Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Comin’ in from “The Edge...”

When Is An Understudy Not An Understudy?

Answer: When she knows she’s a star.

Last week I went to see a play which is currently running on Broadway. Two of the lead actors were out that night and their understudies went on in their place.

Watching them struggle to fully inhabit their roles, I was reminded of the story of Shirley MacLaine who, some forty years ago, was understudying Carol Haney on Broadway in The Pajama Game when Haney broke her ankle before the opening night performance and MacLaine had to go on in her place.

That was a quite a lucky break for MacLaine. After the glowing reviews came in the next day she was a star! From reading MacLaine’s bio online, though, one discovers that she always saw herself as a star.

Her early childhood dream was to be a ballerina. Because she was so tall, she frequently danced the male parts in ballet recitals. When she came to realize that her body type and the arches and insteps of her feet were ill-suited for ballet, she switched gears to acting, and after graduating from high school, moved to New York City (from Richmond, Virginia) with a goal of acting and dancing on Broadway.

In placement, she may have started out as an understudy, but in her mind, she was already a star...and that’s the powerful energy she brought to the stage.

Unfortunately, the two replacement actors in the show I saw had a self-conscious awareness that they were understudies...to the point that it felt that they were even apologizing to the audience for it in their performances.

Both were very capable actors, but their long list of credits couldn’t quite compensate for that little extra “spark” that was missing. It’s a spark that’s fueled by confidence. It’s a spark fueled by believing that when opportunity knocks, it’s better to give one’s own interpretive performance than an impersonation of somebody else’s interpretation.

Even in real life, it’s easy to get caught up in “playing the role” (of all-knowing boss, model employee, doting mom, perfect husband) the way we think it’s supposed to be played according to how we’ve seen others do it instead of trusting our gut and going with our own instincts. This keeps us in the mode of constantly trying to do something instead of just doing it. It saps energy from our spark. It dims the wattage of our “star” power. It stunts our growth and discovery of finding our own (new) way of doing things.

So, here’s something to think about as you go about your regular activities this week. Observe your approach to them and ask yourself these questions: In what ways have I been an understudy in my own life? Do I want to continue to play it “safe”...or do I want to become a star?

Have a great week!

No comments: