What’s it like to be an understudy?

March 23, 2009

Peter Roccaforte discusses what it was like to go on as Asher for one night in My Name Is Asher Lev.

When you take on an understudy position it is almost understood that the likelihood of you going on as that role for a scheduled performance is similar to the likelihood of being able to make a five minute visit to the DMV. When I accepted the understudy role of Asher Lev I was just excited to have a 90 minute audition in a lead role for the casting director of the Arden and call it a day. However, about a month after we had that understudy run for the staff at the I received a call from Erin Read, the Artistic Assistant at the theatre. She said that Karl Miller, the man playing Asher, has been having a little tickle in his throat and is going to the doctor to get it checked out. This unnerved me just enough to go over my script that night before bed, just in case. On the other hand, the truth is I have had tickles in my own throat and been perfectly fine through a run of a show before.

I did not expect the phone call I got the following morning. Karl was sick. He was given steroids and antibiotics to rehabilitate his voice and was going to sleep through the day so he would be ok for the show that night. At this point as an understudy one begins to feel an urge to suppress whatever hopes or fears they might have, because Karl was going to sleep it off and be fine for the 8 o’clock show. He had all day to wake up with a voice. When Erin called me again at 5:45 PM I felt a sensation similar to being at the peak of a dangerous roller coaster ride. A wave of fear, then a wave of joy and excitement, followed promptly by another wave of fear. After leaving a rehearsal I was in the middle of and calling out of work for the night; I freaked out in the middle of the street on Locust and 12th, scared several passer-bys, collected myself, and rushed to the theatre as fast as I could. The staff, crew, and cast were incredibly supportive and helpful from the moment I walked in the door. Also, having the chance to perform with actors of such merit as Adam Heller and Gabra Zackman was remarkable. I knew that I had some challenges in the sense that Asher doesn’t leave the stage, has quite a few lines, and it had been a while since we had the understudy run. There wasn’t going to be a time where I could double check the script, or try to figure out what was going on if I lost it, I just had to be right for 90 straight minutes.

Suddenly, I realized how rickety this roller coaster really was. I spent the time before the show running it aloud in my mind looking to rough out patches that might have left me since the one time I ran the show a month ago. Regardless of how surprising and difficult understudying can be sometimes, the point is that that is your job. The job is only to be able to go on if the person playing the part is out, and you have a responsibility to that job. Having that sense of responsibility was the only thing that made that evening an enjoyable experience over a scary one.

On the stage I found myself very nervous, in an unfamiliar space, working with incredibly talented actors that had been doing this over and over again for weeks, and also in front of a sold out house. The first few scenes I felt jittery, I wanted to jump lines to prove to myself that I knew the script, and I had trouble finding balance in my shaking legs. Then something changed, and all of a sudden the work that I had invested to do my job if the time came was married with the passion I had for the show and the joy I felt. The rest of the show went smoothly for me, and although the underlying nerves never left until it was over, I enjoyed my time as Asher Lev. It was such an amazing opportunity to be able to perform as a lead role at the Arden, even for a night. I’ve never been so excited to do my job before.

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