ASK PLAYBILL.COM: A Question About Who Covers for Absent Backstage Crew Members

By Robert Simonson
August 2, 2012

What happens when stage managers are sick or on vacation? Who are their understudies? We asked.



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Question: It's familiar knowledge about how understudies and swings take over when an actor is out sick or on vacation.  But what about behind-the-scenes crew?  What about the stage manager, the soundboard operator and dressers? — John Huston, Marietta, GA

Everyone knows the romantic story of the acting understudy. It's permanently woven into the fabric of theatre lore. They wait in the wings, ready to go on should the show's star become ill or take a vacation. On rare occasions, that one night in the spotlight creates a star. The most famous instance took place in 1954, when one Shirley MacLaine, 19 and understudy to the star, Carol Haney, went on for 10 days in The Pajama Game on Broadway when Ms. Haney sprained her ankle. By the time Haney returned, MacLaine had been discovered and was on her way to Hollywood.

Most of the time, however, the job is fairly unglamorous. The top tier of understudies are called standbys, and go on for name stars. There are also understudies who are responsible for several roles within a production (they play principal or ensemble roles and bump up when there is an absence). Either way, such paid positions are written in the contracts of Actors' Equity.

But a show isn't just actors. What about the rest of the crew? What happens when they get sick? After all, no production, however polished, can get by without a stage manager.

Well, it must be remembered that everybody backstage belongs to some union or other. They work under contract, and nothing about their employment is left to chance, least of all absences. As far as stage managers go, there's not just one back there. On a big musical, there's usually a team.

"When you're talking about a commercial production," said Jon Goldman, chairman of the Stage Managers' Association, "your stage manager team is usually three or four people and they rotate in and out of 'calling the show.' Usually, the stage manager, after the show is up and running, calls the show only once or twice a week. A team of appropriate size can absorb it when a person is out for one night."

However, that does not mean that a four-person team just makes do with three people that night. "We train subs," said Goldman, teaching them how to call the cues on the show, "one or two of them, who can be called in for one night. Those subs may be subbing on one or two different productions at the time." When a member of the stage management team schedules a vacation, one of those subs is booked for that week. They don't typically call the show; they're just on hand, or run some side aspect of the physical production.

Absences also have an impact on everyone's salary. "If you look at the Equity contract," said Goldman, "the cascade is built into the contract. If the stage manager is not on site, the first assistant stage manager receives the stage manager's salary; the second assistant stage manager gets the first assistant's salary; and so on."

"It should be revenue-neutral for the producer when someone is sick," he added.

As for the sound board operator and the dressers, they both belong to IATSE and also have systems in place. "They have subs and can be out any night they want," said Goldman. "Before you even open the show, their covers are trained."

Of course, there's little chance those understudies will be discovered by a Hollywood agent.