My first understudy experience was in college. I got a call one Saturday afternoon that one of my friends had been taken to the hospital overnight, and they needed someone to fill in for her as Casket Bearer #3 in The Merchant of Venice, and could I do it? I replied, "Of course," because one never turns down a performance opportunity if one can help it. I was sent to the costume shop at 2:00pm that afternoon where the amazing Miss Vicky fit me, they wrote my one line on the casket I would be carrying, told me "follow Casket Bearer #2," and "speak loudly." And I went on that night at 8:00pm. This was, incidentally, my first mainstage experience in college as well, and I've joked that ever since then, stage fright hasn't really been a thing for me.
Fast forward to a week ago Wednesday (six days ago), when my very dear friend in New York learned that one of her cast members landed an episodic television show, that meant she now had conflicts with first preview and opening night. As I happened to be there helping my very dear friend build the set that day, my very dear friend asked if I could be on standby in the event that the television show filming did, in fact, mean that her actress would not be there for first preview and opening night. I said, "Of course," because one never turns down a performance opportunity if one can avoid it. And I instantly then thought to myself, "Oh, f%@&, first preview is in two days and I don't know this show at all. Please, dear sweet Jebus, let the actress be available on Friday night."
Well, she wasn't. The film schedule meant I got a text at approximately 3:00pm on Friday saying I would be going on in her place that evening. I had spent the previous two evenings studying like crazy woman, cramming eight scenes of verse text into my brain - some new, some I already knew from having done Hamlet three times before - but that didn't stop my heart from pounding so hard, I could have sworn the audience could hear it. I arrived at the theatre a little bit early, walked through the blocking while saying the lines, put on my make up, put up my hair, and took my place alongside the rest of the cast when my very dear friend called "places" at 8:00pm. Forty-seven hours and thirty-five minutes after receiving the script, I took the stage.
And it went well. I was terrified and nervous and felt like I had cotton mouth through the whole show. But to my surprise, the words all came out in the right order and at the right time. I walked onto the stage exactly where the lights expected me to be. My costume progression throughout the show worked exactly as it should have. And before I knew it, the show was over and had gone off without a hitch. The audience loved it, and several of them told me after the fact that they never would have guessed I'd only had the script for two days.
It feels strange to write about this, like I'm bragging, which I don't mean to be. I will say, I don't think it's every day that someone steps into a new verse play with two days of preparation and minimal actual rehearsal, and nails the performance. Maybe I'm wrong in thinking that, but it feels like I accomplished something. It feels like I proved to myself that I can be a "next level performer," whatever that means. I have the artistic skill and the technical skill to play with the big boys, so to speak. And while I was completely exhausted and emotionally drained by the time the show was done, it felt amazing to throw myself into something like that, to challenge myself like that, and come out on the other end a success.
Thank you, to my very dear friend, who had the faith in me to ask me to take on this crazy project, and who took pictures from the booth to make sure I would have something to remember it by. Thank you to the amazing playwright who wrote such a gorgeous, intuitive, poetic script that was a joy to immerse myself in for a couple of days. Thank you to the director for trusting me to just go with it and do the best I could. Thank you to the amazing, supportive, crazy-talented cast for letting me play with them. And thank you to the amazing, supporting first preview audience who came and showered this production with love. It was a night and an accomplishment I'm not soon to forget.