It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Understudy Overrthinking

Dave Sikula is learning new tricks.

As I’ve mentioned more than once in this space, I’ve been in the theatre for a long time. I’ve directed nearly 50 plays, and have acted in probably a couple of hundred full-length plays, one-acts, brown-bag theatre pieces, commercials, films, and classroom scenes. In all that time, I’ve never missed a performance.

Not when I had such horrible laryngitis I had to croak my way through “The Sea Gull” (and I was actually pretty good, even if I was about ten years too young for the part).

Not when I had an attack of vertigo while doing a musical (though truthfully, what I laughingly call my “dancing” was probably better).

Not after running through a glass door and getting a few dozen stitches in the ER. (In fact, with that one, the fact that I had to wear a brace on my pinky actually added to the performance by increasing the character’s effeteness.)

Not when I was 75 minutes late for a performance of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” thanks to Friday night Los Angeles traffic. (That’s 75 minutes late for the curtain, not the call.)

Not when my mother was dying (The truth was the distraction was welcome).

Until last week, that is.

When I accepted my part* in my current show (“The Book of Liz” at Custom Made Theatre Co.), I was hesitant because I had tickets to a couple of jazz concerts during the run. “No problem!,” the producers assured me. “We’ll get you an understudy!”

And so, gentle reader, during rehearsals and the first three weeks of production, your humble correspondent had a shadow. He noted my blocking, watched my actions and reactions, memorized my lines, saw where I placed my props and made my costume changes backstage – and made his own plans on ways to replicate – and improve – the performance. On the Wednesday before my absence, I watched him run through the scenes with the rest of the cast, offered him a few notes on some little blocking and prop things he’d missed, saw him do some things I decided to steal, and generally felt like a guest at my own funeral.

I did the usual Thursday and Friday evening performances and the Saturday matinee, all the time joking about how the show would go without me – “better” was my assumption.

So far in the run of the show, we’ve run the gamut of audience reaction, from falling-out-of-their-seats laughter to quiet toleration (including a few walkouts – no easy feat in the Gough Street Playhouse in a show without an intermission; you really have to want to leave).

Saturday evening, I drove over to Oakland and saw the jazz shows (which were fabulous), but all the time, I was looking at my watch, thinking “Well, the show’s just going up;” or trying to figure out just where in the proceedings they might be.

After my own show ended at about 11, I texted the rest of the cast to find out how the show had gone. Came the answer “Well … there are a number of ways to answer that …” In spite of the fact that I had wished them only the best (for real), I was kind of hoping it had gone a little wacky (which is inevitable, if only for the fact that I’m about a foot taller than the other actor), so I wasn’t either surprised or disappointed to hear it was different.

So, Sunday, I headed back to Oakland again for the next jazz show (again, great) and, afterwards, texted to find out the results. Simply put, the reports were of pandemonium. The audience had gone bananas! They’d added five minutes of laughs to the performance! It had never gone better! And while I was happy for my erstwhile cast mates, I found that I was incredibly jealous.

To be honest, that reaction wasn’t totally unexpected. I really feel the understudy is a good actor and probably more suited to the part than I am, so hearing it had gone that well was a likely outcome. But I couldn’t help but feel depressed and marginalized (and let me add that my fellow cast members have been nothing but supportive and I have nothing but respect and gratitude to my understudy). Was it merely a great audience? Was it a result of my lousy performance being replaced and improved-upon? A combination? The thing is, I had almost suggested that the understudy do last week’s matinee, so I could see the performance for myself, but a) that really would have made me feel like a ghost, and b) probably would have accomplished nothing other than to give me more stuff to appropriate for my own performance …

In the intervening days, I’ve gotten over the initial jealousy and am looking forward to getting back to performances this week, but I’m afraid that, in the back of my head, there’s going to be that nagging feeling that, no matter how good I am, would the show be better with you-know-who in the part?

Actually, to tell you the truth, you can see him again on August 17 and judge for yourself. We extended a week, and it’s my wife’s birthday, so I had to have another night off. After 40 years of not missing anything, I have three in one show. Go figure.

My ultimate point, I guess, isn’t to express anything other than my own insecurities. I hold no resentments; just jealousy and wondering about all the “what ifs.”

Ah, a life in the theatre!

(*I nearly called what I’m doing “a role,” but was reminded of one of my favorite anecdotes. The late and great Sylvia Sidney – whom you might know best as either the Slim Whitman-loving grandmother in “Mars Attacks!” or as Juno the afterlife coach in “Beetlejuice” – was cast in the TV revival of “Fantasy Island.” She gave an interview where she was asked what her role was. She stopped the interviewer dead, saying – in her throaty growl – “Juliet is a role. Lady Macbeth is a role. This … is a part.”

Dave Sikula has been acting and directing in Los Angeles and the Bay Area for more than 30 years. He’s worked with such companies as American Conservatory Theatre, South Coast Repertory, the Grove Shakespeare Festival, Dragon Productions, Palo Alto Players, and 42nd Street Moon. As a writer and dramaturg, he’s translated the plays of Anton Chekhov and had work produced by ANTA West.