Written by Brady
Being a “Cover”
Principle understudies are most-often an after-thought in the casting process. More often than not you were in strong consideration for the actual part but someone else was chosen instead of you. Instead you are offered the “Cover.” (It’s a little like getting a consolation prize. You were almost good enough to get the part but instead you almost get to be in the show as the Standby.)
Sometimes a director or a casting person know you and love your work and, while they may not use your for the actual part, they are confident enough to know you will be great if you go on. (This happens a lot when celebrities, or more established actors, are in a show.)
Other times you are chosen because you are good at doing a lot of things. They choose you, maybe not because you are perfect for one part, but are able to reasonably, and truthfully, able to do a variety of parts.
(This is why I got to be an Off-stage Standby in Lion King. I Covered three very different types of characters; a very short smart, sassy, wise-cracking meerkat, a very large, somewhat dense, farting warthog and a high-class, erudite, prim and proper hornbill. The job entailed three different types of puppetry, and three very different types of performance. They needed someone who could successfully pull off all three. That was the job. It was a bit of compliment really.)
Why it is the worst job ever:
Unfortunately, there are more reasons why being a Cover sucks than there are it being awesome.
First of all, it is almost impossible to do good work.
When a show goes into rehearsal the cast becomes a sort of family. Everyone works closely together to create the show. They will talk in depth with the director and each other to develop scenes and characters, they work out the blocking, they get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They will form a bond in the rehearsal process that will be, uniquely, their show. The time spent with each other will give them the luxury of know exactly what the actors expect from each other to tell the story of the play. This is a luxury the Cover never gets; the Covers watch. (And that’s if they are lucky.)
If a Cover is very lucky they get to observe from the very first day. They watch, listen and learn, picking up as much information as they can. But they do it on their own. There is no director asking if they are getting any of it, no choreographer making sure they know all the steps, no musical director teaching them the songs, It is up to the individual Cover to learn everything by staying out of the way, taking notes, and watching. (Oh, you get to ask the occasional question, but if you ask too many you’re labeled that “that annoying Standby in the corner.”)
It’s even harder if you are an Understudy or Swing. You are usually rehearsing your own parts during this process; so you don’t even get to watch. You don’t even get the chance to be annoying.
In some cases a Standby, particularly in a play, won’t even get cast until late into rehearsals or even previews. Then you don’t even get the chance to watch rehearsals, they have to pick up everything from watching with the audience or in the dark backstage.
It’s not like you never gets to rehearse. After a show opens you may get a rehearsal here or there; but never with the actual cast and very infrequently. In small productions you are usually onstage, alone, with the stage manager feeding you the lines from offstage. It’s horrible.
In larger productions, like The Lion King, you get to rehearse with the other Understudies and Standbys. You, at least, get to act with other actors. Plus, you get to commiserate with other Covers who are in the same predicament. (It’s infinitely better than being alone, but you still never get to work with the “real” actors who rarely even know your name.)
So, the plight of the Understudy is usually no rehearsal and no stage time. Nope, when the time comes for you to go on they just put you in a costume, throw you onstage, and say, “Go out there and be brilliant.”
Now you might think this in itself is the worst part of being a Cover, but alas, it pales in comparison to what being a “Standby” does to your ego.
That little “asterisk” is everything.
The real plight of the Standby is not feeling like you are a part of the show you’re part of.
For example: At the Tony Awards after-party the night The Lion King won Best Musical, they took a cast photo of everyone associated with the creation of the show – everyone except the Standbys that is.
Standbys are almost never invited to sing on the cast album. Standys are rarely included in any press and never in cast photos. Standbys are often asked to do the events the “real” cast members hate to do (talk-backs with the elementary school kids from Pawtucket or the meet-n-greet with the “Octagenian Quilting Club of Peoria”). Plus, the reverse is also true. Standbys are never asked to do the fun stuff. Standbys are never asked to perform at the White House or appear on Good Morning America or sing the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium. Why would you? You are not really in the show.
