Engage & Learn

The World of the Understudy

To learn more about what it’s like to be an understudy, the Goodman education team sat down with Amanda Drinkall and Luke Michael Grimes, understudies in Measure for Measure and Teddy Ferrara, respectively and Dana Black current Assistant to the Executive Director at the Goodman and former understudy . Here’s what they have to say.

Amanda Drinkall, Measure for Measure ensemble and understudy Mariana

Can you explain what you do in rehearsal?

In rehearsal as an understudy, there’s a lot of watching, and paying attention to what Kate, who is the actress who is playing Mariana, is doing.  But since I’m in the ensemble I get to actually play as well. So it’s kind of double duty, playing your own track but also watching what she’s doing and taking notes on both her character development and also simple things like blocking.

Is it hard to keep track of all of those things?

It can be.  Now, we’re in the point in rehearsal where things are starting to get solidified, so it’s becoming a lot easier. A week or so ago there were a lot of changes still happening. They’d do a scene one way, then a couple days later they’d completely re-do it. So it’s hard to remember which version they’re doing. But now things are starting to get more solid, so it’s a lot easier to be really specific about how I’m taking notes, and where Kate’s moving and things like that.

Do you come to every rehearsal as an ensemble member?

Yeah. Being in the ensemble I’m here almost every day, maybe not for the whole rehearsal time, but for most of it. The ensemble has been involved in most of the background stuff on stage, so we’ll be in a lot of the scenes just as the background.

Since you’re in the ensemble, would you say that your interactions with the rest of the cast are like they would be if you were in a principal role?

Totally. I think it’s different when you’re coming from the outside in an understudy role, because you don’t know everybody as well and they’ve been rehearsing for three or four weeks without you. But being in the ensemble, it doesn’t make a difference at all.

Is there anything else you want to say?

It’s fun, being an understudy. And it can be a little daunting. I’ve understudied before, and once you get into rehearsal there’s always that nervous energy, like, what if something happens.

Dana Black, Assistant to the Executive Director at the Goodman and former understudy

Can you tell me about your experience as an understudy?

Sure. I have understudied four times. I’ve understudied at the Goodman, before I got this job. I understudied in 2005. I’ve understudied at Steppenwolf twice, Victory Gardens, and Famous Door, which doesn’t exist anymore. The only time I have gone up as an understudy was during Dead Man’s Cell Phone, which is a Sarah Ruhl play that was done at Steppenwolf a couple years ago. So that is the only time – Wednesday night, one show.

Can you describe what it was like to be an understudy?

It’s hard. It’s extremely hard and sometimes it feels as if you’re second best, but I never treat it like that. There’s only one person who can get that role, and I always feel blessed to be the second person to get to play it. So, I try to treat it as an opportunity to still be a part of the show. Sometimes the odds are not in your favor – sometimes you’re not equity, sometimes you’re not tall enough, sometimes you’re not the right ethnicity, but being an understudy you still get the chance to speak those words. You get to do producers’ runs, you get to rehearse on set with props, costumes, sometimes sound, sometimes lights. I really like it, I’m a huge advocate.

Tell me about the time you went on stage.

I was lucky, I had been in two weeks of rehearsal, so I felt good. I was at dinner, really close to Steppenwolf, and the woman playing the role was a friend of mine. So she actually called me first and said, “It’s all yours, this is your night.” So I went up that night, and I felt really good. The main thing we weren’t sure about was my hair and how they would make me look like this actress who was blonde. We hadn’t really discussed how the hair was going to look under the scarf. So, no joke, we found a wig backstage. No one knows why it was there, but it was blonde, and I put it on, with the scarf. Everyone was like, “Oh my gosh, you look like Sarah [Charipar], so use the wig, use it.” It was almost fate there was this wig in the space. And it was amazing. It goes by fast. It’s a rush of adrenaline and then it’s over. So I tried to make sure I enjoyed it because it went so quickly.

Did they try to make you look like the actress who played the principal for reasons in the show, or just because they thought it would be less confusing?

