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