“The show must go on” is an old theatrical saying, and understudies play a huge part in making that possible. Folger Spotlight spoke to Rachael Montgomery about her recent experiences understudying for—and then performing in—the role of Waitress in Theresa Rebeck’s The Way of the World.
Can you walk us through your broad experience as an understudy on The Way of the World? What is your timeline and rehearsal process like?
This is my first experience as an understudy, and the process is very different from a regular rehearsal process. My responsibilities sound pretty simple: memorize the lines of the character(s) I’m covering (Waitress and Katrina) and observe rehearsal. Now that the show is open, we also have our own understudy rehearsals until Stage Management is confident we can fill in when needed. But the challenge is not having a full body of rehearsal to fall back on. It’s kind of a reverse process: I watch Ashley Austin Morris’ and Erica Dorfler’s work as polished performances and build backwards from there.
How do you balance building your own performance with the work that’s already been done?
The toughest part of understudying is reconciling the choices of the actor in the part with my own. It’s a completely different approach to a character. Technically speaking, I have to hit the blocking and know the cues that already exist. This is especially important in a comedy like The Way of the World because the actors have a lot of choreographed comedic business, and I have to be able to seamlessly incorporate that or the joke is lost. On the other hand, I’ve tried to memorize the other performances as a road map. If I try to purely mimic everything, it won’t work. We’re all just different human beings, and I can’t be an exact copy of Ashley or Erica. What I can do is to try to understand the emotional beats of their performances and find my own way to hit those moments.
Ashley Austin Morris has had to miss a few performances in the past week. How has the week been for you?
I was made aware last Sunday that Ashley might not be able to go on for a couple of shows, so I watched the show Sunday night, reviewed all my lines on Monday (the company day off) and came in for a three hour rehearsal on Tuesday before performing Tuesday night. It’s been a little crazy! But everyone in the cast and crew has been so generous and supportive. It’s an odd position to wrap your head around, because in a production, if everything is going absolutely perfectly, the understudies don’t go on. So if I get called in, it’s because an actor, for any number of reasons, can’t perform. So I am in many states at once: thinking about Ashley, nervous out of my mind, excited to perform, and just generally frantic. But ultimately, I have to set all of that aside, because in these situations, my main priority is to support the production. That’s how I view my role as an understudy: I’m supporting the production.
How have you found playing the Waitress?
As the understudy, I’m having a pretty meta-theatrical, art-becomes-life-becomes-art experience with this because every emotion I’m having can directly translate to the Waitress. My own nervousness and fear of ruining the entire production very easily becomes the Waitress’ need to do a great job and prove that she belongs in this elite world of the Hamptons. It’s actually a very useful tool to ease my nerves because I can share them with the Waitress. That probably sounds insane, but it’s true!
The Waitress spends a lot of time talking directly with the audience. Can you speak to what that’s been like in both rehearsal and performance?
The Waitress’ monologues are such a blast. In some ways, the monologues have made my job as an understudy much easier because I’m alone onstage and don’t have to worry about messing up dialogue with another actor. The challenge, however, was that my first performance going on for Ashley was also my first time ever delivering these monologues for more than three people. I couldn’t have a rehearsal with my scene partner, because the audience is my scene partner. I had no idea how anyone would respond! But I think it’s really a testament to Theresa Rebeck’s writing that these monologues naturally connect with audiences. The Waitress is the audience’s friend, and vice-versa. She needs them to love the Hamptons as much as she does, but she also needs the audience to share her disappointment with the reality she meets. I think being an audience member, myself, for Ashley and connecting with her performance has been the most valuable thing to take with me onstage. As an audience member, I was totally on her side, and her energy was so infectious, so when she’s treated poorly, it’s that much more heartbreaking. That experience from the audience with Ashley helped clue me into performing the Waitress. Because on the other side, the Waitress wants to prove herself to the audience and is just crushed when she’s embarrassed in front of them. It’s such a fascinating and beautiful relationship the Waitress gets to have with the audience.
In addition to understudying Waitress, you also understudy Katrina—what have you discovered about those two characters?
When I read the script, I was so excited for the challenge of playing two completely opposite characters. The Waitress is a kind of an every(wo)man. I see her as the backbone of the show. She allows herself to be swept up in this glamorous world while keeping everything grounded in reality. Katrina, on the opposite end of the spectrum, is completely of this fantasy world. She’s poised and controlled and entirely confident. She’s such a fun character because she’s sexy with more than a touch of cruelty, which if I’m being honest is not what I am usually cast as, so it’s great fun for me. But she’s also totally human.
What is your favorite part of The Way of the World?
What’s wonderful about this play is that all of these flawed people have beating hearts (though maybe we only see glimpses in Katrina’s case). That’s my favorite thing about The Way of the World: everyone is complicated. They all need something they can’t have, and ultimately, no one wins and no one loses. I think it points to a very human struggle. We all want love but struggle to love others as they are. But when we find it, as Rene says, “true love is the only thing worth having.” It’s a simple message, but I never get tired of hearing it.
Thanks to Rachael for speaking with us! See Folger Theatre’s The Way of the World on stage now until February 11. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.