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From Understudy to Wonderstudy: 5 Tips to Succeed

by Mandy Walsh

Being an understudy is a crazy ride, but I think it’s important for every actor to do it at least once during their career.

Being an understudy is a unique opportunity to learn about your own personal process since so much of the work must be done on your own. Plus you have the different perspective of creating a performance from the outside in. You get the starting point in the form of the script, and you get the ending point of what the actor you are understudying has created.

From these two things, you have to connect those dots in a way that allows you to step in for that actor, but you still need your work to be honest to who you are while staying within the context of the production. It can be tricky. I’ve had the amazing fortune to understudy Kirsten Fitzgerald, but she and I are very different types. With that in mind, I knew I had to really break down what she was doing. So instead of trying to match her amazing physical presence, for instance, I focused on the qualities she was bringing to the character, what those qualities meant for me, and how do those qualities manifest within me as an actor. (Speaking of Kirsten, being an understudy and watching an actor that closely can be like getting paid to take a Master Class in Acting. I seriously learned so much from watching her.)

I’ve ridden the understudy roller coaster a few times now, and every time I have gotten the call to go on, the circumstances have been different. Sometimes, you will be lucky enough to have plenty of notice that you’ll be going on, and you’ll get a full put-in rehearsal with the cast. But there’s a good chance it will be the opposite, which is why doing all the things you have control over, like getting off book asap, is essential. Once I had to go on for a final preview with zero understudy rehearsals under my belt – only an hour or so to run through a few scenes before the show with some of the cast. Most recently, I had to learn an entire act of complicated blocking with just the SM walking me through alone on the set before going on that night. Sometimes things just happen in a way so that you won’t get a full put-in rehearsal, and this is where all that work you’ve been doing on your own becomes so vital to getting through the show. It is the only thing you have control over as an U/S, and I promise you, it will pay off when the time comes.

If you do decide to accept an understudy offer, and I totally think you should, here are some tips I have learned during my various rides as an U/S (besides getting off book, like, yesterday):


1. NO ONE IS GOING TO DIE. A wise man named Shade Murray told me this before I went on, and he was right.
2. Set some smaller goals for yourself whether you’re just in a rehearsal or actually going on. If all you want to do is get through the show saying all the lines and not bumping into furniture, that’s great! It gives you something to stay focused on if things start to feel overwhelming.
3. Do not be afraid to ask for anything you need when you’re going on. If you need to look at a particular moment in the show, ask. If you need different shoes, ask. If you desperately need a coffee, just ask. The company wants the show to go well, and chances are they will do their best to accommodate what you need in order to make it a successful performance.
4. The cast has your back, both onstage and off.
5. Be kind to yourself if and when you hit bumps in the road. This job ain’t easy.

You’re going to be amazing! #teamwonderstudy 

Mandy Walsh Acting. UnderstudyMandy Walsh is a member of The Factory Theater, where her acting credits include FIGHT CITY, HOTEL APHRODITE, and INCIDENT ON RUN #1217. Other favorite Chicago credits include TRAITOR (A Red Orchid Theatre); MISS HOLMES, MONSTROUS REGIMENT and WATERSHIP DOWN (Lifeline Theatre) and THE RING CYCLE (The Building Stage); and A NIGHT IN ALACHUA COUNTY (WildCLaw Theatre). She also has had the pleasure to work Strawdog Theatre, Akvavit Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Fine Print Theatre Co., Babes with Blades, and Hobo Junction. She’s also an amazing actor, a good friend and an occasional student of ASC.