by Kenny Francoeur
Like the Batu Caves of Malaysia or Milan’s Duomo, understudy rehearsal is a sacred space. Having been a swing with The Book of Mormon, I’ve attended my fair share of rehearsals. My body instinctually enters the stage door every other Thursday afternoon like highway hypnosis; vocalizing without awareness like a nearly comatose Florence Foster Jenkins. Once arrived, I participate in the greatest pleasure of my job; performing an entire show with less than half the necessary actors sans set, costumes, or orchestra; a minimalism wet dream. Our bodies and the materials are our only tools.
As dance captain, I’m particular in my approach to understudy rehearsals. While others have vastly different expectations of these most holy occasions, here are a list of Commandments that I pass on to every swing and standby in our show. Although not all companies will adhere to, or care about, these instructions, I believe heeding them makes us better, more considerate, swings/standbys/people.
1. THOU SHALT KNOW THINE NUMBERS AND DEPTHS.
It’s the LEAST you can do to meet proficiency in your job. This is a visual business and, regardless of your awe-inducing abilities, if you can’t stand in the right place than you’re as useful as a blind caricaturist. Although integral to all actors, I get particularly incensed at swings and standbys unconcerned with these details. Your safety, and the safety of those around you, is jeopardized when you don’t know where to stand, dance, or which traffic pattern to take. I depend on my swings and standbys as dance captain missionaries: while spacing in a long running show can tend to morph based on individual actors’ habits and adlibs, I need my swings to go in and stand their ground on numbers and depths they were taught so I can clearly see when something may have adjusted slightly over time. Even if the “picture” is still intact, eventually someone’s going to make their way out of the light and I, as well as their mother, will be displeased.
2. THOU SHALT KNOW WHO THE REHEARSAL IS FOR AND HONOR THEM
In most situations, the rehearsal is about giving the swings and standbys an opportunity to run the show and receive notes. But in a long running production, understudy rehearsals can have distinct purposes. Is a new cast member here as a trial run before their put-in? Is a new understudy doing their first run? Is a producer or creative at the rehearsal to observe a standby? The rehearsal is then about that actor. This is not to say you aren’t valuable at these specific rehearsals. The opposite is true. Whoever the rehearsal is about needs your support and focus. If you cover eight tracks, please choose to be the one that partners with the new company member and not the one that gets to lounge by the water cooler on stage left during the production number. Which leads me to the next commandment on the notepad of stone I brought down from the mountain…
3. IF THOU BE A SWING, SPEAKETH ALL LINES FOR TRACKS YOU COVER.
At Mormon, we have six swings, half of which cover principals. This means there may only be one swing to cover specific tracks if their counterpart is rehearsing a principal role. It’s the responsibility of that lone swing, in my opinion, to cover ALL their roles for that rehearsal. While some productions have stage management read lines of missing characters, I think it impedes our ability to fully master our jobs. I’ve performed more split tracks than I’d care to admit. Sometimes planned with a few hours, other times mid-show. A swing’s brain, once rehearsed and comfortably in the show, cannot see each individual track and block out the others. We must see the full picture and be able to step into any track at any moment. By freeing your brain from the “singular track cage”, you become better prepared for the reality of split tracks and mid-show swing-ons. Be the master of your tracks.
4. HONOR THY INNER ARTIST AND CREATE LIKE A MOFO.
Our job as swings and standbys isn’t to imitate the actors we cover. Our job is to play their roles. Until you are instructed to copy another actor, an abhorrible instruction no one worth their weight in Epsom salts would give, don’t. If we set the precedent that swings and standbys are theatrical robots hired to “fill a spot” then it’s all that will be expected of us and the artistry required for these jobs goes out the window. Use understudy rehearsal as a gift. Continue working on your craft. Your ability to progress and perform at your highest level in these rehearsals is not only beneficial for your personal artistic growth. It is in these rehearsals that you earn the trust of your stage managers. Since they get to make decisions about who goes on when someone calls out, showing them you take these rehearsals seriously can correlate to the opportunities you are given to perform.
5. THOU SHALT NOT BE A LOSER. TRY AND HAVE SOME FUN.
You are one of a small militia of clowns who are performing a show meant for three times as many people. The nature of this rehearsal is, in a sense, absurd. Embrace it. These rehearsals are my favorite part of my job, both as an observant and as a participant. The rest of your coworkers are enjoying their day of freedom, you should foster an environment of joy for your few hours “at the office.”. Nothing sucks the energy out of a 10-person version of a 30-person show than one miserable wet blanket. You got into this business to perform. Here’s your chance. An audience is not necessary. Tell the story for each other. Tell the story for yourself. At understudy rehearsal, we create fresh performances that can bring new life into our company’s show each time we are reintroduced to the stage. I believe that what is created in this sacred space is the very reason you and I were called to this lifestyle.