“Congratulations! We’d like to offer you the role of off-stage understudy. You will be covering both female tracks, which have about 10 different characters between them.”
“And it’s a new show, so it’s very much still in development.”
And thus, I was reminded once again that the only constant is change.
Let’s backtrack to June of this past year, when I auditioned for a new musical that is now taking London by storm: Police Cops the Musical. Written by three hilariously talented guys, different versions of Police Cops have been Edinburgh Fringe staples for the last seven years. And in 2022, they decided to make it a musical. Though there have been different play iterations of the show over time, this is a new version; new score, new choreography, new cast. From day one, I could tell this would be a different experience to what I’d known in the past.
Let me first explain what an off-stage understudy is, though it really is exactly as it sounds. Known in North America as a standby, it is my job to learn both female lead parts without having my own track in the show. This means, that unless there is illness or vacation, I spend most of my time backstage. This contract specifically had two parts: a four-week run at the Edinburgh Fringe before transferring to the Southwark Playhouse in London, England for a five-week run. And we will be starting up again for another seven weeks on March 1st 2024.
Swings, standbys, and understudies are the actor backbones of the industry. Without these unsung heroes, shows would be getting cancelled left, right and center. But it is not the most glamorous job. I would argue that any cover track has to do double the work, without the rewards that often come with being a lead. They will not be in the promotional videos or the production photos, and often have to fill character choices that were made for another actor. More so, an off-stage understudy has to be ready to go on stage at a moment’s notice, with minimal rehearsal. It’s pretty incredible.
Though I had understudied in the past, I’d never done it from backstage. This requires a whole other level of skill and tact. What I found most difficult of all was staying in the dressing room most nights as the other actors made their way to the stage. Let’s be honest, no one auditions for a show hoping they’ll spend their evening in the wings. We want to be on stage!
But in other ways, being an off-stage understudy is incredibly rewarding. What a thrill to be able to jump in last minute (sometimes mid-show!) and give it your own spin. Even switching between roles night to night is exhilarating; trying to remember what side of the stage you need to be on, what costume you have to quick change into. Realizing you’re confusing your tracks and swapping them around. I acknowledge it’s not for everyone, but the stationary-highlighter lover in me thrives on how it works my brain. And if I’m being honest, it’s an honor that the Police Cops team trust me enough to leave both roles in my care.
Now let’s talk about what it means to be a standby at the fringe.
It is an incredible experience. Edinburgh is known for its world-renowned festivals, and this is no exception. As August approaches, the city becomes alive. All of a sudden, everything is a theatre; classrooms, alleyways, even pubs. Giant show posters cover every surface as food vendors take to the sidewalks and street performers attract massive crowds. It really is magical.
More so, the fringe is known for its ingenuity and creativity. Artists flock from all over the world to perform their shows, and nothing is too far-fetched. It is a beautiful tapestry of wild, weird, and colorful. It is a place where it is not only acceptable to push boundaries but encouraged. And Police Cops definitely does that.
The show itself highlights British humor at its finest, balancing that fine line between The Book of Mormon, Brooklyn 99, and South Park. It is silly, fast-paced, and so, so funny. The five actors portray an insane number of characters throughout the show, while maintaining stellar vocals and choreography at the same time.
No easy feat for a standby.
In rehearsals, I was overwhelmed at how everything was constantly changing. In fact, things changed consistently throughout the entire three-month run. Jokes were rewritten, gags were restaged, harmonies shifted. Thus is the challenge of a new show. As an off-stage understudy, things move quickly. An actor might be given a note quickly while on stage to save time, and that change might not get passed down to me. It is impossible to always have the most up-to-date information. For example, our male understudy performed early on with very little warning, and realized he hadn’t gotten the new dialogue that had changed the night before! Our Act One finale got cut halfway through our time in Edinburgh, to be replaced with a different song three weeks later in London. It was difficult for me to accept that I wasn’t always going to have all the information right away.
At the fringe, there are multiple shows running in every venue every day. To keep this operating smoothly, strict guidelines are set to maximize space and time. This means you need to “get in” and “get out” before and after the show. The actors and technical team are required to load all the set pieces and props into the theatre for the show, perform, and then take everything back out. Because Police Cops ran 90 minutes without intermission, we had 2 hours and 45 minutes total in the space. 45 minutes to get in, 30 to leave. It requires military precision and a set system, to be followed every night.
In the fringe space, every actor was also responsible for their own props and costumes. They had four boxes each: two on each side of the stage, to be organized in order of use. There was no time during the show to leave the wings, so everything was pre-set backstage. As a standby, it was my job to keep track of every bit so I would know how to set it up when I went onstage. And oh my goodness, Police Cops has A LOT of props. I found making lists the most helpful way to keep track of it all, so I had an easy reference with all the information when I needed it.
Over our three-month run in Edinburgh and London, I performed around ten times in both tracks, twice being thrown on mid-show. Though it is less common, it is possible that an actor will tire during the show, be it for vocal, physical or emergency reasons. When this happened to me in Edinburgh, the producer decided not to show-stop. I had about six minutes to throw on my costume and microphone and get in the zone. In this instance, I had never even done the track before in show context! Bigger West End shows have time to schedule “put ins” (a practice version of the whole show for the understudies without an audience), but that is not a luxury the fringe experience can provide. I ran on stage for the first time and prayed I’d remember my lines. The audience was incredibly supportive when they realized what had happened and it was an adrenaline rush like no other.
Like any other job, being an off-stage understudy has its pros and its cons. It is not for the faint of heart, and I learnt an insane amount during the process, not only as a performer, but as a person as well. To be a good standby is to be calm, prepared, organized, selfless, and humble. I also learnt that some of those qualities come to me easier than others. When you do get your moment to finally step into the light though, it is crazy rewarding.
So, cheers out there to all the swings, standbys, alternates, understudies, and whatever else you want to call them. Never underestimate the people in the wings because you can guarantee they are working harder than ever to give the audience a show of a lifetime.