Understanding Understudies

By Shannon Stockwell

The longer you work in theater, the more you gather tales of dramatic disasters, and the more you realize the resilience of theater makers who rally under the old adage: “The Show Must Go On.” Some problems can be anticipated, however, and that’s where understudies come in.

For A.C.T.’s production of The Last Five Years, a two-person musical by Jason Robert Brown, we had two amazing understudies, but no one expected them to have to go on because the run was so short—only three weeks long. But illness struck, and both understudies ended up having to perform at different times. And, if you were at the performance on Saturday, May 28, you would have gotten to witness a special moment in theatrical problem solving when Margo Seibert, who was recovering from illness, was struck by a coughing fit in her first song and an unscheduled fifteen-minute intermission was called while her understudy, Kelsey Venter, prepared to go onstage as Cathy.

To get the scoop on the mysterious life of the understudy, we talked to Venter—a graduate of A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts Program—about her experience working on The Last Five Years.

Actor Kelsey Venter

What preparation do you do as an understudy?

For The Last Five Years, I was at an advantage because I’ve loved the show since I was a kid. Because I came in already knowing the music, my preparation was mostly focused on learning the blocking and understanding the acting intentions that Margo, who played Cathy, and Michael [Berresse], the director, had developed along with Zak [Resnick], who played Jamie. One of the most important parts of being an effective understudy is the ability to maintain the integrity of the production as created by the director and actors.

What does an understudy’s rehearsal process look like?

It’s a little bit different for each actor and each show. We came into the process right before the show went into tech—which means we had about a week and a half of watching rehearsals and runs and taking lots of notes. For this production, Jeffrey [Brian Adams, the male understudy] and I had two “official” rehearsals; one where we got to sing through the show with Matt (the production’s music director) and one where we got to run the show in real time with all the props, moving set elements, and a few costume pieces. It was during that second rehearsal that Margo called in and said, “I’m out.” Zak came in about an hour before curtain and we ran through the few moments Jamie and Cathy have together. And then I did the show!

It’s funny, you always hear about actors having anxiety dreams about having to go on last minute, but it really happened to you!

It’s happened to me a few times now! I sort of lived the actor’s nightmare in one of my first professional jobs, when I was about nineteen years old. I got a last minute call from a theater I’d worked with to go on for a show I had understudied but never actually performed at a completely different theater eight months earlier. Their actress was out of town, and their normal understudy was too sick to perform. I ended up relearning the show in about three hours, having a very fast costume fitting at the theater, and then jumping into the show that night. So, having gone through that at such an early age, I knew that I could make it through The Last Five Years. I thought to myself, “I know this show, back to front. I just have to make sure I’m in the right place at the right time, and everything else will work out.”

You must have relied on the people backstage, as well.

I literally could not have done it without them. Megan [Q. Sada], the stage manager, was wonderful. She was so supportive and helpful. But especially the incredible people backstage, the assistant stage managers, the deck crew, the dressers and hair department and sound engineers—they all pushed me in the right direction and made sure I had everything I needed when I needed it.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I have great respect for understudies. I think it’s a valuable experience that every actor should get to have early in their career—it makes you appreciate the work in a different way. That’s certainly been the case for me. It’s a hard job, but it is so rewarding when you succeed. It was a dream come true to get to play Cathy on the Geary stage in such a beautiful production, having loved the show for so long. It was thrilling.

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