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The Show Must Go On…Or, the Curious Case of the Understudy

I had a friend who was studying to be an anesthesiologist. When I asked him what it was like he described it as “hours of boredom and seconds of terror.” I found his statement astonishingly applicable to working as an understudy in live theatre. Not that it is necessarily boring work by any means, but it is certainly detail oriented, and it’s those moments of unimaginable adrenaline that ultimately define the experience and separate “the men from the boys” — or, perhaps in the case of Centlivre, “the women from the girls.” Regardless of gender, it takes a very special and focused artist to do the work of an understudy, and we are very lucky to have a handful of such artists on The Gaming Table team.

The Understudy Scoop

The Gaming Table understudies

The understudy company for The Gaming Table is made up of seven actors who cover all the roles and even some of the assistant stage manager’s tracks. They observe rehearsals during the process, particularly staging rehearsals and run-throughs of the show to record the blocking (a.k.a. movement on stage, which can be tricky when you have to cover more than one role) of their “overstudies.” It is their responsibility to learn entrances, exits, cues, what props to use when, over-arching character choices, and, of course, all the lines on their own. Then, once the show is in performance, the understudy company meets for 3-4 hours each weekday (unable to work on the weekends due to the two-show day schedule) for about two weeks after the play is officially opened.

Stage Manage extraordinaire Che Wernsman, who is in charge of running the understudy rehearsals and ensuring an understudy is prepared to go on at a moment’s notice, said that the amount of time an understudy company rehearses changes for each production. Essentially, they rehearse until everything is covered and accounted for—which, on a highly complex show with a tricky set like The Gaming Table, could take a while!

However, Che and the fearless ‘studies completed their rehearsals this past week, and in honor of their valiant efforts, I wanted to take a moment to introduce them to you. Chances are you will not see them on stage in our production (after all, they are backups in case of an actor illness or other emergency), but their contributions are significant. So without further ado, the understudies of The Gaming Table:


Colin Brush (Ensign Lovely/Buckle): Colin is a Capricorn, born/raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. Colin went to Carnegie Mellon University for undergrad and then University of Maryland for graduate work studying Operatic Performance at both. Both programs were heavily acting focused, which led him to make the transition to theatre. When talking about why he was drawn to the theatre, Colin said “Many opera singers/operas are unfortunately not as theatrically compelling as most actors and plays are, and I felt a lacking in my operatic endeavors.” Colin has only understudied in opera before this. “The nice thing about operatic understudying,” he said, “is that the music is always static, so you never have to worry about mimicking or not mimicking someone else’s inflection; it’s written in!” Colin’s experience at the Folger has been absolutely a highlight of his time living in DC for sure, and he said he was “never ONCE bored sitting in rehearsal.”

Leigh Anna Fry (Lady Reveller/Mrs. Sago): When not acting, Leigh Anna is a consultant and project manager for RGS, a Management Consulting company in Arlington, VA. She supports a Navy Leadership Development Program, a Mentoring Program that helps Wounded Warriors transition into the civilian workplace, and the Naval Aviation Enterprise. “This is my first time as an understudy and it’s been a great experience. [It’s] a little strange at first because you’re part of the process but not really part of the ensemble that forms…[but] my love for baking and my grandmother Mommy Ethel’s pound cake opened the door for some nice introductions.” Leigh Anna has been seen on TV in MSNBC documentaries on Charles Manson, as follower Linda Kasabian, and on Patty Hearst, as SLA kidnapper Emily Harris (and as the voice of Patty). Next up, Our Lady of Sandwich by local DC playwrights Mario Baldessari and Keith Bridges. Performances are March 29-April 1.

Bethany Goodell (Valeria/Banker): Originally a “Navy brat,” Bethany has been back in the DC area for about ten years. She left DC to attend Elon University where she received her BFA in Acting. When she returned, she put her acting skills to use working on imaginative play with autistic children. In her spare time she has acted in shows in Virginia and DC. Her favorite past roles include Ophelia in Hamlet and Jo March in Little Women. This is her first time being an understudy. Bethany is also a wonderful photographer and is responsible for the lovely picture of The Gaming Table understudy company you can see in this post.

Jason McIntosh (Captain Hearty/Mr. Sago): Jason is a graduate of The Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory and is a prominent voice-over artist in the DC area, as well as a stage actor. He has appeared at The Studio Theatre, The Inkwell, Forum Theatre and Dance, and in Twisted at the 2010 Capital Fringe Festival.

Steven Quartell (Lord Worthy/Sir James Courtly): Steven has worked at American Century Theatre and the Prenzie Players and is the Associate Producer for Marketing and Development at Harrison Hilltop Theatre, as well as the Social Media Administrator at Hilltop Campus Village. He has also been an organizer/volunteer at Students for Barack Obama.

