I was warned against being an understudy by a tutor at drama school. Apparently it’s a bad idea and it doesn’t look particularly good on your CV. But as I sat there, agentless, with a vast expanse of free time before me, it occurred to me that I’d been presented with a golden opportunity. Nine months work on a national tour, more importantly nine months pay – and how many new graduates can say they’ve entered the bottom tax bracket after their first year in the industry?
Rehearsal weeks were the most psychologically challenging and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wonder why it wasn’t me wearing the Principal’s corset. I tortured myself with questions I should have known better than to pose, worst of all – ‘Is she the Principal because she’s a better actor?’ I was feeling incredibly isolated and at 1am on the Sunday morning before I left for the tour you’d have found me sat on the doorstep of my flat in Tooting, wedged between two of my best friends, gin in hand, crying about how lonely I was about to become. Like all best friends do, they told me to get a grip. ’Think of all the things you can do!’ they said. ‘You could write that play you’ve been talking about?’ they proposed. ‘You’ll be able to read loads’ they offered. ‘You can finally start that blog!’ Renewed by the world of possibilities that lay before me I pledged to read the Bard’s cannon chronologically, write that play and send a billion emails.
Before long eight venues had passed me by and I hadn’t even finished Richard III. I watched as my fellow understudy devoured Dostoyevsky, perfected his French and learned to juggle to a standard verging on automatic entrance to the circus whilst I sent a few emails informing prospective agents about a show I may or may (probably) not appear in. Dartford became Dublin and I realised that I hadn’t done anything productive at all, at least nothing that I could pinpoint and relay to other actor friends who would ask me what I was doing with all my free time. Friends and family would come to the show and when I met them in the bar afterwards they’d look at me as though they expected me to have featured more, despite endless briefings informing them quite plainly that I would appear, mute, for five minutes. Yet still they seemed somehow disappointed, having expected the principal to have broken her leg in a dramatic accident moments before beginners and for me to suddenly appear onstage on the day they happened to be in the audience.
On a day off in Glasgow, myself and the French juggler decided to hire a car so that we could go off into the hills and climb a Munro (his idea, unsurprisingly). As we journeyed back to the city, I flicked through the photos I’d taken at the summit on my phone but found myself going back and then further back, acquiring an Instagramable vision of all the things I’d experienced whilst on tour. I’d visited castles and the crypts of cathedrals. I’d ran down the Liffey, the Avon and the Clyde. I’d sampled Guiness in Ireland and oatcakes in Stoke. I’d been to pubs with lock-ins, pool tables and dubious political allegiances. I even visited a palm-reader who told me that I’ll sign a very important work-related contract within the next year – so I’ll keep my fingers crossed for that.
In that moment, I stopped punishing myself for all those things I felt I should have been doing because the experience was proving far richer than anything I’d anticipated it could be. Uncle John will have to wait if he wants to see me in Coronation Street because we all have to start somewhere. Being an understudy isn’t what I hope to be doing in ten or even five years time – but who knows if I’ll be that lucky? Today, someone wants to pay me to do some theatre. Even if that is only for a few hours in a rehearsal every Friday, it’s a damn sight more than when I worked in Whetherspoons.
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