Understudying was always one of the hardest jobs in theatre but in 2022 it’s taken on a whole new meaning. Gone are the days when an actor might learn a role only to see the entire run go by without performing it. In the first full season back for many of Canada’s biggest theatre companies but with Covid-19 very much not behind us, understudies are more important than ever right now. This summer, Ontario’s major repertory festivals navigated tricky unprecedented ground as an intricate network of understudies and swings made sure every role was covered in case of a positive test among the company (not to mention all the usual things that can go wrong over the course of a long run). The majority of performances I saw at both the Stratford and Shaw Festivals this year had at least one understudy onstage, sometimes multiple as the last minute call-ups often caused a domino effect.
I think we’re trained to react with disappointment when we see the sign in the lobby that reads “at this performance, the role of…. will be played by…”, especially if it affects an actor we were particularly excited to see. But reviewing theatre in 2022 has completely broken me of that habit. Sure, sometimes understudies are overwhelmed and a little underprepared but, especially in the middle of a long run, sometimes that energy is exactly what the show needs. Sometimes the new actor brings something great to the role that the show was missing before. Sometimes you get to see a future star take centre stage for the first time. And even if those things aren’t true, even if all that really comes of it is that the role gets covered, I still think that’s pretty special. Within the realm of a sprawling repertory company especially, when everyone has already learned multiple roles for their own season tracks, it’s really cool to get to see an actor step up to have their colleague’s back; and I love watching how the rest of the ensemble closes rank to get them through it.
We caught up with some of the notable understudies we saw this year who took on major roles with little notice on some of the country’s biggest stages. In a year full of uncertainty, these are the people who made it possible for the show to go on.
Click Here to read the other interviews in this series.
For our next interview we return to the Shaw Festival and, specifically, the week of August 23-26. On my final review trip of the year, I was scheduled to see five productions (then I decided to throw in a return to Damn Yankees just for fun, and to see the original Joe Hardy in action after Drew Plummer’s MVP understudy run). There aren’t usually that many things left to review so late in the summer but, even though they were technically not considered part of the review-seeking mainstage season, this year I sought out as many of the Outdoor at the Shaw performances as I could (I could not get enough of those joyful concert/variety shows). As a result, I saw Kevin McLachlan do pretty much everything there is to do. He sang, he danced, he performed a scene from Shaw’s The Philanderer, he improvised, he mimed, at one point he even b-boyed. Between August 24 and 26, I saw Kevin perform in five shows in three days. He was regularly scheduled to perform in Fairground, Shawground, 1922, and Damn Yankees, which is already a lot, but, when Jason Cadieux tested positive for Covid, he was asked to throw The Doctor’s Dilemma in there as well. Suddenly here’s a musical ensemble member moonlighting in a mainstage GBS script. Normally that’s a development that might make you blink but anyone who’d seen Outdoor at the Shaw already knew Kevin was a leading man.
Here’s Kevin in his own words:
Can you tell us a little bit about your experience going on as an understudy in The Doctor’s Dilemma this season?
I got the call on Monday, about mid-morning, that Jason [Cadieux] had tested positive for COVID that day. Thankfully, I was intended to understudy him, so the reality was that that was a possibility.
We had not yet had our understudy run for that show; I had had COVID when we had done the line run, so all I had had was three hours of a rehearsal one evening with some of us talking through the blocking. We hadn’t managed to finish anything, and never gotten a run in.
I had a couple days; the first show was Wednesday, so I wasn’t too stressed, but it was definitely like, “Okay, I’m going to have to figure that one out.” Thankfully with that much time, and with the help of Andrea Schurman, the stage manager, and all the other actors, everyone was very generous in their willingness to help in whatever ways needed, and we have videos through the company website of recordings of the show that we can watch. So mostly working off that recording, I was able to get all the functional parts of it down.
It was scary and thrilling, as going on as an understudy always is; there’s something really fun about what it does to a show when an understudy’s in. Sometimes it’s more fun to not have to be the understudy, but it’s a lot of fun when an understudy goes in, because energetically, it has to change the show. Even if they are accurate in their locations and things, it’s a lot to navigate. In this case with Doctor’s, the night before, they ended up having me change some of the lines because the character references age and his time out of med school, like, “I went to med school 20 years ago!” I don’t quite look like that could be a reality so I had to shift some of those lines. In turn, it was interesting because I’m imitating a lot of the choices that someone made – in this case, Jason – and a lot of those choices will reflect that element of the script, like his age and his connection to the other characters through his age. It was a fun thing to have to try and navigate.
