I’d never been an understudy before this year, and I’d never wanted to. It’s like the ‘friend zone’ of the theatre world; you’re only good enough to fill in if the guy they really want isn’t around. Otherwise, just sit in the corner, quiet and ignorable, and pay attention just in case something goes wrong. But when I was contacted with an understudy offer that paid more than any two gigs of the previous year – on the strength of that alone, how could I say no? I have a cat to feed.
The role was for a character that first appears on page 69 of a 74 page play, another in the line of “be large and just stand there” roles that make me stare longingly at the Master’s diploma on my fridge. I really wanted one other role in the show – the antagonist of a fight scene, described blow-by-blow in the script, taking about 4 pages in unbroken paragraph form. For some reason they didn’t even audition this role.
On the first day of rehearsal I learned that part had been filled – by the playwright. Who is also co-director of the play. Who is also the company’s founding Artistic Director. So okay, this is his sandbox. He owns the toys, he signs the checks, he puts in the work, he rightly gets to do what he wants. Still, it would have been nice to have had a chance to prove my worth.
A few weeks into rehearsal I got an offer to understudy a second role in the show – the one I initially wanted – along with a comparable bump in pay. Whee! It was nice to have recognition of my stage combat skills, even if it was only as a backup.
Watching fight rehearsals was unnerving. Both men were not only capable, but spry. I’m not spry. I knew I’d have to modify some of the more acrobatic moves they were doing. The set was constructed specifically with this fight in mind, reinforced to ensure it could hold the weight of them leaping to or being thrown upon various bits of ledge, furniture, chandelier. I thought about the difficulties it would present should I need to fill in, being a few inches taller and 75 pounds heavier than my counterpart (not an exaggeration, I asked).
Our first understudy rehearsal was scheduled for the Thursday afternoon after the show opened. Imagine my consternated confusion when my phone rang at 6:30 Tuesday morning, the light of the screen searing my eyes with my stage manager’s name. I usually hit the sack around 2:30, so I knew I was in no proper mental state to absorb whatever information she had to tell me.
Sure enough, the other actor was injured. I’d need to fill in for him starting Friday, possibly for the rest of the run. I bet if I ran her voicemail through a voice stress analyzer, the machine could have convinced me she had a gun to her head, and I was in no better shape. I’d just been told I had three days to learn and perfect what the other two men had been practicing for two months.
Naturally, I had three other obligations that same upcoming weekend. I had two shows to host, one Friday and one Saturday, plus I’d promised to create a new boylesque routine for another event Saturday afternoon. Writing intros for a single show takes me at least three hours to research and practice. I have never tried out a new boylesque routine without running it through my troupe’s rehearsal at least once, but I was out of time.
It’s not the most stressful situation I’ve ever been in, but it certainly kicked in my fight-or-flight response. At some point in the last few years I’ve become aware of a struggle with my inner child. Not the one who wants to shirk responsibility and fulfill every hedonistic desire, he and I are cool, but one who will recognize a challenge and crumple into frustrated tears. His screams of incompetent fear compete with my motivational poster mantras, and that fucker is a passionate little doomsayer and he is loud.
The trick is to not let him have a head start. As soon as I feel him twitch, I cuff him to an arm chair, slap some duct tape over his mouth, and sit him in front of the cartoons of my childhood heroes: Silverhawks, The Real Ghostbusters, TMNT, and Christopher Reeve as Superman. Every one of these characters was one who didn’t ever despair, because they didn’t pause to reflect on the consequences of failure. They just got shit done.
My first rehearsal was 10pm Wednesday night, since the theatre was otherwise occupied with tech rehearsal for a children’s show which shares our stage. I spent two hours with the fight choreographer running out of gas and questioning my life choices. Fortunately I proved to myself that I had, in fact, been paying adequate attention during rehearsal. I quickly absorbed almost every strike, every dodge, every throw. Unfortunately I felt the anguish of only getting half the necessary amount of sleep and two beers before rehearsal.
I scared myself with a glance in the mirror. My red-rimmed eyes and pale, sweaty face looked like I hadn’t slept in two days nor seen the sun in eight months, but then I realized that was literally the case, calmed down, and headed home.
The following day our tech crew came in to add some extra reinforcements to a few things to accommodate my increased bulk. Late Thursday night I worked with the other actor for the first time. He learned to aim his punches higher, I learned to duck lower, and together we learned how much more hang time he gets when I’m the one throwing him.
Friday’s call was two hours early to give us one more chance to perfect things; it was also the first time I had to discuss the acting portion of my character and his motivations with the directors. I’ve learned that being an understudy is a lesson in prolonged, impotent frustration. Watching someone else make different, though justifiable, choices escalates me from a mental state of, “That’s interesting,” to “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.” It’s like watching someone else play a video game and it’s never my turn.
It’s more difficult for me when I’m studying a role that’s being played by the man who wrote the part and is co-directing the play. I never got the benefit of watching him discuss his choices with the director. Fortunately for me, he swallowed enough painkillers to come in early and clarify what I would certainly have done with a vastly different interpretation than he’d wanted.
I carried off the fight with one small hitch. Towards the end of the fight I get punched and knocked backward into the proscenium wall. I have to aim carefully in order to miss the foot of a staircase, a few shelf corners built into the wall on one side of my target area, and a fancy fountain on the other side. Luckily I know how to distribute my weight and area of impact evenly, so I hit simultaneously from shoulder to hip without doing myself an injury.
The drywall wasn’t so lucky. I’d been under the impression it was stone and mortar. The theatre wall now has a wall-gina approximately 2 feet wide, 4 feet tall, and 1 foot deep. This instigated many repetitions of “THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS,” at me, to which I call bullshit. A1) In my book “nice” things aren’t so damn fragile, especially when those things are WALLS, and B2) there’s a very nice rug now hanging on that very wall.
The three other obligations were carried off with aplomb, though for the first time in my burlesque hosting history I straight up reused some introductions wholesale from a previous show. My new boylesque routine accomplished everything I’d intended. My Lady Love’s fundraiser brought over $1,000 to a worthy cause. And after performing in the Sunday matinee of the play I had to stick around for our first actual understudy rehearsal so I could help teach the fight to the other guy’s understudy.
My adult life isn’t inspired by the heroism of the fictional characters of my childhood, but I do use symbols remind myself of the kind of man I want to be. I wear these symbols on my jewelry, and I have them imbedded under my skin. I spy them amidst my new bruises, and I feel proud to have lived up to the ideals they represent.I’m ready for the next challenge.