Thursday, August 16, 2007

Our Policy Regarding Understudies

Posted by Bruce Miller

A couple comments have crossed my desk in the last few days focusing on our policy and practice regarding understudies. Phil and I had a vigorous discussion this afternoon around this issue, arguing pro and con so that we could both wind up on the same page. It was a fascinating debate.

Let me sum up where our thoughts now stand. I do so partially because we're curious how each of you might feel about these matters.

If an actor becomes incapacitated and is unable to go on stage for one or a few performances, we will try to perform the show with an emergency understudy, if such a remedy seems appropriate, and if a capable replacement can be found on an emergency basis. Recent examples include the following.

* Scott Wichmann injured himself during a performance of Scapino! Because of the unique nature and size of his role, we felt it would be impossible to find a suitable replacement with no notice. We cancelled three performances until Scott was well enough to perform again. The cancelled ticket holders were disappointed.

* Robin Arthur became ill during the run of Mame. The director/choreographer of the show, K Strong, was able to go on in her place, albeit with no rehearsal. The show went on as scheduled with no cancellations, and the audience was pleased.

* Robin O’Neill lost her voice during the final weekend of Into the Woods. The director/choreographer of the show, Robin Arthur, was able to go on in her place, book in hand, for one performance. The show went on as scheduled with no cancellations, and the audience was pleased.

If an actor informs us of a performance conflict before rehearsals begin, we have the choice of hiring that actor or someone else. If we choose to hire the actor with the conflict, it is our responsibility to hire and rehearse a capable understudy to take over the role in the original actor’s absence. The expectation is that there will be no appreciable drop in artistic quality while the original actor is away. Recent examples include the following.

* Susan Sanford informed us before accepting her role in The Man Who Came to Dinner that previously arranged vacation plans made it impossible for her to perform during one week of the run. We hired and rehearsed Jan Guarino to replace her during that week. Jan did a great job and the audience thoroughly enjoyed the show. Coincidentally, Susan had stepped in for Jan several months earlier when Jan had to leave the cast of Annie Get Your Gun to begin another contract.
* Emily Cole Bitz informed us before accepting her role in Smoke on the Mountain that she had a family commitment that would cause her to be out of town during one week of the run. We hired and rehearsed Marianne Minton to replace her during that week. Marianne did a great job and the audience loved the show.
* Scott Wichmann and Jen Meharg informed us before accepting their roles in The Odd Couple that they had an out-of-town wedding obligation that would cause them to miss one week during the run. We hired and rehearsed Richard Koch and Vickie McLeod to take their places for one week. Richard and Vickie were outstanding, and the audience saw just as good a show as they would have seen with Scott and Jen.

In every instance that an actor has become sick and we have sent a talented but less-than-fully-prepared understudy on stage to play the part, every audience member who has communicated with us has expressed appreciation for us not canceling the show, despite the less than total preparedness of the understudy.

In every instance when an actor has taken a planned leave of absence and we have sent a fully prepared understudy on stage to play the part, the audience has seemingly loved the show. A few audience members, however, have complained that our box office staff failed to notify them of the actor’s planned absence when they purchased their tickets.

When an actor’s absence is planned, we always issue a press release in advance of the understudied performances. Local media outlets sometimes run these press releases; often they do not, or they run them after the fact. We also always announce the planned for cast replacement on this blog. Ticket buyers who want to know about any and all planned cast replacements can always come here to find out what’s up.

In emergency and planned situations, we follow national theatre protocol. We do not ask our box office staff to inform ticket buyers of cast replacements or understudies. There are several reasons why.

1. What we sell at our box office are tickets to shows, not tickets to the solo performance of one actor.

2. We believe it demeans the work of the remaining cast and the understudies to “alert” ticket buyers to a cast change, indirectly implying that the new cast is somehow less worthy than the original cast.

3. We fear that the mere act of informing ticket buyers of the presence of an understudy may make them feel compelled to choose another week, thereby placing an unfair burden on the remaining cast and the understudy who are then forced to perform for half-houses or worse.

4. It is not possible or appropriate to provide our box office staff with all the information they may need to answer questions about why the actor is absent, how large is the role of the absent actor, how close is the skill set of the understudy to the skill set of the original actor, is the understudy fully prepared, how does the cast change impact the show.

5. We have no way of knowing which audience member is determined to see which actor, and we don’t want to put ourselves in a position of second-guessing who is coming to Annie Get Your Gun specifically to see Jan Guarino, or The Man Who Came to Dinner specifically to see Susan Sanford, or Smoke on the Mountain specifically to see Emily Cole Bitz, or The Odd Couple specifically to see Scott Wichmann and/or Jen Meharg. We welcome questions from ticket buyers about whether this or that favorite actor is going to be in this or that performance. Our box office staff will do its best to answer those questions, but we don’t initiate them.

6. Finally, if a single ticket buyer is dissatisfied with any aspect of a Barksdale performance, we welcome their constructive criticism and we apologize for their disappointment. If a subscriber is dissatisfied with any aspect of a Barksdale performance, we offer them a cash refund, no questions asked.

We always announce understudies to the audience prior to the performance in which the understudy will be appearing. And if we were to ever believe that any given Barksdale performance were to be less than professional, we would offer refunds to all ticket buyers who requested them, be they single ticket buyers or subscribers.

This is our policy regarding understudies. We believe it is in keeping with national best practices. We believe the refund policy goes well beyond national best practices. We welcome your input and opinions.

