OK then. Great." The real Sally showed up shortly after, and I went on as Frenchie, as usual.
I've never been in the position to go on without notice (for a part I was understudying... I did get thrown into a role with no warning once... I'll have to cover that in another post!). And frankly I hope from here on out I'm doing roles, not understudying them.
But let me just say that if I do understudy again, the actress had better take a cue from these lovely ladies and be nice to me. Because I'm not entirely sure that I'm above poisoning soup.