Waiting in the Wings: An Appreciation of the Understudy

Understudy, cover, standby, swing – four different names but one essential meaning – those brilliant people who are ready, willing and able to jump into a character at very little notice to ensure that the show goes on, so that you get to have the great night out that you have looked forward to. This article stems from my feeling that understudies are sometimes not appropriately appreciated or their roles fully understood by theatre audiences.

Many times I have heard and seen audiences’ react less than enthusiastically upon seeing an understudy notice in the theatre foyer, in a programme slip, via an announcement on social media or from the stage of the theatre itself. However, by the time the show has finished the understudy receives a very appreciative round of applause and everyone goes home happy, and very often surprised at how good they were. In earlier years I occasionally initially fell into this mind-trap…. but I walked home thinking how lucky I had been to see a “special” performance, out of the ordinary run of shows, with such a great talent ready and able to step in and help the show go on, with the full support of the cast and company around them. It’s at times like this that we are reminded of the incredible teamwork that showbusiness demands, which our amazingly skilled performers give so professionally.

I thought that it might be interesting to gather together three performers who are at different stages in their careers, who have all taken a number of understudy positions, to ask them about their experiences and try to get to understand the work of the understudy a little better. In the interviews below, we will meet Connor, Nikki and Janet. Thanks to all three of them for their enthusiastic participation.

I hope that you enjoy finding out a bit more about some of these great people who are always waiting in the wings…..


Early Career – CONNOR BANNISTER

Connor Bannister. Photo by Michael Shelford

Trained at Mountview, Connor recently took a dramatic lead role in This Island’s Mine at the King’s Head Theatre. He has appeared in several musicals and also understudied on tour and in the West End. He is currently understudying in the UK tour of Blood Brothers. Connor is represented by Global Artists.

Can you please tell us briefly about your career?

I am a Musical Theatre trained Actor who’s been out in the big wide world for two years. You will mostly find me with an instrument in my hand or in a lovely play.

What was your first understudy role?

My first understudy role was in All or Nothing at the Ambassadors Theatre. It had been touring for a while and then had some time at The Arts Theatre before moving further down the road to the Ambassadors. I was brought in to cover all the boys in the band, the band being The Small Faces, and to cover some other ensemble parts if someone else went on for other tracks.

How did you first feel about accepting an understudy role?

Amazing! It is not uncommon for recent graduates to start off as covers so I was thrilled to be joining a show that was going into the West End and for it to be as something as edgy and rock and roll as All or Nothing. Obviously, I felt some internal pressure and trepidation as a young actor who was going into a show like that for the first time. There was also the fear that we didn’t have much rehearsal time, so there was a lot to get under my belt. However, I was eager and totally ready for it.


How did/do you cope with the tension of not knowing if- or when- you 
would go on?

It’s funny that you should ask! There was an evening when all the covers were pretty sure we had all done our times in our respective other parts and were ready to go on and just do the show in our regular tracks. We were a bit late for curtain up and an actor down and no one really knew why or what was going on. Then, all of a sudden, we get a frantically hushed call backstage saying that our missing actor wasn’t going on and we had five minutes to change and prepare ourselves for going on as different tracks! That was a fun show, and a bit of a blessing really that we all got another go at those parts.This sort of thing happens a lot and I think, in my experience anyway, if you’ve done the work and you feel ready, you just get up and get on with it. It’s our job as a cover to go on at the drop of a hat so it is to be expected. As long as you know that everyone else feels safe being onstage with you and you feel safe yourself, there isn’t much that can’t be fixed during a show.

Have you always had sufficient understudy runs?

Not always. The first time I went on in All or Nothing for one of the boys in the band, I’d not done it very much at all. It was lucky that I knew for a week or more that it was going to happen but we only had one cover rehearsal a week. There is much to be said for adrenaline, lots of work in your own time and the camaraderie of your fellow actors and team to look after you onstage and off. Everyone in that company was massively supportive of their new covers when they joined for that stint at the Ambassadors and that was a gift. 

How do you maintain your knowledge of the part as time goes by?

Once you’ve done it under pressure a few times, it sort of stays with you. Becomes muscle memory. Once the fear is gone and the technicalities of a track become second nature, everything seems to fit. If this isn’t the case, it’s about communication with other actors and them helping you, talking to the team backstage about costumes and props and where lights are for certain cues. Even during shows, when things are calm, just walking through other tracks and watching. Watching has always been key for me. I would often play with them offstage and be keeping an eye on scenes and people’s props, etc. Every show can be a bit more rehearsal if you’ve time backstage. 

What is the longest understudy job you have taken on?

Probably the Let it Be UK tour that I was a part of last year. That was from August to October. I never went on during that period but I was covering the part of Paul McCartney. I had a week of proper rehearsals with the band and then learnt the rest on the fly.

