At 1:45am on a Friday night, I received the following text message:
“Hi… Are you able to go on for me tomorrow night?”
It was from Sarah, one of the cast members of Trouble with Words who I understudy for as a swing. I had performed for her once before, but had had several weeks’ notice that time because it had been my scheduled guaranteed performance, an advantage that Coeurage gives all its swings and understudies.
Several thoughts went through my head. First, was Sarah okay? And then, was this a permanent thing? I’m so excited! I have to get my shift covered! Will I remember all my music? I should go over the opener. I have to call my parents! Are all my costumes clean? No coffee for me tomorrow. Where are my ballet shoes? Josh and I need to practice the tango! I should shave my legs…
The work shift was the first obstacle. I was scheduled to work that night as a hostess. Saturday morning was dedicated to calling my co-workers to see if anyone was available. They weren’t. Next, I called my manager and explained the situation. Sarah and I both work there and luckily he likes us both. He was very understanding and said he would find someone. Phew!
Next, I had to assess the costume situation, send word to friends and family, and, of course, prepare. Slightly aromatic pants got a dose of Febreeze and a tumble with a dryer sheet. Luckily my parents had the evening free so they reserved two seats for the show. Then a vocal warm up and music review, singing along with rehearsal tapes, and going over the harmonies that were fuzzy since the last performance. Coffee was nixed and replaced by lots of water to get well-hydrated.
Performing for Sarah the first time was unbelievably thrilling. It was my first performance stepping in as an understudy. Ever. Usually I get a full rehearsal process with gradually added technical elements. Get off book. Stop/start rehearsals. Begin running songs over and over again. Then add lights. Then costumes. Then sound with body mics. Add the live band. Then add the audience. In this instance, all the elements had already been there for weeks, and I felt like the last piece in the puzzle.
What a blur. Big, grateful props to the cast who came in early to run dances and songs. Their subtle guidance on stage steered me from wrong moves and missteps. The girls helped me with my many costume changes and gave me tips on how Sarah handled the transitions. It was over as quick as it began, and I was relieved and exhilarated. Weeks of prep, nerves, and lack of coffee was all worth it, and I would have been perfectly happy to have just had that one night.
Sarah’s text in the middle of the night changed my whole perspective. My life as a swing is not about just one night (of course! duh) but about being ready at a moment’s notice. This was the real challenge, and I spent my day focusing intently on the job at hand, professionally handling the evening. With a successful performance under my belt, an incredibly supportive cast, and the knowledge that I was going to have an amazing time no matter what, I drove to the theatre feeling confident and excited. And at 8:05, the curtain rose…
- Sammi Smith