I would like to take this time to say a really big thank you for all the support that my last blog incited, both to me personally and to the issue of mental health in the arts. I have been overwhelmed by the positive feedback from all over the world; people stepping forward to share their stories but most of all there seems to have been a quiet exhale, as if all the people suffering silently were waiting for someone to say something, anything.

I was nervous about publishing that blog. But relief seems to be the one emotion that came through in all the tweets and messages on Facebook and from my friends and family all over the world. A relief that comes from letting go of an unspoken secret and now, if we are all courageous, we can truly start to talk about mental health issues in the arts. I was incredibly touched by how many people in my profession understood because of their own experiences with anxiety.

Thank you and look after yourselves, please. Speak up if you need to as you are not alone in this.

Cast of Hamlet on stage with colourful drapes
The cast of Hamlet on stage
Photo by Byron Mondahl © The Artist Browse and license our images

The business of show business does not end. We have worked toward and done our understudy run. That was so much fun and such a terrifyingly wonderful day. We had 24 hours spread over the week from press night to the following Tuesday to run the show and tech it in the theatre before our performance in the matinee timeslot on Wednesday 30 March. Anna Girvan, the Assistant Director took us through each scene, clarifying things we might not have picked up on, new moves we might not have seen, and small technical details we couldn’t possibly know until playing the roles ourselves.

I realised a great acting truth when you are an understudy. Do not rely on the short understudy rehearsal time you have to work on character, lines, blocking. You have to have done almost 98% of the work yourself before the understudy rehearsals start. I always assumed that there would be time for actual in depth rehearsals of each scene and the stark reality is that that is not the case. And so being prepared is the best defence against this stressful time.

But it is amazing how much you can pick up from watching your character on the monitors backstage. There are large TV screens above the entrance doors to the stage and it relays the show so there is always opportunity for observing. Also what I found helpful was speaking my lines, listening to the cues as I watched the screen. And I was not the only one. I saw a lot of my fellow cast members standing in the dark gesticulating wildly to nothing and no one while muttering under their breath all their lines, watching the screen soaking in their moves.

The day finally came and what a terrifying blast it was. There is a slight surreal edge to the day when you start to track your understudy character’s journey. At the beginning of the show you are standing at a completely different entrance. You are costumed completely differently. And then, in my case, I finally got to open my mouth and say big chunks of verse after much silence. Suddenly you are using a completely different energy that you are accustomed to.

I had the support of my friends and agent in the audience and my partner and an audience of about 900 people. We all could not believe the level of wondrous support that the understudy runs have here in Stratford. It may be our one chance at playing the role and to be supported so completely by a paying audience was so encouraging. And it mimics precisely what would happen if you were to go on.

Line of rowing boats parked on the River Avon
Boats on the River Avon
Photo by Byron Mondahl © The Artist Browse and license our images

Before the show I spent a good long while listening to music sitting outside my dressing room on the balcony that overlooks the Avon. It was a chilly day but when the clouds parted and you got a little taste of the sun, it was heavenly. I love these spring moments. I need them to keep calm and just focus on nothing for a while. So many thoughts about the work could be going on in my head, but why? All the work is done and all you have to do is perform it. I try to think of it that way so that I don’t trick myself into adding pressure on when it is not needed.

I thought of many things: my friends that supported me over the years in every single way - monetary, moral support, a shoulder to cry on and a platform to dream. Thought of my family that also supported me financially, who sometimes did not understand my choices for my life but were ultimately understanding of the fact that they were my choices to make; thought of the people I have lost that I would have loved to have sitting in that theatre.

It was great to appreciate a moment of stillness with nature and I am sure it helped because on stage I had the best time. We all did. At the end of the performance it’s massive relief and a bittersweet joy because you never know if you will get to do that again. That’s what being an understudy means. You have to be ready to go on at a moment’s notice but accept that it may never happen.

And then it’s on to CYMBELINE…

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl is an actor who enjoys thinking about and writing about the elusive art of acting. He is from South Africa where he first began acting but has lived in the UK since 2005 when he studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He has taught English in Taiwan, and also lost six stone and transformed his life for the better. Follow him on Twitter @ByronMondahl

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