Whispers from the Wings

Public Understudy Shows AKA 'Pussies'

June 26, 2014

An hactor prepares

Right. I spent three years at drama school learning acting techniques. And of these there are many: Stanislavsky, The Method, Meisner, Grotowski, Practical Aesthetics, Chekhov, Laban, The Ken Nwosu Method (more on that last one later).

Joan Iyiola Then there are the Bibles - books written by a myriad of genius practitioners, actors, directors, etc, based on their years of working in the industry. You can see from the picture Joan Iyiola is clearly experiencing some life-changing insight from Bill Gaskill's Words into Action.

The first I ever read as a teenager was On Acting by Laurence Olivier but I particularly recommend I, an Actor by Nigel Planer. Most of these are on sale in my favourite theatre shop. The idea is, that being equipped with an array of techniques and specialist knowledge and tips, you can compile a private Gospel of your own to test out as you meander through the profession.

Of course, every actor, once you've done a certain type of job, knows this is bollox. And those jobs are Panto and RSC seasons.


Well, if the RSC must abbreviate a Public Understudy Show as PUS and there are more than one in a season, what else can you call them??

Reportedly, there is a hardcore group of Stratford pensioners, called (I kid you not) The Pussy Club who book them up early as, in their opinion, (I heard reported) 'they're a fiver rather than £42 to see the same bloody show!'

Having seen the standard of the Roaring Girl PUS(ick), I am inclined to agree. However, having just taken part in the Arden of Faversham PUS (ick again), it is perhaps, a little more complicated.

In the Roaring Girls Season, I'm playing 3 roles and understudying one; Sharon Small in Arden of Faversham though, so MA-HOO-SSIVE but I have it easy - some company members are playing a multiple of parts, often in the same scene. In the PUS (ick), they will literally be talking to them-selves.

The members of The Pussy Club (henceforth, the PC) know this of course and obviously consider actor torture part of the five quid bargain. Method, Bibles, personal Gospels fly out the window. Enter the comedy hat, glasses, wigs, limps, lisps - anything to differentiate one character from another, although again, the PC relish the same actor entering two seconds after the exited, limping and suddenly Scottish.

Although nobody quite did the Tommy Cooper half-and-half, one side a sailor, the other a pretty lady (and how glorious that trick would be in The Witch of Edmonton - I must suggest it to Gregory Doran). Ken Nwosu played his own hired killer in Arden of Faversham PUS, whilst Peter Bray practically carried the final scene by himself, at one point dismissing himself offstage and sentencing himself to death twice.

Doris Stokes, Billy Graham and us

Understudying aside, playing multiple characters in multiple plays, especially in plays with ye olde language, is a minefield. If you do any show tired (sorry, had to pause to laugh at that word 'if'), if for any reason you lose your concentration or, God forbid, ride on automatic, you'll call your fellow actor a character name from another play or find your body literally performing an action your character does in a whole other world, in a whole other period of history. And that is weird. An out of body experience which feels a little bit like being possessed.

Only a few types of adults make possession a profession. Mediums, preachers and actors. Funny, coz as children, we do it all the time. Given a water pistol, I was Han Solo. A dressing gown and I'm a wizard. I love how kids are genuinely shocked and annoyed when real magic doesn't happen. The kid who gives a dead bird a kiss and throws it into the air because they interpreted the kiss of life literally. I lost all faith in religion coz our local priest who could make tuppence come out of my ear, could perform no other miracles. But I digress.

Pray to Dionysus instead?

DionysusHe's the God of theatre apparently. He'd never fit into a seat at the Swan. I've heard Mark Rylance used to leave offerings to him at the back of the Globe and encourage the actor company to join in this ritual. Perhaps there's something in it - I wasn't the only one who expected real giants to appear at the end of Jerusalem.

Rylance is an actor who physically transforms for his characters. I've told you about my idiot dribbling encounter in a corridor with Antony Sher when I first arrived (I was the dribbling one, not he). It's not my fault. The man I first saw entering upside down on a rope in Tamburlaine the Great, when I was in school is unrecognisable in a fat suit in Henry IV Part I & II. Rylance, Sher, Kathryn Hunter, Linda Marlowe - all actors who transform physically onstage - and others so talented, they can alter tiny things about themselves, down to a slight tilt of the spine and a different parting and bingo - magic.

I am fascinated to know what my fellow Swan Company members' personal acting methods are, watching them transform in their various ways over the last few months has been a right treat.

Meet Creepy Chris!

Christopher Middleton as Clarke in Arden of FavershamChristopher Middleton in real life, of course, is utterly uncreepy. He is utterly lovely. I've even met his family and unless they're hired, they're utterly lovely too. Chris Middleton as Clarke the poisoner in Arden of Faversham however, is Creepsville in Jeffrey Dahmer specs.

'The glasses made a big difference,' he told me when I cornered him as the first interviewee for my blog. 'I had already decided Clarke was a sociopath who didn't look you in the eye, the glasses were an immediate barrier. It's called irrelation - they look at your mouth, anything other than your eye. I just took that to the edge.'

Chris's method of choice was Laban - a language for describing, visualizing, interpreting and documenting all varieties of human movement (I googled that, can't you tell?).

'I used a state called Dream, of being in your own world,' says Chris who was inspired by Robin Williams in One Hour Photo and, of course, Jeffrey Dahmer. 'There was something about his hair,' Chris says of the latter. 'Those glasses. You can't fit such people into any family, they stick out as oddballs.'