And, even though you understand it is part of the job, and you know it is completely irrational, it still gets under your skin. You wish it didn’t, but it does.
But the absolute hardest thing about being a Cover, for me at least, was answering the question, “So, are you in anything right now?”
The simple answer is: “I’m a Standby at The Lion King.” But, while it’s the correct answer, what you really want to say is: “I’m in The Lion King.” But you just know what inevitably happens next: the dreaded follow-up question. In exuberant elation the person remarks, “Wow, that’s amazing! What part do you play?”
Explaining to someone that you are in the show but NOT in the show is self-esteem bruising to say the least, completely humiliating at its worst.
Oh, and that groan I was talking about earlier? You hear it backstage as well, and it crushes you.
A lot of actors hate it when someone is out just as much as the audience does. When a Cover goes on it throws a monkey-wrench into a machine that has been working just fine. Some actors just hat working with a Cover. And actors, being actors, are not very good at hiding their disappointment and displeasure. (If you’ve never heard another actor sigh in disappointment, or roll their eyes in disbelief, on stage, you are a lucky Standby indeed.)
And believe me when I tell you, if you think it’s hard performing in front of an audience that hates you, it’s ten times worse when the other actors your onstage with do too.
Then there is the judgment. EVERYONE has an opinion.
Now you can take judgment from an audience or a critic, actors are used to it. (We don’t like it, but we know it is out there.) But when the judgment comes from the cast and crew it’s really, really hard.
When you go on the first time you are given a free pass. You are allowed to drop lines, forget a prop, miss an entrance and generally suck at your performance. Nobody is expecting you to do anything but suck. After that though, all bets are off. You better be perfect. (Or be prepared to earn those groans and very harsh criticisms.) And the crew is the worst. The crew seems to think it’s their job to let you know how much you suck. Forget that you’re under-rehearsed and asked to perform under the harshest psychological pressure imaginable. Nope. It’s sink or swim baby; sink or swim.
The Cover has to have a very thick skin or they are in for a very long, miserable, run. And there have been many an actor who, under these conditions, ended up hating the job, or worse, being terrible at it. They earn every jeer from every corner of the theater. It is hell.
And lastly, for most actors, the reason you take the job in the first place is in the hopes of taking over the role. Again, no actor thinks of themselves as “Cover” material. You think you should be the one doing the part. So you take the job as Cover believing, given the chance, the powers-that-be will move you into the role when it becomes available. Historically, this happens all the time. A Cover “takes over” and becomes sole “owner” of a role on Broadway. It happened to me at Lion King (for all three roles I covered actually).
But it is just as probable that you get passed over. And that is always hard to take.
The reasons for not taking over a role are many and never easily definable. One big reason could be cost. Take my job at Lion King for example: the price tag for training a new person to learn three different roles is immense. The expense of custom making the costumes and fitting the puppets alone is enormous. It is far less expensive to hire a new actor and make him one costume and fit him to one puppet than three. Or, again in the case of the Lion King, it is very difficult to find actors who could reasonably pull off all three characters believably.
Sometimes Covers can just be too darn good at their jobs and much too valuable to “move up.” Other times it could just be the whim of the director. The point is; you can go crazy trying to figure out why you weren’t asked to take over a role. There is never a good reason not to move up a Cover, and many an amazing performer has quit a show after being passed over.
Standbys are often miserable. Months can go by and they may never even see the stage. In many cases a Standby will NEVER gone on. The job can be boring and frustrating. (At least understudies get to flex their performing muscles eight shows a week. And swings are on so often that they don’t mind the occasional night off in the dressing room.) A Standby has to learn to take solace in the fact that they are very well paid and there is a legion of actors who would kill for the job. And if you are smart and use your offstage time well it can be very rewarding. It may be true that I may have watched a lot of sports while I was offstage, but I also wrote three plays and a novel.
More to come, stay tuned for Part 3!