The power of the Understudy

The power of the Understudy

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Phantom and Firmin UnderstudyAs some of you may be aware, I am currently part of the ensemble cast for the Packemin Productions presentation of The Phantom of the Opera, and previously for Beauty and the Beast. On Friday 6th of February, we opened Phantom and have received great reviews. If you know the story of ‘Phantom’ you will recall that the first plot twist occurs when the young dancer Christine Daaé is put forward as a possible understudy and replacement for the house’s principal diva Carlotta. Initially, Christine’s nerves affect her performance but her talent and training start to shine and the stage changes to reveal her receiving accolades for her performance on opening night.
The whole concept for the understudy has been rolling around in my head for a few reasons. Firstly, the role of Meg has had an understudy cast from the outset, as the beautiful and talented Kelsi Bowden had been accepted into the prestigious arts college WAAPA and could only perform in the first five of the seventeen shows. Secondly, for the fifth show, two of the understudies had to step up from their existing roles and into the larger roles.
The whole concept of the understudy can be extended from the stage and into the work-place or sports field. At a moments notice, you may be asked to “step up”. To take on a larger role, to lead the team instead being led, to take the match-winning kick. It is in that moment when the understudy has to shine.
So what makes a good understudy? I’ve never been one but I’ve watched those who have, and I’ve distilled my thoughts down into three points.
  • Observation – An understudy has to watch and, in essence, become the actor they are the understudy for. Movements, pathways on stage, actions, interactions  – they all need to be mimicked and made their own. The rest of the cast and crew are relying on the understudy to be able to slot in the existing `organised chaos’ to minimize the stress of the transition, while at the same time giving the understudy enough space to make the role his/her own.
  • Preparation – The time for an understudy to prepare is in the weeks and/or months BEFORE they get asked to step up. It’s not good enough to kind-of know the songs, or sort-of know the choreography – the preparation happens in private, behind the scenes, way before being asked, and even without the guarantee that the extra preparation is even going to be called upon.
  • Application – The combination of Observation and Preparation, the understudy has to know AND apply themselves to the new role, and effectively and efficiently leave their previous role behind. There has to be a clinical dissection of the old role and the new role. Even as the understudy takes on and ‘owns’ the new role, the old role is now ‘owned’ by another.
No matter what team you work within, whether it is corporate or sporting or thespian, take on the mindset and work ethic of an understudy. Be ready, in season and out of season, to step up into whatever opportunity arises. Be preparing yourself, extending yourself, expanding your capabilities so that when you get the call to ‘step up’ you are able to respond with “I can” instead of “I wish I could” – to be the perfect understudy.
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