Being an understudy in a pantomime is an experience which can be daunting, stressful, exciting and fun all at the same time! Now I’m no expert, however I have taken on the understudy role in two pantomimes, and feel that my experience has taught me to better prepare myself for performing work I have done since being an understudy, and work I may do in the future.
If you are new to a pantomime you may start out in the ensemble. You will be in crowd scenes and dance numbers, and may possibly have a speaking part. You will also more than likely be expected to understudy principle roles. I feel that beginning your pantomime life in the ensemble is a great way to learn about the art of panto, and there’s a lot to be learned about “the business” in general – which you can gain from your experience within this job and any performing job you pursue.
Day one of rehearsals. After the initial meet & greet and a cup of tea, everyone will be given a script. Some scripts are given out a couple of weeks prior to starting rehearsals – if this is the case and you know which parts you will be understudying, I recommend that you get as familiar with the text as possible, as the rehearsal process may be short, changes may occur fast and often, and it’s always good to be prepared. With regards to the changes and positioning in each scene – ensure you are present in the rehearsal room when possible, and take note of these changes so you can apply them to the role when it comes to your rehearsal time on each character. This will show that you are taking your job seriously, and intend to execute it with efficiency. After the “ice has been broken”, there will be a full read- through attended by the cast, creative team, director and stage management team. This ensures that everyone understands the plot/dialogue, and also helps give an idea of set, lighting and staging.
Learning lines. There are many different techniques that people use to get words in their heads. Personally, if I repeat lines over and over out-loud, I can usually pick them up quite quickly, and I’m very grateful for this! Other actors like to write their lines down if they have a photographic memory, so they can picture the words. Experience will help you decide which technique works best for you, but another piece of advice I’d like to give, especially if your role is to understudy many parts, is to become familiar with each scene in it’s entirety. This means you will know how the conversation flows as a whole, which I find also helps with the learning.
The trick then is to remember which characters say which lines. It may help to highlight each character’s lines in a different colour, or even have a separate script for each part you are understudying. This way you can write all the characters’ movements, entrances and exits, positions, and any other notes that may be relevant, onto each individual script, which will make it easier to read and follow. This will also be a huge help when you are “on” for a character, as you can have that particular script in the wings and can therefore refer to it between scenes. Remember also that you as an ensemble member may have a speaking part, so be sure you prioritise and learn your own lines first!
Once all of the lines are in your head, the staging is set and dance routines are choreographed – it’s time for opening night! This is where all of your understudy work pays off, right?! Well, no not exactly. Despite the fact that you have learned several different roles, there is no guarantee that you will ever “go on” as the characters you are understudying. Most performers (quite rightly) will only send their understudy on if they are very ill or have seriously injured themselves, so don’t get your hopes up if someone walks in with a sniffle! You can’t help the urge to want to “go on” – this is the most competitive business in the world and we all crave the spotlight. However you must enjoy your role within the ensemble and focus on that, whilst keeping on top of your other duties should the need arise for you to play one of the other characters
Last year I was part of the cast of ‘Snow White’, understudying Prince Michael. During the run I was lucky enough to “go on” as him for four performances. Thankfully, it wasn’t a “spur of the moment” decision and I was told a day in advance, which gave me a chance to ensure I was ready. This, however, is not always the case, and you should be prepared and comfortable enough to play any role at a moment’s notice. If you are always seen to be ready it will put everyone at ease, and will really up your status as an understudy. On my first Prince Michael performance day, everyone was called in early for a staging rehearsal to make sure I was comfortable with the character’s movements etc. The rehearsal went well and before I knew it, the audience were in their seats and it was time to raise the curtain! During the show I found the cast so supportive – they all pulled together to make sure I was relaxed and confident! There were a few minor hiccups, but nothing too noticeable, and to be honest it all added to the comedy of the show, which is another beauty of pantomime! I was so grateful for my fellow colleagues’ support, and I think they were thankful, in turn, that I was prepared and had taken my job role so seriously.
So there we have it – my views, tips and experiences of being an understudy in a pantomime. This year I will be giving the understudy reins to another performer as I take on the role of Buttons in Cinderella. It will be strange only focusing on one part, as I’m so used to knowing everyone’s track…that said I’ve no doubt that habit will ensure I am familiar with all other roles and lines as well as my own! One of the greatest advantages of being an understudy is that you will learn to always be prepared, which is a tool in itself – one that I am very happy to have acquired, and that I will always use whilst I am in this business.
Enjoy every minute of your time in the ensemble and as an understudy – take every bit of experience you can from it, and from any job you are lucky enough to get. A career in performing can be daunting, exciting, unexpected and exhilarating all at the same time – just some of the reasons why I and so many others have chosen it. I feel we should take all the emotions that come with the career, learn something from every experience, and enjoy the ride! We are part of an industry that can “take people away” from their day to day lives and transport them somewhere magical…and that is why I love being in this world of performing, and feel so lucky to be part of it!
Training: LCPA Theatre credits include: "Louis" in Piaf, "Riff" in West Side Story and "Bill Sykes" in Oliver (Curve Theatre); "Archibald craven" in The Secret Garden, "James Farrell" in Unsinkable, "Alfie Doolittle" in My Fair Lady and "Hindley" in Gypsy Blood (Leatherhead Theatre); "Old Deutoronomy" in Cats (National Indoor Arena); "Robbie Hart" in The Wedding Singer (Peepul Centre); "Ensemble" in The Wizard of Oz (Haymarket Theatre); "Mark" in A Chorus Line and "Finch" in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (IAC studios); "Bertie" in Bertie and Boo (London Tour). Film credits include: "Brad" in The Bully (Espresso Productions); "Sam" in Teenage Kicks (BBC); "Chris Smith" in Mission Control (Assas Productions). Pantomimes include: "Ensemble" in Peter Pan (Stockport Plaza); "Ensemble" in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Grand Pavillion Porthcawl); "Dame Mother Goose" in Mother Goose and "Wishee Washee" in Aladdin (UK Tours) Sean has spent the last 7 months performing in the Greek island of Crete as a lead vocalist for the luxury Sensatori Resort Hotel.