Understandably, you’re less prepared for your understudy role than your main track. How do you stay in the moment onstage when the technical aspects like lines and blocking aren’t yet muscle memory?
I always find that it’s easier to remember what you have to say when it’s really clear for you why you’re saying it, or who you’re saying it to. If that level of intention is there, it always makes it easier to stay in it, and stay within the text.
To some degree, there is a little bit of “Is this when I say the thing?”, and I’ve heard it joked about before for swings or understudies, that the first time you do it, you just try not to get in anyone’s way. The second time you do it, you try to do everything right, and then the third time is the time that you can start to enjoy it. I would say in some ways that’s pretty accurate. That first one always feels a little like it happens to you, instead of you being in it. Knowing the intention behind the character and those moments and those lines is a huge factor.
What was so wonderful about the show was those actors who are up there. I remember just having a moment in Act II, at the dinner party; there I am, delivering this monologue, and there’s Sanjay Talwar across from me, Allan Louis, David Adams and Sharry Flett. All these people that have had decades of career more than me, and who I have watched through the eyes of a student in so many ways; how skillful and talented they are. There was thankfully room one of those days for a moment to just think, “wow, this is such a cool moment for me as a younger actor to be sharing the stage with these people”. Because of their experience, what helped me was that they’re so present with you.
Sharry Flett – my goodness, I’m such a fan – even the way she looks at you while you’re onstage, it’s like, “Whoa, you are here”. Having that attention and care and presence made it so much easier to be like, “okay, we’ve got this”.
Because most of the understudies are going in this season because of COVID, they’re quick hits: 5, 10 days here and there. Did you ever get enough performances strung together to get into that 3-performance rhythm?
I feel like I did, because I got to do it four times that week. One of those times being the understudy run, which was funny, because I think Kristopher Bowman was in there as well. He had to go in for Sanjay on the second preview or something, so it’s always a little humorous when it’s like, “Here’s your time to practise,” and we both already had to do it for an audience. But because I got those four times, I really felt that I found my own rhythm, at least within the character and choices.
If you do make a slip-up with the technical elements of it, how do you recover?
It depends on the nature of it. If it’s your own internal slip with the text or the dialogue, and you’re able to get back on track, sometimes it just means, “Oh, I’ve inverted something because I’ve accidentally gone to the next thing,” and as you start to say it, you realize “oh yeah, I forgot to say that thing,” and you try to find a way to work it back in.
Other times, if it’s something more than blocking. The second time I did it, Jason has a moment in his drunkenness where the choice he has made is to fall and smash his head against the table, and knock some of the dishes over. There happened to be a cup of water there that I’m told is not normally there; I knocked it over, and there was water all over. Thankfully, within that scene, there’s enough time with people chatting that, in the shame of the moment, I was able to justify it, like, “I’m just going to go clean this up behind the table.” You can just tell: everyone’s eyes lightened up a little bit, like, “Oh, there’s water on the stage now, that’s not usual.” But thankfully, in that case, there was time to manage it.
Oftentimes, if it’s something that needs to happen that didn’t happen, the other actors at that point are so aware of it. [If] that chair’s actually gotta be over there, someone would just adjust it, or “shove with love”, as they say, if you’re standing in the wrong place. “Oh, you should come over here!”
How do you approach performing violence, intimacy and any other choreographed one-on-one action with another actor as an understudy?
You have to treat it the same technical and functional way: all intimacy and all violence is essentially choreography. It is set, and it must remain the same. Obviously, there’s those conversations first about everyone’s comfort level when that’s being written and developed.
Coming in as an understudy is obviously a little bit of an unexpected level, but that is the kind of thing that oftentimes on the day you would have a rehearsal to make sure it gets covered before the show, especially in front of an audience, and during the show, it’s the first time that you’re working through those moments together. Whereas a transition, for example, is something that they feel that if you’re comfortable with it, and you know what to do, a lot of the times you can be chatting, like, “Okay, now we move the table,” just saying that under your breath. [With] those intimate or violent moments, you’d have a violence call, or an intimacy call, or whatever it is beforehand, to make sure that those bases are covered and everyone knows the technical elements of that.
