Is it too late to start a career as a performer? What kind of training should I do to prevent injury? How do I deal with rejection? Questions I ask myself on a regular basis that have now, helpfully, been answered in one immensely useful and enjoyable book.
Apparently it is not just me that asks such questions. When British stage stars Louise Dearman (Wicked, Evita) and Mark Evans (Ghost: The Musical, Wicked) put a call out to aspiring theatrical stars to find the questions they most wanted answered, they were inundated with inquisitive thoughts and missives.
Their brilliant answers can be found in new book Secrets Of Stage Success, published by Nick Hern books. And below, as we’ve been given the answers to a couple of questions to share with you. If they spark an urge for more theatrical know-how, you can order the whole book using a special offer code at the bottom of the page.
What do actors do between matinee and evening performances on the same day?
Evans: EAT EAT EAT!! I always have to eat a high-energy meal in order to get through the next show. Some actors have a little nap, but for me that means I have to start my vocal warm-up all over again as my voice drops down to my boots whenever I sleep. During my time in Ghost: The Musical, I often went to the gym in between shows to keep the energy going, and then I’d sit in the steam room, which was good for my voice. When I’ve been on tour in different places I’d try and go to a good local restaurant or café recommended by one of the theatre staff. Most of the time, though, it’s a social time where you hang out with some people in the cast or meet up with a friend who is nearby. The most important thing is that you are back in the theatre before the evening performance, in time for the half-hour call.
Dearman: What to do during those precious few hours between the matinee and evening performances completely depends on the actor and the role they are playing. For example, when I was playing Eva Peron in Evita and Elphaba in Wicked, both hugely demanding roles vocally, I found that I needed to stay in my dressing room between shows, eat straight away so there was time for my meal to digest, and then keep quiet, relaxing my voice and body.
I found that having a sleep didn’t really help as, like Mark, my voice would drop so much that it would be an effort to get it going again for the evening show. Then there are other roles which aren’t quite so much of a strain on my voice, where I’ll go out to eat between shows, get some fresh air and keep my energy up. Everyone has different ways of relaxing, though, so do whatever you find works best for you.
What is it like being an understudy? Do they literally wait in the wings in costume?
Both: Understudies are not standing, in full costume, in the wings, waiting for the lead performer to have an accident or lose their voice, so that they can triumphantly save the day! In most cases, understudies are members of the ensemble, so they’ll already be performing their own track (their own scenes and songs, their positions on stage, their vocal lines and so on, over the course of a performance).
Understudying is hard work, as you have to learn up to three or four other roles, on top of your demanding role in the ensemble. Extra rehearsals are called for understudies to practise and prepare, and most productions will have understudy runs periodically, in which all the understudies perform their leading roles, sometimes to an audience of friends and industry insiders. You have to keep a lot in your head, you’ll never get as much time to rehearse as the original performer, you have to be prepared to go on at a moment’s notice – and all the time you know that an audience may let out a collective sigh of disappointment if they hear a star performer is off and you’ll be taking their place. Having said that, understudies can be extremely talented, and it’s very common that they are cheered to the rafters at the end of performances, when the audience realise that they were just as good (or maybe even better!) than the performer they were covering.
If, for whatever reason, the understudy has to take over during a performance, then they would be taken out of the ensemble, put into correct costume, make-up, wig, be mic’d up, and take over at the earliest possible moment in the show (usually without stopping the performance). And a swing would then take the understudy’s role in the ensemble.
Being a swing is just as hard work as being an understudy, if not even more so! These are the talented people whose job is to know all of the parts in the ensemble and be able to do any track at any time. A swing can be required to learn anything from two to twenty tracks, and be expected to know them off by heart at the drop of a hat. On many occasions if there are lots of people off sick or on holiday, the swing will have to cover two or three parts from each of the tracks, performing the parts that are integral to the show; for example, scripted lines from different featured peasants in Les Mis or a pas de deux dance combination in the Havana section of Guys and Dolls. It’s a tough job that sadly doesn’t receive the credit it deserves. You have to have a very intelligent, logical mindset – and it helps to have a lot of common sense too.
It is becoming more and more common that some big shows will employ standby performers. These actors are employed to be in the theatre at all times, solely to understudy a lead role, or small number of leading roles, without being in the ensemble as well. Wicked, for instance, has a standby Elphaba, and another performer as a standby Galinda. Spamalot in the West End had one actor who was standby for King Arthur, Sir Galahad and Sir Lancelot. A standby can be quite well paid, considering they are often just sitting backstage waiting in case they are required – though they do have to be very talented and able to give the performance required of a leading role.
Get your copy of Secrets of Stage Success for just £6.74 (that’s 25% off) plus free UK p&p – use code SECRETSOLT at www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/secrets
Plus, everyone who purchases the book via the Nick Hern Books website will receive a free, exclusive A3 poster of Louise and Mark (while stocks last).