The Road Back: A New Approach to Understudies

Posted May 22, 2023 By Sara Young

Rivals Understudy

In this entry of The Road Back series, Managing Director Sara Young fills us in on the updated state of understudy responsibilities for the 2023 season. It's a beautiful and complicated web of roles and names, and after some lessons learned last season, we're excited to share what to expect for this summer.

Some of you may be aware, or may even have experienced, that we had a bit of a rough go last year year when it came to COVID and the number of understudies that needed to go on. We even had to cancel some performances due to a lack of time for understudy preparation. As you’re considering a visit to APT this season, we figured you may want some more information on what we’re doing to address the understudy issues.

Let me explain.

First, a word about how we cast understudies at APT.

Pre-pandemic, it was relatively rare for understudies to go on at APT. Because of this, understudy assignments were figured out well after the casting was done and were simply absorbed by the members of the company. It wasn’t a perfect plan, but it worked for years.

But then last season came around – the first rotating repertory season following the pandemic – and we knew we would need to increase the understudy capacity to meet the moment. Brenda and the artistic staff addressed this risk by hiring a Rehearsal Assistant for each play. Their job was to be at every rehearsal and be able to jump in if anyone was absent. Several of them also doubled as Assistant Directors for their plays and most of them also took on significant understudy assignments in order to reduce the load on the rest of the acting company.

This system worked to a certain extent, but it didn’t quite go far enough. Here’s an example: Kailey Azure Green, had to go in as Margaret in Sense and Sensibility when the actor playing the role was injured. Kailey was truly heroic and took over the role on a moment’s notice – but they were also understudying eight (!) other roles, including four in Sense and Sensibility. So, when Kailey took on the role of Margaret, the artistic staff had to re-scramble to find understudies for the understudy.

Another example is that several people got sick close to their play’s opening and their understudies – who were busy rehearsing their own roles -- weren’t ready yet. All told, we had to cancel seven performances because of Covid or related circumstances. Yikes.

Okay, so what did we learn and how will we avoid cancellations this year?

First, we have expanded the acting company and reduced the number of roles each actor plays. In 2022, we had 43 actors; This season we have 51. In the past, a typical actor would be in three plays and assigned some understudy roles. This year, several actors will be in one or two plays, with a more manageable understudy load. Those in three plays may have just one understudy role.

Next, each actor is clear on their understudy assignment before they sign their contract. In the past, assignments were given out after the regular casting was finished.

Finally, the artistic staff created a new position to make sure everyone is on track. The Understudy Coordinator meets with each actor regularly to make sure they are ready to fulfill their understudy role if called upon. They also help by running lines, organizing rehearsals and providing other resources to prepare them.

Will this guarantee that we’ll never need to cancel a performance due to a shortage of understudies? That remains to be seen. It’s possible that if too many understudies are needed in any given play, we could still come up short. APT simply does not have enough resources to double the number of actors to ensure each person has a dedicated understudy. But our plan is significantly improved and the artistic staff and acting company feel much more prepared.

So, get those tickets if you haven’t already! We’re ready for a terrific season.