Watching and listening are essential tools for any actor, but they are especially crucial for an understudy. So it felt entirely appropriate to be talking to two of Broke-ology's understudies this week as we watched the Wednesday matinee unfold in front of us on a small television monitor.
The Broke-ology monitor is in the Newhouse theater's downstairs green room, just as the monitor for South Pacific is in the Beaumont's canteen: as in life, television and food are intertwined. I asked Broke-ology interviewees - Lisa Strum and Larry Powell; Wiley Moore is the third member of this first-rate group - whether they often watched the whole performance all the way through on the monitor.
"Many times," replied Strum, who before Broke-ology did a production of Hugh Fletcher's Amarie at New York's New Federal Theater. "The actors in this show change little things from time to time, and you have to keep aware of them. By watching, you also gain a deeper appreciation of [director] Tommy Kail's staging: how he uses blocking to tell the story."
Powell, who received his B.F.A. from Carnegie Mellon, agreed that watching the play on the monitor was helpful. He added, "Doing it reminds me of when I was a kid and I would watch the same movie on DVD over and over. I would learn every line and every inflection of every character. Watching over and over helps you tap in to the characters' psychology." And what did Powell watch most often? "All the Austin Powers movies,' he replied.
"It's helpful to watch Broke-ology on TV," Strum elaborated, "but you have to guard against doing it just so you can copy the performance of an actor, should you have to go on. You have to do your own performance."
Strum, who has an M.F.A. from the University of Washington/Seattle, described her first professional experience as an understudy. "I was an apprentice at the Walnut Street Theater, in Philadelphia. I was understudying the role of Nimue in Camelot. One day, I had to go on. At first, you feel the bottom has fallen out of you; you can't believe it's actually happening. Then you're whisked into costume, and before you know it the performance is over."
Strum said that her Camelot experience was very positive, but that "I've heard of horror stories where understudies don't even get any rehearsal time on stage before the show opens." With Broke-ology, the understudies not only rehearse on stage but they also got a chance to work with the play's director. "That doesn't always happen," Strum commented.
Neither Strum nor Powell nor Moore has had to go on so far during the run ofBroke-ology. "Most actors have to be almost dead before they won't go on," Powell commented. "But we have to be always ready: that's our job." Strum added: "This is a very competitive industry. You don't want to get a reputation as an actor who doesn't go on."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com.