Posted on November 29th, 2012
he ad called for young actors between 11 and 14 for a Christmas play set in New Mexico in the ‘40s. ‘Spanish-speaking a plus.’
I spoke with Marcel and then wrote to the director. My son doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish, I told her, but he could probably do whatever else the part required. Would she be interested in seeing him?
She said she was and, in the end, Marcel was cast in a modest role. It was an exciting production for him to be a part of, too. There would be a real stage and different people designated to fulfill behind-the-scene roles of director, costume and set designer.
Weeks passed before rehearsals began in earnest. Shortly thereafter, however, the casting assignments were altered somewhat. Marcel would have more lines which would be fun, but he would also be responsible for fulfilling the obligations attendant to understudy for the boy with a larger part than his.
He spoke the word ‘understudy’ and I immediately, deliberately forgot about it. That’s a job no one ever actually does, I all but said aloud as I filed away this superfluous bit of information I wouldn’t be needing again. And, upon reflection, the ‘understudy’ designation triggers some barely-conscious pity in me, as in: ‘Oh, the understudy,’ with the accompanying sad head nod.
You know, because that person couldn’t get a real part.
A little further along into rehearsals and the young actor to which Marcel was joined in holy understudy-dom became…inconsistent. Two weeks ago, our son told us a new, ominous tale of the child’s commitment to the play before going up to bed. On his way upstairs, he stopped to stick his big head in between Scott and I on the sofa to synthesize the meaning of his stories in case we’d missed it.
“What I’m saying is I think I’m going to end up playing ‘Lorenzo,’” he said.
One is always an understudy until one isn’t anymore—until something or someone changes and you are called up to perform the task for which you were only ever charged with possibly doing. Occasionally, I will commit to serving as back-up to someone’s service in some capacity because, honestly, I really don’t think I’ll be called upon to do anything. It makes the other person feel better to have the back-up and I get to score points for seeming like I’m up to the job—whatever it may be—but, come on, who ever really gets tapped to fulfill their understudy job?
Marcel will be playing a combination of his original role and that of Lorenzo when his play opens in two weeks. More work for him maybe, but a clever solution to a late-minute casting hiccup. As for his mother? I am reevaluating my understanding of the responsibilities of the understudy, on the stage and off.∗