No, I think it was because of the color. They wanted it to be this film noir type mysterious woman, and so I think once they saw me, with my normal hair, and the scarf around it, it didn’t feel as glamorous and mysterious. There was something about this blonde’s wasps of hair coming out that really worked, so we just kept it. I don’t think I needed to look exactly like her at all, especially for that show. Other shows I’m sure it’s different.

What are some of the challenges of being an understudy?

Not getting enough time on stage, not being able to work out all of the technical elements. I think it’s mainly just having it in your body and making it your own. You’re always told to make it your own, and yet you get to emulate the rhythm and patterns of the actor you’re understudying. And ultimately, it’s almost impossible because you watch it so much that you just start mimicking, which is sometimes what they want and sometimes not. Because if you’re mimicking something that isn’t grounded in the way you walk, how you speak, or the sense of humor you have, and you’re just trying to mimic someone else, it doesn’t work. So, I just try to split the difference because it’s easier for me.

Do you think it’s better to play an understudy for a big role or a principal for a smaller role?

Truthfully, my brain wants to say smaller. Technically, it’s easier because you might have fewer lines, you might have less stage time. But it can feel less fulfilling.

Luke Michael Grimes, understudy Drew in Teddy Ferrara

What do you do when you come to rehearsal?

Understudies join the company the week before tech week. And we observe the rehearsals, those are from 10 to 6. We just sit there and watch all day. We watch the actor that we cover enter and exit, we watch what props they’re bringing into scenes, what props they’re taking off, so we can track all of that and write it in our scripts. And, once the play opens then we have our own rehearsals, so the understudy company does the play completely from beginning to end.

How much of being an understudy is mimicking what the principal does versus creating your own character?

It’s complicated. As an actor my instinct is to create something, but we are often drawn back to the way that principal characters do it, and not in a bad way. It’s about preserving the director’s vision, and we’re supposed to be creating the same play every night, and you kind of have to let go of your ego and give over to what’s already there. You have to do what’s being asked of you, which is to study someone else doing the role, and to do that role.

Do you watch the principal who plays Drew a lot, or do you find yourself watching the rest of the cast?

I watch Adam [Poss] a great deal. For the first two weeks, since I joined the company so late, I just watched him. I’ve now started watching the play as a whole, but initially it was just me watching Adam because I needed to know, you know, when he was bringing on a Jamba Juice or when he was turning a table. When we did our producers’ run, I still didn’t get everything, I still exited the wrong way, but that’s not a big deal. But I watch him most of the time, as opposed to the rest of the cast, because Adam is where my story is, and Adam is where my lines are. So I watch him for me, and so I know that I’m preserving what he’s doing.

Do you have your own costume fittings?

Yes, we did have our own fittings, and surprisingly me and Adam are the exact same size. Our pants are the same size, and our shoes. Usually when an understudy is brought into a project, and their size varies a great deal from the actor they’re covering, they’ll either make pieces or buy other pieces that will fit them. But with Teddy Ferrara, almost all of the understudies fit almost all of the principal characters’ costumes.

Are you guaranteed to go on at all?

No. What happens with understudies is we’re guaranteed the producers’ run, which is a run that we do for the casting team as well as the producers here at the Goodman, and all of the understudies go on during the day one day and we do the show the whole way through so they can see that the show is in good hands. Other than that we’re not guaranteed anything. We could have as little as 15 minutes’ notice or even have a day or two to prepare. But we know the gig when we take it on.

Is it nerve-wracking to know whether you’re going on or not?

It’s nerve-wracking in a way. Being an understudy, that’s your job – to be able to go on and do the play in any amount of time. But it is kind of scary. Sometimes you get to the green room and you sit down, and you’re like, oh I’m going to play some cards and read a magazine. But today, for instance, Colin sat down. He had a minute to sit in his chair, then our stage manager was like, we need you to go on. He was very professional, he was very prepared. That’s what we’re trained to do.