Being cast as an understudy or splitting a role has unique issues. Typically Broadway shows are performed 8 times a week. Producers make the decision about how to handle the work load for the child actors. Before accepting an understudy or split/shared roled, parents would be wise to consider what that might mean for their child.
Sometimes producers will “split the role” or share it, meaning 2 or 3 children are cast as principals with each child performing 3 or 4 shows per week. This happens often when the role is particularly demanding—think Billy Elliot, where the starring role is shared by 3 or 4 “Billys”. In these cases, all children are hired as principals, but that act alone does NOT guarantee they will all be treated equally. Depending on what each child negotiated in their contract, there may be preferences / conflicts in regard to press opportunities, the number of shows performed, who performs in specials shows – such as opening night, press night, etc.
A big consideration when a role is “split” is rehearsal time. While the adults are getting a full rehearsal schedule, kids who are sharing the role must also split rehearsal time. This means they can be under-rehearsed.
Understudies are a bit different—they are usually not guaranteed performances and must either call in a half hour before performance time every day, or go to the theatre, “just in case”. It can be a very lonely place and a hard role to accept. Your child must do all the work but get none of the glory. They must go to the theatre, but rarely, if ever, go on stage. When they do get to perform, it is with very little notice and not a lot of rehearsal, making it tough to do their best work in a pressure filled situation. Under-rehearsed = very stressful! Most times the understudy watches rehearsal, but only gets one “put in” (a rehearsal where your child gets “put in” the part) before they have to perform.
Most understudies report being bored to death every day. It gets old really fast. For the child who loves to perform, and understudy role is like dangling the carrot that they may never get.
The good news is that being an understudy is a great opportunity to get a theatre credit, and learn without the bulk of the responsibility. It can be a great way to break into the business and gain exposure.
It is possible in non-union situations to negotiate for an understudy to have “guaranteed performances”. AEA shows do not allow this, but an understudy can negotiate with the principal actor to give up some of their performances.
Great thread on PARF about what it is really like to be an understudy:
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