Were you able to attend full costume fitting before going? How are those aspects of the production prepared in the case of an understudy being needed?
I had had one fitting, and they had fit me to a couple of pieces. I imagine they had the intent to have another once they had pulled some more, but thankfully, they had all my measurements and things from the previous shows.
For the nature of this show, a lot of it was just pants and shirt. They were able to pull some items, and my suit jacket that I wore in Act I for Doctor’s is the suit jacket that I wear in Act II in Damn Yankees in the court scene, so it was funny, because some of it was like, “Oh, I know this one!” Thankfully, they had some time to figure out this stuff, and then they were able to pull things.
On my last trip to the Shaw, I saw you perform in 5 different shows in 4 days, including The Doctor’s Dilemma. How do you juggle that kind of workload and still make space for being able to fill in as an understudy if needed?
That was a week where I wouldn’t say there was a lot of time for groceries. It just so happened that that was originally scheduled as a 9-show week for me, which is unusual; usually they don’t go past 8. With those other ones, that made it like a 12-show week plus the understudy run, so basically 13 shows.
I was not highly successful at managing time perfectly, but thankfully this late into the season, I know my own shows so comfortably that to have to go do Damn Yankees and be maybe a little more tired than usual was manageable. It meant that I missed some rehearsals. I’m involved with the Directors’ Project, so I had to miss a couple of things because I was in the show.
Perhaps the craziest one was on Sunday, I want to say it was, of that week. There was a Doctor’s Dilemma at 1. It’s about 3 hours, so it came down around 4, but the character of Blenkinsop doesn’t appear in the final acts within the play, so after the intermission, I had some time. Then I do a transition with all the other actors onstage, and for the fifth final act in the artists’ studio, I don’t appear until the bows. I had a 1922 at 4 pm that day; I did the transition as the character of Blenkinsop and then I went to change for 1922, did the bows in my 1922 costume, walked offstage and basically right out to the outdoor stage to do that show, which was hilarious and wonderful.
Of course, the show was understanding that that is not typical, and they were troubleshooting ways to take me out of 1922, or find some sort of solution, but I was the one that pitched: “I think we can make it work, with the timing”. They were thankfully like, “Well, if you think you can do it!” They let me take the reins there, but that was one of the craziest days, because that was 4-5, and then my call for Yankees was 6pm. Safe to say, I slept pretty well that night.
Damn Yankees has been very memorably affected by understudies this season. As a regularly scheduled performer, can you talk a little bit about how you accommodate another actor stepping in last-minute, especially in a musical where you’re dealing with a lot of choreo and harmonies and things?
It has been a lot. Never in my life have I been in a show that’s had so much sickness, and so many injuries, and so many life factors that have contributed to it. I don’t know exactly how many shows we’ve done; we’re probably around 65, if not more by now, and we still have only done 2 performances with the full original company. [This interview was conducted in mid-September; the show closed Oct 9].
I’ve seen it twice, both times with a major understudy; first Joe then Lola.
Wild, right? Obviously you’re approaching it from a work perspective, because you’re reviewing when you’re watching – but even just for the crowd who see it more than once, they love it! Because for them, it’s like a different show every time. Sometimes this far into the season, you would hear other actors saying “the challenge I’m dealing with is keeping this show fresh”, because you’ve gotten so used to it. Not an issue this year. Everyone is keeping themselves on their toes.
You’ve talked about this a little bit from the understudy’s perspective, but in Damn Yankees, there was a domino effect with the actors, where half the people were playing roles that they weren’t normally playing. How did you accommodate that as one of the regularly scheduled performers?
Thankfully, when you are one of the regularly scheduled performers, you just go stay in your lane, in some ways. Sometimes the best thing you can do for those other actors is maintain your consistency; if they’re working off the video, make sure you are as predictable for them as possible, because they are the ones who might be two steps further to the left than they should be, because they haven’t done it before, or they haven’t done that track or what it is that they’re navigating. So finding your consistency helps a lot.