Do you understudy several roles?

I have done before. I like having more than one script and getting into more than one person’s brain. The responsibility feels much greater but, like I said before, if you put the work in, it’s totally fine.

Has your approach to understudying changed through your career?

I think my approach remains the same. There’s a job to be done and if that job is given to you, you do it to the best of your ability. It’s much the same as any acting job, but you just might not go on as much. There is always something to be learned and gained, good or bad and that is something I constantly welcome.

Is there anything your more experienced self would say to your younger 
self about understudying?

Don’t be afraid to enjoy that first show more. You know what you’re doing. Yes, you know people in that audience, but they love you and support you so don’t worry what they’re thinking. Just don’t lose focus and you’ll be fine. And when that curtain rises, that feeling is going to knock you on your arse (if I can say that… edit it otherwise!) but it’s amazing. Ride the wave! 

What can companies do to make understudies feel more prepared and 
confident?

This is a tough one. Not everyone gets lengthy rehearsal times or time on stage or a tech, for so many reasons. One could be money, one could purely be scheduling, the list goes on. I think it’s important to keep in communication with covers and make sure they’re not forgotten or treated as lesser. It’s enough to deal with learning so much of a show without getting left just to your own devices to do it, or not feeling like part of the company. Sometimes we all need a bit of guidance. 


Mid Career – NIKKI GERRARD

Nikki Gerrard. Photo by Darren Bell

Nikki is currently standby on the UK & Ireland Tour of Calendar Girls The Musical until November 2019. Most recently she was seen as Dead Mam in the UK & Ireland Tour of Billy Elliot. Nikki is represented by Keddie Scott.

Can you please tell us briefly about your career?

I mostly work in musical theatre and have done since leaving drama school. I went to Sylvia Young and Guildford School of Acting.

What was your first understudy role?

My first understudy role was covering Ria Jones in Victor/Victoria at The Bridewell Theatre in 2003.

How did you first feel about accepting an understudy role?

I felt fine about it. It felt like a rite of passage. A way to learn on the job and develop my skills and confidence.

Have you ever received any valuable advice from colleagues about understudying?

Preparation is key!

How did/do you cope with the tension of not knowing if- or when- you would go on?

That is something that I have only really mastered recently. I was always very afraid. With my current job, as standby for five roles, I have finally mastered the ability to deal with the present moment and be ready for anything with minimal stress. It’s taken time and practice and an awful lot of preparation!

Have you always had sufficient understudy runs?

Absolutely not. Not naming any names but the standard and quality of the preparation and support for understudies has varied wildly.

How do you maintain your knowledge of the part as time goes by?

A combination of show watches, wing watches, script and note reads.

What is the longest understudy job you have taken on?

16 months…my current job. 

Do you understudy several roles?

Five leads and supporting roles.

Has your approach to understudying changed through your career?

Very much so. Preparation is key and fear is a great motivator.

Is there anything your more experienced self would say to your younger 
self about understudying?

Consider your goals…if you keep understudying, you’ll be too useful to change their opinion of you. Consider if that’s important to you.

What can companies do to help understudies feel more confident and prepared?

It is to do with a general culture of respect and understanding. Understudies/covers/standbys (even the names have differing levels of respect) are often thought of as less than. They have maybe had less opportunities, less recognition but they do not have less ability & talent. In fact, often the skills required to cover multiple roles & different characters require much ability, diversity and skill.
In practical terms rehearsals need to be prioritised…not always the case and they need to work up to full cover runs including lights, sound, costume and band – not always done. The thing is, people CAN cope without it (we are dealing with highly flexible people here) but why should they? If some companies provide this, why not all?


Later Career – JANET HARRISON

Janet Harrison. Photo by Simon Mayhew.

Janet is on a career break and therefore is not currently acting. She has extensive experience of understudying UK touring productions.

Can you please tell us briefly about your career?

Taught Theatre Studies, Dance and English [Secondary/Tertiary level] for 33 years; trained with The Actors Company at The London Centre for Theatre Studies 2014/2015; then briefly worked as a tutor for them before landing my first job – Single Spies. All my understudy jobs have been touring productions.

What was your first understudy role?

Single Spies – Alan Bennett  – Theatre Royal Bath No.1 UK Tour   Understudying Coral Browne/HMQueen    Directed by Christopher Luscombe

How did you first feel about accepting an understudy role?

Delighted. Proved I was employable! It gave me a chance to observe/explore the industry first hand with established, experienced actors, director and crew in a slightly less-pressurised environment.

Have you ever received any valuable advice from colleagues about understudying?

Learn lines accurately and securely prior to joining the company.

How did/do you cope with the tension of not knowing if- or when- you would go on?

I just assumed I was going on every performance – and I was given a non-speaking role in many of the tours and this involvement helped – I was so new to the game that I just wanted to be involved.

