Understudies
Understudy Renee Wilson (right) as Fayola Ogunleye in Nollywood Dreams at Round House Theatre, along with Ayamma Okafor as Ernaisja Curry (l) and Gbenga Ezie as Yao Dogbe; Credit: Margot Schulman Photography

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Shakespeare Theatre Company’s recent production of Our Town had understudies perform in every one of its 33 shows. “By the time we had six understudies performing for full audiences, it was a madhouse,” says Quinn Johnson, an understudy who acted in the all-local production. “But it’s kind of amazing. You stand backstage, and there’s this calm that happens.” Johnson credits the work of Stage Manager Joe Smelser and Director Alan Paul for keeping together this would-be madhouse, which drew strong reviews from the Washington Post and DC Theater Arts that name-checked its understudy stars.

Even with stringent safety precautions in place at D.C. theaters, including regular COVID testing and COVID compliance officers hired to enforce health and safety protocols, many shows have been forced to miss several performances or, in some cases, close completely. In December, Arlington’s Signature Theatre canceled its pre-Broadway production of KPOP, The Musical, scheduled to play at the Anthem, due to pandemic-related logistical challenges. And shortly after opening night, Anacostia Playhouse canceled its monthlong run of A Snowy Nite at the Dew Drop Inn. Before December was up, Signature was again forced to close its production of Rent for 10 days after multiple cast members fell ill. More recently, the Olney Theatre Center’s bilingual production of The Music Man delayed its opening by 10 days in mid-June due to a COVID outbreak, and Studio Theatre was forced to end its world premiere run of John Proctor Is the Villain several days early due to a breakthrough case

Understudies have kept closures, missed productions, and delayed runs from happening more often, allowing shows to continue and theaters to stay open. Multiple artistic directors at local playhouses say understudies are responsible for saving shows.

“I would consider them the theatrical equivalent of superheroes,” says Shakespeare Theatre’s Casting Director Danica Rodriguez. “This job is not easy. Sometimes understudies are learning three roles at once, and often don’t know if they are going on until a few hours before [the show].”

The need for understudies has meant increased staffing at theaters that wasn’t required pre-COVID. Round House Theatre’s Artistic Director Ryan Rilette tells City Paper via email, “this used to be something that only the largest theaters/largest shows used consistently. It’s now becoming standard at even mid-sized theaters like ours.”

In June, the Bethesda theater was spared a week of canceled performances of its Nollywood Dreams production when Renee Wilson understudied for lead actor Yetunde Felix-Ukwu, who tested positive for COVID. Wilson, an alum of D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, stepped in to play the character of Fayola Ogunleye, a former Nollywood star.

Before the pandemic, Wilson says theater companies gave her the coaching and direction she needed to successfully step in as an understudy. She says she has received even greater support since the pandemic. “We ended up getting a dialect coach,” she says of Round House’s efforts to ensure her success as Fayola. Cast members ran lines with her on breaks, and the entire team “did everything they could to be sure I could absorb the role,” explains Wilson, who starred in the show’s preview performances.

And understudies aren’t just stepping in for those infected with COVID. As the pandemic has recalibrated how we balance work and personal life, understudies allow for more flexibility. Rodriguez likens their role to an insurance policy.

“I think that the idea of the show must go on has been broken down a little bit, and I think there’s more recognition for humanity in our spaces,” she says. “[Previously], there was a constant feeling of a grind and pushing and pushing.”

With added understudy support, if a cast member needs to take a mental health day to rest or help an ailing family member, they don’t have to worry about closing down the show.

Matthew Gardiner, Signature’s artistic director, points to additional reasons why theaters have come to understand just how crucial understudies are to any given production. They are essential workers able to step in when parents need to leave shows due to COVID shutdowns at schools, and they are ready to fill in when an actor needs a personal day. “It’s not just about you having an ailment or an illness that has you calling out of a show,” Gardiner says, emphasizing the need to protect workers’ mental health as well as their physical health.

Pre-pandemic, many regional theaters like Olney didn’t have understudies or had them only for musicals. The added cost of hiring and rehearsing understudies is daunting, but worth it. Olney’s Artistic Director Jason Loewith says via email that they’re shouldering those costs to serve audiences and keep shows onstage. Since resuming performances last fall, Olney has added understudies, when possible, to non-musicals and doubled the number of understudies for musical productions, as they did with The Music Man

“Understudies have saved the day for us many a time since last fall,” Loewith says. “Nonetheless, even double coverage isn’t enough, and COVID has forced us to cancel upwards of 20 performances this season at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Loewith points to the theater’s most recent production of The Music Man. Before the show opened, a single performer infected five others at a June dress rehearsal. Even with four understudies, they had to cancel 10 shows and delay opening night.

The financial balance of bringing on more, or any, understudies is still precarious though, as additional factors tax playhouse budgets. Gardiner says inflation and a strained labor force is impacting the cost of producing live theater. Additionally, Gardiner says, “We’re dealing with an audience that is not coming back as quickly as we’d like.” 

For actors, however, the need for added understudies has created more jobs within the competitive industry, which is especially reassuring during the aforementioned inflation. “Since the pandemic, there are theaters who are looking for understudies who weren’t before, so more opportunities arose,” says Wilson, who stepped in for Nollywood Dreams. She also had the chance to prepare as an understudy for the Arena Stage production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars last December. Though she was never called to perform in that show, she says the opportunity to work at Arena is a “D.C. actor’s dream.”

Theater fans also benefit from the work of understudies. These “dynamic and courageous performers,” as Rodriguez refers to them, make it possible for audiences to see live shows again after theaters closed in 2020 and 2021. Loewith agrees. “These performers are true heroes who, through grit and determination and hard work and talent, perform complicated roles with minimal rehearsal for a paying audience. It’s a very tough job, and I’m glad they’re finally getting their due.”

The sense of mutual appreciation extends to the relationship between understudies and lead actors. Wilson and Johnson echo a shared experience, that, as understudies, the chance to perform is a wonderful opportunity, but carries the weight of having watched lead performers rehearse for weeks, then get sidelined. Johnson was amazed to see colleagues return to the stage after sitting out for two weeks due to COVID and then turn in astounding performances.

“It’s really inspiring, and it created a community where we could very seriously rely on one another to step in,” says Johnson, who notes that sharing the stage with fellow understudies and lead actors in Our Town allowed audiences to see this camaraderie in action. “That was the whole idea. The director, Alan, told us quite often that the show is about community,” Johnson says.

Theater in the time of COVID continues to demand that artistic directors adapt to ever-changing conditions and shoulder the costs of keeping performances running. Leaning on an increased corps of understudies is now considered money well spent: It keeps theaters open, actors employed, and audiences in seats.