What does it take to be an understudy in the West End?
Although an on-stage production will feature a cast who often perform up to eight times a week, the cast isn’t complete without an understudy. If you’re wondering what an understudy is, when they perform on stage or who has previously been an understudy, read our guide to the often unsung heroes in a cast.
Being an understudy
What is an understudy?
An understudy is an actor that’s cast in a production to cover a performer if they are unable to attend a performance, or to take over a role if a performer is unable to continue in the role. Ready to step in at the last moment, an understudy will often have to be nearby to the theatre for each performance in order to jump in with just a few minutes notice or take on a role that they haven’t performed in months!
Understudies can be cast in a show as a member of the ensemble, meaning an understudy will have to balance two or more parts in one show. While an understudy may not take on their covered role regularly, they are vital to making sure ‘the show must go on’.
Should I see a performance with an understudy?
Yes! Understudies are guaranteed to deliver an exceptional performance every time they’re on stage, so while they may be covering a role, you’ll still see a world-class show. You may also see an understudy as a lead role in another show, so you’ll want to see these rising stars in action.
Are there different types of understudies?
In a show’s cast, there will often be different categories of understudies who are all able to step into a lead role at just a moment’s notice. We’ve broken down what it means to be a ‘swing’, an ‘alternate’ and an ‘understudy’.
Understudy: Cast in a show for every performance, an understudy is typically in the ensemble of a production, who will take on the principal role when the lead actors are unavailable. When an understudy is covering a larger role, a swing will usually take the place of the ensemble member to cover them! Understudies can also be called alternates. For example, Natasha J Barnes was the understudy for Fanny Brice in Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre.
Standby: Similar to a swing, a standby will not appear in all performances of a production they are working on. However, a standby will only learn one role to cover for a production, typically the lead roles. Standbys must be ready to cover the lead role at any moment.
There are instances where individuals can cover a role years after they starred in a production. For example, 42nd Street’s understudy Steph Parry appeared in a performance of Mamma Mia! when someone was needed to fill the role of Donna Sheridan after the actress became injured mid-show. Later this year, Steph Parry stars as Kate in Mamma Mia! The Party.
Swing: A swing member is someone in a cast who will often learn multiple lead roles and ensemble ‘tracks’ so that they can step into a production in a variety of instances. Swings do not perform in every performance unlike an understudy who is usually in the ensemble.