Understudying at the RSC

Sarah Agha appears in our current production of King John, is understudying the roles of Blanche and Essex in King John, and Nasiya and Sam York in A Museum in Baghdad. She writes about her experiences.

The phone rang at 10:55am. “You’re on.” The moment you think will never happen. And with a mere 50 minutes to get ready before the matinee warm up. I quickly ran over the lines, dances and hastily tracked down one the actors to rehearse the mini fight sequence. I felt ready. This sense of calm was shattered on arrival. In a freak occurrence, not one but two people were now off - meaning I had to cover two understudy roles in the same production… and on a two-show day? Thank the theatre gods, these characters never converse with each other!

When I first took this job I was already resigned to never go on as a principal role and was just delighted to be part of the process and to become a member of Royal Shakespeare Company. So when I received that call I thought, “wow, it’s actually happened!” You’ve done the work, this is what you’ve been waiting for.

Some friends of mine who had understudied previously told me their top tip; “Get off book as quickly as possible.” And as an understudy, it’s important you’re very close to what the main cast is doing otherwise cues or lights won’t go off in the right place. Yes, you can have some ownership of the role but it is a case of know the lines and hit the same marks. The problem is if you haven’t done the work and you’re not prepared. I have heard horror stories about understudies who simply haven’t been ready. I didn’t want that to be my story.

As actors, you develop nuance and build on every show but as an understudy you don’t usually get that opportunity. You might never go on or if you’re “lucky”, you might go on once without time to panic. But I have now had the rare privilege to play Blanche 23 times in King John. I realise this is as many times you might play a character in a whole run elsewhere! I was very conscious about honouring the blocking and “beats” so as to not throw off any of the other actors. There were certain things which took time to get my head around, like the thought process or reason for a particular movement which had been cemented in the rehearsal period. But with time, you find your own motivations for actions and your own version of the character. There was room to play and dare I say, enjoy it!

Sarah Agha in rehearsals for King John

Understudying in A Museum in Baghdad was a challenge. As off-stage cover, we were often not in the room so I spent a lot of time at home pouring over the script on my own. Both actresses I was covering were incredibly generous with their resources and findings, but we had to do the majority of the work individually. Many of their rehearsals were filmed and we would watch clips to check we weren’t veering off in a crazy direction when it came to our own understudy sessions. As a piece of new writing, versions of the script often changed and sometimes order of scenes would invert entirely so we really had to keep up to speed with edits and amendments. I was covering two tracks - one required learning a Southern American accent, the other required practising Arabic every day. The language itself is extremely complicated with multiple different dialects and accents. So the Arabic translation was changing constantly. Words were being swapped in and out and the ḥarakāt, which are short vowels denoting pronunciation, often being altered.

I thought I would never step on the A Museum in Baghdad stage. It was a shorter run and a smaller cast. But it happened and I performed as Nasiya, in Arabic and English, without even time to think. But I was supported by a company of the utmost professionalism who knew their “tracks” and were keen for the show to always be the best it can be regardless of any understudy situation. It was encouraging to discover a team behind you, rooting for you!

The first time I performed as understudy was one of the most exhilarating, electrifying moments in my career and - dare I be dramatic - my life? But to have gone on what has now been a whopping 35 times across both plays still doesn’t feel real. Everyone said, “You always need to be ready.” You never know what might happen. My experience at the RSC has been living proof.

King John plays in the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 21 March 2020.