The unsung art of being ready


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Behind every great Broadway star there is another type of actor — the understudy


Photos



  • Brian Miskell made his Broadway debut as an understudy for Lucas Hedges in Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery.” Photo: J. Demetrie Photography




  • Brian Miskell shares the stage with Elaine May and Joan Allen. Photo: Claire Yenson




New York actor Brian Miskell is currently understudying two actors, Michael Cera and Lucas Hedges, in Kenneth Lonergan’s play “The Waverly Gallery,” on Broadway at the Golden Theatre. He has to know all of the stars’ cues and lines, and be ready to go onstage for one or the other at any time, with little or no advance notice. He talked to Our Town about what understudies do, his unforgettable chat with co-star Elaine May, and what it was like to finally go onstage for a live performance.

How did you get involved with this production?

I’ve worked with Lila [director Lila Neugebauer] a number of times over the years. And when I saw this was coming up ... I thought it’d be a good fit for me ... so I asked her if she might keep me in mind. We were all hired in August, and our first day of rehearsal was in September. So we all went into the theater at the same time, the principal actors and the understudies as well.

I met Lucas as we were walking in and we were like, “Oh, It’s your Broadway debut? It’s my Broadway debut!” We were running into the theater with that giddy first day of school energy. Getting to share that at the same time was really fun. And there was this excitement of being in a Broadway theater for the first time ... in this old historic building where “Waiting for Godot” premiered on Broadway, and where Mike Nichols and Elaine May did their Broadway show 50 years ago.

What does an understudy do exactly? What are your day-to-day duties?

We were all asked to arrive off book [know all lines and cues]. Or to at least be close enough that by the first preview, we’d be off book. So while we were in rehearsals, the responsibility fell on us to be on top of that for ourselves. We’d meet as a group of understudies and run lines together, talk through scenes together, and occasionally we’d work with our assistant director, who’d see where we were at with the process. It was up to us to make sure we were prepared.

The week before they opened, as soon as daytime rehearsals stopped for the principals, once a week as a group of understudies we’d meet onstage, and work with the stage manager to rehearse different parts of the play.

There’s a lot of time for us to try to prepare ourselves, and be as prepared as possible. It bears mentioning that the understudies in this play are all pros. They have created roles in Tom Stoppard plays, Edward Albee plays on Broadway, and all of them are virtuosic Shakespearean actors.

You recently went onstage for a performance, stepping in for Lucas Hedges. What was that experience like?

Because Lucas is an incredibly thoughtful and generous person, in addition to being an incredibly talented actor, he gave me some notice. When he knew he was going to be going to The Golden Globes, he pulled me into his dressing room [and told me] “you’re getting to do a show” ... which was so lovely of him. It was nice to have some warning, and that my family and friends were able to be there for the show. I had a little bit of time ... and I got to [rehearse] with the principals, David Cromer, Joan Allen, and Michael Cera, so we could feel out what the scenes would be like as a company.

Elaine May, interestingly enough, she thought it’d be really exciting if we didn’t practice and went for it on the day. So instead, we sat down and talked for 20 minutes, which I will never forget for the rest of my life. She comes from this world of improv. She’s this comic genius from the past 50 years, and she had the instinct that wouldn’t it be really exciting to try it for the first time with the audience.

I had felt nervous about it, and then when I sat down and started talking with her, I got kind of excited about the idea. I was like “I don’t know what’s gonna happen,” but I feel like she trusted me.

On the day ... They pull up the curtain and the audience applauds her, and I could feel that energy, that they’re all rooting for her. And from that point forward, as nervous as I had been to do this, never having acted on a Broadway stage before for an audience ... I could feel where the audience was, I could feel they were on our side. I could have a laugh line and feel them respond, I could feel them listening. I remembered, “Oh I know how to do this, it’s just a bigger theater than I’ve worked with before. But I know how to do this. I’ve been doing this a while. And it’s a play. And I know how to do plays.”

What’s the best thing about being on Broadway? What has made this experience outstanding?

Every time I go to the theater, and I see how many people are lined up outside just waiting to pick up their tickets and go in, I’m reminded of the fact that people come all over the world to be here right now ... And the streets are packed, and you can barely make it down the block. I just am so aware of the fact that I am standing in the middle of the place that like everybody in the world wants to be right now ... I feel incredibly lucky.





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