Green Shirt Studio

Tips for Being an Understudy

If you’re just starting out as an actor, landing a role as an understudy can be just as valuable as being cast as a leading actor in a play. Not only does it give you a credit to put on your resume, but you also have the chance to learn from the other actors and watch their creative process.

However, being an understudy isn’t easy. After all, you have to do all of the work of the regular actors – learning your lines, showing up for hours and hours of rehearsals – without any of the rewards. In fact, understudies often put more time into productions than the regular actors do, because they have to attend all of the regular rehearsals, as well as special rehearsals just for the understudies.

But many actors agree that accepting an understudy role is usually worth the sacrifice. Andrew McClelland, who recently accepted his first understudy role in The Agency Theater Collective’s production of Skin for Skin, says being an understudy has been an invaluable learning experience. “Since this is my first time understudying any role, I feel like I have been exposed to a whole other side of the acting vocation,” he says.

Before you take on an understudy role, here are 10 tips on how to make the most of the opportunity.

  1. Memorize Your Lines
    Although you’re not required to have your lines memorized as quickly as the regular cast, it’s a good idea to get them down as early as you can to relieve the stress of worrying about what “might” happen. To improve your memorization, try running lines with the other understudies or writing them out long-hand. Going to lots of rehearsals also helps.
  1. Go to As Many Rehearsals as Possible
    Speaking of rehearsals, go to as many as you can, even though it may seem tedious to just sit there and watch. “It makes you feel not only that you are an integral part of the cast, but also it really helps you breathe in the show and the life of your character,” McClelland says.
  1. Pay Attention to the Blocking
    Remember, learning your lines isn’t the only thing you have to know when you step into a role. You also need to know all of the physical choices and stage directions that the regular actor is doing. Make sure to pay close attention to this during rehearsals. You can even bring a journal to take notes.
  1. Be Professional
    The benefit of being an understudy is the opportunity to network with other directors and actors who may hire you in the future, so make sure to be as professional as possible. “Show up ready for anything,” says actor Ryan Heywood, who has understudied at Steep Theatre. “Be on time. Present the best you. Watch and learn.”
  1. Develop a Relationship with the Person You Are Shadowing
    Olexiy Kryvych, who is currently an understudy for Uncle Vanya at the Goodman Theatre, says it’s important to try to develop a relationship with the actor you are shadowing. “Some people will be open with you and let you shadow them, and some will want their privacy. Feel it out. aHowever, that may not always be the case. You don’t want to step on their toes,” he says.
  1. Ask Questions
    If you have any questions about the character you’re playing, make sure to ask the director, stage manager or actor you’re shadowing for clarification. “It is better to ask and be sure that you are on the same page, rather than making an unfitting choice when you go up,” Kryvych says. “However, don’t harass them every minute of the day. Find a good balance.”
  1. Don’t Give Your Opinions on Creative Decisions
    “You are an understudy, which means that your job is to be quiet, keep your opinions to yourself and do the work on your own. Speak when you are spoken to, as far as creative decisions go between the director and the actors,” Kryvych says. “Don’t tell people how to do their jobs.”
  2. Don’t Take on Another Role at the Same Time
    If you’re already in the show, don’t offer to understudy another role in the same show, Heywood warns. “It’s too difficult to memorize. I’ve done it,” he says.
  3. Don’t Worry If You Don’t Feel Part of the Cast
    Being an understudy can be a lonelier experience than being a regular cast member, but just remember that just because you feel left out doesn’t mean the other actors don’t like you. “Feeling ‘not part of’ the cast is normal,” Heywood says. “The cast or ensemble has formed a bond. Though you play a critical part in the process, you often won’t be appreciated unless you go on for someone.”
  4. Maintain Your Health
    As an understudy, your job is to be able to go on if someone else gets sick, so it’s imperative that you don’t get sick yourself. That’s why it’s important to take extra good care of yourself during the run of the show. Kryvych suggests drinking hot tea with lemon, taking vitamins, stretching, doing vocal warm ups, eating healthy and exercising. “I personally bring my jump rope to every rehearsal and do 10 minute intervals on breaks along with stretching and callisthenic exercises,” he says.