Lessons in Handling the Unexpected from Broadway Understudies

Can you imagine being an understudy in a broadway show? You usually have to know more than one part — all the blocking, all the singing, and all the dancing — for each role. You often have very little warning before you have to go on in front of a crowd that’s expecting the very best. These understudies can teach us what it means to handle unexpected things in our own lives.


Recently BroadwayWorld.com spoke with two of the best understudies in the business. Sandra DeNise and Sarah Jane Shanks are covering the demanding role of Alice Murphy in the new musical Bright Star. They both have loads of experience both on Broadway tours and on Broadway itself. It’s one of the most difficult jobs in show business. The very nature of an understudy is to handle the unexpected, but to always be prepared to do so.

Here are three things understudies teach us about handling the unexpected in our own lives:

  1. Draw a distinction between how you handle things in public and how you handle them at home. It’s got to be tough being an understudy. You’d like to go on all the time. Sometimes other understudies are selected to perform instead of you. It’s all in how you handle it. When you’re not selected, the key is to be mature. It may mean less exposure and a smaller paycheck, but if you’re unprofessional you won’t work very long in the business. Sarah Jane says: “…(I)t’s important to be able to go home and feel the way you feel about it. Grieve it, be angry, whatever. But being professional means drawing a distinction between how you handle it at the theatre and how you handle it at home.” When you face something unexpected, don’t throw a temper tantrum where everyone can see. Handle it professionally in public or in the work place. Then it’s OK to go home and vent a bit. But don’t let it overcome you and keep you from showing up the next day.
  2. Trust the process. Sarah Jane understudied Sutton Foster when Shrek was in previews in Seattle. She didn’t have a chance to watch Foster at all and hadn’t even completely rehearsed the role. One day Sutton Foster called in sick and Sarah Jane had to take the stage. She was assigned an Assistant Stage Manager who told her where to go and what to do before every scene. Can you imagine being in that position? But she trusted the stage manager, trusted what she had learned about the show, and trusted her own instincts. It was a success. When you are confronted with unexpected things in life or at work remember to trust the things you have learned from your own life experience and the skills that you have naturally been given. When you trust the process and your instincts you will succeed. 
  3. Tell the story. When an understudy is thrust into a performance they have to remember that, in the end, they are storytellers. If they go out with that mindset the audience will be drawn into the story and never notice that they are seeing an understudy and not the “star.” Sarah Jane says, “The term ‘story telling’ helps steer me away from the nerve-wracking pressure to “perform” well. If I think of myself as a storyteller, rather than a performer, I don’t have to stress about living up to sky-high expectations or proving myself to myself, my castmates, or the audience. I just get to tell a story…and that, I can do.” When you tell the story of your family, your organization, your workplace, or your church, you will find others being drawn in even though you may be facing something unexpected. Keep the “story” at the forefront of what you do and it will be the key that keeps things on track.

What do you do when you find yourself confronted with something unexpected?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.