Originally published in The Stage, February 2016
When Melissa Bayern put herself forward to understudy the role of the Witch in Into the Woods at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, the story fulfilled a theatrical fairytale. It’s the 42nd Street myth of going out a youngster but coming back a star. Bayern had spent three years training, and had – significantly – played the role of the Witch at drama school, which allowed her to step in with only five hours of rehearsal.
We’ve all been in the audience for the announcement “due to the indisposition of [insert star’s name here] the role of… will be played by…” and we’ve all witnessed the collective groan of the audience. To be an understudy can sometimes feel like a thankless task: the theatrical equivalent of ‘always the bridesmaid never the bride’, of having to be ready to go on at a moment’s notice, but potentially never going on. It can be a job where you are employed not to do what you are trained to do and can be a dispiriting experience. Many understudies have their own projects on the go.
Take David Nicholls, who during a stint understudying for the National Theatre started to take on freelance script-reading, as well as writing his own scripts, the first of which was optioned by the BBC. Nicholls’ experience no doubt fed into his novel The Understudy.