--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

This policy makes sense to me. Audience members need to realize that actors are human and may not be able to appear in any specific performance. Regardless of the reason for the absence, the producer's responsibility is to provide an equally talented and prepared understudy. It's not your responsibility to let everyone know when those understudies will be performing. I'm sure I've been to twenty or thirty Broadway shows when the leading star has been absent. Sometimes the absence was due to illness, sometimes I found out after the fact that the absence was due to a professional conflict that surely was planned for well in advance. Never once has the box office informed me of the impending absence when I purchased my ticket.

Anonymous said...

I think you handle replacements really well and shouldn't change. You set a professional standard in Richmond that we all should follow. It wasn't long ago that it was unheard of to replace an actor in a show. Shows were just cancelled when an actor couldn't be there. But that wound up punishing, financially, the rest of the cast, who lost income when a run was shortened or performances were cancelled. I like the fact that you try to follow the "the show must go on" slogan. It helps the other actors know what they can count on, income-wise.

Anonymous said...

I must admit I never read to the end. I fell asleep half way through. BORING!! Please write about something someone other than you actually cares about. Cool logos though.

Bruce Miller said...

To Commenter #3 -- your comment made me laugh out loud, although I still can't bring myself to type LOL. Anyway, you are quite right to notice that much of my job is "BORING!!" I tend to take the "complaints" I receive so seriously that I wind up talking things to death. It was nice to be reminded that my little issues don't carry much weight in the world at large. I'll try to be less boring in the future. But hey, that's the good thing about blogs. As you admit, you don't have to read to the end. (The ending was riveting, by the way.)

Frank Creasy said...

Well Bruce, whether boring or not you brought up some GREAT reasons as to why box office staff doesn't announce cast changes when understudies fill in. So, commenter #3, I must say that some folks are very interested in this aspect of the business (though I too often don't scroll all the way down!)

I distinctly remember Jan Guarino stepping in for Susan Sanford when I was in the cast of "Man Who Came to Dinner". Now, Susan was absolutely FABULOUS in the role, but Jan is always wonderful and those of us who were "locked and loaded" in the production had no worries at all. But of course, stepping in like that is unnerving for even a seasoned professional such as Jan. The audience didn't get to see Jan backstage before she went on the first night in Susan's place. Her nerves AND her focus were apparent...she clearly wanted so badly to do a terrific job in Susan's place. Of course, she absolutely KILLED, and the audience LOVED her! But I guess my main point here is that the understudy is always a proven professional in their own right. The show DOES go on, and most audience members leave feeling that they got exactly what they paid for - a wonderfully entertaining, professional production.

Anonymous said...

The Broadway standard is not only to place an announcement in the program, but also to have signage announcing cast change in the theatre lobby. But I assume that's an equity rule and not one that Barksdale has to follow (unlike what we used to see at TheatreVirgina). I saw Odd Couple on a Sun. matinee July 29. Joe Pabst was on stage yet there wasn't even a slip in the program giving him credit.

Bruce Miller said...

I think you're right that our AEA Guest Artist contracts at Barksdale Hanover Tavern don't require us post a sign in the lobby when an AEA actor is not appearing. But I'm not sure. Thanks for bringing it up. I want to check on it to find out for sure. There are a lot of rules in the fine print.

But, even if we're not required, I think it's a great idea. We need to clear all lobby signage at Hanover Tavern with the Hanover Tavern Foundation, and they're very particular--which is a good thing. But I'll check that out too.

As for Joe Pabst not being credited in the program when he filled in on July 29, that should not have happened. I'll check on that as well.

Thanks for all this great feedback. It really helps.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget the folks backstage as well. I attended a performance of "Into the Woods" and the was a female at the sound board, and not the fellow who was credited in the program. Nice job, by the way.

Joe Pabst said...

I played 3 roles during the run of “The Odd Couple”, filling in for Derek Phipps, Jeff Clevenger and Steve Moore. The responsibility for my name appearing or not appearing in the program rests with me. When approached by the House Manager about program inserts, I declined, thinking it sufficient that my picture and bio already appeared in the program as director.

Please note that, while many of my posts regarding substituting have been light-hearted, I take the responsibility very seriously. First and foremost in my mind is to make sure that the standards and quality of the production are upheld. I do not seek credit for my small part in the performance; I would much rather my participation go unnoticed, in favor of an overall reaction to the entire production. Some audience members have immediate reactions to substitution announcements, thinking that perhaps they won’t see the same quality show as it was originally performed, or perhaps delighted to see me (if they are fans). Drawing attention to the fact that I was on stage seemed like drawing attention to ME instead of the show as a whole.

My intent was never to mislead or trick the audience in any way. Quite the contrary; I always intend to give them the best show I can for their money. I hope that my failure to announce my performance did not detract from any audience member's enjoyment of the experience.

Bruce Miller said...

It's all good, Joe. In the future, we should and will try always to acknowledge our understudies with a playbill insert, simply to avoid confusion. Your gracious gesture was an effort to avoid distraction, which I understand and respect. But a simple slip of paper in the playbill will make it possible for audience members to be aware of who they're seeing on stage, which is always good. Thanks for all your great work on Odd Couple. I look forward to tomorrow's grand finale.

Anonymous said...

Why aren't understudies simply cast from members of the existing company of a particular show? In every Broadway production (and several regional productions), understudies are listed in a special section under the cast. These people cover at least one, if not two roles in addition to their "regular" role that they were originally cast in. Wouldn't that be a whole lot easier? And I also agree - having a slip of paper in the program the day of that states "the role of (insert character name) will be playd by (insert name) at this performance" would be a nice touch. Ironically, there's been a huge debate on, one of the web's biggest theater chat boards/news sites, recently about understudies, if we (as audience members) should be content seeing an understudy, etc. Quite fascinating, and a topic of hot debate.