Emma Kingston

Ensemble and undercover Eponine in Les Miserables

What's it like to understudy a role?
It's great understudying in the West End. As a first cover you get the diversity of ensemble work and playing a lead role. Especially in Les Mis where there is so much going on as an ensemble member you really do get the best of both worlds. When you do go on for a lead role, you get bitten by the bug and you want to stay in that role always, I think that's the hardest part about being an understudy.

Tell us about a time when you've had to go on last minute.
When I first went on for Eponine I had been in the show 14 months and had never been on. (I had been promoted from second cover to first cover) I hadn't even sung "On My Own" on stage for 10 months since the cover run. Even though I had a small amount of rehearsal, I was so nervous. A dream role I had waited so long to do. That afternoon I had to go on a long walk around London to focus!

Do you think understudies are under appreciated or is it just part of the job?
I think the role of an understudy is to go on and be brilliant when the person playing the role isn't there. You have to work harder to win over an audience who is maybe expecting to see "first cast" performers. As an avid theatre goer I understand why people get upset when the "star" of the show is off. I have been guilty of feeling disappointed in that way. My argument is, you never know what that understudy may go on to do. Imelda Staunton was once an understudy, imagine saying "I saw her when..."

Rob Castell

Understudied Kevin Bishop in one-man show Fully Committed at the Menier Chocolate Factory

What's it like to understudy a role?

It's weirdly stressful: every morning you wake up and think 'shit maybe it's today.' I would always have to be there for the half, in case there were any last minute issues for Kevin (There never were, he was rock solid). The boredom does kick in. Sitting alone in a dressing room, hearing the cheers and not really being a part of anything, it's a very Mr Cellophane experience wandering through the audience sometimes afterwards, but it's also quite humbling because you're there as a safety net without ever getting the glory.

Tell us about a time when you've had to go on last minute.

I had agreed with the theatre that I would have one performance (the worst thing would have been to do all that learning and never get to do it for an audience). So I had my special showing about five weeks in. The pressure was so intense because this was my one shot to get everything right and it was the most exposing solitary show. I remember being more nervous than ever in my life. But as soon as I said the first word I just loved it. I've never concentrated on anything that much in my life. It was probably the proudest moment of my acting career, genuinely.

Do you think understudies are under appreciated or is it just part of the job?

I think there's a bit of a culture of disdain towards understudies which I think is not cool. I have seen covers numerous times and often found them to be equal or above the regulars. You have to be able to do the job, you have a lot less time to rehearse and the pressure to perform when it's your turn is huge. Since Hamilton (apparently Miranda's cover is crazy good), people are saying 'today's understudies are tomorrow's stars', which I hope is true. Personally I think it's a gift if you get a good combo of cover roles AND get to be in the show every night anyway.

Rhiannon Chesterman

Understudies Emma Williams as Maureen in Mrs Henderson Presents

What's it like to understudy a role?

This is my first West End job and also my first time being a first cover so my 10 year-old self it utterly beside herself. And the fact that I get to play one of the leads still excites me. I remember coming to London each year from the age of 10 to see a west end show hoping one day to to be a lead so this is a total dream come true.

Tell us about a time when you've had to go on last minute.

The first time I went on for Maureen was just a few weeks after we had opened. Understudy rehearsals were in their early stages so we hadn't rehearsed most of the show yet. An understudy's job is to be ready to play the part from the first preview, whatever the cover rehearsal situation so I knew all the lines and songs but not necessarily exactly where to stand! I was fortunate to know the night before that I was going on the next day so I had my wonderful housemates playing all the other parts, we moved the coffee table out of the way and we ran the whole show in my living room!

Do you think understudies are under appreciated or is it just part of the job?

There has been a lot of press recently about understudies being under appreciated however I'm very fortunate to be able to say that I have never experienced this. My company and the producers I work for have been nothing but encouraging & supportive. If the only reason you took the job was for the glory then it's unlikely you'll go far. That being said, with many production companies it is the policy that understudies are not allowed to post on social media that they are on for their cover. I do not agree with this. If you are playing the part that night, I think you should be allowed to advertise this. Social media can be such a blessing for up and coming actors, however if they can't let people know when they are on, it makes the career ladder that bit taller.

