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.
First up is Drew Plummer, the leading man of 2022’s great understudy narrative. A team player who’s been underused in the Shaw Festival musical chorus for a few years now, Drew found himself unexpectedly taking over the principal role of Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees before the show even opened. The rare 2022 understudy whose run had nothing to do with Covid, Drew was called up when James Daly was injured during previews. Though James was well enough to perform in less physical roles (he was still in A Year with Frog & Toad), it’d be months before he could execute the choreography to lead the mainstage musical. Because his understudy run was so long, because the timing meant that it was actually Drew whom most reviewers saw play the character, and frankly because he would have been perfect casting in the first place, Joe Hardy might well be remembered as a Drew Plummer role. James returned mid-run and Drew finished out the season in the featured role of teammate Vernon but the many people who got to see him play Joe will always remember Damn Yankees for its not-so-temporary leading man, the bright-eyed upstart with the swoon-worthy voice who inspired many a home run metaphor.
Here’s Drew in his own words:
Can you walk us through how you found out you’d be going on as Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees?
I believe I went on in an evening performance for Damn Yankees, for my first show; I would’ve woken up to a text message from my stage manager, probably around 9 am, essentially letting me know that I was going on. Luckily, we had just finished all of our understudy rehearsals. Even though it was pretty early on; we were still in previews. Often, your understudy rehearsals aren’t finished until somewhere around opening and a little bit after opening, so we were lucky enough that the theatre had scheduled all those understudy rehearsals thoroughly.
We’d just finished our understudy rehearsals, so that text message, scary as it was – I had done it maybe a week and a half earlier, so I felt safe, comfortable, all of those things. It wasn’t too scary. But as you can imagine, there’s never an easy way to react to that text in the morning. I definitely shot straight up in my bed and was like, “Okay. It’s happening, it’s happening!” Shot straight out of my bed, jumped in the shower, ate breakfast really quick, and then jumped right into my book to make sure I had everything memorized.
How are understudies usually prepared before you know you’re going on?
That depends. We’re quite fortunate here to have a lengthy rehearsal process, for the most part, so understudies get quite a bit of time to watch scenes, and learn music, and learn our lines ahead of time. COVID has certainly changed the parameters in which theatres are hiring extra performers, in terms of swings and understudies; before COVID, there was a limited amount of swings and understudies in a lot of the regional theatres, so oftentimes you might be asked to step up out of nowhere, with no rehearsal, not even knowing that was part of your responsibility. That is very scary, and takes a very specific type of person to be able to do it. But we’re very fortunate here to have time built into the schedule for us to rehearse.
We get a blocking rehearsal, which is usually around 4 hours. We get choreography, which is usually around 4 hours, and then you’ll get a run. More and more, we’re able to have the majority of the original cast in the run, and only a few understudies. Usually, you’ll have a run A and a run B, so I would play my ensemble track in one of the runs, and then my understudy role in the other run. That just helps us to have even more of an opportunity to become familiar. With Damn Yankees; for example, Kimberley Rampersad was my Lola when I got to do the understudy run, so we were fortunate enough to have that.
What was the process like on the day? You said you ran it through to make sure you had everything memorized, but were you able to go in early and practise with anyone?
Yup! Again, the theatre is amazing; because we’re often cross-cast, they had an Importance of Being Earnest rehearsal that afternoon. So the theatre pulled all the actors out of Earnest rehearsal to come do an emergency rehearsal onstage, for me. But at that point, as I said, I had already done it a week earlier, so I knew I felt confident in everything I had to do.
The most exciting part for me was the costumes. That’s oftentimes not a part of your understudy rehearsal. It can be, if you ask for it, but for me it’s oftentimes specifically easier to just focus on where you’re standing, what you’re saying, what you’re singing; to focus on that aspect of it, and also the safety.
In Damn Yankees we have a double revolving stage, so things are spinning, things are coming in from the ceiling, doors are closing – you don’t want to be standing in the wrong place onstage and offstage. “Okay, so after you come offstage in this specific moment, you have to run upstage, but you have to wait for the wall to completely close or else you’ll get hit by it.”
