by Mo Brady
Last week, producer Cameron Mackintosh issued a memo asking understudies in his UK productions to stop announcing their performances on social media. His theory is that these tweets and status updates could be “commercially sensitive” and therefore “need to be controlled by management.”
As a staunch supporter of the working artists filling Broadway’s ensembles and understudy ranks, I just have to ask: “Really?”
Mr. Mackintosh’s shows are most often long running hits that don’t rely on their principal actors’ fame to sell tickets: Les Miserables, Mary Poppins. It is doubtful that potential audience members will choose not to see a show when a specific Phantom or Grizabella calls out. A few more tickets might be sold to the family and friends of a performer when they go on in their understudy track. The larger issue, however, is about treating understudies with respect and gratitude.
Yes, understudies are employees, but they are also artists who bring their unique talents and skills to the roles they cover. By asking them not to announce their performances, understudies are told that they aren’t as worthy of performing the role as the actor they cover. However, understudies are often hired not because they are less qualified for a role, but because they possess additional skills that make them even more valuable to a production in an ensemble or swing track.
Allowing understudies to share their performance dates is also an issue of company morale. While it’s true that producers are responsible for the financial viability of a show, and monitoring a production’s expenses is part of the job, company morale is also important to that financial viability. Not every show can spend money to subsidize their show’s Broadway Softball League jerseys, throw annual Holiday parties (please, SOMEONE invite me to that Book of Mormon Holiday party - the photo booth pictures are amazing), or keep everyone in swag. It’s expensive.
But you know what else is expensive? Auditioning replacement actors. Renting space, hiring accompanists, and making sure the dance captains are available to rehearse them. Keeping enough swings in the building to cover those dance captains running rehearsals. Building costumes. Paying crew members to run automation at a put-in. And what isn’t expensive for a producer? Showing appreciation. Making actors feel valuable and supported. Conveying to actors that they are good at their jobs, and that their appearances are worthy of announcement. This doesn’t cost a dime, but it can make company morale infinitely better.
Actors in long running shows like Mr. Mackintosh’s stay in said shows if they’re happy at work, and one of the easiest ways to make an ensemble actor dread going to the show (and eventually put in their notice) is by treating them without respect.
It’s easy to become jaded doing eight shows a week, month after month. Even with the immense gratitude that comes with knowing how few people work as theatre professionals and how incredible the theatre community is, the work itself is inherently repetitive. Every job can be tedious, but who other than theatre actors stand the exact same place, saying the exact same words and executing the exact same movements every day (twice on matinee days)? One of the ways to break up that monotony is when a company member goes on in their understudy role. Everyone in the building, from actors to stage managers to technicians can get a boost of excitement when an understudy goes on. To squash company members’ excitement by asking them not to share it with their followers and supporters seems short-sighted.
Right now, Mackintosh’s decree is limited to his West End and UK touring productions. However, he is also a producer of Broadway’s Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and the upcoming revival of Miss Saigon. Let’s hope he listens to his employees and their champions and doesn’t make a similar ruling here in the States.
Mo Brady is the co-creator and co-host of The Ensemblist Podcast, container of multitudes, and former Broadway understudy.