Alternative Clarkes

Fascinatingly, our Dahmer poisoner could have been entirely different. 'An alternative Clarke exists in my head,' says Chris. 'Inspired by the line about a dagger sticking in a heart. He plays Dungeons and Dragons and paints fantasy art.'

Brilliant. It makes me think of all the Mistress Reede's that could have been. I saw one of them in the Arden PUS (I have to stop saying ick at some point). Not one of mine, I might add, she was Elspeth Brodie's creation - all wondrous Edinburgh Brogue and damnation.

The good thing about watching your understudy is you can nick stuff. - I didn't take the accent, that was too cheeky. Ken Nwosu did the next best thing though. Inspired by Joan Iyiola's Jamaican accent when she PUS'd his ferryman role, he promptly became Nigerian for a good three weeks.

I should perhaps have moved Mistress Reede to the Gorbals for a while… I have tried her Scouse - I think I've mentioned that before but that, combined with the tabard, might have alarmed a Stratford crowd more than the murderous ending.

This does however, bring me to the weirdness of Understudy World. In many other companies, there's no such luxury as understudies. I lost seven months work last year because I needed one day off and would have no cover. Rather glad though, as it meant I could do this job instead.

The RSC's understudy policy is very clever. Because you have to perform your role in public and that event is taken very seriously - the casting department attend and there is a packed house of loyal Stratford followers and of course, your peers - this ensures you do the work.

Kenneth Williams famously begged a hungover Richard Burton to go on as Konstantin in The Seagull as he was his understudy and didn't know a single line. Can you IMAGINE how wondrous that performance would have been?

All about Eve

The PUS is the RSC's insurance that you learn the bloody role. It's also a reward; albeit a terrifying one, and a chance to shine, often in more than one role in one evening. But it is strange. The principal cast members haven't seen you rehearsing their part but they've felt you in the room, taking notes, watching their every move.

It's difficult not to have an insecure moment. Are they secretly planning to push me down the stairs?? Watch All About Eve - a nightmare understudy can be a spooky thing. One of the Company tells me of an understudy they had once whose clear message when they took to the stage was 'And now see how it's meant to be done.' Yikes.

In this Company, there seems to be none of that (we'll see who ends up poisoned as the summer progresses). We all annoyingly get on and swap tips ever so professionally. There's no denying though, that your character is so personal to you - you created it from scratch, from your own emotional DNA. Handing it over, or watching another version in another body, hearing your lines spoken by another, is a kind of invasion. A necessary one of course - but one we each process in our own way as we encounter the weirdness.

Watching The Roaring Girl PUS

I don't understudy in The Roaring Girl but just witnessing the exhaustion of the lot who did was an education. The day when Faye Castelow was asked to learn the electric guitar from scratch - in addition to her already learning two songs on the double bass, not to mention all Moll Cutpurse's text, dances and fight scenes - was priceless.

What did I learn from watching the Roaring understudy show itself? Aside from the fact that Faye Castelow and everyone understudying in The Roaring Girl ROCK and that the PUSSY CLUB claim that you get the same standard of a show for a fiver is true?

I learned that f*cking things up gets a better reaction from an audience than getting things right. (The PC had a riot at Joan practically stripping onstage when Peter Bray utterly abandoned her mid quick change.) I learned that my onstage husband, Tim Speyer, can steal a scene with an accent. I learned that you get deaf sitting next to Geoffrey Freshwater who laughs like a machine gun. And I learned that watching the understudy team succeed so well in The Roaring Girl made me wake up the morning of the Arden PUS shaking.

A final word on understudy parts? Love 'em. but they're never as precious as your own.

The Ken Nwosu Method

ken NwosuI told you I'd elaborate on The Ken Nwosu Method. I am particularly fond of Ken Nwosu acting as I've experienced it up close and personal. Ken understudies Kier Charles and therefore is my Alice's love interest in Understudy Land only.

I spoke to a few members of the Swan Company to find out their particular methods. They are many and varied but none as succinct as Kenny's. 'Three words,' he said. 'Just do it.' It will be the thinnest but most valuable Bible in the RSC shop when he writes it.

Image 1 caption: Joan Iyiola

Image 2 caption: Dionysus

Image 3 caption: Christopher Middleton as Clarke in Arden of Faversham

Image 4 caption: Ken Nwosu


by Lizzie Hopley  |  1 comment

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Aug 12, 11:06pm
Paul Holtom

Hi Lizzie.
A good read indeed. I am pleased to inform you that I have avoided the PUS thus far this year but must say they are great value especially when I have seen the original as well. A classic that comes to mind was in Merry Wives last year when after knocking a coffee cup flying, the actor said 'well, what do expect for a fiver' ! Priceless.

Anyhow. What I really wanted to say was how much I enjoyed RG. I will verbally pat the cast on the back but have singled you out for your performance. A masterpiece of comic timing. The ten minutes with your on stage husband was a joy. So much so I went to see it again! Sorry but my tickets only cost a tenner as a local.... lol... As an amateur director locally I learned heaps for which I thank you.
I might even go again.
Being a local baker, I may well present you with a healthy loaf of bread after a performance some time. Mind you I supply the theatre anyhow so you may well have had some already.
Keep up the great work and all the best for the rest of the season.
What is next for Lizzie Hopley?

Kindest Regards


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Teaching Shakespeare