Open Forum


  • 1.  Understudies?

    Posted 05-10-2019 10:57
    I've decided that I want to cast understudies for my shows next year, but I've never cast a show with an understudy before. How do you work that into rehearsals? And if we only have three scheduled performances, do you have the understudies do one of them? Just trying to get some advice from people who've done it before on what works well and what doesn't!

    Tiffany Garner
    Theatre Director
    American Leadership Academy Gilbert Arizona

  • 2.  RE: Understudies?

    Posted 05-10-2019 11:02
    We do not use understudies in any of our programs. However, the ones that I see that do it well include the understudy in extra rehearsal runs with the cast in addition to what you normally would have in a production calendar. Of course, they would take notes in blocking rehearsals, and have the same off book deadline. And, they get at least 1 public performance. That last part is key to me. If they are going to put in all of the extra effort, they need to have some sort of pay off.


    David Simpson
    Performing Arts Center Manager
    East China Schools
    East China MI

  • 3.  RE: Understudies?

    Posted 05-10-2019 11:40
    I use swings rather than understudies for my shows. I do give them 1 guaranteed performance (with the character of his or her choice since they do so much work prepping all the parts). In rehearsals they shadow the actor cast in the part they are working for the day.

    I find it very helpful to have them available since it means when a cast member is absent there is someone who is already set to cover the part. I also find that the students make more artistic progress when they are a swing then when cast in a show. It also provides a great learning opportunity to the younger actors. The only limitation I have is that a senior cannot swing in a show. I use this as a major training and esteem building experience for the younger students. They are also limited to only being a swing 1 time to provide as many opportunities as possible.

    Honestly, this has saved performances in the past. I've had emergencies that occurred and looked at the swing (1 time in the middle of opening night) and said "Get in costume. You're on".

    I do go over what a swing is at the beginning of auditions so everyone knows what it is (if offered to them) and why we have it. This helps establish the importance of the position for everyone and keeps everything running smoothly.

    Shira Schwartz
    Chandler Unified School District
    Chandler AZ

  • 4.  RE: Understudies?

    Posted 05-10-2019 12:27
    When we do smaller cast shows, we try to have understudies.  This can prove difficult but I've found the best success in a mixture of some of what others have said.  Have them at every rehearsal the character is called for.  I guaranteed them only 2 full rehearsal days (anything extra they get is by shadowing or if their overstudy isn't present.)  Instead of taking a performance from the main cast, I added a Saturday matinee for the understudy show.  So we do main cast Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.  Understudy show matinee Saturday afternoon.  This has worked well the few times we've done it.  I don't always have a enough people to do it but I did a production of Hedda Gabler and my kids worked hard and helped each other and the overstudies came to the understudy rehearsals to help out.  They also worked together to figure out the details of the character (background, objectives, etc.)

    Joel King
    Atlanta GA

  • 5.  RE: Understudies?

    Posted 05-10-2019 13:34
    I'm not a big understudy fan as I think it is hard to manage expectations. We have a working swing system in place to handle if someone is sick or injured for a performance. They also serve as the swing during any rehearsal that the cast actor cannot make. This system helps to keep rehearsals moving without delay, but also gives a great experience to the swing. Swings do not appear in performance unless needed due to illness or emergency. However, they are continually grateful for the learning experience and always happy to put in the work. I rotate the swings in during most practices prior to tech. It is also a good experience for the main characters to see the swing's approach to the character.

    One item that also helps this system have true respect is that we keep a constant communication responsibility on the swing and the cast character. It is their responsibility to communicate when the swing is needed and the swing's responsibility to communicate what work was accomplished during the practice absence.

    While people continually question me on our swing system and its value, we recently proved its worth again. For Legally Blonde, a show with so many featured roles, we used our swing system heavily to keep rehearsals moving forward. Then, we had a run of the flu during our 4 performances. Every night seemed to have a different set of students on stage. While we knew, the swing system worked so well that audience members had no idea.

    In addition to swings for main roles, we also appoint a male and female general swing for smaller roles.

    Jasmine Bucher
    Musical Director
    Palmyra PA

  • 6.  RE: Understudies?

    Posted 05-10-2019 15:09
    For me, it depends.

    For our musicals, I usually have chorus members and smaller roles understudy the main roles. They will learn the songs and at least watch what happens with the blocking, but they don't get a performance in the role, unless someone is sick, or someone drops out.