Michael Cortez

Understudies Sam Mackay as Usnavi in In the Heights at the King's Cross Theatre

What's it like to understudy a role?
I'm sure everyone will agree, it's one of the hardest tasks an actor faces. To find the healthy balance between bringing your own fresh take on the character (not being a carbon copy) yet seamlessly fitting into the show and to not change any dynamics too drastically for the other actors.

The first time going on, having never rehearsed with the full band / orchestra, and doing scenes with actors you've never rehearsed with can be daunting. But if you're lucky enough to have the support of a generous cast you'll feel like you are the part (albeit for that evening) and not a temporary replacement.

Tell us about a time when you've had to go on last minute.

There's been a few over the years, but only a few weeks ago at work I was on for one cover and during a fight scene another actor, who I also cover, connected his head with my shin and went off. My agent happened to be watching that show. So, much to my dismay, it looked like the age old sabotage story of the understudy pushing the part down the stairs (or in this case shin to the face) to get to go on!

Do you think understudies are under appreciated or is it just part of the job?

It's hard to say if understudies are under appreciated. I think it's a very tough job but you know what you're signing up for. Your reward comes from going on, the audience's reaction and their kind words afterwards. It makes all the hard work (and the slight anxiety from not knowing who you're going to be playing any given evening) completely worth it.

Kieran Brown

Understudies Ben Forster as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre

What's it like to understudy a role?
It's been great - The Phantom is an incredibly complex role (considering how little he is actually onstage) so getting the chance to understudy it means I get to play it occasionally without the pressure of having to do it all the time, because trust me, it's tough! I take my hat off to anyone who can sustain it night after night. For now I'm happy just to dip my toe in from time to time. In a couple of years or so perhaps I'd like to play the role, but for now I'm taking everything I can from the opportunity.

Tell us about a time when you've had to go on last minute.
I've had a couple of occasions when I've had to pop on halfway through the show. On the first occasion I was off anyway (I'm a swing) so was watching a movie when our company manager knocked on the door. I must admit to being a touch panicked to begin with but it actually ended up being a great show as I just didn't have time to think about it. Plus the team around are always so incredibly organised and supportive. If they don't panic, I don't. And they never do.

Do you think understudies are under appreciated or is it just part of the job?

A bit of both to be honest. I mean, we know what we are signing up for, but it can be a bit of a thankless task, especially for second (or some cases third) covers who are never guaranteed dates. At the end of the day, covers are the last line of defence and the difference between a show going ahead or not. There is a perception that understudies are inferior to actors playing the roles, but you have to remember that the casting process is very thorough, and many go through between 3-7 recalls before they are entrusted by the producers and creative team to carry the role. Look at the rave reviews Ria Jones and Tasha Barnes have had lately. I hope that with all the discussions being had at the moment that we as a community can celebrate our understudies across the board!

David O'Mahony

Swing for several roles in Beautiful - The Carole King Musical

What's it like to understudy a role?
It's brilliant to be an understudy and swing. I have covered and played leads in The Bodyguard and Beautiful in the West End and in the International Arena tour of Batman Live. It is a very intense and demanding job but I'm privileged that directors, casting directors and producers trust me to do that job. In my current role I understudy the three leads and two of the featured ensemble. As an understudy you have to have a lot of faith in yourself as a performer. You also have the responsibility and pressure of potentially playing to an audience who weren't expecting to see you. With the prevalence of producers casting 'names' to sell a show this can be tricky.

Tell us about a time when you've had to go on last minute.
I've had to step into lots of roles with very little notice. During a performance of The Bodyguard someone got injured during the show and I had to go on half way through. It played havoc with my brain as I had done the majority of Act 1 as one character and then suddenly had to change to a very word-heavy role but having not done the first two scenes.

Do you think understudies are under appreciated or is it just part of the job?
I would say on the most part everyone in the industry is very respectful and supportive of understudies. I think any negativity is more about being ill-informed about the rigours and reality of the industry. The producers I have worked for and am currently working for are hugely supportive and complimentary of the job we do.

I think anyone who says 'oh, so you're just a swing' is incredibly naive and doesn't understand the reality of the responsibility we have. Luckily I've only heard that a few times.