Ask an Understudy: How Do You Prepare to Play a Lead Role on Short Notice?

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Photo Source: Joan Marcus/ Richard Termine/Matthew Murphy/Julieta Cervantes

Q: Broadway’s reopening has relied on swings and understudies in such a profound way. What’s your No. 1 piece of advice for actors who are called to go on?

Jacob DickeyDon’t sweat the small stuff.

“Especially that first time, go in knowing that you’re going to mess up something small; but as long as you’ve rehearsed it, you have to let those things pass. Keep going, because if you focus on them, you’re going to get lost and confused and upset, and that’s not good.” —Jacob Dickey ("Company") 

KJ HippensteelDon’t worry about mimicry—but steal the stuff that works. 

“I just can’t believe what [Rob McClure is] doing on the daily. I’m so blown away by him. So I definitely have his performance in mind. I had an acting teacher in college tell me that the greatest actors are thieves. We just steal other people’s bits. And the thing about Rob is he’s done such a great job creating the role [of Daniel] that I’m definitely stealing as much as I possibly can, because I know it works.” —KJ Hippensteel (Mrs. Doubtfire)

Jordan LageDon’t make excuses—run your lines.

“You’ve got to think practically: How can I get the job done in the most effective, efficient, and expeditious way possible? Hit the book early and often. Run the lines until you puke. There’s no substitute for it. It’s drudge work, learning lines. But you have to knuckle down, put your nose to the grindstone, and treat it as a part of your everyday routine.” —Jordan Lage ("American Buffalo") 

Kathy VoytkoTake it one step at a time. 

“I was heavily reliant on the remarkable crew and costume and wardrobe. The Marian dresser would say, ‘OK, what do you need?’ I’d say, ‘Where do I meet you after this song? And I’m going to ask you the same thing after this scene.’ That’s the thing: Don’t get ahead of yourself. Just think one moment at a time.” —Kathy Voytko ("The Music Man") 

This story originally appeared in the May 19 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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