Student understudy experiences lead to Wirtz Center policy changes


Illustration by Gemma DeCetra

Since the pandemic, more understudies have stepped into the spotlight.

Maya Slaughter, Reporter

Due to safety concerns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, theaters everywhere have turned to understudies as a saving grace. Northwestern’s Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts recently began to standardize the incorporation of understudies and swings ― an understudy for multiple roles ― into their productions after the process dropped off pre-pandemic.

But so far, understudies have had varied experiences. 

Communication sophomore Lena Moore served as an understudy in last weekend’s production of “The Revolutionists.” She called it an exciting learning opportunity as she had never been an understudy before. 

“It’s sort of strange, because I actually wasn’t called back for the show, so I didn’t think that I was still in consideration,” Moore said. “Then, cast lists came out and I was like ‘Woah! This is exciting, this is cool.’”

Though she felt respected by the directing team, Moore said the most important part of any production process is getting feedback and playing off other actors, which are opportunities understudies don’t receive. 

Communication sophomore Gavin Shaub was an understudy for the first time in last winter’s “peerless” and performed when the lead actor tested positive for COVID-19. 

Shaub said he felt like a form of insurance for the production and lacked the preparation other actors received, as neither him nor the directing team expected him to perform. However, he said his experience was positive overall.

“It was really only stressful for the first few hours of knowing I was going to have to perform, but after that it was just exciting,” Shaub said.

Communication sophomore Alex Angrist served as one of the Wirtz Center’s first swings last winter and has since understudied eight to 10 roles in two productions.

“It was my first swing experience ever, but it was actually very pivotal,” Angrist said. “This role specifically is something that you have to learn how to do via doing it.” 

Angrist said being a swing is a mentally draining experience due to lack of guidance and needing to learn multiple roles in the show.  

Since Angrist has become involved in the Wirtz Center’s bigger productions, she said she has felt less valued: she received ill-fitting costumes and, with no safety training on the “As You Like It” set, Angrist sprained both ankles. 

She said being a swing can be ostracizing, and feeling like a part of the company is contingent on the cast making sure she feels welcome. 

“I’m all for implementing swings — I just think if (Wirtz is) going to present themselves as being very progressive and emphasizing the (importance of understudies), then they really have to commit to the bit,” Angrist said.

Moore said having guaranteed understudy performances would improve the experience, giving people more incentive to learn a role and care about their work on a deeper level. 

Shaub said this fall’s play, “Be Mean to Me,” utilized the model of including an understudy performance and was very successful.

“Spending so much time in the rehearsal room and then having nothing to show for it doesn’t feel great and should be fixed,” Shaub said.  

Moving forward, Tanya Palmer, assistant dean and executive artistic director of the School of Communication, said the Wirtz Center is trying to re-structure each year’s season calendar to include understudy performances and separate the understudy casting process from general auditions. 

Moore said she thinks this change is much more considerate of people’s time and commitment, and also suggested implementing guaranteed understudy workshops days or opportunities for feedback.

“We’re doing this with the hope that those understudies will be more self-selecting, so they don’t feel like they’ve been given third prize, but that actually it’s a choice to be part of a process in that way,” Palmer said. 

In professional theatre, being an understudy is often the first entry point for students pursuing performance opportunities, according to Palmer. She said being an understudy allows students to form a particular skill set that will give them a leg up in the industry. 

Palmer added that the experience allows students to be in the rehearsal room and form relationships with directors, other actors and theatre staff whom they might not otherwise be able to connect with. 

The three actors were ultimately grateful for the understudy experience, but would they accept an understudy role with the Wirtz Center again? For now, the answer from all three is a resounding ‘no.’

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