Whispers from the Wings

The challenge of the understudy

July 27, 2012

Konstantin Stanislavsky once famously said: 'There are no small parts, only small actors'.

I learnt that at drama school and it soon became my mantra. It particularly resonated at drama school when you had to fluctuate between playing the lead to playing the third spear-carrier from the left! It's always important to never let your ego (and all actors have one) get the better of you or have an holier-than-thou attitude in this profession. You're only as good as your last job. Humility, amiability and kindness. Carry and possess those three qualities and you'll have career longevity. You'll last the distance. I think so anyway.

Iqbal directing Much Ado while the Watch sits on the floorAnd so it is with me. Having played the lead in Iqbal's last play (Snookered), I was determined to work with him again. (I'll tell you why in the next blog!) I knew I was never destined for a big part in Much Ado but I just wanted to be a part of the company. Who wouldn't? A great play with a great director at one of the greatest theatre companies in the world.

I was thrilled when I heard I'd made the cut. Being assigned with Hugh Oatcake, I knew I'd be set with a whole new challenge. How do I make him alive? How do I make him fit into the world we're creating? How do I tell my mum I'm playing him as a cook?

'You are playing cook? A bloody cook? You can't even make the fried egg!'

She's right. My fried eggs end up looking like omelettes.

But I'll endeavour to summon up three years' worth of trauma at Webber Douglas and miraculously turn into Rene Redzepi before your very eyes.

Kulvinder in rehearsalI was also assigned to understudy Conrade and then later asked to understudy Antonio, too. Two very contrasting parts. Played in the principal cast by actors of varying ages. (NB: For 'varying'; read 'older'. A lot older).

I've never ever understudied before and – as I'm sure any actor will tell you – it's a mountainous challenge. It's hard enough learning your own lines, moves, blocking, prop-striking, cue lines, entrances, exits (et al) but then you have to learn somebody else's! And then somebody else's on top of that!

The temptation is to truly make it your own. To put your own radical spin on it. To a degree you can. But you've got to grasp and virtually adhere to the principal actor's emotions and intentions of the scene. Otherwise you'll completely throw your opposing principal actor off their track. Your blocking must be identical to theirs. Needless to say that your lines, prop-striking, cue lines, entrances, exits must be identical to theirs, too. Again, fear starts kicking in and your brain begins to melt.

Meera and Paul embraceWe've been doing understudy rehearsals every night this week and while the principals left at 6pm, we're required to carry on until 9pm to truly get our understudied parts in our heads. In our bodies. In our psyche.

Doing line-runs. Going over blocking. Making sure we understand exactly what every last syllable means. It's vital we keep this stuff as fresh as possible – as you never know when you'll be called up to the stage when an actor is suddenly 'indispositioned'. But surely that won't EVER happen. Will it......?

by Muzz Khan  |  2 comments

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Jul 29, 2:26pm
Jennifer Holman

Great blog giving an insight into the world of the actor and understudy. I am always in awe of the fact that an actor can step from one part into another seamlessly! I always wonder how they don't start saying the wrong set of lines! I am seeing this play in a few weeks time and very much looking forward to it. And to the next blog!

Jul 31, 12:54am
Muzz Khan

Ah, what a lovely message! Thank you Jennifer.

God only knows how we keep our various roles separate, but we do!

But to be honest, I think you'd need to think long and hard about your preparations, methods and homework as an actor if you DO get your parts mixed up.

I mean, if you're truly concentrating and paying attention then that shouldn't happen. It's like driving a car one minute and riding a bike the next. If you started looking for a clutch on a bicycle - I'd be worried!


See what I mean?

Thanks for the kind words about the blog, too. I'm really pleased you're enjoying the read.....

Hope you enjoy seeing the play when you come down. Feel free to wait behind by Stage Door at the end and say 'hi'. I'm sure we could squeeze in a beverage at the Dirty Duck and welcome you in.

Best, M.

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