Chicago actor and friend of the podcast Andrew Mueller tells the incredible story from the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production of Shakespeare in Love.
I had an ensemble track in a production of Shakespeare in Love, playing some guitar and singing here and there, and even -- every once in a while -- pretending to be an actor! (I mean that literally; the ensemble members mostly played members of the Admiral’s or Lord Chamberlain’s Men during rehearsal scenes. Meta...)
I also understudied some dude named William Shakespeare, whoever he was.
The day before we closed a solid, relatively uneventful two month run, I got this text message from the stage manager while out to brunch with two other cast mates:
This might be a fun time to mention that we had forgone understudy rehearsal the week of the extension (because everyone was doing such a great job), and I had already put my script in storage before moving apartments earlier that week (because, hubris).
Now, when understudying, it’s obviously your job to be prepared -- which I was. Being the second-to-last day of a one-week extension, I had very nearly had the absolute maximum amount of time to prepare. But until you actually do the thing under performance conditions, you don’t really know if you can do the thing under performance conditions.
My brain immediately started rifling through all of the things I’d want to look at. There was a bit where I’d have to climb up to (and hang from) a balcony sixteen feet off the ground, but I’d gotten the chance to practice that plenty. There was a very involved one-on-one rapier duel that I’d only done with the other actor’s understudy, not the actor himself. There was a massive all-skate brawl/chase scene that, since it required more people than we had understudies, we’d never been able to fully run in rehearsal. And, oh yeah, there was an onstage change masked behind a bed curtain that, if unsuccessful, would not only irreparably derail the plot but also expose me to the audience wearing only dance- and mic-belts.
But it was only 11:30, fight call wasn’t until 2:10, curtain wasn’t until 3, and the ASM had said it probably wasn’t going to be a problem, right?
My two brunching cast mates immediately noticed my expression (askance and lost in thought), and were just as immediately game to help once I shared the info. After all, their show would suck if I sucked, so it was in their best interests to do whatever they could.
We finished up brunch and started the carpool a little early that day.
Arriving at the theater a little less than an hour before fight call and nearly two hours before curtain, the mood backstage was only slightly uncertain. Everyone seemed to be operating under the assumption that Shakespeare would rally himself and do the show, and I was there early only as a precaution. Even so, some wardrobe staff were looking at me very closely. The lead and I were similar enough in size that it had been decided long ago that we’d share costumes, but that meant a tiny bit of game-time cinching should I have to go on.
But, again, it wasn’t going to come to that, right? Right?
I joked around backstage with the actor playing Viola, the apocryphal love interest character, since she was one of the only other people there that early. If things didn’t turn around, we were about to have to make out a lot, and one wants to have established an easy rapport for that sort of thing.
Stage management came back and told us Shakespeare was on the mend and heading to the theater soon. I wouldn’t have to go on, and everything would proceed as usual. The nervous energy that had built up began to subside, but, to tell the truth, I was equal parts relieved and bummed; part of me, I guess, had been looking forward to it. I went back to my dressing station to start getting ready for my normal show, but way earlier than I’d usually be there for a normal show, so there wasn’t a whole lot for me to do.
And then Shakespeare came in, shivering, sweating, and overall not looking his bardtacular self. Evidently he had been feeling better, but the trek from his housing to the theater had drained him more than he expected, and he was awaiting a thermometer to see if he had a fever. Appearing as though he were a few moments from melting into a puddle on the floor, I wagered that he probably did have a fever, and all that nervous energy came surging right back.
He looked at me apologetically, “I should’ve called out sooner.”
I took a deep breath and, rather surprised at my own poise, said, “Just say the word."
And then we were off.
He went home to sleep off whatever it was he was fighting, and I went off into the waiting arms of stage management and the costume staff.
The next several things felt like they all happened at once:
Costumes were thrown at me, pinned on me, and just as quickly taken away. Luckily, the character didn’t change clothes much.
My understudy showed up (being in the show myself, when I got bumped to Shakespeare, someone needed to fill my normal role), and they started doing all the same things to him. He, similarly, was using all of my track’s costumes, despite being slightly taller and skinnier than me. The economy of wardrobe.
There was then the question of which dressing stations we would use. Would I take Shakespeare’s, and my understudy take mine? To my logic, it made more sense for me to stay at mine so there’d be only one personnel change, but in retrospect that probably inconvenienced the costume staff a lot. They didn’t say anything, though. Everyone was pretty accommodating that day, for whatever reason.
The fight captain and stage manager hovered about, asking me questions and trying to plan fight call. We basically decided we’d start as early as we could and run everything twice as much as usual. Never a bad idea. House management would hold the doors.
