The Understudy Syndrome; Self-esteem

The Understudy Syndrome; Self-esteem Once again, hello and thank you to all creative advice-seekers. This week's column addresses the paths of Broadway singers, and how to deal with being an understudy, and self esteem. I invite actors of all ages to continue to write me with any problems encountered at auditions, in class, or anything you feel could be standing between you and your talent. Make sure to check the previous columns to see if your question, or one like it, has been answered already!

Once again, hello and thank you to all creative advice-seekers. This week's column addresses the paths of Broadway singers, and how to deal with being an understudy, and self esteem. I invite actors of all ages to continue to write me with any problems encountered at auditions, in class, or anything you feel could be standing between you and your talent. Make sure to check the previous columns to see if your question, or one like it, has been answered already!

Question
Did Colm Wilkinson, Michael Crawford, Anthony Warlow, Patti Lupone, Mandy Patinkin take singing lessons? If so how long do you think they studied? Did they have the range as they do now when they first started? I am an aspiring Broadway singer, and I have taken singing lessons for one year. I'd really appreciate it if you wrote me back. Thank you very much!

Dear Curious and Aspiring Broadway Singer,
It would take a lot of time and research to answer most of your questions specifically, and I recommend you search the net for sites of these individuals to see if you can find out the details. Nevertheless, my guess is that they all studied, for quite some time.

According to Playbill On-Line's DIVA TALK columnist Andrew Gans, Patti Lupone is currently studying with a teacher who also coaches Betty Buckley (Triumph). Buckley studied with her beloved New York teacher Paul Gavert for 19 years, until he passed away.

Andrew actually took lessons from Bernadette Peters' first teacher, James Gregory. According to him, Peters has been studying for years as well. As far as vocal ranges go, Andrew said, "I would imagine that lessons would have broadened their ranges or at least taught them how to sing in a proper way so they could do 8 shows a week. I know from my own experience that voice lessons definitely increased my range. . . It also taught me how to place my voice, so you don't hurt yourself when you sing high."

However, as singers' voices change due to age, they frequently lose their top notes. This is natural.

So--my advice is--keep studying.

Question
Dear Blair,
I have enjoyed reading your informative answers to all the questions people send. Maybe you could give me some tips on coping with the stress of being an understudy. I feel like it's a lot of work for nothing. Yes, I know, the experience is invaluable, but as we all know, I won't appreciate that 'til later. Right now, I just need some acknowledgement for my effort and so far, I haven't had the chance to get it the usual way...from the audience! Any tips besides "just be glad you got to be a part of the production?"
Under the weather Understudy

Dear Under the Weather U/S,
I really love your question and I relate to your struggle. I invite any readers to share their understudy success stories because in my experience, the entire drama of being an understudy is frustrating, and the frustration only increases when someone feeds me that "just be grateful" line.

And, I do acknowledge there are things to be grateful for. Understudying in a professional theatre can earn you Equity points, and can give you exposure and even a break if the cards are in your favor.

When you are in a show playing one role and are also an understudy for another, it can be fun because you have to be at the theatre every night anyway. However, in my few understudy experiences that was not the case. I secretly wanted to poison the lead I was understudying. I spent a lot of time worrying that I would be on call at the last minute and I wasn't able to make firm plans. I struggled with learning lines I might never perform and with having to somehow make someone else's creative choices my own.

Making someone else's choice's somehow work and make sense for you is one of the hardest challenges of understudying. The other is to trust yourself and know that if you do get up there and don't perform "exactly" the blocking or the lines -- you will be okay. The other actors may even be refreshed by your presence. Keep asking yourself, what is it I can learn, am learning from this experience?

How to get some acknowledgement? I suggest, on a Friday or Saturday night when you don't have plans and you haven't been called to task, take yourself (and a good friend or two, if you desire) out to dinner. Acknowledge how difficult it is to be an understudy and congratulate yourself for getting some work and sticking with it.

Question
I've read a book by BackStages on Casting Directors. All of them talk about "having star quality." Reading that and other books have taught me that much of star quality is positive self-esteem, self-love, and self- confidence. This allows us to not be ashamed to "make a fool or act a fool" on camera or during a casting call. Will you discuss the importance of developing a good self-esteem and its impact on one's ability to break into film and television acting?
Dwayne

Dear Dwayne,
I am a big fan of self-esteem, and think it is an important commodity for all aspects of life. I'm not sure if self-esteem is essential for star quality or getting you work, but I am certain that it is crucial to cultivate if you want to make it AND maintain your dignity and integrity.

I would say that star quality is less about esteem and more a combination of the individual's essence and luck. There are those film and television stars who are wildly talented and seem to magically reveal themselves and come alive through performance. When their self-esteem is only linked to their talent, however, this can be dangerous. I can think of many, many well-loved celebrities who internally considered themselves unworthy of the public adoration they received. Their lives ended tragically as a result.

Self-esteem can help you break into the business in many ways. It takes self-esteem to find the courage to reveal your essence. Taking risks and being comfortable to "make a fool or act a fool" in front of the camera will expand if not your employment opportunities, then at least your creativity. It takes self-esteem to put yourself out there at auditions, with agents, etc. again and again and again-- which will obviously increase your chances.

In her musical theatre classes, Betty Buckley taught about how we are sending out signals all the time, telling people what to think of us. If we don't like or trust ourselves, this is revealed energetically, through our body language and through what we say to auditioners at auditions, and casting people pick up on it. So cultivating self-esteem is important for your audience communication and audition demeanor.

I think cultivating self-esteem is especially useful to the actor in order to combat fear, rejection, laziness, and defeat. If you care a great deal about yourself and you love the process of acting, then you will want to bring opportunities into your life and feel worthy of getting the work you deserve. Low self-esteem can drive actors to repeatedly choose parts that don't excite them, challenge them or reflect their ideas and values. This often results in disappointment and resentment for the people and or situations they are working in.

Self-esteem also helps actors to speak up and ask for what they need. Often actors feel so lucky to have a job and a part that when they are being mistreated in a working situation they will not speak up so as to avoid rocking the boat.

For those who don't naturally have lots of self-esteem (most actors I know) it takes a great deal of work and intention to develop it. It's a process that takes age and experience and can't be forced or faked--it always comes off as pitiful or completely narcissistic. What I have seen actors do, is embrace their lack of self-esteem and turn it into a type of "neurotic charm" that industry people have come to expect and sometimes adore from highly talented people.

So, all in all, I would say self-esteem is a crucial aid for breaking into television, film and any other medium--and for maintaining your wits about you once you do.