Friday, December 16, 2022

On Understudies & Swings

Roger Allam & Susan Fleetwood
"Much Ado About Nothing"
(Royal Shakespeare Company, 1990)
Ms. Fleetwood does not appear.
One of my favorite theater experiences was when our school group was in Stratford-Upon-Avon in late 1990. A blizzard socked the area, and the roads were impassable.

The plan for the morning was a matinee of Much Ado About Nothing starring Roger Allam and Susan Fleetwood. We were staying at an inn right in town, but anyone who was driving in from anywhere to see the show were out of luck. So few were in attendance they announced it would be general seating, so instead of the balcony some of us chose the third row.

The stage manager came on stage to address the audience, looking bemused. She explained it may be an RSC record, with no fewer than six actors assuming roles for those performers stranded in the outskirts, and several members of crew. But the show was going on!

And it was marvelous. We saw actors whispering dance choreography to each other during the party scene, and I noted one time someone said a line twice. Other than that, they nailed it, including the comparatively young woman who stood in for Ms. Fleetwood as Beatrice.

This was when I learned a very important lesson: Without the understudy, there is no show.

Once upon a time we said, “The show must go on!” And actors with fevers and vertigo would pump themselves up with antihistamines and pain relievers would muscle through. It was expected. COVID has changed all that, and rightly so.

This does mean that, unfortunately, smaller theaters may need to close a show due to illness, and this has happened many times. Last year, as the Omicron variant was rising, theaters right here in Cleveland closed their holiday shows early, one after another.

Today, our professional theaters make more time to prepare understudies and also budget for swings.
“While an understudy is usually a smaller or ensemble role within the main cast of a production, a swing is an offstage performer who only goes on if someone in the ensemble is unable to do so. A swing most often does not cover principal roles in a show.”
- Dramatics Magazine
Desmond Sean Ellington crushed it.
Attending a show and discovering that an understudy is going on has become more and more common. I myself have made pre-show announcements this season, more than once, that someone other than listed in the program will be going on.

Last Tuesday, the family went to see the touring production of Hamilton at the KeyBank State Theatre. That night Burr was played by Desmond Sean Ellington who usually plays Mulligan/Madison (that role assumed by John Devereaux) and this was exciting to know; that something different was happening that night, just for us. He delivered a beautiful rendition of “Wait For It” and ferociously stuck the landing in “The Room Where It Happens” which are absolutely my two favorite songs in the show.

Opening weekend of the world premiere of The Land of Oz at Dobama Theatre, my good friend Sarah Blubaugh went on as Mombi the Witch. It’s exciting when a friend goes on, and others show to support them. In the past, I have made understudy announcements at the Hanna and there are cheers from supporters who attended just to see them.

I myself decided to attend opening night of Oz, which I did not have on my calendar, when Sarah gave me the word that afternoon that she was going on. Unfortunately, the power went out ten minutes into the performance. If you live in Cleveland Heights, you know. I did, however, get to see the entire show, with her in it, that Sunday night.

It’s a delightful show, Sarah was delightful in it, and if they didn’t have her as a swing, the entire first weekend may not have been possible.

Next time you hear there is an understudy, give a cheer! Because otherwise, you just wasted all that money on the babysitter.  

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