I was handed a (new, unused) dance belt. I didn’t wear one in my usual track, and not being a very adept mover (understatement), I’d had precious little experience with the garment during the rest of my career. There was very little time for an orientation. I found out later that the actor playing Shakespeare used the full-seat variety, but I, for whatever reason, by default, had been given the thong type. “Great! Use it,” I said to myself in a patronizing director voice.
I then had to take said dance belt off again so it could have mic packs sewn into it. For a moment I sat in my robe and waxed my moustache, as I couldn’t very well get into costume until the absolute base layer of said costume came back.
An assistant stage manager brought me a script from the office, and I tore through it, refreshing myself on entrances/exits.
The costumes came back and it felt like a flood carried me out to fight call. En route, someone asked if I needed anything else. “Can company management call my parents?” I asked, probably sounding somewhat pathetic.
We then proceeded to run all of the most physically demanding moments of the show several times each in quick succession. I became very sweaty, thirsty, and tired. Just how one wants to start this type of experience.
The massive all-cast brawl/chase was indeed full of surprises that I never got to truly experience during rehearsals, so it was good we did that four times. This, of course, was my understudy’s first time doing the fight with enough bodies onstage, as well.
The one-on-one duel required some adjustments to spacings and facings -- no two people are alike, of course -- and we drilled it again and again and again. I’m not sure if I was just nervous or heavy-breathing-acting my way into light-headedness, but I was wiped afterwards.
I practiced climbing the balcony at one point -- I don’t remember if it was between the fights or after them. I only did that once.
And then it was time to begin.
The show started with Shakespeare coming up through the traps in the blackout, seated at his desk, trying vainly to write Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee...”). So, after the marvelously supportive group energy of fight call, I had to leave everyone, climb down a tight spiral staircase, and sit in the dark, waiting to be catapulted into the show, alone.
While I expected the wait in the dark to feel excruciating and interminable, I actually felt oddly calm. I had done this before, only this time I was wearing the costume and there were hundreds of people watching. Same thing. A crew member relayed to me that we had places, I heard the whirring of machinery, and up I went.
And we did the show.
I made some little gaffes that I wasn’t thrilled with, but nobody died (other than the characters scripted to do so). I dropped one R&J allusion I really liked, but it didn’t hurt the plot. I forgot a prop letter, but had prop script pages to use as a standby (I was informed that it was not the first time the Viola had been handed something other than the letter). An ASM met me at my exits and followed me to my entrances for safety’s sake. I climbed balconies, fought with swords, said quite a lot of words mostly in the right order, made the onstage change in time (although evidently my moustache was more than a little visible around the veil), kissed a fellow actor many times with no rehearsal (I credit any manufactured chemistry to her, bless her), and generally did what I was contracted to do: the play, should the lead call out.
And there in the audience were my parents, my brother, and my friend the Viola understudy, all in the same row, beaming at me. Elsewhere in the crowd were my understudy’s father and girlfriend, equally beaming at him.
The play ended with me at the very same desk where I started, with the character of Shakespeare ruminating on everything that had taken place, trying to write a new play -- trying to encapsulate the experience, fit it into a narrative, let it inform people’s lives. Apropos, if one likes heavy-handed symbolism. The lights went down, and I took a deep breath.
Then I freaking panicked, because we’d never gone over the #@&!% curtain call.
That’s not entirely true -- we’d gone over it, but, much like the big fight scene, never with enough people. And it wasn’t just a curtain call, it was a bergamask. Shakespeare nerds might have encountered the term (I was unfamiliar), but basically the cast came out, took their bows, and then engaged in a big old jig. The audiences usually clapped along and loved it.
Only, I had no idea where to go.
Once again, not entirely true, but I didn’t know precisely where to fit in with the rest of the cast. We were skipping around in circles with our hands joined in the center, and twirling, and all I knew was that I needed to find Viola again and get back downstage-center by the time the music ended. (At least I knew the music well; I played along with it on guitar for my normal track.)
I semi-collided with one of Chicago theatre’s luminary mainstays, but no one was irreparably harmed. I led three bows, squeezed Viola’s hand in elation and gratitude, and exited the stage.
Lots of people said very nice things. There were hugs and backslaps and cheers for both me and my understudy. I got to see my parents and brother afterwards and share with them through laughter and disbelief everything that had happened that morning.
And then, as the crowd died away and I got a chance to decompress, I went and got notes from the stage manager so we could do it all again, because of course this happened on a two show day.