‘My head was exploding with it all’: understudies suddenly thrust into the spotlight

As Omicron wreaks havoc on Australian theatre, there’s a silver lining for up-and-coming actors. But hiring understudies is expensive – and unsustainable

Actor Anthony Taufa was heading out for sushi last Saturday when he got the call. A member of the cast of the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Triple X had been pinged as a close contact of a Covid case. Would Taufa be ready to take his place? Tonight?

“My wife said she could tell how stressed I was by the way my hands rose slowly from my hips to my armpits during the call,” Taufa says.

Taufa is one of four actors on standby should any member of the advertised cast of Triple X be ruled out of the show. Even so, he wasn’t expecting to end up on stage.

“I lost my appetite and went straight into the theatre to cram-rehearse my scenes.”

As the Omicron wave builds to a peak, major Australian stage productions have been forced to reschedule performances as the virus impacts casts and crew. To prevent the outright cancellation of entire seasons, theatre companies are now relying on understudies to make sure the show goes on: a strategy that’s been described as “unsustainable”, as it can add tens of thousands to a budget.

Taufa is a familiar face to STC audiences for his roles in productions including Home, I’m Darling and Black is the New White. He had eight hours to prepare for a preview performance of Triple X, after Elijah Williams tested positive during isolation: his first time on the set opposite the show’s stars Glace Chase and Josh McConville.

“It was really tense,” he says. “But Josh is a brilliant actor and he knows the show back to front, so when I skipped a couple of lines, he was able to wind the scene back and have me say them – because there was information the audience needed.

“It was good to have someone who knew what they were doing while I was fluffing about thinking about when to pick up a bottle, and how to take a charcuterie board off the stage without bumping into the actor coming out of the bathroom. My head was exploding with it all.”

With barely enough time to draw breath, Taufa was then called in for the opening night show in front of an audience packed with VIPs, fellow actors and critics.

“It was exciting,” Taufa admits. “But yeah, I was pretty anxious.” Taufa will remain in the cast until at least 18 January, when Williams is due back; he’ll be joined by a second understudy, Cheree Cassidey, after another cast-member, Cristen O’Leary, tested positive.

Anthony Taufa and Josh McConville in Triple X
‘I was fluffing about thinking about when to pick up a bottle’: Anthony Taufa and Josh McConville in Sydney Theatre Company’s Triple X. Photograph: Prudence Upton

In musical theatre, it’s standard practice to have a number of alternates (“swings”) in the ensemble cast who can cover leading roles should a performer fall ill or need to take a break. Earlier this week on Broadway, for instance, understudy Kathy Voytko suddenly found herself opposite Hugh Jackman starring in the Music Man; she found out at midday, had her first rehearsal at 1pm, and went on stage that night.

Up until very recently, however, Australian theatre has mostly got by without them. If an actor falls sick or is injured, they often go on anyway, relying on adrenaline, painkillers and “Dr Footlights” to get them through.

Covid has changed all that. Even with casts and crew living and working in Covid-safe “bubbles”, the highly transmissible Omicron strain makes it likely that someone involved in a production could be ruled out of a number of performances. The understudy is now central to a show’s survival.

“It’s a new paradigm,” says Mitchell Butel, artistic director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia, which is presenting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Sydney Opera House as part of Sydney festival. The production has two understudies covering all four roles.

“The challenge is in the funding,” he explains. “Employing understudies adds tens of thousands of dollars to a budget. It eats into your ability to pay for other things. But cancelling is far worse, and so in terms of risk mitigation, understudies are really important now.”

Kip Williams, artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company, agrees. “It’s incredibly new for us. Prior to Covid we never had understudies. We couldn’t afford them. But now, if we have to cancel a performance in the Roslyn Packer theatre due to Covid, that’s 900 seats gone. If we cancel a Wharf 1 show [such as Triple X] that’s about 350 seats.”

Kip Williams in rehearsal for Julius Caesar.
Understudies are ‘a kind of insurance policy’ but financially unsustainable, says Kip Williams, pictured here in rehearsal for Julius Caesar. Photograph: Daniel Boud

The STC’s recent production of Julius Caesar had three understudies, none of whom were used. Neither were the understudies for its Death of a Salesman. But the extra money is worth it for peace of mind, says Williams – at least for now.

“It’s a kind of insurance policy but financially, it is unsustainable. It’s not even something we can commit to a long way in advance.”

‘You are just slotting in the best you can’

In order to keep costs down, understudies don’t rehearse in the same way as the main cast. It’s a seat-of-the-pants gig, says Taufa.

“For Triple X, we watched a run of the play twice through, took notes and asked the other actors about the technical things to do with entrances and props. We have to do exactly what they do in order to maintain the integrity of the show.”

There’s no training in how to understudy, Taufa adds. “It’s a different set of tools and you’ve got to be much more self-reliant. You don’t have much contact with the director or the other actors. You are just slotting in the best you can and it can be very tough.”

Different productions use understudies in different ways. If understudies Benjin Maza and Isabel Vahakartano go on during Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it’s likely they will have Edward Albee’s script in their hand.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
‘It’s a new paradigm’: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf premieres this weekend at Sydney festival, with two understudies covering all four roles. Photograph: Yaya Stempler

“Martha and George are two of the biggest roles in theatre and it’s a three-and-a-half hour play,” Butel says, adding that, in his experience, audiences are very accepting when someone has to perform “on-book”.

“I still think it’s good to offer the audience the opportunity for a refund if they really didn’t enjoy the show with an understudy in place, but a lot of people find it fun – something different.”

For understudies, particularly those who are up-and-coming in their careers, the gig can be a great experience, says Butel (who once stepped up to play Iago in a Bell Shakespeare production of Othello, with no rehearsal in the role at all).

“Understudying is invaluable in terms of exposure, and the access to professional rehearsal rooms is pretty great as well,” Butel says. “It’s not like you don’t get noticed.”


Elissa Blake

The GuardianTramp

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