But the wardrobe department here is amazing. In our fittings for our understudy costumes, they had taken pictures of us. They were so great, and had printed all of those pictures, so I didn’t even have to read on a sheet what I was supposed to put on. It was just right there for me: a picture of what I was wearing, so I could look at the costume rack and go, “Great, I can put all of these things on for this scene.” You don’t have to spend time worrying what a maroon waistcoat is out of a collection of clothing, so that was really helpful. During the run of the show, the wardrobe running department – who are dressers – are so great. They drag you around with love, exactly where you need to be. I would say the costume was certainly the most exciting part of going on for the first time.
So you’d already had your fittings, and they had costumes for you. Where do these costumes come from, do they make a full set of costumes for each understudy?
Oftentimes, they try and steal as much as they can from your original track so they’re not having to source brand new clothes. A lot of the costumes were from my original track, which was great, because I knew they fit. I knew what they were, and then there were some pieces they had to build specifically for my understudy track. My suit that I wear in Act II, I think they built that suit from scratch.
Usually what they do is build all of the main ensemble roles first, the original tracks, and then they’ll start to build all the understudy tracks. So sometimes, not here, but in the past, there have certainly been instances where I’m the one calming down the wardrobe department. When we were doing Grease in downtown Toronto, that was certainly the case, because I get to do the understudy runs. I’m prepared in that respect, [but] sometimes it can very much be a shock for them.
Understandably, as an understudy, you’re less prepared for the technical aspects than you normally would be. When you’re actually in the show, how do you stay in the emotional moment when things aren’t yet muscle memory? You’re having to think about moving stage right and remembering your next line.
For me personally, it almost feels like I’m in a video game. It’s an out-of-body experience for sure, and it’s a very logistical and tactical experience, as opposed to an emotional experience, for the first few times I went on. Again, as an understudy, your job is to make sure that everyone is safe onstage, and that the show continues as normally for everyone else as possible, while still obviously giving a grounded and genuine performance yourself. So the first few times, it’s certainly for me about making sure you’re standing in the right place, saying the right lines, and you’re not causing a safety concern for other people onstage by going off the wrong wing, and all of those technical elements.
As we progressed, and as we found out that I was going to be staying on for a little bit longer, it slowly just becomes second-nature, and you start to really relax and enjoy the experience. Not to say that the first few times aren’t enjoyable, but it’s hard to remember those because it is such an adrenaline high that you leave the stage and just go, “Whoa, okay, well – what did I do wrong, or what are things I can improve on?” as opposed to really taking in the full moment of what just happened. It’s very much a more logistical brain that takes over for me in those moments.
Most understudies in 2022 are covering because of COVID, but you were covering an injury so, as you’ve mentioned, you were in for a pretty long time. How long did that end up being, and was there a point at which 1) you knew how long it would be definitively and when you’d be done and 2) you started to feel that it was fully your own, that you had rehearsed it fully?
I was on for around two months. I also opened the show, and so I would say, after opening, certainly, was when things started to become more comfortable. Opening night in general is always more of a jarring experience for actors as much as it is a grand experience and exciting. It’s one of those moments where a lot of your friends and family are in the audience, a lot of your agents, a lot of prominent industry professionals are there, and so it always feels a little bit odd to do that performance. Everything feels heightened.
To do that as an understudy was all the more heightened, but I was lucky to have quite a few performances under my belt at that point. Then having to attend all of the dinners, all of the special events afterwards as the understudy; I was very grateful to have had that experience.
At the same time, I feel for my friend [James Daly] who was injured. I think the industry’s slowly changing their view on understudies; originally it was, “Oh great, you can understudy this person. If they get hurt or if they get sick, that’s your chance, that’s your shot.” Now it’s slowly turning into “Oh, that’s my friend that is hurt or sick. I want them to come back, and I want them to be able to enjoy the role that they were cast in. I’m glad that I get the opportunity.” Certainly for me, that’s how it was, and I’m glad he got to come back.
