A fellow blogger pointed out to me via e-mail that as of today’s matinee Kathleen Littlefield has gone on for Zoe Kazan something like ten times in Love, Love, Love. An illness run of that length is pretty unusual and I’m hoping Kazan is on the road to recovery since she reportedly played the role this evening.
Having an understudy step in is a real challenge, though, for a production which is unaccustomed to them. (What I mean by that is that in “limited runs” like LLL, understudies rarely go on and only in emergencies. Extended runs, like Broadway musicals that run for years, understudies will usually perform once a week or so as part of their contract and to give the principal actors their contracted time off or vacations.)
On a limited run, though, Littlefield had a pretty daunting task when she went on for Kazan. She was likely involved in the rehearsal process back in August/September (at least as an observer) and has had several understudy rehearsals over the course of the last few months with assistant director Darren Johnson, the other understudies, and possibly a few with Ryan and Armitage.
But in many ways she’s been studying this on her own. She’s had to memorize completely every word Kazan says and every bit of blocking she executes- not just knowing it, but being able to act it believably at a moment’s notice and without the regular repetition Kazan has benefitted from.
Being a good understudy is a very particular skill set!
We’ve all heard the lore of the understudy coming out of the wings backstage to unexpected triumph on the stage. It is a staple of movies and plays about show business, from 42nd Street to All About Eve to Slings and Arrows. But there are a few realities to being and working with an understudy that the backstage mythologies overlook:
when she first went on, it could have been weeks since her last rehearsal. Littlefield had to depend on her own memory and continued viewings of Kazan’s performance to guide her. No matter how professional and prepared she is, that’s a terrifying moment. Like, potentially vomit-inducing terror
jumping into the deep end in those first few performances is an extraordinary feat of will and focus. The nerves can throw you off, so you feel like you’re flying by the seat of your pants.
But when you hit a groove, the adrenaline is a bit of a high.
there is a balance and struggle to maintain the essentials of the character Kazan built, but deliver it in a way unique to Littlefield. Understudies aren’t robots. So while Littlefield has to try to maintain the words, movement, and pacing of Kazan (because that is the play the ensemble built together), she cannot BE Kazan.
So she has to find a way to deliver the words and movements in her own body and in her own voice. It becomes a blending of the work Kazan did, but filtered through a new actor.
for the rest of the cast, this new iteration is a massive adjustment. First, they are also hyper-aware of any “help” the understudy may need in a scene, if they skip a line or forget a bit of blocking, they have to be ready to make adjustments.
They’ve also spent weeks getting into an intimate groove with Kazan, where the slightest gesture can signal something to them. Suddenly there is an entirely new actor in front of them and while she isn’t unfamiliar, she is palpably DIFFERENT.
To the rest of the cast, there are all kinds of new stimuli coming at them and they definitely have to respond to it. In a way, having an understudy come in during the last two weeks of the run could sort of wake-up their performance. While their performances late in the run have the depth of trust and intimacy with each other that comes with working together eight shows a week, a new element thrown in could either freshen things up or stress things out.
But inject a new actor onstage like an understudy who has her own line delivery, a different way of taking up room in the world, and it’s almost like they’re back in previews.
for Ryan and Armitage the adjustment would be the biggest since they have the most direct interaction with the character of Rose. With an understudy they would have another process of discovery, much like that in rehearsals or previews, but at an accelerated rate. The learning curve is fast for all of them.
for the understudy there is another insecurity: being compared to the principle actor, for instance. Or worrying about changing the delicate dynamics of the play too much, or just not being ready to give a really great performance (rather than just adequate for the function of the play).
while Littlefield may not have Kazan’s deep experience with the character, she likely did bring some different shades and colors to the piece. If nothing else, the contrast between the two actors can illustrate how the same script and direction can be changed by a single cast member.
but this is where the cohesiveness of the rest of the ensemble really comes into play.
If the rest of the cast works together well, incorporating the understudy as part of the team is smooth waters. If the cast already trusts each other, the understudy can trust them, too. And if the understudy is prepared, they quickly learn that they can trust her, too. And the work remains solid because of that trust.
The real point is that while Littlefield is responsible for her preparedness to take on the role at a moment’s notice, it is the entire company’s responsibility to help, support, and fold the understudy into the world of the play.
It is always a group effort.
Now, I understand that Kazan performed this evening and intends to perform Sunday’s final show. Which is awesome.
Because while working with an understudy can shake things up in a show, few things feel better than having the principal cast back together again. It’s like catching up with a best friend after months apart – lots of new things to share, but the familial bond runs deep.
Especially for the closing two performances, everyone is likely thrilled have Kazan back, even if they were also thrilled with Littlefield’s work.
Littlefield is possibly a little relieved herself. Despite the intense desire to be onstage, it always preferable acting a role you developed yourself, no matter how much you learn from observing other people’s work.
Regarding the traditions and feelings of performers around closings… some companies do cast/crew gatherings on closing, but unless the occasion is something special, they’re low-key. They’re about sharing a few lingering moments with folks you’ve spent a lot of time with in a few short months.
Otherwise, after the final performance the crew will prep strike (“strike” is the removal of the set, props, equipment, etc from the theater), the actors clean out their dressing rooms and say their goodbyes to the space.
Closings can feel really anti-climactic, in fact. Some people are “ready for the show to close”, meaning they are getting antsy and would like to move on to the next thing. Or they are really tired and looking forward to a break.
Others will “miss the show” since they felt like they could continue growing and learning from the role.
Some will just miss their show-family. But moving on is a huge part of life in the business. There’s an ability to process loss and change that comes with the territory.
But there is also a relief that comes with the closing. For a while, your evenings are your own again. You keep the same hours as your family and friends again. You have space in your life to think about what’s next.
Some people have the blues after a closing, but I tend to think of that as the adjustment to finding the next meaningful thing for their days and nights.
For the cast and crew of Love, Love, Love I wish a final performance of great verve and a closing process that leads them somewhere of abundant possibility!