The Band's Visit standby Pomme Koch shares what he's learned so far as a standby on the new Broadway musical.
Understudying distinguishes an actor’s best qualities from their pettiest ones, like a Brita filter for the ego.
Joining the company of The Band’s Visit has been a dream come true—I’ve wanted to be on Broadway since I was five years old, and the fact that I’m making my debut in the best piece I’ve ever been a part of fills me with joy. As someone of both Jewish and Middle Eastern descent, it’s exciting to be able to switch between Israeli and Egyptian characters, depending on which track I’m in for. I love that this notably non-political piece ends up speaking so directly to the core of humanity, and there is no other production in the world I’d rather be a part of (short of, maybe, Springsteen on Broadway, but I don’t think they’re hiring).
Understudying seven roles in a Broadway musical is also… challenging. When you’re watching new blocking on stage right, you’re inevitably missing new blocking on stage left. There’s a pile of eraser shavings the size of a miniature Matterhorn at my station, I’ve drank enough coffee to power a small Gulf state, and with almost 60 hours a week spent in the theatre during tech and previews, I believe my spine has been permanently contorted to reflect the arch of the Barrymore’s velvet seats. You long to be called to the stage at any moment; you dread being called to the stage at any moment. None of the notes are for you; all of the notes are for you.
But I’m embarrassed to admit that perhaps the hardest part has been maintaining my drive without the ego-boosters many of us unwittingly rely on for sustenance. I know a few individuals who could care less about affirmation — they see praise as a hindrance, they’ll opt for a black box theatre over a decent paycheck every time, and they’d probably prefer to skip the curtain call altogether. I am not one of those people.
When you’re an understudy, the applause is not for you, and it is not your autograph they’re waiting for at the stage door (though I have grown fond of the you-look-like-you-could-have-been-in-the-show-but-I’m-not-sure face).
And yet what I’ve found is that when superficial incentives are withheld, what remains is a distilled appreciation for the work itself. As actors, we’re often reminded that our worst habits and flattest performances usually stem from a failure to watch and listen. So when you’re an understudy straddling the line between cast and audience member, a tremendous opportunity arises to develop your observational skills.
I’ve learned a lot by sitting in the dark during tech and previews over the last month, and there are a few things I hope to keep in mind when I’m back on stage:
1. Turns out maybe directors know what they’re talking about. Since we began previews on October 7th our director, David Cromer, has made a series of precise adjustments. These are often minor changes, like shaving off a couple seconds from a transition or calibrating a pause. Every few days, he reminds us that while the notes may seem insignificant, they have a cumulative effect on the piece as a whole. Now, if I was a cast member in one role, I would probably write that statement off as just “one of those things directors say;" it makes theoretical sense, but it’s not really playable, right? And yet watching the show from night to night, I’ve noticed that the audience is starting to respond to everything, including the stuff they previously seemed to miss. They’re laughing, murmuring, mumbling, and not just in response to the parts the creative team is tweaking, but moments that have remained unchanged since dress rehearsal. Little by little the micro-adjustments are buoying the entire ship.
2. There’s (usually) more than one character in a play. Sounds obvious, but as an actor I’ve often forgotten that the play is about more than just my track. I’m sure even Spear Carrier #3 in Julius Caesar occasionally slips into thinking Shakespeare wrote a play about playing cell phone games in the green room between crowd scenes. But watching rehearsals from the audience has reminded me just how much work a director does to tie all these conflicting, individual storylines into a cohesive whole.
3. Stay on the good side of stage management. It doesn’t take being an understudy to figure this one out, but it bears reminding. They see everything, and even when they’re quiet, they know everything. They are your last line of defense against the abyss of catastrophe, and if you are called on to take over a role at a moment’s notice, your trust in them will make or break you.
4. The backstage crew ALWAYS deserves more recognition. The Band’s Visit features a handful of turntables and moving walls that rotate scene changes in and out in seamless transitions. Having seen the show upwards of 50 times already, I never considered how it would look from another angle. But when I watched from the wings the other night I found the backstage choreography to be brilliantly calibrated. Oftentimes the crew has to walk backwards while holding heavy furniture on a moving surface to keep from being seen while the costume department throws the last layer of an actor’s clothing on just moments before they’re wheeled into the light. It’s these champions who prevent a couch from rolling into a park or a telephone booth from appearing in the middle of a roller rink. The actors may never get to see the show, and the audience will never know the controlled chaos backstage, but the opposite faces of The Band’s Visit’s rotating walls work in magical simpatico.
Bonus point: The Band’s Visit really is that good. Have you ever been in a show that you think is awesome, but you can’t really tell because you’re too close to the center of things? Your friends tell you it’s great, but they avoid eye contact in such a way that gets you wondering, “Is this not as good as I think it is?” This isn’t that.
As an understudy I am close to the center but just removed enough to say to my fellow company members, yes, the electricity you feel onstage is extending all the way to the back of the house where I’m often peeking through the curtain. And not to overhype it or anything, but to anyone reading this: yes, The Band’s Visit is as good as you’ve heard. At the core of my ambition as an actor is simply a desire to be in plays that I would want to see. From the hilarity of Itamar Moses’ script to the exuberant heartbreak of David Yazbek’s music, from Patrick McCollum’s understated and fully integrated choreography to each and every actor’s pitch-perfect performance, this is the show I want to watch from the audience. This is the show I want to be in.