Maybe not everyone else would echo this sentiment, but I think it’s so much fun when someone else is in, because you can’t clock out in any way. You can’t settle into a scene: “oh, I’m in the back of this, and I don’t talk much, and I’m tired, and it’s Sunday.” There’s no room for that. Part of me has to be like, “Okay, they shouldn’t be that far over, so I’m going to find a casual way to, in this scene, march over and be like, “Hey, by the way, we’re over here,” or I’m in a dance number and a swing is in, but maybe a swing is covering a split track, so there’s a hole over here, so while you’re doing the choreo, it’s like, “Oh, I’m just gonna dance a little to the left so that we try and make this picture fill out a little more.”
Of course, in some ways, it is stressful because aspects of the show, like lifts, depend on other people. One of the lifts with Olivia [Sinclair-Brisbane]- she’s the reporter Gloria- for “Shoeless Joe”, when she’s singing, we lift her up and bring her back to the Senators sign. That was not my lift to do how it was originally choreographed. Then when some of the swings came on, we found that they were often paired with David Reid, or with Drew Plummer, when Drew was in, and there was a bit of a height imbalance. Adam and Connor have both come in, and have been unbelievable; I would not want to be either of them this season. Adam has done 75% of the shows, if not more. And since Connor arrived late as the second swing, there’s only two shows that he hasn’t done. He’s barely gotten to see the thing, because he’s always in it. But they’re both shorter; that was one of the solutions we had to find, with me doing that lift with him, and in turn, how does that adjust the choreo? The first time I had to do it, I’m going through mine, singing it – “Oh, shit! Lift her up!”
You try and be consistent within your thing. Funnily enough, in contrast, when you are not able to be consistent because something has to shift, there’s that playful quality and that willingness to immediately just adapt and be like “Yup, this is what it is.” There’s no shortage of actors who did that so wonderfully. Mike Nadajewski, in my opinion, steals the friggin’ show as Applegate. I just think he’s so brilliant. Elodie Gillett as Lola of course just brings something different to the role. Even if it’s all the same words, it’s the nature of her spirit. She’s also such a talent that she’s not someone who’s going to shy away from being bold, and how she does the role. And Mike in no way is stuck on the ways he’s saying things, or where he has to be to do it, especially in a role like that, when there’s two of you engaging like that. You see that there’s freedom for them to play, and someone like Mike just does that beautifully. He’s so playful and so in the moment, and you go, like, “Yeah, okay, we’re going over here while we do this.” Knowing Mike, he’ll be somehow hilarious about it, and do something clever and charming and witty. It has been crazy, and it has been so much fun.
Is there anything else we should know about understudying in general, but especially in 2022?
As we’ve been saying to everyone, there have been many years that have gone by, and many times I’ve even understudied on a show where it’s like, “Don’t worry, you probably won’t go on”. There was such a culture that existed in theatre before: unless I physically am unable to do it, I’ll do it. People would come to work sick all the time, and people would come to work nursing minor injuries.
In a lot of ways, thankfully, I think COVID has awakened us to the unnecessary nature of that mindset. We don’t have to do that. We would rather people actually get better when they get hurt, or just stay home, if you’re sick. So this year has been the year of “Oh, if you’re an understudy, you’re going on.” Especially with the length of the run here, the length of the season, and how long a lot of the shows play for. Know it sooner in the run, because you’re gonna have to go on.
The way the schedule works here, it’s so complex. Once Doctor’s opened, it was four and a half weeks or something before my understudy run came up. That used to be a safety net. I was like, “Well, probably not before the understudy run,” and now it’s like, “Look, if that show is running, try and learn your lines”.
At the same time, the silver lining of it is, it’s such a joy to get to do an understudy. It’s such a luxury to get to step into a show, and it’s been crafted so carefully: put those clothes on for a few performances. I think it has showcased some of the people in the company this year so brilliantly, [with] Drew being such a great example of that [in Damn Yankees], in my opinion. Drew is such a wonderful actor, and such an unbelievable voice. I love James [Daly], and I think James does the role brilliantly, and it is very much his role, and I think it was creatively cast. But then there’s my friend Drew getting to do it, and do it so brilliantly. I know he’s that good, because I’ve rehearsed a bunch of things with him, and I’ve seen the offers he makes in the room, but it’s such a luxury to talk to the patrons and hear people get to discover that. They don’t know he can sing like that.