June 27, 2013
In addition to your own character you are given another to learn just in case the actor playing that part, for whatever reason, is unable to go on.
Organising understudies is a nightmare for assistant directors because filling everything in becomes a sliding picture puzzle: 'If that person substitutes him there's now a gap there…' and so on. It can lead to some very minor characters getting sacked off on account of their actors being promoted.
By theatre law, understudies must learn their allocated part(s) by the first preview. They also get one public understudy performance, with one week's rehearsal, once the show has previewed and pressed. It's a packaged deal.
Titus had its understudy performance on Tuesday with Gwilym Lloyd as Titus, Badria Timini as Tamora and Sarah Ridgeway as Lavinia. It was stunning. Backstage there were shoulder rubs, hugs and a fair bit of jumping up and down because we felt so proud and excited for them.
You hear stories of actors with an 'All About Eve' complex slipping things in drinks, stepping out a foot to trip someone up but there's none of that here. Yes, it feels weird. Yes, you can't help but feeling like an imposter putting on someone else's shoes and dress, boys, but it's not personal, it's business.
I'm understudying Sarah and Ellie as Truly Kidman and Mrs (Betty) Littledick in A Mad World My Masters. If one night they're both unable to go on, well, then we're all in the pooper. I've been slipping Manuka honey into their tea as an extra precaution and so far it seems to be working.
Mad World relies on very specific blocking in order for the comic timing to be as effective as possible and so, even if I had learnt my lines – which I definitely have, Marieke, I have – I wouldn't have the first idea as to 'business': where to walk or pick up props, I'd just be a static fish mouth.
Of course I wouldn't really just stand there being a static fish mouth, I'd make it up, but when the play runs on a very specific track, 'making it up' is the worst and last thing I should do. Every Mad World night, whenever I come off stage, I'm straight in the changing room with monitors watching Ellie and Sarah's every move…in the least creepy way possible.
For the sake of the understudy performance I'll be playing Truly in her scenes with Mrs Littledick and then both when they're apart. In the past actors have very successfully played two characters in one scene - fight scenes go down particularly well - but in this case I think the schizophrenia would baffle even the sharpest minds.
Joseph Bannister's my Follywit.
I first met Joe seven years ago on a youth theatre course. I really fancied him and told him so in his notebook - which he won't ever let me forget - but Joe fancied our friend, Grace and that was the end of that. It took me a good three days to get over him – I was 15 for goodness sake!
But stage kisses are different. They're like what you see in those old 1950s Burt Lancaster/Cary Grant films where they close their mouths, push lips together and wiggle their heads a little bit. Rarely after a stage kiss will she say: 'I never knew it could be like this. Nobody ever kissed me the way you do' because in most cases it will have felt uncomfortable, almost clinical.
Joe's like a brother to me and kissing him is going to feel very strange, but at the same time 15-year-old me is throwing fists in the air.
by Rose Reynolds
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