Howard Wahlberg (Sir Richard Plainman): Howard is a former Director of Marketing for Arena Stage and currently owns and operates No Tonsils Productions, a voiceover and narration production company. Howard re-entered the profession after decades of absence and is “grateful for the countless blessings of the incredibly welcoming and encouraging DC theatre community!” His acting credits include J.L. Stevens in Cry for the Gods and Frank in the Studio in Tragedy. In May, he’ll be appeariong in Suicide, Incorporated with the No Rules Theatre Company in May. Howard studied acting at Mason Gross School of the Arts (Rutgers University) and later pursued “graduate” studies at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College. This is Howard’s first time understudying. His “day job” finds him as the head of the membership division of the National Science Teachers Association.

Mary Wentz (Alpiew and Lady Lucy): This is Mary’s first time understudying at Folger Theatre. She created a model of the set made up of glasses (the pillars), a paper towel role (the main staircase), and other household items on her kitchen table with board game pieces to move about in order to help her to learn blocking. Mary is also currently performing in Genesis Reboot at Synetic Theater with an understudy ready to go on for her should she be needed on the Folger stage.

Other Famous Understudies

“My part had three lines. I said, ‘You look wonderful, sir,’ three times. All my friends said, ‘Do not take that role, and do not understudy. You’ll regret it the rest of your life.’ I did both of those things, and I’ve never regretted it once.” —Jeffrey Tambor

– In 1954’s The Pajama Game, star Carol Haney was injured during the run of the show. Her understudy who filled in at a moment’s notice was none other than Shirley MacLaine. Not only was MacLaine a great success in the role, but she also garnered the attention of a Hollywood producer, who happened to be in the crowd the night she went on. This led to movie stardom and later to an Academy Award for her performance in Terms of Endearment.

Elaine Stritch understudied Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam and took over her role in the national tour.

Brad Oscar started off the 2001 season as an understudy and ended it as a Tony nominee. Oscar had begun as the understudy for the role of Franz Liebkind in The Producers and was called in (and eventually took over the part) when the original actor, Ron Orbach, was injured.

Sutton Foster also got her big break as an understudy in 2002. She went on as Thoroughly Modern Millie’s title character at the last second for an out-of-town performance and was so impressive she was later given the role full time on Broadway. Foster won a Tony Award for Best Actress in the role.

Members of The Gaming Table Cast Talk About Going On as an Understudy

I am the first understudy to ever have to go on at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, for a musical no less! Book in hand, I only got lost once and had to make the other actors wait to find my place. The standing ovation I got at the end of it from the whole audience was awesome. Terrifying…just terrifying….“ —Ashley Ivey

I only have one experience understudying where I actually went on. It was at a big theater, and the actor I was understudying was a big name company member in a fairly little, thankless role. He actually used to go home at intermission, because his part in the play was done. [When I went on], I was super-adrenalized, and I felt like I did a much better job because, being new to town and relatively unknown, I actually cared about the part. Though, I understand there were quite a lot of very disappointed patrons who didn’t get to see the ‘star’ in the role.” —Michael Glenn

I was internally covering a one-scene role in a musical that involved a ridiculously complex operatic quartet in Italian. The season had just opened and the actress I was covering was assigned to understudy a lead role in another play at the Festival. It turned out she had to go on for the lead in the other show, so I had to go on for her in the quartet. We hadn’t even had one understudy rehearsal yet, since the shows had just opened. It was tense because, not only am I not an Italian-speaking opera singer, and not only had I had no rehearsal, but the four person scene and song were completely interdependent—so if I messed up, the whole thing would derail. I don’t remember much except that I must have gotten through it alright because when I came off stage and looked into the wings, the entire cast and crew had gathered and were jumping up and down and silently screaming for me. That moment is still one of my best memories in the theatre, and perhaps of all time.” —Emily Trask

Being an understudy has been wonderful for me.”  —Michael Milligan

All my understudy experiences are completely boring because I actively wish to never go on. I do have a friend however, who was working on a show with a diva actress who was constantly threatening to not go on that night. They solved her behavior problem by informing her (falsely) that she had an understudy. Never heard a peep from her again. That’s one of my favorite understudy stories.”  —Tonya Beckman

The Gaming Table runs until March 4th at Folger Theatre. Check it out!



  • Well speak of the Devil… Steven Quartell ended up having to go on for the role of Lord Worthy last night!!!! He was cool as a cucumber and did a wonderful job!! Congrats Steve!

  • Are understudies chosen not just for talent and availability at short notice, but also for height and width? Or are elaborate costumes like those in The Gaming Table designed with enough velcro and draw-strings so that they can easily be made to fit anyone?

  • First and foremost the actors who serve as Folger Theatre understudies are chosen for their skill and versatility. They are often tasked with covering more than one role in the play so they may need to bring a variety of talents to the table.

    There is also an eye toward the understudy’s physicality and the actor that they understudying – are they similar in tone, style, and, yes, size.

    We do sometimes create additional costume pieces for understudies, but it is really a testament to our wardrobe department and their ability (with smoke, mirrors, and perhaps safety pins) to make a costume built for a 5’ 10” actor comfortably fit a 6’ 2” understudy.

  • The cast of The Gaming Table was dropping like Flesh Flies due to an ugly stomach flu this past weekend. Luckily, Leigh Anna Fry and Colin Brush were there to save the closing weekend, taking on the roles of Mrs. Sago and Buckle respectively 🙂 They did beautifully!

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