Have you always had sufficient understudy runs?

No. Resources available have varied massively. TRB [and other well-established companies] were great – regular rehearsals and line runs in situ. The actors playing ‘minor’ roles all understudied larger roles so a full company attended these rehearsals/runs. 

I was the sole understudy for one company, a cast of about 10– no other cover was provided for remaining roles so had there been a problem then performances would have had to be cancelled. I suspect that appointing me was designed to satisfy insurance touring requirements. The assistant director rehearsed me but not in situ and with no other actors. They provided a single full run for me – a very complicated piece – extremely stressful!

Another company never auditioned me and never rehearsed me – they assumed that I would manage on observation alone. They never saw me acting. I worked for them on more than one occasion but never went on. The system was the same for every production – they never saw me act. Eventually I refused their offers – there was no incentive to work for them.

How do you maintain your knowledge of the part as time goes by?

I watched every performance – it helped me feel involved and part of the company.

What is the longest understudy job you have taken on?

18 weeks.

Do you understudy several roles?

I have covered two roles;  but my jobs tended to focus on the lead female role [often the only female role in the play given that I did four Alan Bennett productions].

Has your approach to understudying changed through your career?

I felt more confident demanding that the Company Manager provided some sort of regular rehearsal when none was scheduled. Otherwise I found that I had hit on a system that worked well from the start – probably drawn from my experiences of teaching, acting and directing within education. I learned to adapt quickly to individual company attitudes towards/expectations of understudies. There were some jobs I did not enjoy and I wouldn’t choose to work with these companies again. They seemed not to value understudies.


Is there anything your more experienced self would say to your younger self about understudying?

Never regard your role as inferior to that of others. Your skills and mindset are unique. If you are made to feel this way then this may stem from other company members.

Anything else you would like to tell us in addition to the above questions?

Explore the places you visit on tour – they are full of surprises and are locations you probably would never have chosen to visit in normal circumstances.

If you are able to, take advantage of Equity’s Pension scheme. 

I think it would be true to say that a mature understudy has to work a little harder to integrate – a company often consists of much younger actors who assume that you know the ropes and won’t find them of much interest! I never was employed from the beginning of the full rehearsal period so the company tended to be quite settled before understudies ever joined. The existing dynamics made integration a little more challenging.

In one of my jobs the director invited me to observe rehearsals approximately two weeks into the rehearsal period. This proved really useful – listening to cast debates and watching the blocking taking shape.

What can companies do to help understudies feel more confident and prepared?

All of my comments relate to touring productions. I think the understudy experience at a single venue is very different and far more straightforward.
Experienced understudies will know what to expect and what is reasonable to  demand.

If someone is new to understudying then it’s useful to have a point of contact to ask for clarification – usually the company manager or assistant director when you’re on tour. There really isn’t a standard approach to understudies and a good company should make the schedule and the Company’s/director’s expectations clear in the information they send out with the script. Most will provide lists of digs; all expect you to sort accommodation yourself. Very few young actors have any idea as to how to manage their money for tax purposes – this isn’t really the responsibility of the Company but it’s useful to have someone to ask if you’re at a loss.
They may be advised as to whether Equity pension is available, etc. – not usually the case with smaller companies who can’t afford financing the scheme [although this may have improved in the last 5 years or so]. Often Equity will arrange for a rep. to visit the company on tour – but this seems to be for larger productions only in my experience. In my experience, very few people attend these meetings!
The larger companies are pretty good at helping understudies ‘bed in’, and these productions usually include established actors who know the ropes and make it their business to welcome understudies into the company.
It is the smaller, less well-heeled companies who struggle to provide the above – no Company Manager touring with them, little opportunity, if any, to rehearse, often understudies are expected to operate as tech crew – you really are thrown in at the deep end. But when smaller numbers are involved you tend to settle more quickly.

To be honest, the companies can do just so much – the understudy experience will be dictated far more by the people with whom they are touring.
From my perspective, I think it was more of a challenge trying to integrate – younger actors can assume that you know everything and won’t be interested in socialising with them. I often was in productions with very few women. If you are the sole understudy then you have to work very hard to integrate – much depends on the person you are understudying and whether you enjoy one another’s company. I spent a lot of time in wardrobe and with crew.


My thanks to Connor, Nikki and Janet. I hope that you have found the discussions interesting and that next time you see an understudy playing a role, that you might just give them an extra cheer for helping the show to go on!


If you would like to keep track of understudy appearances there is no better place to go to than West End Understudies which does a great job in keeping us all updated about understudy/cover/swing/standby/alternate performances all across the UK, not just London! Well worth a visit! Find them on Twitter at @WestEndCovers


NB The views of the participants in this article are their own and they retain the copyright for their contributions to this article.