Always, Always an Understudy

“That was great! Really, really good audition. We’ll get in touch.”

Yep, you got that right. This is the misleading statement that causes performers a great deal of false hope and a lot of overwhelming frustration. Don’t take it personally, though. It’s not because you’re not talented enough to play the lead—in fact you are, that’s why they’re giving you the role of—hold on, are you ready?—the understudy, also known as martyrs of the stage. One who studies every single note and blocking, the same as the actual lead, but almost never gets their share of the spotlight. But hey, not too shabby for a start! Unless, you know, you’ve been in the business for who knows how long and are still not getting a mic on your forehead. Well, in that case, yours is an entirely different story.

The thing is there can be a lot of factors to explain why you’re still where you are. Some of them take root in you personally as a performer while others simply rely on the preferences of the production. Here are some possible reasons why you might have been cast as an understudy.

1. You need more preparation.

Show business is an extremely competitive field—especially for actors and performers. Even if you think you already have the edge, or the ‘X factor,’ as they say, that every director in town seems to be looking for, there may also be a 99% chance that someone out there has it too. I guess what I’m saying is that everyone who’s auditioning for the same role you’re auditioning for probably thought of the exact same thing as you did when you first found about it: “I am so perfect for this role!” So what should you do?

First thing to make sure even before you fill out that audition form is that you are professionally and emotionally ready to handle whatever role you’re auditioning for. This means to say that you have worked hard to improve the technical aspects of yourself in terms of vocal technique and control, acting skills, and body movement, as well as emotionally prepared to explore whatever the character requires you to do and feel. But this doesn’t mean you have to be perfect in every single thing I just mentioned (or anything for that matter, because no one is), rather simply to make sure that you are in the best possible condition at the time of your audition. After all, the only thing they can ask from you is for you to do your best, whether it is in the audition proper, or the preparation leading up to it.

2. The role does not quite fit you.

This may be hard to hear if you feel attached to any particular character, but contrary to what you believe, some roles are just not the right one for you no matter how much you want them. Kind of like finding the right size for your feet, roles require certain molds and specificities for them to come to life. You just have to make sure that you know yourself, what you can do and what you can still learn to do, and from there start scouting for roles you think might fit you or roles you can fill. Either way, you have to make sure that you know the difference between characters you admire and the characters you can take on.

Just keep in mind though that there are still exceptions to this theory. Who knows – after a little more time, work, and experimentation, you might find a way to put your own spin on the role you’ve always had your eye on. But for the meantime, keep this in consideration.

An amazing understudy board. (Photo: The Western Sky on Flickr / CC2.0.)

An amazing understudy board at Wicked.
(Photo: The Western Sky on Flickr / CC2.0.)

Being exposed to show business in the Philippines for a while now, I’ve learned that there are nearly as many downsides to auditions as there are rewards. The reason for this I think can be traced back to the term “show business” itself where the art of what we do is accompanied by a word that kind of rigs the whole process. In doing auditions, one must remember that the art of performing is part of an industry that is pretty much mostly controlled by businesspeople who are not entirely concerned with your stage dreams. From the producing standpoint, their main concern of course revolves around how they would make the production earn money, and therefore whether you are worth investing in. In this sense, reasons for not getting cast—at least here in the Philippines—might also include the following:

3. The production is pre-cast and the auditions are only to create buzz.

More often than not, shows that are produced by the big players in the industry hold auditions not so they can get potential artists for the role, but rather to informally announce that there’s an upcoming production of so and so and that we must all wait for it. In a nutshell, some auditions are used as a marketing tool rather than an actual opportunity to land a job.

So does this mean we shouldn’t go? Not exactly. Even if these auditions already have a cast list ready to be announced, it is still advisable to go to them if only so you can introduce yourself to the company and the panel. If you don’t end up getting cast, even if you did an amazing job, there’s still a possibility for them to consider you for productions to come. Remember that in this business, it’s not just about what you can do, but also whom you know. With that being said, better start with introductions now.

4. You don’t have an agent, or don’t know anyone within the production.

If you’ve been here long enough, you’ll find it a bit tiring to keep looking for job openings on your own while maintaining a day job to keep your survival. This is where an agent comes in. An agent’s job is to present you to productions they think you’d do well in (with your consent and approval). Of course before getting into any deal, you must first weigh in the pros and cons of losing your freelance status to being a represented artist. The decision for this is entirely up to you depending on the terms available.

One advantage for this though is that agents usually know the people that produce the shows you audition for. With this connection, they’ll be able to schedule you an audition where the deciding panel will be more inclined to pay attention to you. Of course getting cast will still lie solely in the hands of the creative team and whether or not they think you did enough to meet their standards.

But represented or not, knowing the people on the other side of the table—or rather them knowing you—will surely up your chances.

5. You’re not a celebrity.

Yes, the only factor in which you don’t have a say. If you are not a celebrity, this factor will surely remain to be one you have to work against. It’s been a trend for many productions to make use of celebrities and public personalities (or even simply people related to a celebrity, as this case seems to be extremely popular in the Philippine entertainment industry) to be their front man or woman even if—forgive me—they are not up to the standards that musical theater, or rather art for that matter, upholds. And one thing you keep asking is that “why should they be the ones getting the job even if you’re so sure they still need a LOT of work?”

Well, I’m sorry to tell you, they probably have at least one thing you don’t: fame. In case you forgot what I mentioned earlier about productions prioritizing earning revenue, this would be the perfect case to examine that. If they (meaning the production company) are able to cast celebrities for the lead roles, they’ll be able to attract more audiences to see the show; more people = more money, simple as that. And I’m sorry to tell you, I have no advice as to how we can overcome this.

So why am I telling you this? Well, mainly because I think all performers should have an even chance in getting their shot at the spotlight (given that they earned their right to get it, of course). The factors that I mentioned are there basically to open the eyes of the people on both sides of that audition table to the situations that go about in the business we’re proud to call our passion. What I’m saying is that more than our need to earn and make profit, maybe we can still consider looking at the first two factors on this list as the primary basis for getting cast.

Let show business be a platform where whom you know or who knows you are but factors considered from the rearview mirror. After all, if the material and the interpreter are good, then profit would surely follow. Let show business be a place where dreams are still fairly attainable. Let show business be a platform where understudies get their turn.

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