    For our competition one act this year I had a male and female understudy who read for anyone who wasn't there (there's wasn't an ensemble or bit roles). I told them going in that they most likely would not get to perform, but that they would get some good experience and go with us to competition (and earn more thespian points). Both students handled it very well and we even managed to get them a tiny bit of stage time.

    Ken Buswell
    Drama Teacher
    Peachtree City, GA

    Theater kills ignorance

  • 7.  RE: Understudies?

    Posted 05-11-2019 12:46
    I have a great understudy program here and it has served my program very well. I believe my bench of talent is so deep because of this program.

    Most of my understudies tend to be student actors with a lot of promise, but not as much experience (usually underclassmen - but not always).

    Because I have an established program, students understand what an honor (and a lot of work) being an understudy is. My over studies also learn their understudies chorus or ensemble part - if there is one. This way - they trade places. (Although sometimes it can be more complicated. For example, this spring we did Beauty and the Beast and Babette understudied Belle, so Belle played the chorus role when the other two actors were principals).

    They work together through the entire process -- in the very first table work read-thru, they trade reading the character from scene to scene. They discuss character choices. 

    I have shadow rehearsals where the understudies recreate the action either in front of the stage or on stage during rehearsal. We also have them go on in rehearsals throughout the process - and give some designated understudy rehearsal time. Stage managers also work with understudies with memorization and blocking.

    On the Tuesday night of our final tech dress week (we do Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday as final tech/dress) the understudies perform for an invited audience. They get the first audience of the show - and they understand how important that rehearsal is for understanding timing, laughs, and audience reaction. That tech rehearsal usually also kicks my overstudies into full gear. When they see the success in front of an audience, they really turn it on for opening night. This year, I added a sensory friendly matinee of Beauty and the Beast on our Saturday show - and the understudies got to perform in that one as well.

    These actors celebrate each others successes, they support one another, and if tragedy strikes, they are always ready to go on. That ethic has seeped into the rest of my cast as well. 

    With Beauty and the Beast, I had only 2 actors without understudies. My Beast (his understudy died from suicide and I would not replace him), and my LeFou (his understudy was an upperclassman and his over study was a freshman -  and it was his first show. He came to me early in the process to say he just wanted to concentrate on doing his chorus part well - so I let that go.) Ironically - LeFou got very sick and got complete laryngitis. My original understudy for Le Fou ended up voicing the part while his "overstudy" acted it. He actually DID go on - off book - for one performance - with only 2 hours notice to get ready.They took their bows together.

    So - feel free to reach out to me if you want more information or encouragement. It takes some time and planning, but I've never regretted it for a second. AND all the actors see how the understudies from one year become the leads in the future.

    Good luck! 

    Glenn MO

    Glenn Morehouse Olson, CJE
    Language Arts, Journalism and Theatre Teacher
    SFHS Media Adviser 
    Director SFHS Theatre
    St. Francis High School
    St. Francis, MN

  • 8.  RE: Understudies?

    Posted 05-13-2019 07:14
    We use swings in our shows, and I agree with Shira Schwartz's comments--it has saved us on many occasions.  We also double-cast as much as we can for our musicals.  6 performances, each cast has 3 shows, and if there is an illness or problem, all major roles are covered.  It goes far to eliminate competitive feelings among cast members and give actors a partner to rehearse with and keep them accountable.  I know it wouldn't work in a smaller school, but it is a lifesaver in a big school where I struggle to give kid enough opportunities!

    Kristen Hoch
    Thunderhawk Theater Director
    Lakota East High School
    Liberty Twp, OH

  • 9.  RE: Understudies?

    Posted 05-13-2019 15:15

    I implement understudies as much as possible, typically from our ensemble members.  Generally the rest of the ensemble can cover the missing person if they need to go on.

    We emphasize from the beginning that understudies are not guaranteed a performance, and that they are doing this as a way to help their castmates, to improve in their abilities, and to show they are ready to larger roles.  It seems like every show at least one understudy has to go on at least once, whether in a dress rehearsal or performance.  This year, our Prince in Cinderella was out sick for final dress, and we had to replace two actors in The Tempest - one fairly last minute due to grades.  With all 3, it was an eye opening experience for us directors, seeing how those actors have grown and knowing that they are ready for a lead role.

    Laura Steenson
    Theatre Director
    Reynolds High School
    Troutdale OR