We had an amazing little transition period where, because of COVID, we were doing a lot of concert versions of the show. That gave him a great opportunity to come back and sing through the show, and speak the lines with his castmates again, for me to go back in the ensemble and remember all of that, which was also another transition to go back, after two months of leading the show. After opening was when it started to become quite comfortable, and I started to really feel like, as much as I am doing the blocking and saying the lines – and sometimes saying the lines in the way that the original Joe had said them – it was becoming more and more my own.
Can you tell us a little bit more about that relationship with James, whom you were performing with in Frog and Toad at the same time? How did you go about navigating that relationship?
James is a wonderful guy. From the very beginning, he knew that I was his understudy, so from the very beginning in rehearsals, he said, “Whatever you need at any moment, just let me know. If you want to talk through scenes about why we blocked things or directed things in a certain way, let me know.” So when he got injured, it was an amazing opportunity, and he really was so gracious – obviously, that’s out of his control – and we were able to chat about a few things.
Our director was still around because he was staying till opening, and we hadn’t opened the show yet, so him and I were able to get in a room together and work through all of the things that I would have missed when I was rehearsing my own track, and James and Kimberley were rehearsing, just the two of them. James and I, we go way back. We have been understudying each other- he understudied me in Flush last year with a puppet. It’s one thing to understudy in your own body, and then another thing to understudy having to control a fully mechanical lifelike puppet marionette- So we’ve certainly been going back and forth, and have a good relationship in that respect. There was no ego involved with it. It’s what’s best for the show, and what’s best for everyone onstage, and James was so gracious in helping me with all of that.
You’ve mentioned this a little bit, but can you talk about the emotional and technical experience of transitioning back to Vernon and the ensemble track?
There was a period of about a week and a half where James would come in and do the concert version. We had enough cast members to do a full show, so I would step back in; it always remained in my body, but I had to check to make sure that I knew it in my brain before I went back, just to double-check.
Once we confirmed James was back in the role, I was able to sit out for two shows. One show I watched from the house with the audience and took notes. As you can imagine, things change throughout the run of the show slightly, and I wanted to make sure that what was in my body was correct, and safe for everyone else onstage. Then I watched from backstage and followed Connor Lucas; he had been swinging in for my track for the majority of the time I was on for James, so I followed him around to make sure I knew all the costume changes, where I was going, the safety of it all. I had a quick little 15-20 minute music rehearsal with Paul Sportelli, our music director: double-checking all the harmonies, making sure I’m singing the right vocal part, and then we were back in. It was a really exciting experience.
Throughout the run of a season, sometimes the show can become a little lethargic, especially in the summer, where it’s warm. I mean that on a very minute scale: we will still give our full performance every single night, but I think the constant shifting around of roles for all of us has kept the show really alive and exciting throughout the whole process. It has to be; if you do let all of the understudies start getting to you, and all the additional work and mental strain that it puts on all departments, it can become quite frustrating. But the cast is such a great group of people, and have been able to persevere in such a beautiful way and use this as an opportunity to rejoice in the fact that new people are in different roles all the time. That constantly brings a certain amount of new life to the show throughout the run of a long season, which I certainly felt when I got to come back into the ensemble. I got to see all my friends again, my baseball player friends, and as Joe Hardy, you don’t get to see them as much. There’s a few scenes where you get to see them, but not in the same way. It was nice.
Is there anything else you experienced that you think we should know?
As much as the audience will just see me go on as the understudy, there are hundreds of people also working to make the show happen when an understudy goes on, in a capacity that they wouldn’t normally work. The stage management has been amazing and has been our number one guide for safety, to make sure everything is safe. Our dance captain, Jade Repeta, has been unbelievable. It seems like every single day she has to create a whole new track for certain people, to make sure everything’s safe. Wardrobe, lighting, and especially sound design have been swopping in and out mics for different people, and having to remember all these different cues.
It is a huge team effort when someone goes on for an understudy, just how grand the scope is of what we’re doing. As much as it may seem that it is me ultimately bringing that forward, there is a full team behind me that is supporting me. Here at the Shaw Festival, they’ve been amazing at making sure that that team themselves have support so that we can bring the best show we can to our audience.